January 26, 2023 | View this edition in your browser.
  Welcome to What Could Go Right?, where we’re sharing the answers to last week’s quiz.

The percent of Republicans who believe that it is important for Americans to observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day: 73 percent. Of Democrats: 92 percent. 

And yet we don’t recognize the common ground, with Democrats expecting only 38 percent of Republicans to think observing MLK Day is important. More on our misperceptions of the other political party vis a vis race relations, including what Republicans get wrong about Democrats, here. 

The global democratic decline that wasn’t
We are in a period of global democratic decline. One report last year found that half of the world’s democracies are experiencing democratic backsliding. Another, that the “last 30 years of democratic advances” have now been “eradicated.”

But a fascinating new paper from associate professors at the University of Virginia and University of California, Berkeley, says that the story of global democratic decline becomes one of democratic stability if we look further into how indicators of democratic health are measured. Let’s get into it!

The recent reports that found evidence of global democratic backsliding, the paper’s authors, Anne Meng and Andrew Little, wrote, “rely heavily if not entirely on subjective indicators”—a team of expert coders that use media reports, academic studies, and personal experience to gauge democracy’s forward or backward movement. But it’s possible, Meng and Little think, that these coders’ “standards and biases” have changed over time, leading to harsher judgments now that we have much more information than we used to about democratic violations. These experts may have also been influenced by expanding media coverage and conversation around the poor state of democracies after the United States’ shocking 2016 election. 

These changing standards and biases can greatly skew what counts as democratic backsliding. Consider that in 2016, one main method used to measure democratic health gave the US an 8 out of 10. This score is lower, Meng and Little point out, than the score the US received during the Jim Crow era or prior to women’s suffrage. 

Meng and Little, keeping their metrics to three objective measurements—whether incumbents lose elections, if they face constitutional constraints like term limits, and numbers of journalists jailed and killed—found that there is little evidence of recent democratic backsliding in the aggregate.

By measuring how often an incumbent party loses, how long they hold power, and how many votes they receive, we can see how well our democracies are functioning as true democracies. Turnover shows democratic health.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t some democracies, like Poland, that have undeniably become less democratic in recent years. Neither does it mean that more subjective measurements are useless or that we shouldn’t be focused on figuring out where democratic violations are occurring and how to push back against them. But it does mean that the narrative we’re used to hearing of global democratic decline may be more of an open question than we’ve frequently seen it portrayed. Democratic institutions, broadly speaking, have been proving resilient.

P.S. If you don’t have time to read the entire paper, Meng also has a Twitter thread on it here.

Better elections for young Nigerians
In late February Nigeria will hold a presidential election. Unusually, young people are flocking to get registered to vote—of the nearly 10 million new voters registered, 84 percent are under the age of 34. (Nigeria’s electoral commission claimed 1.12 million of those registrations invalid.) Now, 40 percent of total registered voters in Nigeria are under 34. 

In Nigeria, voter turnout is historically low—33 percent in 2019—and past elections have been marred by voter fraud and rigging. But young people are being inspired this year to support third-party candidate Peter Obi, “the first time since the end of military dictatorship in 1999,” Al Jazeera reports, that “a third-party candidate is presenting a real challenge” to the two major Nigerian political parties. Faith in legitimate election results is also being buoyed by a new system that will use a voting card with biometric data that electronically uploads votes directly to the electoral commission. The BBC has more here.

Before we go
Last week on social media we shared the story that pharmaceutical giant Pfizer will be selling their drugs at a not-for-profit price to 45 low-income countries. That is good and true. However, while The Progress Network (TPN) does have an explicit focus on the positive, the goal is never to avoid the full picture of reality, especially when the full picture is not well known. It should also be known that this announcement from Pfizer comes at a time, as Jacobin covers, that they are “hiking prices on roughly a hundred drugs in the US” and quadrupling the price of their Covid-19 vaccine. Also true and not good at all.

Below in the links section, dolphins in New York, women's rights in Saudi Arabia, Black joy in Oregon, and more.

—Emma Varvaloucas

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(A staff recommendation guaranteed to give your brain some food for thought.)

The right words are crucial to solving climate change | Scientific American
Speaking to people’s priorities can build the will needed to implement climate solutions.

Why we picked it: What additional success could we accomplish if we chose our words—around climate change as well as many other things—more skillfully? —Emma Varvaloucas
Until next Thursday, be inspired by this journey of rejection to success from author Caitlin Barasch

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