Research

My research synthesizes political theory and empirical insights from different subfields of political science to get at questions of how democracy can be made more inclusive, particularly through institutional design, so as to empower the most marginalized citizens.

In political theory, my research interests mostly have to do with contemporary democratic theory, institutional design, political ethics, contemporary moral philosophy, and the foundations of political authority. My other interests lie mostly in American politics and include public opinion, American political development, political psychology, and political behavior, particularly as they relate to political interest, the competence of mass publics, and political participation.

My ongoing research projects are detailed below.

Empirical and Institutional Dimensions of Epistemic Democracy

Epistemic democratic theory justifies democracy on the basis of its capacity to make better decisions or realize better governing outcomes. In a series of papers, I examine important empirical and institutional dimensions of epistemic theory which have been neglected or misunderstood. In one article, entitled “Democracy and the Epistemic Limits of Markets,” I critically assess claims that markets outperform democracy epistemically and so should be substituted for democracy wherever possible on epistemic grounds. I show that the recent arguments of people like Jason Brennan, Ilya Somin, Samuel DeCanio, and Mark Pennington fail to establish a general epistemic advantage for markets. Using the tools of political theory rather than economics or its related disciplines, I argue that markets face severe epistemic limitations which drastically restrict the types of decisions markets can make well. This article has been published in Critical Review (link at Critical Review; ungated version).

The second article, “Democracy’s Pin Factory: Issue Specialization, the Division of Cognitive Labor, and Epistemic Performance,” published in the American Journal of Political Science (link at AJPS; ungated version), elaborates an issue public-based theory of democratic competence and defends it against several objections. On this theory, democracy can make better decisions when citizens specialize by directing their political attention to a few issues they find especially important and vote on the basis of parties’ or candidates’ performance on these issues. In this way, the public is divided into a series of “issue publics” which provide informed vetting of candidates and parties for office, informed surveillance of officeholders, and higher quality informational cues for low-information citizens. I offer a revisionary account of the empirical evidence on issue publics and explain why a democratic public divided into issue publics would be expected to perform well epistemically.

Book Project: Undemanding Democracy

My primary research project concerns whether democracy can demand too much of its citizens and, if so, how to respond. Normative theories of democracy generate expectations for what citizens must do in order for democracy to flourish. Yet some democratic theories require more from citizens than others. This prompts the question: are there limits to what democracy may ask of its citizens? If so, is it possible for democracy to flourish while respecting such limits? These questions have been largely ignored in contemporary democratic theory yet are essential in a time when democracy is under pressure around the world and more is asked of citizens to preserve it. Moreover, more demanding models of citizenship are likely to be out of reach for many members of traditionally disadvantaged or marginalized groups. Democratic theories relying on such models may end up compounding the disempowerment of such groups.

In this project, I argue that there are important but neglected moral limits on what may be expected of ordinary citizens, but that a more inclusive democracy can flourish while respecting them. The first element of the project consists in two specific moral limits on the demands that democracy can impose on individuals in their role as citizens: one linked to burdens on the pursuit of the good life and the other to necessary features of human agency. In both cases, morally imperative priorities are endangered by democratic theories that configure citizenship in especially demanding ways. For this reason, each of these limits also generates unique requirements that democratic theories ought to fulfill in formulating standards of good citizenship.

I suspect that the demands placed upon citizens by many popular theories today violate these requirements and expect too much of citizens. In response, I advance a theory that abides by them through the combination of an attractive conception of “attentive stand-by citizenship” and a two-fold division of the labor of democratic decision making. Under normal circumstances, the main obligation of citizens on this account is to pay attention to politics in a critical way and with special attention to a few issues the citizen thinks are especially important—making them “attentive” citizens. Yet when citizens detect threats or problems, they become subject to an additional burden of active participation proportional to severity of the threat or problem, making them also “stand-by” citizens.

