Proto-Democratization in China?

Yesterday’s Washington Post included a story that seemed to portray the Chinese Communist Party’s increasingly sophisticated efforts to track and respond to popular opinion as a kind of democratization. Reporter Simon Denyer wrote:

The government is trying to understand public opinion on an unprecedented scale. In response to government demand, opinion monitoring centers have sprung up in state-run news organizations and universities to mine and interpret the vast rivers of chatter on the Internet. At the same time, the authorities are hiring firms to poll people about everything from traffic management to tax policy.

According to Denyer, these endeavors represent a significant change from the past and are having a real impact on decision-making:

The idea of actually listening to the opinions of the Chinese people is a radical departure for a Communist dictatorship more used to persecuting ordinary citizens for their criticism…Increasingly, public opposition to a proposal can shape policy, although not yet on issues vital to the party’s interests, such as political reform.

When I read the article, it reminded me of a school of thought in Soviet studies that saw important (if underdeveloped) features of democracy in the workings of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU).  By incorporating an array of interest groups and creating channels for members of those groups to transmit their concerns to Soviet leaders, the thinking went, the CPSU after Stalin had built a form of organized pluralism that wasn’t as different from Western democracy as we conventionally thought. Other Sovietologists, however, countered that these claims about interest-group politics missed the forest for the trees. In a society that still had gulags and secret police and sharp limits on public speech, they argued, the hints of pluralism and responsiveness that some saw in CPSU politics were overwhelmed by the enduring organizational and cultural legacies of totalitarianism.

So who was right, and what does this tell us about China today? I think Charles Tilly’s ideas about democracy provide a useful fulcrum here. In contrast to procedural definitions of democracy that start (and sometimes end) with elections, Tilly jumps up one level of abstraction to emphasize the broader issue of consultation. In his words (2007: 13-14),

A regime is democratic to the degree that political relations between the state and its citizens feature broad, equal, protected, and mutually binding consultation.

In their classic discussion of what democracy is and is not (here), Philippe Schmitter and Terry Karl get at the same general idea with their emphasis on the principle of accountability. Still, I think Tilly’s notion of consultation better matches what most of us have in mind because of its more affirmative connotations. To me, accountability implies responsibility after the fact, the idea of holding someone to account for things he or she has already done. By contrast, consultation connotes a much wider array of interactions at all stages of the policy-making process—setting an agenda, formulating options, debating those options, making a decision, and evaluating the results—that better accords with the notion of government of, by, and for citizens.

At this level of abstraction, there’s no single form of consultation that is necessary and sufficient to qualify a regime as democratic, no single route across that threshold, and no point in time at which the process is completed. Elections are the chief mechanism we use today, but they are not the only form of routinized consultation that is possible or that matters. Political philosophers continue to discuss the merits of alternatives like deliberative or direct democracy, and some observers argue that new communications technologies are making these alternatives more realistic for large societies than ever.

So, back to that China story. Using Tilly’s definition as a prism, I think it’s easier to see why those social-media monitoring efforts and polling firms in China call democracy to mind, but also what’s different about them. Asking people what they think and listening and responding to their online chatter are forms of consultation, but this consultation isn’t protected, equal, or binding. It’s not protected because Chinese citizens still face harsh punishment for speaking out on sensitive topics. The state still chooses who gets to speak about what, and transgressions of those boundaries carry steep costs. The consultation isn’t equal because not everyone can participate. According to Denyer, “Chinese villagers, who still account for nearly half of the population, are not comfortable expressing their views to strangers and are generally not active online.”

Finally and probably most important, the consultation isn’t binding because the state decides when it will respond to what it hears, and citizens still have no way to hold them accountable for those choices. This is why competitive elections are so important. Without a formal mechanism that gives all citizens a chance to reward or punish political decision-makers for their behavior, the Chinese Communist Party can continue to cherry-pick its “listening” efforts in ways that are meant to maximize its own corporate interests without really attending to citizens’ preferences. There may be an element of democratization in these polling and eavesdropping endeavors, but if so, it’s an awfully thin and fragile form of it.

PS. For an excellent academic treatment of China’s online monitoring efforts, see “How Censorship in China Allows Government Criticism but Silences Collective Expression” by Gary King, Jennifer Pan, and Margaret E. Roberts. For a nice review of the debate over pluralism in the USSR, see this 1984 paper by Jeffrey Hahn.

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Baltic Protest in the Gorbachev Era: Causes, Dynamics, and Consequences

I wrote my dissertation in the mid-1990s on ethno-nationalist mobilization in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania during the Gorbachev years. In 2008, I met an editor from an academic press who invited me to dust off that dissertation and publish it as a book. After recovering the file from a floppy disk with a disk drive at my town’s public library (seriously), I reformatted and lightly edited the manuscript to ready it for publication.

In the end, I decided not to publish the book after a couple of colleagues whose work I admire took a look at it and said they didn’t think it was quite ready for academic prime time. Still, in hopes that the work might still be useful to other researchers, I’ve gone ahead and posted the lightly revised manuscript on the Web. You can find it here.

