Posts Tagged ‘elections’

It’s a Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall

Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

“As Scorn for Vote Grows, Protests Surge Around Globe”

So goes the front-page headline in today’s NYT. The gist is that Millennials around the world, from Spain to Israel to India, are rising up in direct protests within regimes that were meant to have afforded democracy. “They are taking to the streets, in part, because they have little faith in the ballot box.”

All right, it’s time to review the difference between procedural and substantive democracy. Procedural democracy means that the rules are in place that can guarantee fair outcomes, substantive democracy means that fair outcomes do happen. It’s no accident that procedural democracy is the version that people have in mind when they talk about “democratic capitalism,” as the NYT article does. The heart of procedural democracy is free and fair elections. (Don’t get me wrong – this is a huge achievement in human history. The voting booth is like a pew, you should be reverent and grateful in there.) Freedom of expression, freedom of religion. But that’s basically it.

It’s a sham. When the outcomes don’t go your way, that is. Substantive democracy means that the rules point in a certain direction. (You know, toward justice.) There’s an analogy to dimensions of human rights. Just as democratization has generally meant the installation of procedural democracy, the most progress on human rights has been on civil and political rights – the right to vote, etc. But many human rights advocates have been pushing for while for a further dimension of human rights: economic and social rights – the right to a living wage, health care, etc. These are part of substantive democracy.

Again, don’t get me wrong – go procedural democracy. One thing at a time, gradualism, politics as the art of the possible, etc.

Except, bullshit. That’s what the people on Wall Street and in the tent cities in Israel and Spain, and the hunger striker in India are saying. Bullshit. Why wait? Justice now, economic and social rights now, substantive democracy now. Especially when the capitalism side of “democratic capitalism” is so manifestly rigged. Makes the other side feel rigged too.

Who are we to say any different?


When glass windows block the light

Tuesday, December 28th, 2010

Interesting piece on GiftHub about the manipulation of online rating systems for political ends:

For his film (Astro)Turf Wars, Taki Oldham secretly recorded a training session organised by a rightwing libertarian group called American Majority. The trainer, Austin James, was instructing Tea Party members on how to “manipulate the medium”(11). This is what he told them:

“Here’s what I do. I get on Amazon; I type in “Liberal Books”. I go through and I say “one star, one star, one star”. The flipside is you go to a conservative/ libertarian whatever, go to their products and give them five stars. … This is where your kids get information: Rotten Tomatoes, Flixster. These are places where you can rate movies. So when you type in “Movies on Healthcare”, I don’t want Michael Moore’s to come up, so I always give it bad ratings. I spend about 30 minutes a day, just click, click, click, click. … If there’s a place to comment, a place to rate, a place to share information, you have to do it. That’s how you control the online dialogue and give our ideas a fighting chance.”

I’ve wondered in the past what the implications of social-media vehicles for expressing preferences – liking, sharing, rating – would be if applied to grant decision processes.  This story reminds us how relatively easily such systems can be “gamed.”

This is a very strange version of the high-school popularity contests that can erupt online around these types of decision-making mechanisms. In this example, the idea is that dogged effort can skew the game of popularity – “give our ideas a fighting chance.” Interesting the worldview of being aggrieved, put-upon.

Given the relatively “elite” perception of foundations, this kind of manipulation seems all too easy to have happen….

Local knowledge (part 2, gerrymandering)

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

Saw a great documentary tonight, Gerrymandering, at a screening sponsored by Campaigns & Elections magazine, about which I’ve written before. Every ten years, following the Census, Congress redraws Congressional districts. At a state level, state legislatures also redraw state and local districts. The process is a nightmare, regulated by different rules in different states. As the film points out, this is pure politics – no voters, no policy, just protecting your power and territory and looking to maximize it at the expense of other guys.

Given how much we’re all now fluent with maps and cartography (one of the best parts of Catfish was the use of Google Maps to show the distance – and connections – between the two sets of protagonists), this seems like an issue primed for greater attention. The nonprofit Common Cause is featured in the film, leading the charge for a ballot initiative to put redistricting in the hands of an independent citizens commission in California. A representative of the New York chapter spoke after the screening tonight, and pointed out that there are even computer simulations of redistricting available online, and that for a generation weaned on Sim City, this kind of cartographic manipulation could feel intuitive.

One line that struck me during the Q&A was that there is no silver bullet in terms of an optimal solution for redistricting, and that the goal is to find a local system that works for that community. Iowa is held up as an example of relatively successful redistricting, but the point is made that it’s culturally homogeneous (and square, which seems to matter for some reason), which makes it particularly easy to redistrict more fairly. Not sure I get that, but the intriguing point is that local knowledge should really guide the redistricting process. There are three kinds of gerrymandering: racial, partisan, and pro-incumbent. In different communities, the temptation for each of those will be different.

