What Causes Social Unrest? Apparently, Everything

What causes people in large numbers to step outside their daily routines and gather in public to voice demands on issues that affect a group much larger than themselves?

If we’re to believe a recent article in Time on the protests bursting across Brazil, then the answer is, well, a lot of things. Here’s a list of all the “causes” of the recent Brazilian protests identified in the space of just a few hundred words:

  • Social inequality
  • World Cup spending
  • Police violence
  • A nine-cent rise in bus fares
  • Corruption
  • A lack of return on high taxes
  • Inadequate government spending on infrastructure, education, and health care
  • “The country’s dramatic rise on the world stage”
  • “The incapacity of traditional political representation to deal with the new and unheard of demands of a changing society”
  • Youth
  • Inflation

I don’t mean to pick on Time, which does a lot of solid international reporting, or on the authors of that particular piece. As Christian Davenport observes in a recent post on the blog Political Violence @ a Glance, press coverage of social unrest often gives us “a blow-by-blow account of the street battles taking place” without carefully connecting those events or their alleged causes to prior theory or empirical research. When comparisons are made, it’s usually by analogy, with strong bias toward cases that are recent, geographically proximate, and emotionally salient. As a result, “It all just seems to be new and eventful without much rhyme or reason.”


I realize that journalism isn’t rigorous social science, and it’s not supposed to be. Still, one of the intellectual dangers of laundry-list explanations is that they make it even easier to succumb to confirmation bias—that is, to pick through the list and pull out the items that support our prior beliefs. In the Time piece on Brazil alone, for example, there’s “evidence” to support many different and potentially competing hypotheses about causes of mass protest, from neo-Marxist claims about the centrality of economic inequality to socio-demographic theories emphasizing youth bulges and an expanding middle class to “homo economicus” models focused on price hikes and public spending.

We can’t learn a whole lot about the causes of mass protest by simply cataloging the conditions and things participants tell us about their motivations in cases where they occur. That information is useful, but not so much on its own.

To make real headway on causal analysis, we have to engage in contrasts. To learn about the origins of mass protest, for example, we need to compare cases where uprisings occur with ones where they don’t. Yes, income inequality is high in Brazil, but the same can be said for many of its regional neighbors. If inequality foments uprisings, why aren’t we seeing waves of mass protest in Honduras or Bolivia or Colombia or Paraguay? Meanwhile, inequality was comparatively low in many countries touched by the “Arab awakening.” According to World Bank data, income inequality is lower in Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria than in virtually every country in Latin America. Together, these contrasts imply that high inequality is neither necessary nor sufficient for mass protest, but that’s probably not what you’d expect if you saw the Time headline proclaiming that “Social Inequality and World Cup Spending Fuel Mass Unrest.”

In general, laundry lists of concerns and plausible causes like the one proffered in that Time article can be useful as fodder for what Alex George and Andrew Bennett call “heuristic case studies,” which “inductively identify new variables, hypotheses, causal mechanisms, and causal paths.” What they most certainly don’t do is test theory. These analyses are the social-science equivalent of ambulance chasing. When we hear the noise of the crowd, we rush toward it, ask the participants why they’re angry, read their signs and banners, and try to spin a coherent story from what we see and hear. That’s fine as far as it goes—which, it turns out, isn’t very far.

PS. If you’re interested in my thoughts on what does cause mass protest, see this later post.

A Case Study in the Limits of Generalization in Comparative Politics

If you’re here because you’re interested in comparative politics, you ought to go chug yesterday’s rich post on Nate Jensen’s blog about what legislatures in authoritarian regimes do and then chase it with Tom Pepinsky’s addendum on his own Indolaysia blog. Nate solicited thoughts on this topic from some of the best minds in the field, including Tom, and you can learn a lot in just a few minutes of reading.

What struck me in reading those posts was the sharp tension in comparative politics between the general and the specific. Nate’s question has been a focal point for comparativists for nearly a decade now, and the arc of that inquiry it has inspired should be familiar to anyone who works in this field.

