Reactions to Reflections on the Arab Uprisings

Yesterday, Marc Lynch posted a thoughtful and candid set of reflections on how political scientists who specialize in the Middle East performed as analysts and forecasters during the Arab uprisings, not before them, the subject on which most of the retrospectives have focused thus far. The background to the post is a set of memos Marc commissioned from the contributors to a volume he edited on the origins of the uprisings. As Marc summarizes, their self-criticism is tough:

We paid too much attention to the activists and not enough to the authoritarians; we understated the importance of identity politics; we assumed too quickly that successful popular uprisings would lead to a democratic transition; we under-estimated the key role of international and regional factors in domestic outcomes; we took for granted a second wave of uprisings, which thus far has yet to materialize; we understated the risk of state failure and over-stated the possibility of democratic consensus.

Social scientists and other professional analysts of world affairs should read the whole thing—if not for the specifics, then as an example of how to assess and try to learn from your own mistakes. Here, I’d like to focus on three points that jumped out at me as I read it.

The first is the power of motivated reasoning—”the unconscious tendency of individuals to process information in a manner that suits some end or goal extrinsic to the formation of accurate beliefs.” When we try to forecast politics in real time, we tend to conflate our feelings about specific events or trends with their likelihood. After noting that he and his colleagues over-predicted democratization, Marc observes:

One point that emerged in the workshop discussions is the extent to which we became too emotionally attached to particular actors or policies. Caught up in the rush of events, and often deeply identifying with our networks of friends and colleagues involved in these politics, we may have allowed hope or passion to cloud our better comparative judgment.

That pattern sounds a lot like the one I saw in my own thinking when I realized that my initial forecasts about the duration and outcome of the Syrian civil war had missed badly.

This tendency is probably ubiquitous, but it’s also one about which we can actually do something, even if we can’t eliminate it. Whenever we’re formulating an analysis or prediction, we can start by ask ourselves what result we hope to see and why, and we can think about how that desire might relate to the conclusions we’re reaching. We can try to imagine how someone with different motivations might view the same situation, or just seek out examples of those alternative views. Finally, we can weight or adjust our own analysis accordingly. Basically, we can try to replicate in our own analysis what “wisdom of crowds” systems do to great effect on a larger scale. This exercise can’t fully escape the cognitive traps to which it responds, but I think it can at least mitigate their influence.

Second, Marc’s reflections also underscore our tendency to underestimate the prevalence of inertia in politics, especially during what seem like exceptional times. As I recently wrote, our analytical eyes are drawn to the spectacular and dynamic, but on short time scales at least, continuity is the norm. Observers hoping for change in the countries touched by the Arab uprisings would have done well to remember this fact—and surely some did—when they were trying to assess how much structural change those uprisings would actually produce.

My last point concerns the power of social scientists to shape these processes as they unfold. In reflecting on his own analysis, Marc notes that he correctly saw how the absence of agreement on the basic rules of politics would complicate transitions, but he “was less successful in figuring out how to overcome these problems.” Marc aptly dubs this uncertainty Calvinball, and he concludes:

I’m more convinced than ever that moving beyond Calvinball is essential for any successful transition, but what makes a transitional constitutional design process work—or fail—needs a lot more attention.

Actually, I don’t think the problem is a lack of attention. How to escape this uncertainty in a liberal direction has been a central concern for decades now of scholarship on democratization and the field of applied democracy promotion that’s grown up alongside it. Giuseppe di Palma’s 1990 book, To Craft Democracies, remains a leading example on the kind of advocacy-cum-scholarship this field has produced, but there are countless “lesson learned” white papers and “best practices” policy briefs to go with it.

No, the real problem is that transitional periods are irreducibly fraught with the uncertainties Marc rightly spotlighted, and there simply are no deus-ex-machina resolutions to them. When scholars and practitioners do get involved, we are absorbed into the politics we mean to “correct,” and most of us aren’t nearly as adept in that field as we are in our own. After a couple of decades of closely watching these transitions and the efforts of various parties to point them in particular directions, I have come to believe that this is one of those things social science can help us understand but not “fix.”

The “Cuban Twitter” Fiasco

The Associated Press dropped a big investigative story this morning on how “The U.S. government masterminded the creation of a ‘Cuban Twitter’—a communications network designed to undermine the communist government in Cuba, built with secret shell companies and financed through foreign banks.”

The project, which lasted more than two years and drew tens of thousands of subscribers, sought to evade Cuba’s stranglehold on the Internet with a primitive social media platform. First, the network would build a Cuban audience, mostly young people; then, the plan was to push them toward dissent.

Yet its users were neither aware it was created by a U.S. agency with ties to the State Department, nor that American contractors were gathering personal data about them, in the hope that the information might be used someday for political purposes.

It is unclear whether the scheme was legal under U.S. law, which requires written authorization of covert action by the president and congressional notification. Officials at USAID would not say who had approved the program or whether the White House was aware of it. The Cuban government declined a request for comment.

If you study or work on democratization or development, this story is one you’ve got to read. That “U.S. agency with ties to the State Department” mentioned in the snippet above is none other than USAID, the supposedly benign and benevolent arm of U.S. development assistance around the world.

As I read the story, I kept thinking: how myopic. I don’t have time this morning to write a post explaining why I think this is a terrible idea, so I hope you’ll forgive me for quoting from a post I wrote on the same topic nearly three years ago, when talk of U.S. government–funded “Internet in a suitcase” programs aimed at keeping the Arab Spring rolling was hotting up. I hope you’ll take a minute to read the whole thing, but here’s my core complaint:

What worries me is that those well-intentioned officials may not have thought through how modest support for activists in authoritarian regimes might backfire. In a paper I presented at an academic conference a few years ago, I used game theory to explore the conditions under which authoritarian rulers might expand civil liberties in spite of the attendant threats to their power in an effort to reduce government expenses and accelerate economic growth. The formal model in that paper suggested that, other things being equal, autocrats are most likely to liberalize when political opponents pose either a grave threat or a minimal threat to their power. When would-be rivals pose a moderate threat, autocrats will feel compelled to keep the screws turned tight to prevent those rivals from gaining the strength that could transform them into a formidable foe. In this situation, the risks of liberalization will often outweigh the potential benefits.