The project advances a theory of democracy which fits such attentive stand-by citizens into an epistemically advantageous division of labor which is both functional, as between representatives, activists, ordinary citizens, etc., and also topical, through citizens specializing in one or a few issue areas. The result is a theory that captures the epistemic gains of specialization, economizes on finite resources of citizen attention and mobilization–in line with the moral limits of citizenship–and can respond flexibly to emergent circumstances, all while embodying the core democratic values of equality and liberty. An important part of the project considers what kinds of institutions are needed to instantiate such a theory, with special emphasis on electoral systems, political parties, and the media.

Some elements of this project have been published in an article in Res Publica. The article, titled “Making Attentive Citizens: the Ethics of Political Engagement, Political Equality, and Social Justice,” (link at Res Publica; ungated version) argues that citizens paying attention to politics is necessary for the fundamental liberal democratic values of political equality and social justice, and so that the democratic state must take steps to cultivate it in its citizens.  The article develops the notion of attentive citizenship and shows how it furthers political equality and the empowerment of citizens.

Reconceptualizing Mandatory Voting as Precommitment and Nudge

In researching mandatory voting for my doctoral work, I noticed that under certain conditions mandatory voting could work as a precommitment device for some and a nudge for others. In a paper entitled “Aid for Our Purposes: Mandatory Voting as Precommitment and Nudge” in the Journal of Politics (link at JOP; ungated version), I elaborate these conditions and argue that this neutralizes one of the most potent arguments against mandatory voting, that it coerces political expression in an especially troubling way. Methodologically, this research exemplifies a mixed normative and empirical approach, combining public opinion evidence with philosophical analysis, comparative institutional design, and normative democratic theory. The abstract for the paper is below:

Mandatory voting has received public and scholarly interest as a solution for problems of unequal representation and policies that advantage the wealthy. Yet some oppose mandatory voting because it seems to coerce political expression, in violation of the human right to free expression. This article fundamentally reinterprets the point of mandatory voting as serving the self-identified purposes of citizens and so minimizes concerns about coercion. It uses survey evidence to show that mandatory voting can help the large majority of American citizens who believe they should vote to do so, thereby functioning as a precommitment mechanism. For the minority who do not think they should vote, mandatory voting functions as a nudge to surveillance which helps citizens protect their interests, whatever they may be, through encouraging surveillance of political actors. The argument concludes that mandatory voting would make all citizens better off by their own lights and without troubling coercion.

I maintain a research interest in mandatory voting as an institution that can address a number of serious issues facing contemporary democracies, and plan another paper on mandatory voting and the duty to vote in the near future.

Can Comedy Be Convincing? The Persuasive Impact of Political Humor (with Andrew Guess (Princeton) and Robert Y. Shapiro (Columbia))

The deliberative systems approach to democratic theory analyzes elements of democratic societies as potentially contributing to an interdependent system of deliberation. In this project, we examine empirically the possible role of political comedy in democratic deliberation through testing its persuasiveness.  Though there has been a great deal of research in American politics, political psychology, and communication studies on political comedy in recent years due to the rise of programs like The Daily Show, there has been little investigation of whether political comedy has the power to actually change people’s minds. This is an important question since these programs reach massive audiences and could therefore play an underappreciated role in public deliberation by, for instance, bringing novel or controversial ideas to widespread attention.

In our initial study, we use a piece of political stand-up comedy with rich persuasive content to test the effect that humor has on persuasion regarding the issue of gun control. Our experiment has two treatment conditions in which one set of subjects watches the stand-up comedy routine and another watches a video that recreates the persuasive content of the comedic routine but without the humor. Our main initial hypothesis is that persuasion would be aided by a comedic message. Initial results suggest that, against our expectations, the non-comedic version was more persuasive, suggesting that rather than comedy enhancing the uptake of persuasive content, it seems to make it easier to dismiss that content. This study is funded by grants from Columbia University’s Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy (ISERP) and Princeton University’s University Center for Human Values (UCHV).