Prospects for Political Liberalization in North Korea

Foreign Policy‘s Democracy Lab has just posted an essay of mine on why the odds that North Korea might undergo a “thaw” of sorts in the next few years aren’t so bad. The top-line judgment:

Improbable does not mean impossible. Maybe this time really will be different. The U.S.S.R. wasn’t supposed to loosen the screws, and then it did. The Burmese junta was supposed to have battened down the hatches when it crushed the Saffron Uprising in 2007, and look where we are now, just a few years later. Although the safe money’s still on continuity in North Korea, there are sound reasons to believe the chances for political liberalization in the near future are improving.

Those “sound reasons” have to do with trade-offs inherent in the political economy of authoritarian rule, a topic I also discussed on this blog last fall in a post about Burma. Dictators want to preempt or squash domestic political threats, but they don’t like having to pay so much for security, and all that monitoring and repression trips up their economies, too. Those dilemmas mean that dictators might sometimes decide to relax repression when their opposition is weak and their economies are languishing, as is the case in North Korea today.

If you’re interested, please take a look at the piece in FP and let me know what you think. For more academic treatments of this topic, check out the 2007 conference paper on which I based my essay and this article by Georgy Egorov, Sergei Guriev, and Konstantin Sonin from the November 2009 issue of the American Political Science Review.

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 Defense of Political Science and Forecasting

Under the headline “Political Scientists Are Lousy Forecasters,” today’s New York Times includes an op-ed by Jacqueline Stevens that takes a big, sloppy swipe at most of the field. The money line:

It’s an open secret in my discipline: in terms of accurate political predictions (the field’s benchmark for what counts as science), my colleagues have failed spectacularly and wasted colossal amounts of time and money.

As she sees it, this poor track record is an inevitability. Referencing the National Science Foundation‘s history of funding research in which she sees little value, Stevens writes:

Government can—and should—assist political scientists, especially those who use history and theory to explain shifting political contexts, challenge our intuitions and help us see beyond daily newspaper headlines. Research aimed at political prediction is doomed to fail. At least if the idea is to predict more accurately than a dart-throwing chimp.

I don’t have much time to write today, so I was glad to see this morning that Henry Farrell has already penned a careful rebuttal that mirrors my own reactions. On the topic of predictions in particular, Farrell writes:

The claim here—that “accurate political prediction” is the “field’s benchmark for what counts as science” is quite wrong. There really isn’t much work at all by political scientists that aspires to predict what will happen in the future…It is reasonable to say that the majority position in political science is a kind of soft positivism, which focuses on the search for law-like generalizations. But that is neither a universal benchmark (I, for one, don’t buy into it), nor indeed, the same thing as accurate prediction, except where strong covering laws (of the kind that few political scientists think are generically possible) can be found.

To Farrell’s excellent rebuttals, I would add a couple of things.

First and most important, there’s a strong case to be made that political scientists don’t engage in enough forecasting and really ought to do more of it. Contrary to Stevens’ assertion in that NYT op-ed, most political scientists eschew forecasting, seeing description and explanation as the goals of their research instead. As Phil Schrodt argues in “Seven Deadly Sins of Quantitative Political Science” (PDF), however, to the extent that we see our discipline as a form of science, political scientists ought to engage in forecasting, because prediction is an essential part of the scientific method.

Explanation in the absence of prediction is not somehow scienti cally superior to predictive analysis, it isn’t scienti c at all! It is, instead, “pre-scientific.”

In a paper on predicting civil conflicts, Mike Ward, Brian Greenhill, and Kristin Bakke help to explain why:

Scholars need to make and evaluate predictions in order to improve our models. We have to be willing to make predictions explicitly – and plausibly be wrong, even appear foolish – because our policy prescriptions need to be undertaken with results that are drawn from robust models that have a better chance of being correct. The whole point of estimating risk models is to be able to apply them to specific cases. You wouldn’t expect your physician to tell you that all those cancer risk factors from smoking don’t actually apply to you. Predictive heuristics provide a useful, possibly necessary, strategy that may help scholars and policymakers guard against erroneous recommendations.

Second, I think Stevens actually gets the historical record wrong. It drives me crazy when I see people take the conventional wisdom about a topic—say, the possibility of the USSR’s collapse, or a wave of popular uprisings in Middle East and North Africa—and turn it into a blanket statement that “no one predicted X.” Most of the time, we don’t really know what most people would have predicted, because they weren’t asked to make predictions. The absence of a positive assertion that X will happen is not the same thing as a forecast that X will not happen. In fact, in at least one of the cases Stevens discusses—the USSR’s collapse—we know that some observers did forecast its eventual collapse, albeit usually without much specificity about the timing of that event.

More generally, I think it’s fair to say that, on just about any topic, there will be a distribution of forecasts—from high to low, impossible to inevitable, and so on. Often, that distribution will have a clear central tendency, as did expectations about the survival of authoritarian regimes in the USSR or the Arab world, but that central tendency should not be confused with a consensus. Instead, this divergence of expectations is precisely where the most valuable information will be found. Eventually, some of those predictions will prove correct while others will not, and, as Phil and Mike and co. remind us, that variation in performance tells us something very useful about the power of the explanatory models—quantitative, qualitative, it doesn’t really matter—from which they were derived.