If foreign governments reliably provided enough support to budding opposition movements to enable those movements to overwhelm autocrats’ defenses, we might expect injections of foreign support to spur autocrats to liberalize before they get toppled. As long as foreign contributions fall short of those heights, however—and they nearly always do—autocrats have strong incentives to respond to those interventions by clamping down, not opening up. This problem may be exacerbated by a substitution effect, whereby activists choose to invest less of their own time and money in overcoming barriers to communication because they expect foreign interventions to solve those problems. In other words, the chief outcomes we would expect to see from foreign support for popular uprisings would be more repression, not less, and weaker prospects for a transition to democracy.

The other issue I touched on at the end that post was the effect a revelation like this one has on USAID’s other endeavors, many of which of which are fairly straightforward and well-intentioned programs aimed at improving peoples’ lives in more fundamental ways, like vaccination and nutrition. Programs like this “Cuban Twitter” fiasco erode USAID’s credibility as an agent of development assistance everywhere. “If the U.S. government used USAID as a Trojan horse in Cuba,” politicians around the world might ask themselves, “why not in my country, too?” It’s hard for me to see whatever marginal effect this Cuban program might have had on the prospects for regime change in that country being worth the costs those doubts will impose on USAID’s work everywhere else.

Election Monitoring : Democratization :: Drug Testing : Sport

AP reports today that the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is conducting an “extraordinary” audit of Jamaica’s drug-testing agency after allegations surfaced that the Jamaican organization had failed to do its job for most of the six months leading to the London Games.

“There was a period of — and forgive me if I don’t have the number of months right — but maybe five to six months during the beginning part of 2012 where there was no effective operation,” WADA Director General David Howman said in an interview. “No testing. There might have been one or two, but there was no testing. So we were worried about it, obviously.”

As fan of track and field and of cycling, I read AP’s story and got a little sadder. At this point, you can’t see stellar performances from guys like Usain Bolt and wonder if banned drugs are what gave those superstars their crucial edge, and failures like this one don’t inspire much confidence.

As a professional observer of democratization, though, I read the AP story and was reminded of the challenges of international election monitoring. Both anti-doping and international election observation efforts involve under-resourced and overly-politicized watchdogs deploying occasional and imperfect tests to try to catch determined cheaters whose careers hang in the balance. Because the stakes are so high, the screening systems we devise are tuned to favor the cheaters. We tolerate errors of omission, or false negatives, to avoid accidentally ruining the reputations of people who aren’t doping or rigging elections, but in so doing, we tolerate a higher rate of cheating than I think most of us realize.

In sport, the bias in the system is encapsulated in the defensive deployment of the phrase “never failed a drug test” by athletes who later admit they cheated. The AP story on Jamaica’s breakdown applies that phrase to world’s fastest man Usain Bolt, and “never a failed test” was a favorite weapon of cyclist Lance Armstrong’s right up until he finally confessed to years of doping.

As statistician Kaiser Fung argues, the fact that an athlete has passed lots of drug tests doesn’t tell us a whole lot when the tests are deliberately skewed to minimize the chance of falsely accusing a “clean” athlete. When we set the threshold for a positive test very high, we create a system in which most cheaters will test negative most of the time. Under these conditions, even a large number of passed tests isn’t especially informative, and the circumstantial evidence—the stories from Lance Armstrong’s trainers and teammates, or the peculiar collapse of Jamaican drug-testing during a critical training period ahead of the London games—should be considered as well.

The election-monitoring equivalent of “never failed a drug test” is the phrase “largely free and fair.” International election observation missions typically deploy staffs of a couple dozen people that are assembled in an ad hoc fashion and have to cover a wide range of issues across whole countries. The missions often expand greatly around election day, but most polling sites still go unobserved, and technical prowess is not necessarily the primary consideration in the selection (or self-selection) of those short-term observers. The quality of the resulting arrangements varies widely, but even in the best of cases, these missions leave plenty of room for determined cheaters to fix the process in their favor.

If the main goal of these missions were to cast doubt on suspicious elections, this piecemeal approach would probably work fine. Even these shoestring missions often catch whiffs of foul play and say so in their reports. For better or for worse, though, these missions also serve political and diplomatic functions, and those other concerns often compel them to soft-pedal their criticisms. Observers want to catch cheats, but they also want to avoid becoming the catalysts of a political crisis and don’t want to discourage governments from participating in the international inspections regime. So the system bends to minimize the risk of false accusations, and we end up with a steady stream of “mostly free and fair” topline judgments that agents of electoral fraud and abuse can then repeat like a mantra to defeat or deflate their domestic political opponents.

Unfortunately, there’s no easy fix in either case. As Kaiser Fung also points out, these trade-offs are unavoidable when trying to detect hard-to-observe phenomena. As long as the tests are imperfect, any reduction in the rate of one kind of error will increase the rate of the other kind. You can slide the threshold up and down, but you can’t wish the errors away.

In sport, we have to decide if we care enough about doping to risk damaging the careers of more “innocent” athletes in pursuit of the (probably many) cheaters who are getting away with it under the current system. In election observation, we have to wonder if the international missions’ declarations of “free and fair” have become so devalued that they don’t serve their intended purpose, and if so, to ask if we’re willing to see more governments disengage from the regime in exchange for a sharper signal. If these choices were easy, we wouldn’t still be talking about them.

