Friday, 31 March 2017

Identity and Counter Terrorism in the UK by Michael Lister

In a recent paper, “‘As a woman…’; ‘As a Muslim…’: Subjects, positions and counter-terrorism powers in the United Kingdom” published in Critical Social Policy, Lee Jarvis and I seek to explore how identity claims interrelate with counter-terrorism powers. Our questions focus on whether certain groups feel directly targeted by counter terrorism powers; whether such dynamics are totalising, such that all Muslims or all (south) Asians, for example, relate to counter-terrorism measures similarly?; what the impact is of counter-terrorism powers on experiences of collective identities such as “Britishness”? and what types of subject position do counter-terrorism powers and discourse facilitate? Our findings draw upon 14 focus groups conducted with a range of UK-based communities. Following an ‘immersive’ reading of the transcript data, we generated a thematic framework of four broad identity positions: ‘the Muslim’, ‘the target’, ‘the woman’ and ‘the unaffected’ 

Image: Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters

Numerous individuals spoke in our focus groups of being singled out by the state and its counter-terrorism measures for especial treatment because they were Muslim, with several arguing that such measures contribute directly to a climate of fear. In some cases, individuals referred to specific, personal experiences of counter-terrorism policies (stop and search, for example). In others, it was a broader sense of social dislocation and stigmatisation: what Blackwood et al. (2013) refer to as the ‘shadow of the collective experience’

The experience of riskiness was an outcome, for one participant, of the widespread view of Muslim communities as unknown and other to majority (ethnic, national and religious) groups in the UK. He argued that the “unexceptional” lives of many actual terrorists create additional policy challenges whereby because no specific Muslims are exceptionally suspicious, no Muslims can be fully trustworthy either:

Every terrorist that’s ever been, ever died blowing something up, the local community talk about how lovely and normal the guy was… our kids played together and all this kind of stuff, so then I think that’s going to instil a sense of paranoia in the community, because people will think, well… all these Muslims, they might seem fine, but tomorrow are they going to blow us up? (Birmingham, Asian, Male)

This discussion emerged in a debate about the extent to which “Muslims” are viewed as a homogenous bloc. This distinction between an “English” “them” and a “Muslim” “us” was contested by some of our participants (see Lister and Jarvis 2013). It was, however, widely shared, including amongst those who believed their “Britishness” now contested by others:

I've been here for 40 years. I wasn't born here but I was very small when I came here, and I’m still a foreigner, I’m still an alien … And I can't go back to Pakistan. Part of me is Pakistan [but] I've hardly got anything… to go back to… Nobody thinks of me as British. I’m a Paki middle-aged woman. That's how they see me, Paki. They don't know I've got a British passport and I've had it for such a long time, for 37, 38 years or something. That still does not make me British. (Oldham, Asian, Female).

This woman’s attachment to Britain had been eroded by a post-9/11 narrowing of access to British identity. For many of our participants, this environment’s contribution to the (re)production of particular subject positions directly influenced their own self-identification. Counter-terrorism practices, in our findings, add further complexity to this by inflecting certain categories with meaning (Muslim as “other” or threatening), which in turn shapes self-identifications (the extent to which individuals see themselves, and/or the extent to which they can attach themselves to different categories such as “British”).

This perception of targeting, however, was far from limited to Muslim individuals, with a number of participants in our research identifying as black expressing similar concerns. Frequently, such views were related to prior experiences of discrimination and particularly the “Sus” laws of the 1970s and 1980s. As one participant put it in relation to discriminatory policing: ‘when you select a few, and target a few, and then only use those laws because you think they're not from, shall I say indigenous people, and you use these laws on them… that’s the major problem for me’ (Swansea, Black, Male). Another, reviewing recent developments in this area, suggested:

Maybe if I were, if I weren’t black, I'd feel safer… but I feel that I’m the victim in this… But having at the back of my mind that I'm being watched, I'm being searched, I'm a target group, I'm not safe.’ (Swansea, Black, Female).

