Dissertation Defense: Caitlin Brown
Tuesday, March 21 at 10:00am to 12:00pm
Edward B. Bunn, S.J. Intercultural Center, 662 37th and O St., N.W., Washington
Candidate Name: Caitlin Brown
Advisor: Marc Morjé Howard, Ph.D.
Title: Empty Coffins: Bridging the Divide Between Oppositional Civil Society and Opposition Parties
When they hold similar policy preferences, civil society groups that are critical of the incumbent government in democratic states and out-of-power opposition parties would seem to be natural allies. But individuals who are dissatisfied enough with the incumbent government to found and lead civil society groups opposing its actions do not always also invest their time and energy in supporting likeminded opposition parties. When will the leaders of such oppositional civil society groups direct their organizations to become active participants in electoral politics?
Using in-depth case studies of two different types of oppositional civil society groups in post-apartheid South Africa—social movements and non-governmental organizations—this dissertation finds significant initial support for a theory that what matters for civil society groups in their decision to become directly involved in electoral contests is whether competing political parties are governments-in-waiting or states-in-waiting. When oppositional civil society perceives opposition parties to be pursuing control of the state in order to significantly alter its form and functions, they will actively support their preferred political parties in their electoral efforts; when opposition parties present themselves as simply alternative governments, eager to take control of the state but not to change its institutions, governing rules, or relationship with society, oppositional civil society will choose to remain largely disengaged from partisan and electoral politics. I argue that this theory is most applicable in three types of regimes: dominant-party democracies, consolidating democracies, and states ruled by former liberation movements.
Although the literature on civil society’s contributions to democratic governance is voluminous, the relationship between civil society and two of democracy’s core institutions—political parties and elections—is understudied. I will argue that civil society leaders can actually feel quite threatened by elections and contemptuous of political parties. My research question requires me to pry open the black box of civil society more generally, exposing several of its inherent, but unspoken, preferences. Not all of these preferences fit with conventional conceptions of “democracy,” thus allowing the findings of my dissertation to have broader implications for the wider discipline.
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