A Faith-Based Initiative of Another Kind

According to AP, the U.S. government is considering deepening its ties with Myanmar’s military again, to include a re-up of the human-rights training programs American soldiers and lawyers do with scores of other countries and have done in Myanmar before.

With the backing of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, U.S. defense legal experts last week made their second trip to Myanmar in two months, scoping out what help they can provide on teaching about human rights and the rule of law…

With a quasi-civilian government in place and national elections due in 2015, the Obama administration argues that talking “soldier-to-soldier” with Myanmar on issues like military justice and military-civilian relations can encourage reform and help the U.S. build ties with a military it knows little about…

Priscilla Clapp, a former U.S. charge d’affaires in Yangon, says standing on the sidelines doesn’t serve U.S. interests. “We need to reach into the organization of the military and help educate people and expose them to new ideas,” she said.

The idea that these training programs deepen the recipient military’s commitment to democracy and human rights is essentially a matter of faith. As a GAO report referenced in the AP story makes clear, we have no idea how effective these programs are because we haven’t really tried to measure their impact.

Since 1976, the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program has provided education and training to foreign military personnel. The program’s objectives include professionalizing military forces and increasing respect for democratic values and human rights…

State and DOD’s ability to assess IMET’s effectiveness is limited by several weaknesses in program monitoring and evaluation. First, State and DOD have not established a performance plan for IMET that explains how the program is expected to achieve its goals and how progress can be assessed through performance measures and targets. Second, State and DOD have limited information on most IMET graduates, due to weaknesses in efforts to monitor these graduates’ careers after training…Third, the agencies’ current evaluation efforts include few of the evaluation elements commonly accepted as appropriate for measuring progress of training programs, and do not objectively measure how IMET contributes to long-term, desired program outcomes.

Even in the absence of rigorous monitoring and evaluation, a cursory review of relevant cases makes it hard to accept the premise that these programs are having the presumed effect. Egypt’s military has been the beneficiary of these programs (and much, much more) from the U.S. for many years, and they’ve just perpetrated a coup and a mass killing in the span of a single summer. As the Washington Post reported last year, the leader of Mali’s 2012 coup, then-Capt. Amadou Sanogo, “received military training in the U.S. on ‘several occasions’,” as did many of his compatriots. A high-profile murder trial underway right now in Indonesia involves a dozen troops from a special-forces unit that received training and assistance from the U.S. for many years, even as they were committing gross human-rights violations. So far, I haven’t even mentioned the School of the Americas. The list goes on and on and on.

And, of course, there’s the profound irony that the U.S. did exactly this kind of training in Myanmar before, for eight years. As that AP story notes,

The U.S. financed $4.7 million in military sales delivered to Myanmar between 1980 and 1988, and trained 167 officers at American military schools under [IMET].

Why did those sales and training suddenly stop in 1988? Oh, yeah

Near the start of this post, I claimed that American officials’ and officers’ belief in these programs’ effectiveness is a matter of faith. A cynic might point out that effectiveness depends on the goal. If the goal is to discourage military partners from intervening in their home countries’ politics and committing gross human-rights violations, the litany of historical counter-examples makes it hard for a civilian social scientist like me to understand how that faith is sustained. If, however, the goal is to provide a fig leaf for partnerships our government pursues for other reasons, then IMET seems to be working just fine.

NSA Surveillance Revelations Won’t Dent Democratization Elsewhere

A piece in today’s Boston Globe makes a case I’ve also seen in other venues in the past couple of weeks: that revelations about the NSA‘s domestic surveillance programs have undercut the U.S. government’s ability to prod authoritarian regimes to democratize. In the Globe, Thanassis Cambanis writes:

Officially, American policy promotes a surveillance-free Internet around the world, although Washington’s actual practices have undercut the credibility of the US government on this issue. How will Washington continue to insist, for example, that Iranian activists should be able to plan protests and have political discussions online without government surveillance, when Americans cannot be sure that they are free to do the same?

For activists grappling with real-time emergencies in places like Syria or long-term repression in China, Russia, and elsewhere, the latest news doesn’t change their basic strategy—but it may make the outlook for Internet freedom darker.

“These revelations set a terrible precedent that could be used to justify pervasive surveillance elsewhere,” [Access spokesperson Katherine] Maher said. “Americans can go to the courts or their legislators to try and challenge these programs, but individuals in authoritarian states won’t have these options.”

As someone who donates to the ACLU, I think there are a lot of reasons to be concerned about the scope of the NSA’s domestic snooping, but the encouragement those programs supposedly provides to authoritarian rulers isn’t one of them. American officials only wish they had that kind of power over their foreign counterparts.

The claim that authoritarian regimes will be more repressive than they would have been absent revelations of the NSA’s eavesdropping rests on the assumption that autocrats design their domestic surveillance programs around the American example and in response to the U.S. government’s jawboning.  Anyone who’s spent much time studying authoritarian regimes knows that’s simply not true. Under all but the most exceptional circumstances, autocrats worry vastly more about internal threats than external ones, and they build and maintain their machines of surveillance and repression in response to those domestic pressures. International norms probably do shape human-rights practices in authoritarian regimes at the margins, but the U.S. is not and never has been the lone vessel of these norms, and the effects of normative change pale in comparison to the immediacy of threats from domestic rivals.

Foreign governments can sometimes affect this calculus, but their influence is usually modest at best. The U.S. routinely shames other governments for their repressive practices in the State Department’s annual human rights reports, but I can’t think of a single case in which that shaming alone has prodded an authoritarian regime confronting a domestic threat to change course. Countries like Russia and China and Iran are already surveilling their populations on a massive scale in spite of years of cajoling by the U.S. government, Human Rights Watch, and many others because they fear their own citizens a lot more. When it comes to spying on their own people, officials in regimes like those hardly need any encouragement.