It is important to note that this experience of targeting was – again – far from universal amongst individuals identifying as members of minority ethnic communities. One Asian (non-Muslim) participant, for example, recounted being frequently stopped by border police when travelling for employment yet stated ‘if you’re a good citizen going about your day-to-day life, it doesn’t necessarily affect your day-to-day life’. This invocation of the figure of the “good citizen” signifies a far stronger attachment to a (British) citizenship than that of some of the participants above who believed themselves denied access to such a category. The participant above – a lawyer – may have benefited from a class-based ability to claim the labels of “good citizen” and “British” in a way unavailable to individuals living more (economically) precarious lives. This in turn, spotlights the complexity of ethnic labels such as “black” and “white”. What is important here, however, is the extent to which counterterrorism powers shape the extent to which individuals claim (or are able to claim), or reject (or are rejected from) specific identity markers, such as “black”, “white”, “Muslim”, and “British”.

In the some of the discussions there was a debate over the significance of particular identity markers (such as facial hair, headscarves or veils) in a counter-terrorism context. An important aspect of this is the impact of gender on expectations of stigmatisation and targeting. One mother, for instance, worried about her son, as ‘he’ll have a stubble and sometimes he lets it grow quite long… and you do worry up all night, thinking, when is he going to get home?’ (Birmingham, Asian, Female), suggesting that, for her, male identities were particularly at risk “of being [seen as] risky” (Heath-Kelly, 2013). Another female participant seemed to agree, suggesting she was less likely to be viewed with suspicion because, ‘as a woman I don’t have a lot more pressures than my [male] colleague’ (London, Asian, Female). In other discussions, however, performances of gendered identities by (some) women, especially with regard to religious dress were seen to increase one’s risk of suspicion from other citizens or the state. As one female put it: ‘With the burqa, I stand out and I’m conspicuous… And you get the looks and the sly nudges and the comments behind your back’ (Oldham, Asian, Female). Thus, there may be a distinction here between those risks of social stigma to which women may feel more vulnerable because of, for instance, the veil and, on the other hand, being targeted by official security processes (which may disproportionately affect men). Discussions around gender such as the above also took place within focus groups of individuals not identifying as Muslim. These reinforce the importance of recognising intersectionalities between ethnic, gendered and other subject positions in the context of counter-terrorism powers.

In our research we also spoke with a number of individuals who felt that their identity and lifestyle rendered them distant from, and unaffected by, the workings of counter-terrorism powers. As we have already seen, for some participants, variously being female, a “good citizen”, or of higher socio-economic class could reduce concerns about such powers. Beyond these, a number of white individuals in particular saw themselves as beyond the interest of those responsible for countering terrorism. A sense was articulated that counter-terrorism is ‘happening on a level that never touches us’ (Oldham, White, Male) and this, in some instances, further buttressed by a nonchalance toward the threat of terrorism. As one participant put it: ‘They say terrorism is the big threat, but you’ve got to think where that would be in Britain. It wouldn’t be in Swansea, it wouldn’t be where I live anyway’ (Swansea, White, Male). This distance can thus function in at least two ways. The first is to generate support for extensive counter-terrorism powers – if you are unlikely to experience such powers, one may feel more inclined to support them. The second, as with the respondent from Swansea, leads instead to a critical questioning, whereby feeling unthreatened by terrorism might lead to a questioning of the necessity of counter-terrorism powers.

This article has assessed the relationship between identity claims and subject positions, and attitudes toward counter-terrorism powers within the UK. The article illustrates what appears to be a co-constitutive relationship between identity and counter-terrorism powers. Thus, on the one hand, how people make sense of their own sense of self (and the identity of others) impacts upon how counter-terrorism powers are understood and evaluated (as necessary, discriminatory, acceptable and so forth). At the same time, (understandings of) counter-terrorism powers appear to create specific identity positions (‘the unaffected’ or ‘the target’), which are subsequently negotiated and inhabited by individuals. Such subject positions variously draw upon or resist traditional identity categories (relating to ethnicity and gender, in particular), while other types of (class, sexual, cultural, and other) identity less-explored in our discussion no doubt also play into these dynamics in complex ways. Finally, our research also suggests that if creating a more cohesive society is considered a goal of counter-terrorism – if, as David Cameron (2011) suggested, the creation and sustaining of very different lived, social experiences is a barrier to security – then counter-terrorism powers, as experienced by many of our respondents, may complicate such cohesion.

