Ambiguity, Electoral Competition, and the Constructive Role of Democracy

ANTUNES MARIANI, CHANTOS GUILHERME (2016). 'Ambiguity, Electoral Competition, and the Constructive Role of Democracy' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Tokyo 2016.

As argued in Sen (1999), the rise of democracy as the most acceptable form of government might be considered as the preeminent development of the twentieth century. In order to justify such a strong statement, Sen pinpoints three distinct merits associated to democracy that, according to him, "enriches the lives of the citizens'' (Sen 1999, p. 10). First, democracy has intrinsic value to people, since the exercise of political freedom is a vital part of a life worth of living. Second, as long as democracies tend to generate desirable outcomes in other relevant ares of human development, a democratic form of government has also instrumental value. Finally, the practice of democracy has a central role in the construction of values, definition of rights and duties, and identification of society's most fundamental needs. This constructive role, as Sen defines it, demands public discussion and reasoning, through which agents engage in relevant debates, have the possibility to influence one another, revise their own prior convictions, and contribute to the definition of priorities and needs that will affect public policies and social arrangements.
In this context, one element that emerges forcefully to a proper assessment of substantive political rights is individuals' ability to express ideas, and exercise influence on others during the deliberative stage of democratic decisions (Knight and Johnson 1997). Being unable to advocate one's own interests, or to persuade other deliberators into one's preferred alternative, would depict a situation of ``political poverty'', as suggested in Bohman (1996), with a patent violation of political equality, as well as standards of justice based on minimum requirements of equality of substantive political freedoms (Srinivasan 2007). In this sense, the existence of relevant information about the topics under deliberation is of the utmost importance to the reaching of well-reasoned decision and the effectiveness of the constructive role of democracy; and since political participation and the exercise of voting is one of the most fundamental expressions of political rights, information about candidates' views on relevant issues becomes essential to foster public deliberation and critical scrutiny during elections.
Nevertheless, the literature on electoral competition, rooted on the contributions of Downs (1957) and Hotelling (1929), has long suggested that candidates can intentionally adopt vague and ambiguous positions on the issues discussed by the public as an effective campaign strategy (Shepsle 1972, Page 1976; McKelvey 1980; Glazer 1990, and others). Downs's famous quote, suggesting that candidates repeatedly ``[...] becloud their policies in a fog of ambiguity'' (Downs 1957, p. 136), illustrates this point, and certainly has the support of a representative share of electors. Moreover, as observed in Shepsle (1972), electors vote for candidates and not directly for their most preferred policy alternatives, meaning that an evaluation procedure - aiming to link candidates to potential public policies - will be put forward. Typically, candidates are seen as lotteries in the ``space of issues'' (normally interpreted as the left-right ideological space); however, probabilities are given subjectively, and, depending on the amount of information that each voter possess to evaluate the competitors, assessments can differ drastically from one agent to another.
Thus, given the crucial role of information to public deliberation, to which extent the adoption of campaign strategies that deliberately embrace ambiguous stands on issues undermine the constructive role of democracy? Does electoral competition may inhibit the achievement of equal opportunity of political influence? This paper aims to discuss these issues. Since public policies adopted by the winning candidate may affect drastically the prospects of individuals' lives, we suggest that uncertainty generated by the lack of relevant information about candidates political platforms during public deliberation can impose a significant curtailment on the exercise of political agency, hindering individuals' capacity to reason and scrutinize alternatives properly, which, in turn, affects one's ability to participate adequately in the process of public deliberation. Also, we argue that these negative effects may vary according to socioeconomic elements, being more substantial to those individuals with less access to alternative sources of information, deepening preexisting disadvantages and worsening political inequalities.

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