What does seem to help crack open authoritarian regimes some of the time are material threats—things like economic sanctions or suspensions of valued aid programs—especially with regimes that depend heavily on foreign largesse. Still, there’s no reason to believe those levers will become any more brittle because the U.S. does some vaguely similar things at home. That would only matter if foreign autocrats thought that accusations of hypocrisy on this issue could dissuade Congress or the president from following through on their threats against them. For better and for worse, I just can’t see that happening. The intervening variable in that equation is the American electorate, and those kinds of accusations probably aren’t going to weigh heavily on the minds of voters, especially when so many of them don’t even seem to mind what the NSA is doing to them.

The Quixote, er, Magnitsky Act Kicks In

The Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012, a.k.a. the Magnistky Act, went live yesterday, when the U.S. government imposed visa bans and asset freezes on 18 Russian citizens, most of them government officials, over their alleged involvement in gross human-rights violations. Less than 24 hours later, the Russian government responded in kind, releasing its own list of American citizens who would be barred from entering its territory because they had been “implicated in human rights violations.”

I happen to think the Magnitsky Act is a mistake, a well-intentioned but quixotic and ultimately counterproductive attempt to express anger over the horrible things Russia’s sistema is doing to its own people.

If David Kramer and Lilia Shevtsova are right, then my frustration with the Magnitsky Act makes me a “staunch supporter of Kissingerian-style realpolitik.” Last December, Kramer and Shevtsova wrote a piece for The American Interest endorsing the act and laying out the case for its importance and potential effectiveness.  They acknowledge that the Act’s chief aim is to express certain values, to reject the “transactional” version of international politics in favor of a “normative” politics grounded in universal human rights. At the same time, they also argue that, “by limiting their external resources and hindering their elites’ personal integration into the West,” the act can have some practical effect on the durability of Russia’s authoritarian regime. For this “Magnitsky factor” to kick in, Kramer and Shevtsova acknowledge, the European Union will have to adopt similar measures, “since Europe is the main recipient of Russia’s corrupt exports.” Whether or not that will happen remains to be seen, and I’m dubious that it will.

Even if that doesn’t happen, though, Kramer and Shevtsova believe the Act is a good thing because it pushes international relations in the correct direction.

Incorporating the Magnitsky approach into the West’s foreign policy does make it more complex. The West will have to abandon its traditional methods and stereotypes and move on to a multi-step diplomacy that may not yield immediate results. But this is no loss: current Western diplomacy no longer involves strategic thinking. The West may boast of its tactical successes, but these come at the expense of strategic failures. The question is whether Western diplomacy will be able to move on to normative politics.

As they see it, diplomacy should serve above all else as an instrument for affirming and promoting liberal democratic values—which, they presumably believe, are self evident and universal. To promote these universal values, Western diplomats should stop cooperating with corrupt autocrats and should instead reach out directly to other countries’ citizens, who, they argue, would welcome the West’s overt repudiations of their corrupt elites.

For the life of me, though, I simply can’t understand how this “normative politics” is actually supposed to work. Politics is the name we’ve given to the process of people trying to work out how to get along in shared spaces with mutually desired but finite resources. If everyone agreed on what the proper means and ends are, we wouldn’t need the word.

When people in that shared space disagree about how to accomplish a shared objective or, more fundamentally, what the proper objectives are, there aren’t a whole lot of options. Basically, you’ve got coercion, persuasion, transaction, or failure to cooperate, which could mean either walking away or fighting. The U.S. and Russian governments bump into each other in many issue spaces, and they don’t always agree on proper ends and means in those spaces. For the U.S. government, coercing Russia isn’t really an option, and persuasion doesn’t always work, either. That leaves bargaining or failure, and between those two, I prefer the former.

Kramer and Shevtsova apparently believe that this kind of transactional politics is the antipode of normative politics, but I don’t think that’s so. Steven Spielberg’s recent retelling of the passage of the 13th Amendment in Lincoln nicely illustrates what I have in mind. I don’t know the history well enough to vouch for its authenticity, but in Spielberg’s account, Lincoln engages in several forms of normatively sketchy politics to accomplish his larger objective. As an experienced politician, Lincoln knows he can’t simply will his way to the world he desires, so he makes difficult choices that involve trade-offs between competing goals. In his push to abolish slavery, Lincoln doles out government jobs, twists the arms of fence-sitters, and even stalls on talks to end the horribly bloody war. He does these things in pursuit of an objective that is morally just but, in his mind, also has its own instrumental purposes. There simply is no purely righteous path, no cost-free choice.

I think world politics works the same way. To say, as Kramer and Shevtsova do, that Americans must chose between having our government punish corrupt Russian elites or letting those elites act with impunity is a false choice. Like all things political, the relationship between the U.S. and Russian governments involves many things, and that relationship is just one of many relationships in international politics. Instead of expecting our government to prioritize the promotion of certain values above all else, I would prefer to see that government flexibly pursue a wider array of objectives, because we know that’s what it will take to get at least some of those things done. I welcome efforts to shame Russian authorities for the terrors and indignities they inflict, and to help Russian citizens who want to organize in an attempt to transform their country’s politics. I just happen to think those efforts are better pursued by non-governmental organizations, or through international legal structures to which the Russian government has willingly acceded.

How (Not) to Bring Democracy to China

Over at Foreign Policy, Yasheng Huang’s got an essay up called “The Key To Bringing Democracy to China” that’s so much wrong, I’ve just got to respond.

Huang’s argument is this: You won’t get China to democratize by making moral claims about human rights, because, for cultural reasons, those arguments don’t resonate there. To sell China’s pragmatic elites on democracy, you need to convince them it’s in their country’s best interests to democratize. The way to do that is to explain all the practical benefits democracy will bring.