So given what I’ve written about the promotion of local knowledge being a potentially bipartisan issue, where does redistricting/gerrymandering fit in? Seems like a case where some federal intervention makes sense, to ensure that local traditions don’t unfairly exclude certain populations (probably racial/ethnic). Partisan bickering seems par for the course, that’s maybe less demanding of federal intervention. Pro-incumbent gerrymandering is an interesting case, because it can cut both ways. In game theory, that’s an interesting dynamic, when the party in power has to think about the day when they’re no longer in power, and balance the tradeoffs of setting up institutions (like district lines) in a way that screws over the other guy, keeping in mind that one day they’ll be out of power and have to feel the brunt of those same institutions from the other side. I may need to think about the strategic dynamics of gerrymandering, and look at what the game-theory literature has to say about that….

Fundraising and campaigning (part 5)

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

I’ve been looking at the analogies between nonprofit fundraising and political campaigning, and asked previously if nonprofits are the House of Representatives of the social sector while foundations are the Senate – patrician, not proportionally representative, lots of tradition, have to be rich to get in.

One of the reasons I made this distinction is that Congresspeople have to campaign all the time because they’re elected every two years vs. six in the Senate. Shows you what I know: Senators are constantly dialing for dollars too. This George Packer article in the New Yorker is worth the read, a behind-the-scenes look at the dysfunction of the Senate. As much as the rules of filibuster and cloture and other made-up-sounding words drive people up a tree, Packer concludes that it’s not the rules and procedures that screw up the Senate, “it’s the human beings” in it. Food for thought in looking at the foundation sector, with its payout levels and admin ratios and other made-up-sounding phrases.

Apparently a few visionary Senators in the sixties and seventies were able to band together and actually get things done: Medicare, the Civil Rights Act, etc. Then a new crop of hardliners dragged the institution back down again. In the current political climate, it’s hard to recall what a big deal the two legislative achievements of the year, health-care reform and financial reform, really are. But Packer sees them as a brief interregnum: “Already, you can feel the Senate slipping back into stagnant waters.”

A few thoughts:

  • I wonder to what extent the Senate’s period of productivity corresponds with mainstream philanthropy’s (Green Revolution, etc.).
  • To what extent did the Establishments in both places overlap and move back and forth?
  • Is there an analog to this more recent spate of Senatorial productivity in philanthropy? Is there a crop of reformers in foundations who can help the sector achieve some big wins?

What do donors want? (part 2)

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

Continuing from yesterday. If impact isn’t what drives nonprofit donors, what is it? Can we learn by thinking about what voters want from Congresspeople want from voters? Some thoughts:

  • Pork: specific material benefits. But let’s look at these: pork means jobs, but also infrastructure projects that provide more general benefits to a community (better roads, hospitals). So it’s not necessarily that I personally benefit, but that people like me or people in my community benefit. Similar with nonprofits. But it can go further: I might give to a nonprofit that benefits people that aren’t like me, or even in my community, but that *deserve* help, in my view of things. This is where changing what donors want gets tricky, because it’s tied up with cultural images of who’s deserving and not. The history of welfare reform would be instructive here, I think.
  • Cultural affinity: or the beer question – would I want to have a beer with this person? Can I relate to this person on a cultural level, are they like me, do they speak for me. Representation and voice are important dynamics in the nonprofit sector, and I don’t know that we understand teem as much as we do in politics (which may not be all that, that much). A lot of nonprofits are focusing on the social dimension of their work, leveraging social media to form closer bonds with their donors – recognizing the importance of this factor.
  • Ideological purity: some people have very specific beliefs, and want to see those beliefs represented, often in opposition to other belief systems out there. A subset of nonprofit donor motivation, certainly.
  • Party alignment: this is where politics is kind of distinctive, in that Congresspeople are organized into parties. Why are they? Parties help determine who’s on the ballot and help fund campaigns. There’s no real analog among nonprofits (other than maybe membership associations, but those aren’t necessarily partisan). Unless the alignment among some nonprofits is also with political parties! Perhaps surprising there’s not more of that….
  • Policy preferences: you can tell I’m a political scientist because I put this last. Voters may want certain policies enacted, and elect Congresspeople who can (credibly?) promise to do so, with the knowledge that they can throw the bums out if they don’t deliver. Just like a subset of nonprofit donors are motivated by advocacy groups that work on policy, so a subset of voters is driven by policy positions. But many are not. How might this insight apply to our understanding of donors?

What do donors want?

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010

Tim Ogden has an interesting reflection, reacting to some new survey data, on the SSIR blog (8/24) about what individual donors want. Apparently, it’s not impact.

Why is this a surprise? Individual donors have been acting all along as if they don’t care about impact, based on their “vote choice” (how they allocate their philanthropic dollar). Again, I find myself wondering what the analogy is to Congressional voters. What is the nature of affinity between candidates and voters, between nonprofits and their individual donors? Is it those that bring home the pork/show impact, or is it something else? What about the high degrees of loyalty in the data Tim cites? There are Congresspeople who get re-elected every two years like clockwork; what’s their secret?

