This Is the Best Time Ever to Study Political Science

Here are ten questions that might be interesting to Americans these days.

1. Is the Trump administration’s immigration executive order constitutional?
2. Is the United States a democracy? How do we know?
3. How does presidential leadership style affect U.S. foreign policy?
4. Do bureaucrats have a moral obligation to refuse to implement laws that they oppose?
5. How do authoritarian regimes work? Where do they come from?
6. Is protest effective? When, why, how?
7. Does racial resentment or economic despair better explain the GOP surge in 2016? Are these competing explanations?
8. When do partisan legislatures sanction presidents from the same party? Does that differ between presidential and parliamentary systems?
9. How do you organize a team to win an election? How do you change that team when it is time to govern?
10. Has there ever been anything like 2017 in U.S. political history?

In a time in which the key buzzword in higher education is “interdisciplinarity,” we may lose sight of the value and purpose of disciplinary education. In fraught political times, citizens need a way to organize the information they obtain from the news, to process data from surveys and elections, to put contemporary events in historical and global perspective, and to ask critical questions about their moral and ethical obligations as citizens. Citizens need a way to discipline their thinking about politics. That discipline is political science.

Imagine that you are a new college student who wants to learn about politics in these times. What should you do? Well, I would hope that you would first put together a broad course of study that involved arts, humanities, sciences, statistics, and so forth. But I would not look to that broad course of study for insights into today’s politics.

Instead, I would visit your local Political Science department (perhaps called a Government or Politics department). You will find a community of teachers who have organized their department into a couple of teams: teachers who work on American politics and policy from today and from history, on questions of ethics and philosophy, and on politics around the world. Some will work with texts and influential thinkers, some with case studies from other countries and in other languages, some with quantitative data. Each teacher will have a specialty: race and ethnicity, power and justice, strategy, economies and politics, voter psychology, bureaucracies and institutions, and so on. They certainly won’t all agree with one another about politics, or about how best to teach it. And yet of them will have been trained to ask a series of interrelated questions about how politics works.

Returning to the ten questions above, not only does the discipline of political science provide tools for answering each question, but political science uniquely does this. Sure, a lawyer could help with question (1), and a moral philosopher could help with question (4), a movement sociologist could help with question (6), and a management consultant could help with question (9). But political science allows one to think about these questions together, to see how each is related to the others.

I am not proposing that interdisciplinary research and teaching is somehow inappropriate. Quite the opposite: I hold the opinion that somewhere between 1/2 and 2/3 of what a political scientist reads ought to be outside of the discipline of political science (a view I attribute originally to James Scott). So too for undergraduates studying political science, although I’d put it closer to 50% outside the discipline and 50% inside. I am also not proposing that interdisciplinary research and teaching cannot contribute to better teaching and research. Events like this are fantastic opportunities. Disciplinary thinking does not imply disciplinary silos.

Nor am I arguing that political science is either perfect or monolithic. Political scientists disagree, and they disagree most forcefully with themselves about their own discipline.

Instead, I am arguing that it is both natural and appropriate to look to a community of scholars who have thought long, hard, and critically about politics in order to…think about politics. I will go further: it is intellectual and pedagogically distracting to invent interdisciplinary “solutions” to pressing world “problems” without first appreciating disciplinary approaches to those questions that presuppose those problems.

Put otherwise, the proper relationship between disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives is a dialectical one. Disciplines emerge and coalesce around problems. As they mature, they eventually reach limits of their explanatory or conceptual productivity, and enterprising researchers look beyond their disciplinary boundaries for different perspectives. Perhaps an interdiscipline emerges, which after 100 years is a discipline on its own.

And this, to a first approximation, is the story of political science itself—an interdiscipline that emerged from the interstices of law, political economy, and the emerging field of sociology. Contemporary politics requires us to remember this interdiscipline-turned-discipline emerged from the realization that the study of politics cannot be reduced to class, economy, identity, ethics, law, organization, or anything else. Politics is political. That is why today is the best time ever to study political science.