On why liberal claims about universal rights won’t resonate in China, Huang writes:

The reason is a deep gulf of values. The Chinese have a utilitarian concept of “rights” — that they should advance the greatest good for the greatest number of people — in contrast to the Western view of rights as protections against encroachments on the disenfranchised few.

And on what would work better:

It’s time for the United States to pivot to a new approach toward influencing China’s political future: explaining that democracy produces concrete benefits such as balanced growth, stability, and personal security — even for top Communist Party officials. This performance-based argument will resonate with many of China’s economic and intellectual elites and may have a chance to influence the thinking of Xi Jinping and his fellow top officials.

What’s the problem? For starters, the national essentialism. “The Chinese have”?!? There is no way that the 1.3 billion people living in China today are all utilitarians, just as there’s no way all “Westerners” are liberals. Yes, there are central tendencies in social norms and values that cluster in time and space, but this level of essentialism is just silly.

From experience, I’m also deeply skeptical of claims that democracy won’t come to a particular place because it’s incompatible with the local culture. This exceptionalist claim has been made at one time or another about practically every state, religion, or region right up until the point when democratization happened there—and sometimes beyond. Latin American countries wouldn’t democratize because Catholicism. African countries couldn’t democratize because primitive tribalism. Asian countries wouldn’t democratize because Confucianism. Middle Eastern countries wouldn’t democratize because Islam. Well, whaddya know? It’s 2012, and we’ve now got democratic regimes in every one of those previously impervious bastions of backwardness. With a track record as poor as that, the cultural-compatibility theory of democratization should be taken out behind the barn and put down once and for all.

Finally, the idea that China’s political elites can be convinced to democratize because democracy brings social benefits is premised on a misunderstanding of how and why regime change actually happens. Generally speaking, authoritarian regimes survive because they produce real benefits for the elites who run them, and because it’s risky and hard for the rest of the people stuck living under those regimes to get organized to overthrow them. Every once in a while, though, enough people can overcome those steep odds and get sufficiently organized to compel elites to allow citizens to start picking their rulers. If they’re slow on the uptake, those elites might lose their shirts and maybe even their lives in the process. If they’re more nimble-minded, those elites will usually manage to protect most of their property and privileges, even as they (begrudgingly) accept the formalities of equal citizenship and open political competition. What they won’t care so much about under either scenario is how everyone else is doing.

The core problem with Huang’s salesmanship is that it conflates public and private goods. The “balanced growth, stability, and personal security” Huang sees as democracy’s selling points are all more or less public goods; access to them can’t be closed off, and their benefits would be widely shared, regardless of who produces them. By contrast, the wealth and status that Chinese elites enjoy now are private goods. Access to them is tightly restricted, and the more widely they’re shared, the less valuable they become. Crucially, their existence also depends on maintenance of the current system. If the Communist Party fragments or gets toppled, the private goods the Party now offers will disappear, and today’s elites will be forced to scramble anew for the privileges the current system was designed to produce. One guy’s corruption is another’s gravy train.

Under these circumstances, it’s hard to see why China’s elites would be persuaded by talk of the public benefits democracy might bring. To me, this jawboning strategy seems a bit like trying to sell a Prius to Ferrari driver by talking about how much less pollution it makes. As far as I can tell, the only way to sell democracy to any particular batch of authoritarian elites is to convince them that they and their families and friends will personally suffer if they don’t hurry up and get out of the way, and that outcome is often only weakly related to the public goods Huang lists. If you’re wondering just how weak that relationship can get, just take a gander at Zimbabwe or Angola.

Oh, and by the way: U.S. policymakers have been talking to autocrats about the economic benefits of democratization for years. Like, decades, even. If it hasn’t already convinced leaders in China—and Russia, and Saudi Arabia, and Cambodia, and…well, you get the picture—I’m not sure why it would suddenly start to work now.

Wishful Thinking on Popular Uprisings

In a recent blog post that tries to draw lessons for today’s “democratic insurgents” from the triumph of Poland’s Solidarity movement, Freedom House’s Arch Puddington engages in what I see as a bit of wishful thinking about what determines the fate of nonviolent revolutions and how much influence foreign governments have over that process. In crediting Solidarity’s success to effective communication and external support, Puddington ignores the more powerful role played by favorable structural conditions. This tendency to view politics as a wide-open space in which the right strategy can produce any outcome desired is something of an American affliction, and I think it’s one we need to question more often.

Puddington starts his post on lessons from Poland by asserting that Solidarity’s success depended heavily on the extensive communications machine the movement built in the 1980s, an operation Puddington describes as “an independent, uncensored press that included serious political journals, regional newspapers, and mimeographed bulletins that covered events in a single industrial enterprise.”

This “press” was, of course, an illicit operation, and Puddington credits material support from the United States with keeping this worthy endeavor going in the face of state repression. “The United States was critical here,” he argues; “the Reagan administration, the new National Endowment for Democracy, and the labor movement all worked to ensure that Solidarity had the means to communicate with the Polish people.”

Importantly, Puddington also argues that the existence of this communications network was a necessary condition, but not a sufficient one, for the success of the Solidarity movement. The other essential ingredient was the inclusiveness of the message the movement chose to spread through the machine it had built. “If the Solidarity press offers a lesson for today’s freedom movements,” he argues, “it is in the organization’s determination to address its message to the entire population, and not simply to a narrow group of urban intellectuals…No audience was considered too small, insignificant, or hostile to ignore.”

From that analysis of the causes of Solidarity’s triumph, Puddington deduces that other nonviolent resistance movements stand a better chance of repeating the Polish movement’s success if they mimic its strategy of building a powerful communications machine and using it to reach out to all of their countrymen (and women!). Looking at the recent failures of “liberal democrats” in Egypt and Russia, Puddington diagnoses the absence of these ingredients as a major cause of their struggles.