Friday, 20 January 2017

Donald Trump, Globalisation and Europe’s “left behind” by Jonathan Wheatley

As Donald Trump takes the oath of office and becomes the 45th President of the United States, in the second of two special GPES blogs on Trump and his victory, Dr Jonathan Wheatley reflects on the wider reasons for Trump's victory and how this links to broader shifts in politics in the United States and beyond.

(Image: Nadav Kander)

Liberal opinion around the world was dumbfounded on the night of November 8 as it became clear that political novice Donald Trump had gained sufficient nominations in the Electoral College to become the 45th president of the United States of America. It was not only his political immaturity and frequent gaffes that shocked, but also his outspoken statements denigrating women, ethnic minorities and Muslims, as well as virtually the entire American political establishment. Coming hard on the heels of another anti-establishment vote in the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, political commentators were left scrabbling for an explanation for what was going on.

The Trump phenomenon is not only about the United States, just as Brexit was not only about the United Kingdom. The so-called “radical right” is gaining ground across Europe as movements such as the French National Front, the Sweden Democrats, the Dutch Party for Freedom, the Alternative for Germany and, of course, UKIP reshape the respective political landscapes. In post-communist countries too, similar movements are thriving. Prime Minister Victor Orban in Hungary has described the arrival of Middle Eastern refugees as a poison and has publicly disavowed liberal democracy. The governing party in Slovakia, nominally social democrat, also shares many of Orban’s views on migrants.

So what is going on? First of all, these parties, although described as “right-wing”, are so in a cultural sense, not in an economic sense. Some, for example the French National Front, actually take an economically left-wing position. Others have rather vague positions with regard to the economy and focus only on cultural or identity matters such as immigration and national sovereignty. If the main political struggle in the twentieth century was between the economic left and the economic right on matters such as the role of the state versus the free market in the economy, in the twenty-first the struggle seems to be between a cultural right and a cultural left defined by the ideological construction of the “other”.

So why is this happening? In her speech at the Lord Mayor's banquet on 14 November, Theresa May talked about the way liberalism and globalisation have left people behind. But the notion of the “left behind” has been circulating in academic literature for a while now. Writing in 2006, Hanspeter Kriesi and his colleagues suggest that a new cleavage has opened up in European societies between “winners” and “losers” of globalisation. “Losers”, they argue, seek to protect themselves by placing greater emphasis on national boundaries and sovereignty. In their 2014 book Revolt on the Right, Ford and Goodwin use the term “left behind” to characterise UKIP voters in the United Kingdom, referring by implication to those who feel left behind by globalisation. Goodwin and Heath describe June's Brexit vote in similar terms in a recent LSE blog, pointing out that those voting to leave the EU, just like UKIP voters, tend to be older, working-class, white voters who lack qualifications and skills. Political commentators seem to be suggesting that similar forces are at play in the US, as the decaying former industrial rust belt provided enough votes to push Donald Trump over the finish line in November's elections. Research into French voters who support the National Front and Swedish voters supporting the Sweden Democrats also seem to concur that these parties tend to draw from less educated and blue collar backgrounds.

But why is this discontent expressed in cultural, rather than economic terms? After all, many of the “left behind” are economically marginalised and so surely they would turn to economic left-wing alternatives of wealth distribution and state intervention? Indeed in those parts of Europe where austerity has hit living standards hardest and where those who have lost out tend to be young and less beholden to identity politics, radical left parties such as Spain’s Podemos and Greece’s SYRIZA have indeed flourished. However, in much of northern Europe, as well as the United States, it is older blue collar workers who feel alienated, marginalised and stripped of their dignity.  Their economic well-being may not have collapsed, but they feel vulnerable both economically and in terms of their identity and place in the world. As traditional community institutions crumble, businesses and shops are taken over by global brands and the arrival of newcomers change the nature of their communities, they feel that they no longer recognise the country in which they grew up. They may wish to turn back the clock, “go back to the way things were” and cling to the familiar trappings of identity and erstwhile “national sovereignty”. Such nostalgics will readily lend an ear to populist promises to “get the country back”.