Posted in Current Affairs, Research, Teaching

Democracy is not Government by Democrats, and Authoritarianism is not Government by Authoritarians

In a post from October 2015, “Democratic Disappointments, Authoritarian Reformists, and Political Equilibria,” I mused about a seemingly ironic feature of contemporary Malaysian politics. The former dictator Mahathir Mohamad, a staunch defender of ruling party hegemony who happily jailed opponents to his regime, has emerged as one of the key critics of Najib Tun Razak. I suggested that the focus on Mahathir’s potential “change of heart” is entirely misplaced. Such a focus, I argued,

…reflects a common belief that the views of individual elites are central to understanding the essence of a country’s politics. There are lots of people who demand reform and openness in Malaysia, but when Mahathir does, this clearly changes the game. This belief in turn draws on a common view that the problem of political reform is getting the right people with the right beliefs in office. That is why it is so disappointing when someone like Aung San Suu Kyi fails to live up to her reputation once in office, and why it is so important for so many to ask whether Mahathir has “really” had a change of heart.

In an interview with ThinkProgress yesterday, I made a related point about President Trump and his administration. Many observers worry that President Trump is at heart an authoritarian, or that he has surrounded himself by authoritarians. The effort then goes to trying to divine the internal mental states or private beliefs and desires of key administration figures. In that interview, I pushed against this tendency, urging a focus instead on administration actions and decisions.

Why? Because the better way to think about political regimes—the general term for democracies and dictatorships—is to think about them as systems. Systems may have features that are independent of the features of the units that comprise them. Political regimes are comprised of individuals arranged into parties, bureaucracies, factions, movements, organizations, and other social aggregates that interact with one another and with the individuals that comprise them. “Democracy” then is a feature of a system—the regime—rather than a feature of the individuals who comprise it. This view draws on political science research since O’Donnell and Schmitter [PDF] which has focused less on mass or elite attitudes and more on the choices and strategies of actors and groups.

Viewed this way, democracy is not government by democrats, rather it is nothing more than

the outcome of struggles among individuals and factions, none of whom may actually value democracy but who may nevertheless find themselves overseeing a democratic regime because no one faction can defeat all others (one such account, by Przeworski, is here [PDF]).

It follows that an authoritarian regime is also not a government or rule by authoritarians. For some this may be reassuring, but it is not necessarily so. As I commented to ThinkProgress,

You can become authoritarian without trying. If you corrode systems of parliamentary order to get things done you might undermine institutions that sustain them.

Just as democracies can be governed by authoritarians, so too can true-believing democrats lay the groundwork for authoritarianism.

This, to me, is where those concerned with American democracy in these times ought to focus. Not on what elites believe, but what they do to the norms and institutions that sustain our current political regime. And then focus as well on how those democracy-sustaining norms and institutions might be strengthened, regardless of the actions of any administration or any elites.

Posted in Current Affairs, Malaysia, Politics, Research

Weak and Incompetent Leaders act like Strong Leaders

An essay by Yonatan Zunger entitled “Trial Balloon for a Coup?” is making the rounds. Such essays are frightening to many. And yet they must be read critically. I am equally taken by the argument that everything that Zunger identifies is evidence not of a deliberate planning by an aspiring authoritarian, but of the exact opposite: the weakness and incoherence of administration by a narcissist.

One of the many things that studying authoritarian politics has taught me is that from the perspective of the outsider, weak leaders often act like strong leaders, and strong leaders often act like they are indifferent. Weak leaders have every incentive to portray themselves as stronger than they are in order to get their way. They gamble on splashy policies. They escalate crises. This is just as true for democrats as for dictators. (Note the parallels with Jessica Weeks on constraints on authoritarian rulers and their foreign policy behavior.)

The consummate strong ruler is one who does not issue any command or instruction at all because she does not have to—her will is implemented already. Indonesia’s strongman leader Soeharto was sometimes portrayed as The Smiling General, an almost aloof Javanese sultan. How incongruous this is: When Soeharto came to power, at least 500,000 people were killed! That is strength. More precisely, it is power.

How to square my perspective on President Trump’s new administration with the more frightening alternatives? The problem is what a social scientist would call “observational equivalence” of two diametrically opposing arguments. We have two theories of why something is happening, and yet we cannot tell which is the “correct” theory based on the data that we observe. We have precious little evidence about what is happening within President Trump’s administration. What we observe is its output: executive orders, staffing decisions, and personnel management. What we don’t observe is everything that we need to know to interpret those outputs.

