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To Keep Authoritarianism at Bay, Western Democracies Need to Root Themselves in a Vision of the Common Good

Why is democracy in trouble? Long before democracy’s global slump became conventional wisdom, Yascha Mounk was warning that support for democracy was on the decline in the world’s most advanced societies.
In a paper published in the Journal of Democracy, Mounk, a lecturer on government at Harvard University, and his colleague Roberto Stefan Foa showed that public satisfaction with democratic governments was the lowest it had …

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How Thomas Jefferson’s Feud with Aaron Burr Defined What It Means to Betray America

By | March 6, 2017

One answer lies in our nation’s founding document. Treason is the only crime defined in the U.S. Constitution, which states: “Treason against the United States shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.”
The Founders borrowed this language from the law of King Edward III of England. Enacted in A.D. 1350, Edward …

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For China’s One-Party Rulers, Legitimacy Flows from Prosperity and Competence

By | March 5, 2017

It is widely assumed in the West that legitimacy of a government comes from universal suffrage and multiparty competitive elections. Yet this assumption raises two issues: First, historically it is not true, as universal suffrage is a recent development. One can claim, for instance, that U.S. administrations only became truly legitimate in 1965, when African Americans were really allowed to vote. Furthermore, this practice is …

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I Appreciate an L.A. Where I Can Rely on Transit and Walking, but a Backlash Threatens

By | March 4, 2017

Will Los Angeles finally admit it’s a metropolis? And if so, what kind of metropolis does it want to be?
That may seem a strange question, given the size of the L.A. region. But Los Angeles is of at least two minds. Yes, we’re home to world class universities, two pro football teams, the nation’s largest port complex by volume, the third-busiest airport in the U.S., …

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Recent Protests Show That Americans Want More Government, Just Not This Government

By | March 3, 2017

Does Trump’s election and its aftermath mean that the U.S. government is experiencing a crisis of legitimacy? In order to address that question, we need to understand how citizens determine whether a government is legitimate or not. What qualities do citizens use to assess the trustworthiness of their governments? Zócalo Public Square asked these questions of political scientist Margaret Levi, who has investigated the conditions …

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The Best Form of Government Is Only as Strong as the People and Patterns of Behavior That Defend It

By | March 1, 2017

Among the many different forms of government, democracies are unique in the extent to which their stability depends on legitimacy—a belief on the part of the public that the system of government in the country has what Seymour Martin Lipset called “a moral title to rule.”
Moral assessments of political authority are always to some extent relative. People may not love their system of government, …

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Even with Authority from the Almighty Above, Rulers Need Consensus from the People Below

By | March 1, 2017

Even if political power sometimes comes from the barrel of a gun, any government is more effective if it enjoys popular acceptance. Today, governments usually claim a popular mandate from an election, even if that election is fraudulent. In the past, however, elections played little role in bestowing legitimacy.
In the ancient world, rulers usually staked their legitimacy by proclaiming their divinity. The Persian emperor …

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Until Universities Track Improvement, We Won’t Know the Real Value of Higher Ed

It’s mid-winter, your college applications have been submitted, and you’ll soon be pacing the floor waiting to learn where you have been accepted. But will you emerge from college four years from now better off than when you started? Does college help turn students into scholars, with greater expertise, maturity, and cognitive abilities? How effective is college in helping students prepare for work or graduate …

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Genius Alone Doesn’t Advance World-Changing Ideas—the Social Context Matters, Too

By | February 22, 2017

Where do big new ideas come from—the kind that break the mold and change how we see the world? As a sociologist, this has long been an interest of mine. So I was excited to read Michael Lewis’ new book The Undoing Project, which tells the story of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, the Israeli psychologists whose work on decision-making helped convince economists—and everyone else—that …

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Mapping Big Thinkers and Their Ideas Over Time Provides Insights into Networks of Influence

By | February 21, 2017

To understand where ideas come from and how they evolve over time, sociologist Randall Collins mapped the networks of 3,000 philosophers and mathematicians, a yeoman project that took him on a 25-year journey across the globe, seeking insights into the histories and inner workings of societies and the thinkers who shaped them.
More recently, Grant Oliveira, a data analytics consultant with an interest in …