Tim concludes by suggesting that we (who?) need to change what donors want. Ah, here there is much to be learned from political campaigning! Things both uplifting and nefarious, I assume. To be continued…

Fundraising and campaigning (part 4)

Thursday, August 12th, 2010

In a previous post, I asked, “how are [nonprofit] fundraising and [political] campaigning related?”

A popular image is that members of the House, who have to run for re-election every two years, which is to say constantly, are judged by their constituencies for how much pork they bring back to their districts. This brings up an interesting parallel with nonprofits – if we think of donors as voters, how do they hold nonprofits accountable, or not?

The easy answer is that the information markets in the nonprofit world don’t function very well, because on some level, donors don’t hold nonprofits accountable – at least not in the sense of “throwing the bums out” when they don’t perform.

But it’s interesting that criteria for political anger and criteria for donor motivations to give can both be nebulous, in their own ways. What do voters want from politicians? That they bring home the pork? That they say the right things? That they have similar ideologies as voters? That you’d want to have a beer with them? The machinery of governing is so opaque, and how it’s actually connected with an individual politician’s performance (I’m thinking of legislators rather than the President here) is so unclear, that the mechanism of accountability, though stark (you win an election or you lose it), is also strangely arbitrary. Sounds a bit like concerns about most nonprofits not being able to show their impact to donors.

And yet people vote, and give to charity (I use that word intentionally). So clearly something else is going on besides holding politicians and nonprofits accountable on the basis of causal relations between individual efforts and impact.

Is it a proximity or halo effect (we work on this issue, so we must have something to do with it, even if no one can say exactly what or now)?

What about the role of parties in politics? Does the halo effect in politics come from that? Parties create a group identity or team affiliation that politicians can use as a proxy for their own impact. Nonprofits don’t have that, do they? What would it look like if they did?

Fundraising and campaigning (part 1)

Tuesday, July 27th, 2010

In my last post, I asked, “how are [nonprofit] fundraising and [political] campaigning related?”

There are different types of political campaigns: some are electoral, about getting a particular candidate elected; and some are legislative or advocacy-related, about getting a particular piece of legislation passed.

Electoral campaigns have recurrence built in (candidates want to get re-elected). Advocacy campaigns may be cumulative, building on a series of legislative victories, but generally they have a specific end in mind, and they end after it’s reached.

Nonprofits are more like the electoral campaigners, in that their problems generally don’t go away, they have to keep coming back to be “re-elected” by donors to help address the problem. The House of Representatives has a different dynamic than the Senate because Congresspeople are re-elected every two years, so they’re constantly campaigning and raising money.

Nonprofits seem like the Congresspeople of the social sector, constantly campaigning for “re-election” by donors, with an even more grueling re-election cycle, an annual one.

Are foundations like the Senators of the social sector? The membership is more exclusive, you generally have to be rich to get in, they’re not tied to the retail politics of representing a specific district, they have power out of proportion to their numbers, they have arcane rules of order* that certain members pride themselves on maintaining no matter how bizarre they look to the rest of us (How is foundation payout calculated? What exactly is “cloture,” again? In this respect, a recent HuffPost headline is interesting), and while they’re meant to work together with the House, they often have opposing approaches and aims that require elaborate procedures of “reconciliation.”

What would reconciliation look like in the social sector? With health care reform, there had to be some consultation with the Senate parliamentarian to figure out what could and could not be done. Where might the precedent for more effective collaboration between nonprofits and foundations be found?

Voting systems and philanthropy

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

Interesting article in the New Yorker about different voting systems. The way we elect presidents in the US, with “winner takes all” in a majority system, is not the only way to do things: there’s proportional representation, where parties get seats in accordance with their vote share, preference voting, where you rank candidates and can express more than one preference, etc. This is one of the central topics in political science, and the literature gets dense quickly. I thought there was a missed opportunity in the article to talk more about examples from other countries, and about the differences between presidential and legislative elections.

This seems like a good excuse to flesh out some of the potential topics for this blog based on my two questions, particularly the second one, “What would it mean to democratize philanthropy?” There are a lot of market-based metaphors floating around to describe how philanthropy does its work (I almost said, “does its business”). Part of the reason for my musings about influence and impact is to explore non-market-based metaphors for our work. The idea of voting and voting systems gives some room for this.

A few initial questions:

  • In what ways are grant decisions and voting related? Letters of inquiry, internal rating systems, discretionary grants, Board approval, consent agenda – what would it look like if we overlaid the structure of political elections on these?
  • How are fundraising and campaigning related? Are individual donors like Presidential voters, requiring broad majoritarian appeals, and institutional donors like legislative voters, requiring targeted narrowcasting based on the quirks of locality? (It was a Congressman who said “all politics are local,” after all.) What if campaigning for institutional grants had to occur in public like campaigning for votes?
  • Social media give people the opportunity to express preferences in a variety of ways – sharing, liking, rating. What are the implications of applying such systems to grant decision processes? How would a political scientist view the Chase Challenge?

Those sound worth exploring. How else are philanthropy and voting/electoral systems potentially related?