I do not want to pretend that the growing cleavage between winners and losers of globalisation is the only explanation for the rise of the populist right in Europe and North America. Social media also plays a very critical role, especially in terms of sharpening rather than attenuating ideological divisions. Facebook's practice of recommending its users news stories that conform to their pre-existing points of view may exacerbate this tendency. Studying the impact of social media on political preferences is as yet at an embryonic stage and much more research on this is needed.

So what can be done? Some argue that the rise of the populist right is a passing phase and the sensible status quo will soon reassert itself. I hope they are right, but I fear they are not. I believe that this phenomenon is rapidly becoming an existential threat to liberal democracy and has the potential to reverse many of the liberal gains of post-war Europe and America if action is not taken soon. One thing seems clear; the rise of the populist right has a cause and this cause is mainly economic. The key challenge must therefore be how to take action that will protect the “left behind” from further economic marginalisation. Another challenge for politicians is how to help foster an idea of communitarianism that allows citizens to maintain a sense of identity without the baggage of prejudice and bigotry. A possible model here may be that of the Scottish National Party, which appears to be successful in tapping into Scottish pride and Scottish identity without targeting an “enemy within”. It is also a matter of political communication. Politicians must be engaged in their communities, able and willing to discuss and understand their problems and to confront, rather than placate extremism. Mimicking the populist right will not help mainstream parties. After all, why would one vote for a diluted version of the French National Front or UKIP if one can vote for the real thing? But ignoring the grievances of the marginalised will only increase their sense of alienation and add fuel to the fire.

Benjamin Barber, in his seminal 1992 essay Jihad vs. McWorld, sees in globalization one of two dystopian political futures: McWorld, defined by cultural uniformity and integration into a single homogenous global network; and jihad, defined by cultural re-tribalisation and identity politics. At the current moment it is jihad that seems to be making the running.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

President Trump: Significance and (Likely) Implications

In response to the surprise election victory of Donald Trump, members of the Centre for Global Politics, Economy and Society reflect on the importance, meaning and likely significance of a Trump presidency. In the first of two blogs, we cover the potential impact on the UK, Latin America and the environment.

Who now inherits the earth? Or Trump my Brexit by Barrie Axford

Like Sean O’Casey’s anti-hero Joxer Daly, post November 8th we all know that the world is in a “state of chassis” (chaos). You may also believe that this state of affairs is due to an untimely upsurge in the temerity of previously unheard Morlocks; those tired of laboring in the cause of an elite consensus on free trade, collective defence, gender and racial equality and the architectures of the rules-driven international order. Then again, you may not.

So, there is reason enough to reflect on the likely, or possible, impacts of the Trump victory on the UK; so some thoughts.  In policy terms most of these are still imponderable. Initially markets slumped in the aftermath of Trump’s victory. By the following day they had rallied. So the issue for the UK is how long and how deep is the uncertainty about the policy stance of the US president likely to last?  If market and consumer confidence in the UK were to show a secular decline the Bank of England might well decide to cut interest rates still further to allow the markets to settle.

At present the value of sterling against the US dollar is shifting around the 1.23 -1.25 mark. This is low, but not historically so. The greater impact on the value of sterling came after the decision to leave the EU and this will remain the main determinant in the coming months and years.

After campaign coolness and some derision on the part of UK politicians and their cohorts, the reality of a Trump victory has seen ministers scrambling to affirm their willingness to work with the Donald. The shibboleth of the “special relationship” has been much abroad. Trump himself appeared to reassure Theresa May about US-UK relationships and, on the face of it, the change occupant in the Oval Office may well see a reversal of Obama’s “opening to the East” that so discommoded European politicians. At the same time, the president elect is talking a hard game about “can’t pay – won’t pay” NATO allies. Here, the UK is on the side of the angels - or at least the Pentagon - and because of Brexit, will not be party to any future EU defence regime.

