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.”

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