Observational equivalence is a big problem when studying political power, as political scientists have known for decades (PDF, PDF). We cannot infer what someone wants, or whether power is being exerted effectively, based on outcomes alone. It is probably for this reason that there is a genre of political science writing comprised of carefully revisiting an administration’s history and reinterpreting it to show either (1) the surprisingly effective use of power behind the scenes or (2) administrative incoherence or division. The best example of the former is probably Fred Greenstein’s reinterpretation of Eisehower, entitled The Hidden-Hand Presidency. Bush at War gives a moderate view of the latter.

Let me explain how observational equivalence works with an example. President Trump may have brought Steve Bannon into the NSC because he is consolidating power and intends to sideline all regular establishment players in the formulation of American foreign policy. Or he might have brought Bannon into the NSC because he is so isolated that he needs someone who he believes he can trust, and everyone in the foreign policy establishment is dragging feet and dissembling. The former is a sign of strength. The latter is a sign of weakness. Both have the same observable implication.

Another example: the swift release of President Trump’s Executive Order on immigration without much advice or feedback from the affected bureaucracies may be evidence that the administration is completely centralizing control within the office of the president. Or it might be because the administration does not understand standard operating procedures in a presidential administration. Or it might be because they worry that they have lost the narrative, need to do something, and a gross Nazi is calling the shots. Again, only the first is a sign of strength. The latter two are signs of weakness. All three of the same observable implications, but have radically different interpretations.

When reading commentary on contemporary U.S. politics, it is best to recognize any attempt to establish a Coherent Theory of the Trump Presidency based on public outputs for the Kremlinology that it is. The hot takes of “I have a theory that makes sense of all of this!” are the qualitative equivalent of curve-fitting. Don’t ignore these hot takes; one of them is probably right, after all. But understand what is missing. From my view, the conclusion to draw from the past ten days is just how little power this president is able to exert over national politics.

Posted in Current Affairs, Politics

The Unpopular Populist

Vladimir Putin: 86.8%.
Rodrigo Duterte: 83%.
Viktor Orbán: 80%.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan: 68.6%.

Gay Marriage (US): 57%.
Abortion legal (US): 56%.
Democratic Party: 52%.
Free Trade is a good thing (US): 51%.

Donald Trump: 45%.

Posted in Current Affairs, Politics

Dictators use the Media Differently than Narcissists and Bullies

On Saturday, Sean Spicer held a press conference in which he lied about the size of President Trump’s inauguration audience and then refused to take questions. To many, this was just more evidence of the new administration’s authoritarian ambitions (see e.g. here, here, here). In my opinion, there are clear differences.

I reach this conclusion based on my experience studying two authoritarian regimes in Southeast Asia: Malaysia and New Order Indonesia. As part of the research for my dissertation (later this book), I actually did something that many of us never do: I read the news produced by under authoritarianism for several years. Specifically, I tried to read every political and economic story in a series of newspapers both Indonesia and Malaysia between roughly summer 1997 and fall 1999. My goal was to understand the course of events of the Asian Financial Crisis and how they would have appeared in the eyes of everyday citizens in days before the widespread availability of new media.

To be clear, I was not interested in the accuracy of the media itself as part of this exercise, because I assumed that all reporting would be biased and incomplete. Rather, I wanted to complement my other sources of information—rich and detailed secondary sources, interviews with key decisionmakers, and so forth—with what would have been the flow of information in real time. This is important because of the hindsight problem, in which people attribute more coherence and logic to their actions with the benefit of hindsight than they would have at the time. (To see this in action, you can read my commentary on this very exercise, written on an earlier version of this blog back in 2005!)

Nevertheless, I learned quite a bit about how the authoritarian print media work in these two cases. This is useful to contrast to the current media environment and Mr. Trump’s administration.

The first and most important conclusion is that dictators do not lie openly to the media about things that are easy to check. Lies, which are studiously avoided in any case, are reserved for facts that cannot be checked. “Wait, did Soeharto just have stroke???” “Soeharto’s health is fine, and he looks forward to getting back to work.” And even so, the lies are rare. Indeed, I found that much of the everyday reporting about political and economic events was relatively accurate in terms of recording events as they unfolded. The reporting was selective, of course, but that is why other sources of information are so critical.