PS. For smart rebuttals to other aspects of Steven’s jeremiad, see Erik Voeten’s post at the Monkey Cage and Steve Saideman’s rejoinder at Saideman’s Semi-Spew.

PPS. Stevens provides some context for her op-ed on her own blog, here. (I would have added this link sooner, but I’ve just seen it myself.)

PPPS. For some terrific ruminations on uncertainty, statistics, and scientific knowledge, see this latecomer response from Anton Strezhnev.

On the Politics of Time and Memory

The concepts of time, space, and possibility.

Tengo knew that time could become deformed as it moved forward. Time itself was uniform in composition, but once consumed, it took on a deformed shape. One period of time might be terribly heavy and long, while another could be light and short. Occasionally the order of things would be reversed, and in the worst cases order itself could vanish entirely. Sometimes things that should not be there at all might be added onto time. By adjusting time this way to suit their own purposes, people probably adjusted the meaning of their existences. In other words, by adding such operations to time, they were able–but just barely–to preserve their own sanity. Surely, if a person had to accept the time through which he had just passed uniformly in the given order, his nerves could not bear the strain. Such a life, Tengo felt, would be sheer torture.

That passage, emphasis and all, comes from Jay Rubin’s translation for Knopf of Book 1 in Haruki Murakami’s three-part novel, 1Q84.

When I read it, Murakami’s vision of pliable time reminded me, among other things, of political scientist Marc Beissinger’s use of the term “thickened history” to describe particularly eventful periods of political activity. In a book about the collapse of the Soviet Union that has many lessons for the present, Beissinger writes:

In a period of heightened challenge events can ‘begin to move so fast and old assumptions become so irrelevant that the human mind cannot process all the new information’–a phenomenon I refer to in this book as ‘thickened’ history. By ‘thickened’ history, I mean a period in which the pace of challenging events quickens to the point that it becomes practically impossible to comprehend them and they come to constitute an increasingly significant part of their own causal structure. As one Soviet journalist put it in the fall of 1989, ‘We are living in an extremely condensed historical period. Social processes which earlier required decades now develop in a matter of months.’ This heightened pace of contention affects both governing and governed–the former primarily in the state’s growing incoherence and inability to fashion relevant policies, the latter by introducing an intensified sense of contingency, uncertainty, and influence from the examples of others. What takes place within these ‘thickened’ periods of history has the potential to move history onto tracks otherwise unimaginable, affecting the prisms through which individuals relate to authority, consolidating conviction around new norms, and forcing individuals to make choices about competing categories of identity about which they may previously have given little thought–all within an extremely compressed period of time.

Beissinger tells us that it’s “practically impossible” to comprehend the politics of these thick periods when they’re happening, but that doesn’t mean we don’t try. As psychologist Daniel Kahneman points out, “This is how the remembering self works: it composes stories and keeps them for future reference.” The stories we construct are inevitably gross simplifications and distortions, but we are innately compelled to build them anyway.

According to Murakami’s character, Tengo, we do this to stay sane. In political discourse, these vignettes often serve an external purpose as well.

Take some of the competing narratives about the recent coup in Mali. Surely the true causes of that event are fantastically complex and unknowable, but that does not prevent us from constructing simple stories to serve other political ends. For some opponents of humanitarian intervention, the coup in Mali was caused by escalation of the Tuareg rebellion, which was caused by the abrupt collapse of Libya, which was caused by NATO’s military action. For some advocates of substantive democracy, the coup in Mali was caused by the government’s inattention to poverty, corruption, and inequality. These two narratives compete to define the meaning of the same events, because that meaning is politically empowering.

The power that comes from the construction of memory was a central theme in one of the works that inspired Murakami’s novel, George Orwell’s 1984. In Orwell’s Oceania, the Ministry of Truth literally rewrites history on the fly to help sustain its authority. The power of “shaping the narrative” is not lost on today’s U.S. government, either, which uses “public diplomacy” to try to influence foreign populations and wages an “info war” on groups it sees as threats.

Sometimes, we even produce power by omitting selected segments of time–in other words, by forgetting. Young Americans horrified by atrocities in contemporary wars may not know of the firebombings of German cities during World War II or the destruction of large swathes of countryside during the Vietnam War. In 1Q84, two women characters discuss the sexual abuse one of them suffered as a child at the hands of two relatives.

“Do you ever see this brother and uncle of yours?”

“Hardly ever after I took a job and left the house. But we are relatives, after all, and we’re in the same profession. Sometimes I can’t avoid seeing them, and when I do I’m all smiles. I don’t do anything to rock the boat. I bet they don’t even remember that something like that ever happened.”

“Don’t remember?”

“Sure, they can forget about it,” Ayumi said. “I never can.”

“Of course not,” Aomame said.

“It’s like some historic massacre.”

“Massacre?”

“The ones who did it can always rationalize their actions and even forget what they did. They can turn away from things they don’t want to see. But the surviving victims can never forget. They can’t turn away. Their memories are passed on from parent to child. That’s what the world is, after all: an endless battle of contrasting memories.”

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