And if we don't know the threat or promise that resides in Mr Trump’s policy brief, how much more difficult to gauge what his victory heralds in terms of the emerging quality and direction of UK politics. Is Nigel Farage now to be Trump’s vicar on earth, or at least in Westminster, notwithstanding his subaltern status among British political elites and the distaste shown him by the chattering classes. Brexit may have begat Trump, with its brand of populism treated as a Damascene moment in the campaign, but who now inherits the earth as the grain of UK politics shifts? UKIP without Farage looks a one trick pony and struggles to overcome the vagaries of the British electoral system and the fastidiousness of large section of the electorate. Has Trump’s victory given Brexiters, Ukipers and sundry discontents in Labour and Tory ranks the belly to make a go of it at the next general election? What of Jeremy Corbyn? Leave aside his politics if you can. On the face of it Corbyn espouses the same contempt for usual politics and its vehicles as Trump. They both talk of “movements” as the wave of the future. As the mainstream parties become more and more debilitated can the forces of, admittedly different, varieties of populism capture the castle?

Barrie Axford is Professor of Politics, Oxford Brookes University

Trump and Latin America by John Crabtree

Latin America has come low down on the list of US foreign policy concerns in recent years; many Latin Americans – concerned about the implications of Donald Trump’s presidential election victory – hope that this will remain the case. 

Those most alarmed are those closest to the United States, namely Mexico, Central America and parts of the Caribbean. Here the main issues in relations with the United States have long been what Abe Lowenthal once called ‘inter-mestic’, those that for the United States are a foreign policy matters but which have a high political resonance in domestic US politics: trade, migration and drugs.
·         The threat of abrogating NAFTA would, if realised, have major economic consequences for Mexico, for which the United States buys 80% of its exports. NAFTA encouraged the industrialisation which makes Mexico exceptional in Latin America and which, according to Trump, is the most proximate cause of de-industrialisation in the United States. Tearing up other free trade agreements with countries like Colombia, Chile and Peru would have much less serious consequences than NAFTA.
·         Stopping and reversing migratory flows from Latin America was a keynote of Trump’s election discourse. Whether or not a wall is ever built along the US-Mexican border, the threat of expulsion of Mexican migrants will be a major irritant in bilateral relations.  A reduction in remittances would also be a serious blow to the Mexican economy. It would be even more serious for the countries of the ‘northern triangle’ of Central America (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador) which have been the main source of illegal immigration in recent years.
·         Halting the flow of drugs into the United States would be a secondary objective in building the Mexican wall. While Trump has said less about drugs than migration, the ‘war on drugs’ – in spite of its failure so far – is likely to remain a preoccupation in Washington, and one likely to impact on policy not just towards Mexico and Central America but Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. 
Despite their initial misgivings, most Latin American leaders have settled into a wait-and-see mode, afraid to antagonise the new administration before it takes office. Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto says he will adopt “enormous pragmatism” in his dealings with Washington. But beyond the impact of the falling peso/dollar exchange rate which threatens Mexico’s already languid growth rate, the prospect of an aggressive neighbour to the north will further reduce his centre-right PRI’s popularity in advance of the 2018 elections and boost the chances of its more nationalist presidential opponent, Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

Another country immediately affected will be Cuba where a return to cold-war hostilities threatens to end any hint of the rapprochement negotiated with Obama. Raúl Castro’s first response to Trump’s election was military manoeuvres. The chance of the US Congress voting to end the Cuban embargo now seems remote indeed. For several other countries, the prospect of a Trump administration will hasten their efforts to develop closer economic and political ties with China. The collapse of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) opens the way for this.

John Crabtree is a senior member of Saint Antony’s College.

What does Trump mean for nature?  by Aarti Chauhan with Lucy Ford.

A quick glance at president-elect Donald Trump’s twitter account and you will see that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. Post-election the appointment of Myron Ebell as the lead on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) transition team and the vow to ‘get rid…of [the EPA] in almost every form’, and we have an echoing of climate change denialism that was endemic in the Bush administration. In fact, Ebell, a director at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an ultra-conservative lobby group, is a well-documented beneficiary of funding from the fossil fuel industry and aide to the Bush administration’s supressing and discrediting of EPA reports on climate change. And yet, look to other Trump interviews and the climate change hoax statement is a ‘joke’ for the benefit of China and in a recent interview with The New York Times Trump states that there is ‘some connectivity’ between human activity and climate change, which was quickly punctuated by the remark that the amount of ‘connectivity’ depends on the level of financial impact on corporate America. Throw in the fact that the 2016 Republican manifesto pledges to reject the Paris Agreement (arguably the Kyoto Protocol of our time), the immediate halt to US funding of the UNFCCC and Trump’s rally against free-trade agreements, and all rhetoric points to the US withdrawing from the global stage, international institutions and agreements, and a reestablishment of isolationism. It would seem that Trump means a disaster for nature.