Second, authoritarian media is about misdirection, not just misinformation. Rather than tell a lie, the authoritarian media wishes to paint a picture. That picture has blurry features here and there, but the point is for the audience to step back to appreciate the picture as a whole. Even at the height of these two countries’ economic crises, most of the news was about lifestyle issues, regular business affairs, sports, and so forth. The purpose of the media is to report on those pieces of information that are consistent with that picture. For example, it is fine to publicize lifestyle debates about traffic or the high cost of schooling just so long as they can be reported as evidence of rapid material progress that justifies the steady hand of the ruling government. Negative or damaging news doesn’t generate lies or outbursts in response, it is simply not covered at all.

Third, authoritarian media focus on motivations rather than actions. A president or prime minister is pure hearted, dedicated, hard-working, and intelligent. The details of what he actually does are important only insofar as they reflect these qualities. By contrast, the opposition are stupid, craven, and disloyal. Even when their actions may have good consequences, coverage must question their intentions.

Fourth, to be effective, authoritarian media cannot have competition. One of the most interesting conclusions I reached from my exercise is that no one would read these new stories if he or she had any alternative. This does not mean that the regime is busy writing stories and force feeding them to various news outlets; rather, it means that the regime must cultivate a media landscape where real critical investigative journalism is not available. One does this by political ownership and control over the entire media landscape and liberal use of the courts to silence not just critics but also their publishers. 90% control won’t do, it must be complete.

So how do these differ from what we saw Saturday? To me, the differences are clear. No successful dictator would send a minion to berate the press about an easily checked fact. A dictator would ignore it entirely, and focus on something else. Only someone singularly obsessed with the display of dominance would insist, against all evidence, that he was more popular by some opaque metric than anyone else in American history. That’s what a narcissist or a bully does, not a dictator.

That said, there is one important similarity: President Trump does completely follow the authoritarian’s template that “media focus on motivations rather than actions.” Just look at this morning’s tweet.

Mr. Trump seems to thrive on the notion that he must portray himself as successful and intelligent (“Trust me, I’m like a smart person.”). The U.S. mainstream media have adopted that narrative as well—the debate has focused more on whether he is really successful or not (in yes-no-yeeeees! fashion), rather than on what he announced that he would do in office. In my view that is a mistake. I will note that this is consistent with Masha Gessen’s advice to “believe the autocrat,” which reaches a different conclusion than my own.

We have also for some time lived in a world of U.S. politics in which intentions dominate actions in the political media. Plenty of people believe that Secretary Clinton and President Obama are crooked. Plenty of people have also long believed that President Bush was an idiot and Vice President Cheney was evil.

Nevertheless, dictators are often also narcissists and bullies, so this similarity between Mr. Trump and the authoritarians warrants careful attention. But the U.S. media landscape already contains within it a useful check on any administration’s authoritarian tendencies, which is the fragmentation of the media landscape combined with the profit-driven search for ratings and sales on all sides. No contemporary media outlet in the U.S. wins viewers or readers by reporting facts or beliefs from the Government Information Bureau. Even those whose partisanship tilts towards one party or the other need opponents to argue with to gin up interest, and hence ratings. Talk radio is the closest thing to an exception, but the money in talk radio pales in comparison to the money in traditional media. And without a doubt, the broadcast and print media have proven absolutely thrilled to cover Mr. Trump, and critically so. That’s not ending any time soon.

Thinking about narcissism versus authoritarianism also provides some suggestions for how to respond. The strategy for combating authoritarianism in a controlled media environment is very tricky. The strategy for combatting a bully is pretty straightforward: bloody his nose and show everyone how he cries.

It is the strategy for covering a narcissist which is the most delicate. The narcissist’s dilemma is that he requires constant media attention, yet must simultaneously convince his audience that the media cannot be trusted. My advice is to remember that if there are no questions, then it is not press conference, and does not need to be covered. Just don’t look. Take away the media and the narcissist will beg for it to come back.

The challenge for today’s media is that the very fragmentation that makes political control hard also makes collective action difficult.

Posted in Current Affairs, Indonesia, Malaysia, Politics

Personal Rule and Political Institutions

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.

Posted in Current Affairs, Politics

Comparative Methods: New Syllabus

This spring I am teaching Cornell’s Comparative Methods course. The near-final syllabus is here (PDF).

(To those Cornell PhD students reading this: hi! I’ll see you next Wednesday.)