  1. A particular case or new line of deductive theorizing suggests an intriguing puzzle.
  2. Some solutions to that puzzle are tabled in the form of broad conjectures.
  3. Patterns are found in cross-national data that seem to confirm those conjectures. (Note, though, that the preceding two steps do not necessarily occur in that order).
  4. The field buzzes with the promise of a new covering law, the Holy Grail of political science. Conference panels abound.
  5. People with expertise in specific cases start to nibble at that law, identifying permutations or exceptions in the parts of the world they know. By the time they’re done, there’s practically nothing left.
  6. Distracted by the next big puzzle, the field fails to notice what just happened.
  7. The policy community discovers the covering law and incorporates a few of its prescriptive implications (“Consociationalism good! Presidential systems bad!”) into current practice.

Okay, so those last two may be a little mean spirited, but you get the idea: there’s some meta-irony here. The quest for covering laws keeps serving up failures, but the quest itself ends up following a recurring pattern.

On the specifics of how institutions shape politics, I think Nate’s virtual round-table also provides a nice reminder of the limits of functionalist theories of institutionalism. Functionalist theories see institutions as intelligently designed solutions to specific political and economic problems. For any formal political institution, we should be able to work backwards from the fact of the institution’s existence to the problem it was intended to solve and then show in practice how the institution’s origins support that line of reasoning. Voilà.

The problem is the disconnect between the assumed version and the reality of how institutional arrangements come into being. In some cases, historical institutionalists have mustered compelling evidence to show how the original institutional innovation was deliberately and successfully designed to solve a specific problem in a specific case. Most of the time, though, the backstory on how a particular institution actually came to exist in any instance chosen at random looks rather different from that first instantiation. And when a functionalist theory gets the “how” part wrong, it’s going to get the “why” part wrong, too.

Scott Desposato’s contribution to Nate’s post on legislatures in authoritarian regimes provides a nice case in point: Brazil. That country’s 20-year, military-led authoritarian interlude didn’t proactively decide to create a legislature as a way to credibly commit to the protection of its subject’s property rights or to craftily divide its opponents. Instead, it inherited an elected legislature from the democratic regime it toppled, which inherited its basic contours from the colonial metropole that built it. If the Brazilian junta can be said to have made a choice here, it was the decision not to demolish an extant legislature, but that choice surely had as much to do with inertia and the expected costs of such a destructive act as it did with the anticipated benefits of keeping an elected legislature around.

These path dependencies are less problematic for softer versions of institutionalist theory that emphasize the marginal and contingent effects of specific institutions under a variety of conditions, as I think Jennifer Gandhi does in her award-winning book on political institutions under dictatorship.

Even there, though, the layers of contingency pile up pretty quickly. Institutions that seem to function a certain way in a certain set of cases for a certain period of time start to do different things or simply become less relevant as the economic, social, and technological context changes around them, and as wily humans looking for an edge keep innovating. For example, in an era of ubiquitous and instant communication, the information-gathering and opposition-moderating functions that authoritarian legislatures are sometimes said to serve may now be satisfied in other ways, as Gary King, Jennifer Pan, and Molly Roberts suggest in a widely-cited paper on the selective censorship of China’s Sina Weibo social-media platform.

So where does that leave us? I think the opening line of Barbara Geddes’ contribution to Nate’s blog post sums it up nicely:

Autocratic legislatures play different roles and serve different functions in different dictatorships.

In other words, “It depends” is about as close to a covering law as we’re going to get.

Electoral Authoritarianism in Latin America: Important, but Not “New”

Today’s Washington Post includes a long piece by journalist Juan Forero on what he calls Latin America’s “new authoritarians”:

More than two decades after Latin America’s last right-wing dictatorships dissolved, a new kind of authoritarian leader is rising in several countries: democratically elected presidents who are ruling in increasingly undemocratic ways.

Unlike the iron-fisted juntas of a generation ago, these leaders do not assassinate opposition figures or declare martial law.

But in a handful of countries, charismatic populists are posing the most serious challenge to democratic institutions in Latin America since the 1980s, when rebel wars and dictators were the norm. In Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua and other countries, leaders have amassed vast powers that they use to control courts while marginalizing their opponents and the media, human rights groups and analysts say.