The challenge of speaking to and winning over these ordinary citizens, who get their news from traditional sources, has baffled the advocates of liberal reform to date. Solidarity succeeded because its leaders were committed to communicating with the majority. Those who today claim the mantle of democracy in authoritarian settings are not likely to prevail—even with the smartest technologies—unless, like Solidarity, they develop a language and instrument to convey their message to the millions they have thus far failed to reach.

I think Puddington’s story about why Solidarity won mistakes marginal effects for root causes. In so doing, it echoes what I see as the losing side of a debate about the impact of “messaging” on American political campaigns. In an oldie-but-goodie blog post from September 2010, political scientist Brendan Nyhan cogently summarizes the problem this way:

More and more pundits are jumping on the Democrats/Obama-are-in-trouble-due-to-bad-messaging bandwagon…What we’re observing is a classic example of what you might call the tactical fallacy. Here’s how it works:

1. Pundits and reporters closely observe the behavior of candidates and parties, focusing on the tactics they use rather than larger structural factors.
2. The candidates whose tactics appear to be successful tend to win; conversely, those whose tactics appear to be unsuccessful tend to lose (and likewise with parties).
3. The media concludes that candidates won or lost because of their tactical choices.

The problem is that any reasonable political tactic chosen by professionals will tend to resonate in favorable political environments and fall flat in unfavorable political environments (compare Bush in ’02 to Bush ’06, or Obama in ’08 to Obama in ’09-’10). But that doesn’t mean the candidates are succeeding or failing because of the tactics they are using. While strategy certainly can matter on the margin in individual races, aggregate congressional and presidential election outcomes are largely driven by structural factors (the state of the economy, the number of seats held by the president’s party, whether it’s a midterm or presidential election year, etc.). Tactical success often is a reflection of those structural factors rather than an independent cause.

My interpretation of the roots of Solidarity’s success is closer to the structural story suggested by Nyhan’s critique than the strategic yarn Puddington spins. Among the countries of the Soviet bloc, Poland offered some of the most propitious conditions for democratization, with its history of elected government and resistance to Soviet and Communist rule; its relatively well-off and well-educated population; its large and well-organized urban working class; and its occasional bouts of experimentation with limited economic and political liberalization. In spite of these relatively favorable conditions, Solidarity failed in its initial attempt to topple the Communist regime in the early 1980s. The major change from that time to 1989 was not improved messaging; it was the withdrawal of the grim threat of Soviet intervention!

This conflation of coincidence with cause has important implications for policymakers trying to draw lessons from history. For example, Puddington credits the Reagan administration’s support for Solidarity’s communications with helping tip it to success and infers that this beneficent effect can be replicated by having the U.S. government invest in communications support for popular uprisings elsewhere.

But was U.S. support really so important in the Polish case? It’s true that the U.S. verbally and materially supported anti-Communist movements throughout Eastern Europe and in the USSR, and all of those regimes crumbled in the late 1980s. According to my reading of the literature, however, most academic observers of those events give very little credit for that outcome to foreign support for dissident movements. Instead, they largely agree in casting the unsustainability of the command economy and the dilemmas inherent in Soviet nationalities policy as the root cause of the USSR’s disintegration, and, in turn, they see the Soviet retreat from Eastern Europe as the crucial catalyst of regime change there. As John Lewis Gaddis describes in his biography of George Kennan, the U.S. was more often criticized by human-rights advocates for having done too little to support those dissidents over the years, essentially leaving them to make their own fate—which they eventually did, when conditions became more favorable to their cause.

More generally, I wonder if we’re coming to a point in our thinking about nonviolent revolutions that’s similar to the collective optimism about democratic transitions that prevailed in the early 1990s. At a time when authoritarian regimes were dropping like flies, theorizing about the causes of democratization swung away from the structural preconditions that were long thought to enable or constrain these transformations toward a more opportunistic mindset that saw political leadership and imagination as the limiting factors. This shift in scholarly work aligned nicely with policymakers’ desire to cement gains from their victory in the Cold War, and this intersection of beliefs and interests led to a surge in Western interventions in various “countries in transition.” The single work that best captures the zeitgeist of that time is probably Giuseppe Di Palma’s To Craft Democracies, a 1990 monograph that cheerleads, cajoles, and prescribes far more than it theorizes. As Di Palma optimistically proclaimed, “Democratization is ultimately a matter of political crafting;” instead of fixating on structural constraints, we need “to entertain and give account of the notion that democracies can be made (or unmade) in the act of making them.”

The wave of popular uprisings that has swept the world in 2011 and 2012 seems to be having a similar effect on our sense of what’s possible and our ability to shape it. From our collective surprise at the breadth and success of these movements, we infer that they were unpredictable. From their supposed unpredictability, we infer that they can happen anywhere, any time in a world with improved health and education and unprecedented opportunities for communication. In other words, structural conditions are no longer seen as such a limiting factor, and the chief barriers in most cases are thought to be the more plastic problems of strategy, will, and courage. In the role of Giuseppe di Palma, we now have Gene Sharp, whose sophisticated analysis of nonviolent resistance has been widely adopted—and, arguably, misinterpreted—as a virtual key that can unlock the door to democracy in any context, as long as it is properly applied.

Before we get carried too far away by this new sense of optimism, we would do well to step back and consider what actually happened to those countries in transition in the early 1990s. In fact, many of those countries never made it to democracy, and many of the ones that did have since reverted to authoritarian rule. Of the 15 Soviet successor states, only the three Baltic states have sustained liberal democratic government since 1991, and they were the last patch of land the USSR annexed. Even Eastern Europe has produced a mixed bag of results, with marginally democratic regimes in places like Albania and Bulgaria and recent backslides in Hungary and Romania in spite of their membership in NATO and the EU. In short, many of the supposed successes that propelled the optimism of the early 1990s now don’t look much like successes at all. With hindsight, we can see that the structural conditions we declared irrelevant for a while have ultimately reasserted themselves, and some tweaked version of the old regime has often prevailed.