However, should the focus be on Trump himself? With the now Republican trifecta, the power and will to overturn democratic legislation is stronger than ever, take for instance the Republican-laden Supreme Court, which has halted President Obama’s Clean Power Plan (CPP) while a federal court considers whether the legislation exceeds the executive branches’ power, a point upheld by Republican states and utilities companies. It is no coincidence that the CPP would be the first legislation of its kind in US history, giving power to the EPA to regulate carbon emissions from power plants, thus mandating state involvement in the regulation of the economy and limiting the output of utility companies, contravening neoliberal principles and conservative ideology. With a well-established network of climate change denialism in the US that involves conservative politicians, the fossil fuel industry and corporate America,  to name but a few, it seems what the Trump administration will administer is a ramped-up platform of climate change denial that stretches back to the Bill Clinton administration.     

At this point it is worth reflecting on how much of an alternative Hillary Clinton would have provided for nature? Are Democrats more environmentally progressive? Several studies say yes. Clinton’s official platform on climate change was positive, pledging to cut oil consumption by a third, to generate enough renewable power to every home in America and, uphold the Paris Agreement. However, in politics, rhetoric seldom directly translates into practice, and it is anyone’s guess as to what sort of environmental governance Clinton would have led. As much as Obama’s legacy entails environmental protection, it cannot be overlooked that the protests surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline have been met with some of the most violent crackdowns witnessed in decades, which beyond environmental protection is tied up in the struggle for civil rights. What this example highlights are the corporatist arrangements in industrialised and industrialising countries, where the forces and principles of the capitalist market operate without concern for people or planet. Ultimately the bottom line is continued exponential economic growth and anthropocentrism, and this is the concern of all government irrespective of party affiliation.

Aarti Chauhan is a final year undergraduate in International Relations with Philosophy who has recently completed a dissertation investigating climate change belief in the United States and Latin America.

Lucy Ford is Senior Lecturer in International Relations, specialising in global environmental politics.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Findings from a Voting Advice Application in Georgia: Ideology matters by Dr Jonathan Wheatley

On 14 September, the Preference Matcher Consortium,
of which Oxford Brookes University is a member, launched a Voting Advice Application (VAA) in the run-up to the Georgian parliamentary elections of 8 October.
VAAs are web platforms that allow users to compare their positions on a set of concrete policy issues with those of parties or candidates in elections. They then provide their users with visual displays showing their positions with respect to parties or candidates. The Georgian VAA Xmamkvlevi, which can be loosely translated from the Georgian as “Vote Survey”, asked Georgian voters to position themselves on thirty issues using the categories “completely agree”, “agree”, “somewhere in the middle”, “disagree”, “completely disagree” and “no opinion”. It then matched their responses with the positions of the eight largest political parties in Georgia. These positions had already been determined by a panel of experts from Ilia State University in Tbilisi. The issues related to economic policy, relations with the West and Russia, the role of the Church and gay rights, amongst other topics. Xmamkvlevi provided its users with three displays: (1) a bar chart comparing users' proximity to all parties based on all thirty VAA items; (2) a two-dimensional map, based on users' responses to selected items that were deemed to “belong” to a particular ideological dimension (economic left versus right and liberal versus conservative), and (3) a bar chart that indicated how other users who answered the thirty items in a similar way intend to vote. This third feature depended on another attribute of Xmamkvlevi; by means of supplementary questions it collected (anonymous) data from users on age, gender, education, political interest, party identification and vote intention. These supplementary questions had options that included “I do not intend to vote”, “I am undecided” and “I prefer not to say”.

