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Can an Electorate Hold Its Political Elite Accountable: The Case of François Fillon

Can a political elite hold itself accountable? Left to its own devices, absent a virtuous citizenry, a political elite is able to exploit a conflict of interest in both wielding the authority of government and using that power even to constrain the elite itself. Unfortunately, even where an electorate is virtuous, the dispersed condition of the popular sovereign is an impediment to galvanizing enough popular will to act as a counter-power to that of a political elite, which is relatively concentrated and well-informed. In early 2017, the problem was on full display in the E.U. state of France, with little the federal government could do given the amount of governmental sovereignty still residing at the state level. So the question is whether an electorate can galvanize enough power to counter that of a political elite.

François Fillon in trouble for corruption amid an ensconced political elite. (Christian Hartmann/Reuters)

The full essay is at “François Fillon.”

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School resources, public protests

When I wrote this article, I included an email sent out to the SCSU community through their Announce listserv. The email was sent by SCSU History Professor Mark Jaede. The email that Prof. Jaede sent out raised awareness of the fact that “Granite City Baptist Church in St. Cloud is sponsoring a presentation by a […]

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Political Protests in Hong Kong: The Market Overreacts

Geopolitical risk is essentially uncertainty to the market. Given the nature of human fear, the psyche can add a “multiplier effect” to an objective calculation of uncertainty. Just as we are naturally so close to human nature that its most ubiquitous tendencies eclipse our notice, so too do we tend to assume that the market’s assessment of a political risk is accurate, given the efficiency and effectiveness of the stock market. The market’s initial reaction to the political protests in Hong Kong in September 2014 may demonstrate that the market’s participants even routinely overstate both the probability and severity of the downside of a mass political event.

The full essay is at “Political Protests in Hong Kong

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Democratic Tyranny: The Case of Ukraine

Is democratic tyranny an oxymoron? If it were, why then did the delegates at the American Constitutional Convention go to such pains to carve up public or governmental power between the states and the federal government, as well as between three “arms,” or “branches,” of the federal government. Moreover, pitting ambition against ambition points to just how dangerous ambition itself can be. When it is legitimated under the auspices of democracy, democrats may have trouble coming up with justifications for removing a democratically-elected tyrant. In this essay, I draw on the case of Ukraine in early 2014 to suggest a few possible rationales.

Would it make a difference if the protesters were hitting other citizens rather than governmental forces? (Image Source: GlobalPost)

On February 19, 2014, violence erupted between the police and the protesters bent on toppling the democratically-elected president. Twenty died on that day, and over seventy on the following day. While it might be tempting to focus on “who started it,” a higher-yielding strategy goes after the means used by the government to end the protests. Such means need not involve violence. For example, after the second day of violence raging in Kiev, the president took part in a fruitful “all-nighter” negotiation session with the protest leaders and E.U. officials. 

To be sure, the president had an incentive to negotiate then, for his backing in the parliament was weakening. Violence rather than compromise had been his preference. Behind the scenes, the government had been paying titushki men to attack protesters whether they were being violent or not. Heather McGill of the Europe and Central Asia Regional Program at Amnesty International points to various reports of armed men carrying bats and other makeshift weapons roaming around Kiev in organized groups and attacking citizens presumed to be protesters.[1]“(W)e have seen interviews with titushki where they admitted they were being paid—there is definitely a body of young, athletic men being paid by the government.”[2]This practice obviously goes well beyond hiring people as counter-protesters, and this distinction is vital in forming an argument founded on human rights that can be used as a basis to re-conceptualize national sovereignty as inherently limited rather than absolute.