Philosophically, I consider myself a liberal, and I would love to see nonviolent uprisings run all of the world’s remaining autocrats out of office as soon as possible. Analytically, however, I am an empiricist, and my 20 years of studying democratization and social movements tells me the deck is still pretty heavily stacked against these challengers. The collective action problems, elite resistance, and other sources of institutional inertia that have made it hard for these movements to succeed in the past have not been erased by economic development and the spread of new communications technologies. Kurt Schock and others have persuasively shown that structural constraints do not determine the emergence and outcomes of nonviolent uprisings and that movement strategy and tactics also matter, but as far as I know, no one ever really argued that they didn’t. The useful question is, “How much do they matter?”, to which my answer today is, “Less than Arch Puddington thinks.”

In Which I Acknowledge Adam Przeworski’s Brilliance and Then Argue with Him in Absentia

A few weeks ago, the blog ABC Democracy posted a video of Adam Przeworski speaking at a Kenyon College conference entitled “Should America Promote Democracy Abroad?” Przeworski is widely and justifiably considered one of the preeminent scholars on comparative democratization, so I was very curious to hear what he had to say on a topic that greatly interests me.

It turned out that I agreed wholeheartedly with Przeworski on the conference’s titular topic, but I disagreed with a few assertions he made along the way about the state of our knowledge on transitions to and from democracy. I thought I would take advantage of my blogger’s platform to engage in a virtual dialogue with Przeworski on those issues and then close on some points of agreement.

Point of Disagreement #1: We Can’t Predict Transitions to Democracy

Here’s what Przeworski said, starting at about the 46-minute mark, with the part to which I’m responding in bold:

In spite of an enormous amount of research over the past 30 years, we don’t have a general understanding of why dictatorships fall. There are [sic] statistical work that introduces every possible factor you can imagine–not just the kitchen sink, the grandmother’s attic. And the results are, one, not robust, and, two, in statistical terms, have very weak predictive power. Which leads me, after many years of this kind of work, to believe that, in fact, dictatorships run many different, idiosyncratic risks and fall for idiosyncratic reasons.

Przeworski is surely correct that there are many pathways to democracy, but that doesn’t mean we can’t use statistical models to forecast where and when democratic transitions will occur. In fact, we’ve got solid evidence that we can.

In a report I wrote for my old job as research director for the Political Instability Task Force, I summarized the results of modeling exercise aimed explicitly at assessing the likelihood of transitions to and from democracy in countries worldwide since the early 1970s. As the report describes (pp. 22-24), a relatively simple statistical model discriminates fairly well between impending transitions and durable autocracies. In an out-of-sample forecasting exercise using a simple decision rule (Top 20), that model correctly flagged 26 of the 29 impending transitions (sensitivity of 90 percent) as “high-risk” cases while producing roughly nine false positives for each of those true positives (specificity of 73 percent).

Those accuracy rates are far from perfect, but they’re also a lot better than chance, which is what I hear in Przeworski’s phrase “very weak predictive power.” The specific causes and catalysts of democratic transitions may vary widely over space and time, but there seem to be enough commonalities across recent cases that we can get a decent read on which ones are “ripest” for this kind of change.

Point of Disagreement #2: Well-to-do Countries Never Backslide

According to Przeworski,

We do understand quite well conditions under which democracies survive…There is a fact, which you probably know because I know that some of you have read it, but which continues to be astonishing, which is that no democracy ever fell in a country with per capita income higher than that of Argentina in 1976.

This fact may not be as, well, factual as Przeworski believes. As I noted in a recent post, using economist Angus Maddison’s estimates of GDP per capita, I can think of at least two breakdowns of democracy in countries richer than Argentina in 1976: Thailand in 2006, and now Hungary in 2011.

To be fair to Przeworski, Thailand in 2006 was not much richer than Argentina in 1976–their per capita incomes were $8,238 and $7,965, respectively–and not everyone would agree that Hungary’s crossed the line into authoritarian rule in 2011.

Still, that there’s some doubt about this “iron rule” of politics has deeper implications for our understanding of democratization, and “development” more generally. In American political science, at least, the prevailing view is that democracy is the best and final form of government attained by countries as they modernize and “mature,” politically and economically. This view seems to find confirmation in a world where democracies that have crossed some developmental threshold never fail. If democracy sometimes does fail even in richer countries, however, then the whole premise of modernity as the end stage of a process of growth and maturation becomes a bit muddled. The strong correlation between wealth and the survival of democracy is still there, but the inference from that correlation that modernity is a package deal looks a bit shakier.

Point of Disagreement #3: The Risk of Democratic Breakdown Falls with Each Passing Election

Around minute 49, Przeworski says:

One thing that’s striking is that elections seem to be a self-institutionalizing mechanism. By this, I mean the following: that once a country holds one decent election, the probability that the democratic regime will be overthrown in the future declines rapidly. I can tell you, without an election is 1 in 8; after one election, 1 in 25; after two elections, 1 in 55; after three elections, 1 in 90. So that first decent election–and not even with alternation that was Sam Huntington’s criterion–just having an honest election in which there’s some competition and somebody wins, the winner occupies the office of government and runs an honest election again, that’s enough.

Once again, that’s not the pattern I see. In the report I mentioned earlier–and blogged here in September–I find that the risk of backsliding actually increases over time until democracies are in their teens or even early 20s. In Przeworski’s terms, the pattern I see implies that democracies have to survive at least a few election cycles before their risk of breakdown starts to decline, other things being equal. At the same time, I also find that alternation in power does make a big difference; other things being equal, democracies that have seen at least one alternation of the party in power are less than half as likely to fail as ones that have not.

