Daron Acemoglu has a strong essay in Foreign Policy on democratic institutions and the incoming administration. It make the case that American political institutions may not suffice to contain a leader who wishes to challenge them. It is a powerful piece given that one of Acemoglu’s signature contributions, together with James Robinson and coauthors, has been to argue for the primacy of political institutions in political economy (e.g. here, here, here, all PDFs, and here). From the FP essay,
What makes America vulnerable to being blindsided by such a threat is our unwavering — and outdated — belief in the famed strength of our institutions. Of course, the United States has much better institutional foundations and a unique brand of checks and balances, which were entirely absent in Venezuela, Russia, and Turkey. But many of these still won’t be much help against the present threat. Not only are America’s institutions particularly ill-equipped, in this moment, to stand up against Trump; in some cases they may actually enable him.
How do might we square Acemoglu’s emphasis on political institutions in so much of his published research with his concerns about their weakness in the present case? One place to look is elsewhere in Acemoglu’s own research: specifically, his work on political order and stability in institution-free environments (see e.g. here, here, here, all PDFs again). This work is relatively less appreciated outside of theoretical political economy, as it tends to admit fewer clean comparative statics that suggest empirical tests. Yet it entertains exactly this sort of question: without the assumption that laws are self-executing or that constitutions automatically constrain, when and what kind of order will emerge?
The most relevant piece is probably “Kleptocracy and Divide-and-Rule: A Model of Personal Rule” (PDF, also joint with Robinson and Thierry Verdier). The model is designed to capture something other than American politics (the first sentence begins “Many developing countries…”) but the underlying political context seems to capture what it is that Acemoglu is worried about:
A study of the political economy of such regimes must depart from the standard presumptions of most research in economics and political science, which assume that rulers make choices within strongly institutionalized polities. In these polities, formal political institutions, such as the constitution, the structure of the legislature, or electoral rules, place constraints on the behavior of politicians and political elites, and directly influence political outcomes. In contrast, kleptocracy emerges in weakly institutionalized polities, where formal institutions neither place significant restrictions on politicians’ actions nor make them accountable to citizens…. What determines corruption, rent extraction and bad policies when institutions are weak? Indeed, the qualitative nature of politics appears to differ markedly between strongly and weakly institutionalized polities: when institutions are strong, citizens punish politicians by voting them out of power; when institutions are weak, politicians punish citizens who fail to support them. When institutions are strong, politicians vie for the support and endorsement of interest groups; when institutions are weak, politicians create and control interest groups. When institutions are strong, citizens demand rights; when institutions are weak, citizens beg for favors.
The argument builds on the idea that a personal ruler can use favors to forestall opposition coordination. But interestingly, such favors are not actually doled out in equilibrium. Rather, they are credible threats that prevent opposition coordination, with the result that the kleptocrat just steals but no one does anything about it.
Now, there is some slippage between this model and American politics at present. In particular, the difference between the “two producer groups” in the model (who, by assumption, have solved any internal coordination problems) and the issue multidimensionality of American politics (urban-rural, rich-poor, identity, geography…). But the logic is interesting and potentially generative. We might build on it through analogy. For example, the precondition for overthrow of the kleptocrat in Acemoglu et al.’s model is opposition coordination. If the opposition will not coordinate (for reasons outside of the model), then that undermines accountability still further. Strong partisan polarization could do this—if members of different parties just will not cooperate, then the result is not one party holding the other accountable. Instead, it is neither party holding the executive accountable, and one party believing that it may benefit from favors that it never will receive.
One area to explore further is the destruction of political institutions as a strategy by an aspiring kleptocrat. The Acemoglu et al. model begins without strong institutions. What would have to be true for a society that does have strong institutions to find them undermined by a kleptocrat? There are two possibilities. One is that what we call “strong institutions” are actually illusory, the names that we give to what are actually equilibria among various social and political forces. Although I have written about how institutions can appear effective when they are not, I do not believe this to be true in the U.S. case. The other is that rulers can take actions that undermine what were once real, strong institutions. I am not aware of any formal theoretical treatments of such a phenomenon, but it would be interesting to read one. We do have many good descriptions of how institutions are undermined in places like Venezuela, Turkey, and Russia.
One might wonder what the policy recommendation or action item is from this discussion. I can suggest two, both in the spirit of the FP essay that inspired me to write this. One is to see with clear eyes that institutions do not constrain politicians automatically. They do so because politicians (or citizens, or movements) act. I happen to hold the personal political view that Americans do not have political rights because the Constitution guarantees them, we have a Constitution that guarantees them because people demanded them. The other is to see the importance of bridge-building with one’s political opponents in defense of the system that allows us to disagree meaningfully in the first place.
NB: Some readers may find the title of this post familiar. I adopted it from Bill Liddle’s essay on Indonesia’s New Order in the 1980s, entitled “Soeharto’s Indonesia: Personal Rule and Political Institutions.” It is also worth a read, although it asks the question of how a personal ruler can build political institutions, rather than how an institutionalized executive can undermine them.