Specifically, in sanctioning payments to young athletic men tasked with hurting and even killing citizens who are not being violent at the time of attack, the Ukrainian president violated his governmental obligation to protect the citizenry. This duty goes back to the social contract between kings and subjects wherein the latter agreed to be ruled by the former, who in turn obligated himself to protecting the subjects. This social contract survives in the norm held around the world that a government is obliged to protect its citizenry (including residents). Put another way, a government that violently turns on its own people is typically viewed as having over-reached in a way that violates a major postulate of its monopoly on legitimate force. When people are themselves being violent against each other or their respective property, or are destroying public property, military or police force does not involve such a violation of the conditions of governmental sovereignty because protecting the citizenry includes stopping violence within the citizenry and a government acts legitimately to protect public goods.[3]

Besides being a case of over-kill, paying thugs to wander around Kiev (and other cities) to beat or kill citizens thought to have been in the protests or to be protesting non-violently at the time exceeds and thus violates a government’s legitimate use of force, which in turn comes out of the concept of governmental sovereignty and thus national sovereignty. Such a violation invalidates a government’s claim to the rights the sovereignty. Crucially, this human-rights and sovereignty based argument applies to any government official, regardless of how he or she gained power. Hence, tyranny invalidates even a democratically-elected government. Just as governmental and national sovereignty are subject to limits based on the normative social contract and the human right to life (which itself may be limited by committing violence), democratic government also faces limits at the expense of unlimited license.

[1]Olga Rudenko and Jennifer Collins, “Thugs Said to Roam in Ukraine,” USA TODAY, February 20, 2014.


[3] I am assuming here that the case of citizens paid by the government to inflict harm on other citizens pertains to governmental power rather than violence between citizens. 

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Oligarchs in the Ukraine Decide the E.U./Russia Question: Big Business on Top of Democracy?

One of the many lessons shimmering in the sunlight from stars such as Gandhi and Mandela is the possibility that popular political protest really can matter after all. Alternatively, managing (or manipulating) the crowd could be a mere front dwarfed in influence by that of a rich and power elite. Although the Ukraine will serve as our case study, democracy itself is under the microscope here.

As 2013 was losing steam and heading into the history books, the people of the independent state of the Ukraine were poised to turn back east or aim toward statehood in the European Union. The matter of who in the republic would decide was at the time obscured by the appearance of power in the pro-Europe protests in the capital city. Peeling off this veneer, the New York Times provides us with a more revealing look.
“Protesters may be occupying government buildings and staging loud rallies calling for the government to step down, but behind the scenes an equally fierce — and perhaps more decisive — tug of war is being waged among a very small and very rich group of oligarchical clans here, some of whom see their future with Europe and others with Russia. That conflict was ignited, along with the street protests, by Mr. Yanukovich’s decision to halt free trade talks with the European Union” in November, 2013.[1]In other words, very wealthy businessmen were very active politically in setting the course of the ship of state.

Petro Poroshenko is a Ukrainian oligarch who sees more money for his conglomerate and himself in greater ties with the E.U. Does it matter what the majority of the Ukrainian people want? NYT

Although blocking government buildings makes excellent news copy, all that visible strife may have been diverting attention from the dark corridors of power in search of a deal that would set a much larger course. To be an independent state between two contending empires is not the safest place to be. If finally moving one way or the other hinges on a certain constellation of wealthy and business interests coalescing enough to pull the strings of state, what the people think really does not matter. As put by the New York Times, “In this battle of the titans, the street becomes a weapon, but only one of many.”[2]Put another way, what the titans do with their arsenals of wealth and power is the decisive point, not what the people in the streets happen to think.

The implications for representative democracy are stunning, if not dire, and for the illusion, utterly deflating. Does not adulthood involve the recognition that something taken hitherto as real is in actuality an illusion? Perhaps it is high time that Toto pull the curtain open to reveal the Wizard as the person pulling the levers for billowing smoke and bursts of flames to divert our attention from his existence, not to mention his manipulation and power.

1. Andrew Kramer, “Behind Scenes, Ukraine’s Rick and Powerful Battle Over the Future,” The New York Times, December 6, 2013.

2.Ibid., emphasis added.

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