Maybe this disagreement is, at least in part, an artifact of differences in the measures of democracy employed by our respective studies. Unsurprisingly, I happen to think my measure is more useful, but plenty of people use the version on which Przeworski’s assertion is based.

Still, that we can’t be sure Przeworski’s pattern is real is a big deal, not the least because it suggests very different strategies for interested parties seeking to support the survival of democracy in cases that have recently established it. In Przeworski’s world, a strategically minded supporter might focus her efforts on the first one or two elections. In my world, that supporter pretty much needs to keep worrying until a democratic alternation in power occurs. If we’re not sure which of those worlds we inhabit but we care deeply about the survival of democracy, then we’ll probably want to err on the safe side and assume the risk persists much longer than Przeworski’s inference about elections as a “self-institutionalizing mechanism” would lead us to do.

Points of Agreement

Alongside those points of disagreement, there were many things Przeworski said with which I agree wholeheartedly. I’ll close with a couple of those bon mots:

Identifying the causal effects of any kind of policy intervention is extremely tricky.

Yes, in a world with no “control” group, a relatively small number of events, and a dense web of causes and interventions, it’s virtually impossible to say anything with confidence about the marginal effects of specific policies and programs on the prospects for democratic transitions and consolidation.

Last, and without comment:

Look at the United States from the point of view of Russians or the Chinese…It’s a country where half of the population doesn’t vote, even in presidential elections; where barriers of entry to politics are enormous; in which practices which in other countries would be considered political corruption are ubiquitous; a country with the highest degree of inequality among the developed countries; a country in which, at least for black American males, being free means only being out of jail; the oldest democracy in the world which has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. I think that, if democracy promotion is to be at all credible and at all effective, it should begin at home.

Electoral Systems Are Like Ecosystems

Evidence is mounting that efforts to quash election fraud often displace it instead, and this pattern should change the way we think about the problem of promoting democracy and encouraging clean elections.

Earlier this month, I blogged about a new journal article showing a statistical link between the presence of international election observation missions and the occurrence of declines in the quality of governance. According to that paper’s authors,

As election monitoring has increased, governments intent on cheating have learned to strategically adapt, relying less on election-day fraud, and instead increasing their use of pre-election manipulation that is less likely to be criticized and punished…When election monitoring missions encourage an increase in pre-election manipulation, they can unwittingly have negative effects on institutional quality and governance.

This morning, the Monkey Cage blog ran a guest post from NYU post-doc Fredrik Sjoberg, whose analysis of election data from Azerbaijan suggests that the installation of web cameras in polling stations doesn’t reduce electoral fraud so much as it changes how fraud is conducted. In the election Sjoberg studied, authorities seem to have responded to the new technology by tinkering with the count after the ballots were cast, and the net impact of the webcam rollout on the integrity of the vote was nil. That pattern led Sjoberg to the following depressing conclusion:

By replacing one form of fraud with another, incumbents are able to prevent vote share losses while contributing a veneer of legitimacy by self-initiating anti-fraud measures.  It therefore seems like a win-win for the autocrat.

As Joshua Tucker said in a follow-up post at the Monkey Cage, Sjoberg’s study…

…raises a very tricky question for anyone advocating for free and fair elections in countries with less than stellar records in this regard. Should webcams in polling stations be embraced as a technology that at the very least decreases one form of electoral fraud? Or perhaps should they be a cause for concern as a technology that is likely to replace a more easily observable (and easier to publicize) form of fraud—ballot stuffing—with one that is more subtle and less observable: the manipulation of precinct level results…If we want to take this one step further, then we could argue…that by making local agents engage in a type of fraud that is less likely to be publicly discovered, webcams could perhaps make leaders more likely to engage in fraud than otherwise.

These studies do not mean that people interested in cleaning up elections should stop trying to fight electoral fraud and abuse. Even if current efforts are not always producing the intended effects, it’s hard to imagine that they are not at least marginally reducing opportunities for cheating and making it costlier.

Instead, these studies underscore the importance of thinking about electoral interventions and their likely impacts in more holistic terms. Consistent with modernist thinking about politics more generally, efforts to study and manipulate the conduct of elections in recent decades have often treated electoral systems like machinery. The whole can be described as the sum of its parts, each of which addresses a distinct technical problem that can be considered and solved in isolation.

What these studies suggest, though, is that electoral systems are more like ecosystems. In ecosystems, a disruption in one element or region can ripple through the whole in ways that are often difficult to predict. As Nigel Greening blogged, that’s because…

…ecosystems are non-linear systems. A system is usually non-linear when more than one factor mutually affects other factors. The mutual bit is the important part as it results in a feedback loop. For example: wolves eat deer. The more wolves, the more deer get eaten, so the less deer there are to breed, so the fewer deer there are to eat, so the less wolves have to eat, so the fewer wolves, so less deer get eaten. You get the idea: any change to one side changes the other side, which in turn changes the first side, which again changes the second and so on for ever. It looks like a cycle, but it isn’t. Ever.

As Greening goes on to say, non-linearity means that change in the system is sometimes radical; the timing of those radical changes is often unpredictable; and those radical changes are always, in some sense, irreversible. For example, apparently incremental changes in the size of one population can sometimes push that population over a threshold that leads to mass death, as famously happened with reindeer on St. Matthew Island, Alaska, in the early 1960s. In retrospect, we can understand this causes of crash, but in real time it must have been freakish and stunning.

If electoral systems function more like ecosystems than engines, then our attempts to manipulate them will always be confounded by unpredictable shifts and unintended consequences. Again, though, that shouldn’t stop us from trying. Instead, I think it just means we will usually be more successful when we treat the system as a coherent whole instead of fixating on the parts we think we can most readily manipulate.

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