Schrodinger’s Coup

You’ve heard of Schrödinger’s cat, right? This is the famous thought experiment proposed by Nobel Prize–winning physicist Erwin Schrödinger to underscore what he saw as the absurdity of quantum superposition—the idea that “an object in a physical system can simultaneously exist in all possible configurations, but observing the system forces the system to collapse and forces the object into just one of those possible states.”

Schrodinger designed his thought experiment to refute the idea that a physical object could simultaneously occupy multiple physical states. At the level of whole cats, anyway, I’m convinced.

When it comes to coups, though, I’m not so sure. Arguments over whether or not certain events were or were not coups or coup attempts usually involve reasonable disagreements over definitions, but fundamental uncertainty about the actions and intentions involved often plays a role, too—especially in failed attempts. Certain sets of events exist in a perpetual state of ambiguity, simultaneously coup and not-coup with no possibility of our ever observing the definitive empirical facts that would force the cases to collapse into a single, clear condition.

Two recent examples help show what I mean. The first is last week’s coup/not coup attempt in the Gambia. From initial reports, it seemed pretty clear that some disgruntled soldiers had tried and failed to seize power while the president was traveling. That’s a classic coup scenario, and all the elements present in most coup definitions were there: military or political insiders seeking to overthrow the government through the use or threat of force.

This week, though, we hear that the gunmen in question were diasporans who hatched the plot abroad without any help on the inside. As the New York Times reported,

According to the [Justice Department’s] complaint, filed in federal court in Minnesota, the plot to topple Mr. Jammeh was hatched in October. Roughly a dozen Gambians in the United States, Germany, Britain and Senegal were involved in the plot, the complaint said. The plotters apparently thought, mistakenly, that members of the Gambian armed forces would join their cause…

The plot went awry when State House guards overwhelmed the attackers with heavy fire, leaving many dead or wounded. Mr. Faal and Mr. Njie escaped and returned to the United States, where they were arrested, the complaint said.

So, were the putschists really just a cabal of outsiders, in which case this event would not qualify as a coup attempt under most academic definitions? Or did they have collaborators on the inside who were discovered or finked out at the crucial moment, making a coup attempt look like a botched raid? The Justice Department’s complaint implies the former, but we’ll never know for sure.

Lesotho offers a second recent example of coup-tum superposition. In late August, that country’s prime minister, Thomas Thabane, fled to neighboring South Africa and cried “Coup!” after soldiers shut down radio stations and surrounded his residence and police headquarters in the capital. But, as Kristen van Schie reported for Al Jazeera,

Not so, said the military. It claimed the police were planning on arming UTTA—the government-aligned youth movement accused of planning to disrupt Monday’s march [against Thabane]. It was not so much a coup as a preventative anti-terrorism operation, it said.

The prime minister and the South African government continued to describe the event as a coup attempt despite that denial, but other observers disagreed. As analyst Dimpho Motsamai told van Schie, “Can one call it a coup when the military haven’t declared they’ve taken over government?” Maybe this really was just a misunderstanding accelerated by the country’s persistent factional crisis.

This uncertainty is generic to the study of political behavior, where the determination of a case’s status depends, in part, on the actors’ intentions, which can never be firmly established. Did certain members of the military in the Gambia mean to cooperate with the diasporans who shot their way toward the presidential last week, only to quit or get stopped before the decisive moment arrived? Was the commander of Lesotho’s armed forces planning to oust the prime minister when he ordered soldiers out of the barracks in late August, only to change his mind and tune after Thabane escaped the country?

To determine with certainty whether or not these events were coup attempts, we need clear answers to those questions, but we can’t get them. Instead, we can only see the related actions, and even those are incompletely and unreliably reported in most cases. Sometimes we get post hoc descriptions and explanations of those actions from the participants or close observers, but humans are notoriously unreliable reporters of their own intentions, especially in high-visibility, high-stakes situations like these.

Because this problem is fundamental to the study of political behavior, the best we can do is acknowledge it and adjust our estimations and inferences accordingly. When assembling data on coup attempts for comparative analysis, instead of just picking one source, we might use Bayesian measurement models to try to quantify this collective uncertainty (see here for a related example). Then, before reporting new findings on the causes or correlates of coup attempts, we might ask: which cases are more ambiguous than the others, and how would their removal from or addition to the sample alter our conclusions?

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