The purpose of VAAs such as Xmamkvlevi is twofold. First, they help undecided voters decide how to vote and, in less established democracies such as Georgia, provide voters, politicians and political parties with incentives to consider matters of policy. In former Soviet republics such as Georgia, scholars have often assumed that voters are either to be drawn to charismatic leaders (of which Georgia’s former president Mikheil Saakashvili is a prime example) (Enyedi 2006) or simply vote for the party or leader that will provide (or promises to provide) material goods to their village or family (Stefes, 2006). The normative rationale of a VAA is to contribute to competitive and programmatic politics by counteracting this tendency. Promoted through advertising on Facebook, Xmamkvlevi was accessed by a relatively large number of voters. According to Google Analytics, 13,510 users accessed the site and meaningful data were obtained from 10,531 users. This should be considered a rather large number given that the number of registered voters in Georgia is just 3.5 million, VAAs are not well-known and Internet use in Georgia, although growing fast, is far from universal. The relatively high uptake rate suggests that policies matter for Georgian voters and this sends a clear message to Georgian politicians that their policy positions (insofar as they have any) will either appeal to or repel voters.

Second, VAAs provide the researcher with a wealth of data on voters' political preferences. Provided due care is taken to control for the fact that the data is self-selected, and therefore not representative, this data can help us to address some of the core research questions in political science. In this respect Xmamkvlevi has provided some fascinating insights into whether Georgian voters choose parties according policy or ideology and, if they do, what are the main dimensions of political competition that divide them. Drawing on a subsample of approximately 4,500 users from the Xmamkvlevi data that were representative of the population as a whole in terms of vote intention (using “abstainers” and undecided users as a proxy for the 49% of the population who did not turn out to vote), I carried out a dimension reduction technique called Mokken Scale Analysis to identify latent political dimensions. This showed that a single ideological dimension appeared to split Xmamkvlevi users. One pole of this dimension is represented by those who take a conservative position on social-moral issues such as gay rights, believe in a greater role for the Georgian Orthodox Church, oppose integration with the EU and the West more generally and adopt a statist position with regard to the economy. Those that cluster around the opposite pole, on the other hand, are more liberal on social-moral issues, feel that the Church already has enough power, strongly favour integration with the West and support free market economic policies.

Interestingly, this dimension differs radically from the traditional left-right dimension that is used to explain political competition in Western Europe. In Georgia social conservatism is associated with the economic left, while a liberal or progressive position on moral-cultural issues is associated with the economic right. This largely conforms to the findings by Gary Marks and his colleagues that the economic and cultural axes of political competition correlate in a different way in much of post-communist Europe than in Western Europe (Marks et al., 2006). A possible explanation for this is that the multiple transformations that many post-communist societies have undergone in the past twenty-five years as a result of economic transformation from a state-run to a market-run economy and more recently of both economic and cultural globalisation has created a divide between “winners” and “losers” of globalisation that is even deeper than that identified by Hanspeter Kriesi and his colleagues in western Europe (Kriesi et al., 2006). According to this logic, the so-called “winners” embrace the liberal economic and cultural changes that globalisation brings, while “losers” reject these changes.

Even more interesting is the fact that those users who self-identified as party supporters by declaring that they identified with a particular party and that they were going to vote for that party occupy distinctive niches along that dimension. The graphs below show density maps of the supporters of the three parties that at the time of writing appeared to have overcome the 5 percent electoral barrier required to enter parliament through the party lists (party lists provide 77 out of 150 seats, while the remaining seats are elected by means of a majoritarian system over up to two rounds). These three parties are the governing Georgian Dream party (GD in the graph), which appears to have won a majority in parliament, the main opposition United National Movement (UNM, in second place) and the small pro-Church Alliance of Patriots of Georgia (PAT). The graph clearly show that the three groups of party supporters have common ideological characteristics with supporters of the Alliance of Patriots of Georgia closest to the (economic) left, conservative pole, supporters of the UNM closer to the right-liberal pole and supporters of the governing party rather closer to the middle, but tending towards the left-conservative pole. This suggests that Georgian politics is not only a struggle for power and resources, but that ideology also matters, especially amongst the rather well-educated sectors of society that used this online application.