I’m glad to see the Post devote a bunch of column-inches to a comparative analysis of democratization in a region to which the U.S. really ought to be paying more attention. Most of what we in the U.S. hear about Latin America deals with immigration or drugs, so any thoughtful attempt to grapple with the domestic politics of our nearest neighbors is welcome. I also think the article accurately identifies important patterns in governance in several of the countries it describes.

That said, I have two major beefs with this piece.

First of all, this is not a “new kind of authoritarian leader.” The cases the story emphasizes fit into a broader category of regimes that has become more prevalent in many parts of the world in the past two decades, not just recently and not just in Latin America.

Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way call this phenomenon “competitive authoritarianism,” and Andreas Schedler calls it “electoral authoritarianism,” but whatever label we use, the basic form is the same. In these regimes, multiparty elections occur regularly, and ballots are counted correctly, but ruling officials harass political rivals, constrain civil liberties, and bend state resources to ensure that they win anyway. Other important examples can be found in most of the former Soviet Union (e.g., Russia, Armenia, and Georgia), in Asia (e.g., Cambodia, Malaysia, and Singapore), and in Africa (e.g., Cameroon, Gabon, the Gambia, and Republic of Congo).

This pattern is not even new to Latin America, and in that region, there’s a lot of variation across cases and over time in the extent to which these self-aggrandizing strategies have been employed. Among the cases the article discusses, Venezuela arguably slid from democracy into electoral authoritarianism as far back as 2000, and almost certainly not later than 2005. Ecuador probably fell below the line in 2007, when president Rafael Correa steamrolled the legislature and supreme court to produce a constitution more to his liking, but general elections held in 2009 were substantially fairer. In Bolivia, Evo Morales has tried to push in a similar direction, but those attempts have been partially rebuffed, and the regime has remained basically democratic. Probably the newest cases of electoral authoritarianism in Latin America can be found in Nicaragua and Honduras, the latter since its 2009 coup and the former since Daniel Ortega resolved the constitutional crisis of 2009 in favor of his own ruling party.

Second, charisma and populism do not explain how or why these regimes arise. Neither of these qualities is necessary or sufficient for the emergence of electoral authoritarianism. In Honduras, for example, the post-coup president is not particularly charismatic, and the regime’s policies are more oligarchical or laissez faire than populist. In Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega is beloved by his supporters but reviled by many of his detractors, and those detractors are numerous.

Personally, I think we get a lot farther if we think of these regimes as the end state toward which most attempts at democracy will slide because incumbent officials usually have strong incentives to consolidate their hold on power. As I have discussed again and again on this blog and elsewhere, most attempts at democracy end in a return to authoritarian rule, sometimes by military coup but now more often when elected officials rig the system in their own favor. Those officials don’t need to be particularly charismatic to pull this off, and in many cases, they don’t pursue populist agendas after they do. Above all else, what facilitates this process is the incumbent’s institutional advantage. It’s easy to pull the levers of power when you already have your hands on them, and it’s often quite hard to mobilize resistance against these moves when you’re stuck outside the halls of government. Instead of trying to explain this phenomenon with reference to the personalities and tactics in the many cases where backslides happen, we would probably do better to focus on the idiosyncrasies of the rarer cases where democracy manages to persist.

In fact, I think the over-reliance on charisma and populism as explanations for the emergence of these regimes speaks to a common error in the way many U.S. observers think about the nature of the problem. I get the sense that many U.S. analysts and officials still view Latin America through a Cold War lens that conflates leftist and anti-American policies with authoritarianism. This bias causes them to err on the side of including leftist governments on this list of “bad guys” while excluding more conservative ones. Thus, Bolivia and Ecuador keep landing on the roster of “new authoritarians” in spite of their ambiguities while cases like Honduras are more often overlooked or explained away. In 2003, when Brazil elected a staunchly leftist president for the first time since democracy was restored in the mid-1980s, there was a lot of grumbling in Washington about the threat of an authoritarian turn without a shred of real evidence to support it.

Until we do a better job distinguishing between these various dimensions of politics, we’re going to have a hard time understanding what’s happening—not just in Latin America, but also in the Arab world, Africa, Asia, and even in Europe nowadays. More generally, while I’m always happy to see journalists engaging in this kind of comparative analysis, I would be even happier if they would talk to fewer politicians and activists and more analysts when they do.

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