Compared to the previous time that I taught this course, I am doing four things differently. First, I am cutting down on the meta-debate about positivism, empiricism, and various alternatives. Students can have those discussions elsewhere, and time spent debating epistemology distracts from other course goals.

Second, I am taking a firmer line on what we think statistical analysis is good for. Now, the basic question is not “how do we summarize correlations between variables?” but rather “what would have to be true for a regression to be useful?”

Third, I am treating multimethod research more seriously, and critically. In fact, I suspect that the most challenging readings are those on how to integrate quantitative and qualitative methods.

Fourth, I am introducing a replication assignment. This assignment will differ in form and intent from what I understand to be the standard replication assignment in political science, described here. The purpose of the assignment is not to ascertain whether or not statistical tables can be reproduced, but to expose students to working with primary sources and building arguments from them. The assignment has a learning goal, not a disciplinary function. It is for this reason that I have no interest restricting the replication assignment to statistical work only. Less “science police,” more understanding and building on the research of others.

Perhaps other replication assignments have similar goals, but that is not how they are frequently portrayed.

Posted in Teaching

U.S.-Indonesian Relations at a Crossroads

The U.S. and Indonesia have enjoyed good bilateral relations since the late 1960s, when the rise of Soeharto saw the elimination of the world’s largest communist party in a non-communist country. Relations have been grown warmer since the fall of the New Order in 1998, and after the election of President Obama. For nearly twenty years, Indonesia has been a useful partner, a moderate Muslim-majority democracy committed to combatting international terrorism.

Now, quite unexpectedly, U.S.-Indonesian relations are at a crossroads.* The election of President-elect Donald Trump brings to office a president with no meaningful foreign policy experience but extensive business interests in Indonesia. At the same time, Indonesia is experiencing one of its periodic upticks in visible Islamism in national politics, featuring most notably the mobilization of hundreds of thousands for a march in Jakarta defending Islam. The intersection of these two developments will have substantial implications for U.S.-Indonesian relations in the coming decade.

Let’s take the U.S. case first. President-elect Trump has no foreign policy experience, and observers of U.S. foreign policy have repeatedly remarked that he and his transition team have been slow to build out his foreign policy arm. As I noted here in discussing Trump and Southeast Asia, this makes it hard to know what sort of expertise and interests will be represented in the region. But one thing is almost for certain: those countries and regions that are relatively low foreign policy priorities are likely to be afterthoughts at best, ignored at worst.

In such situations, people-to-people contacts among career diplomats in the State Department ought to maintain good relations between the U.S and Indonesia. However, a foreign policy team that is uninterested in or simply unaware of the details may make the jobs of Indonesia hands quite a bit harder. To give one example, the South China Sea is shaping up to be an area where China will test the new U.S. administration. Countries in East and Southeast Asia are important partners here. But Indonesia’s position on the South China Sea is delicate and nuanced, as Indonesia does not have any direct stake in the territorial dispute. Nevertheless, it has recently displayed more assertiveness around the Natuna archipelago—unquestionably part of Indonesian territory—after recent confrontations with China. From a purely U.S.-centric perspective, how to manage this regional partner to get what both countries want in the South China Sea? This requires understanding how Indonesians value territorial sovereignty as well as the relationship between foreign/security policy aims and the various arms of the Indonesian government. The devil is all in the details, and ill-considered statement about U.S. intentions in the region could do serious damage.

But for all the uncertainty about the Trump administration’s foreign policy attention and expertise, there are other personal connections that might matter. President-elect Trump and media mogul Hary Tanoesoedibjo are business partners, and Hary Tanoe will attend the inauguration. This is meaningful because Hary Tanoe has started his own political party, Partai Perindo, as a personal vehicle through which to seek the Indonesian presidency in 2019.

The fact that Hary Tanoe happens to be of Chinese ancestry, and Christian, makes developments on the Indonesian side particularly interesting.

Jakarta’s Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known popularly as Ahok, is currently on trial for blasphemy, allegedly having insulted Islam in a speech last fall. Jakarta is both the capital and largest city of Indonesia, and so this trial gets national attention even if the verdict is all but certain. Indonesian law does make it illegal to insult another religion, but every serious observer understands that Ahok’s trial is part of the current chapter of the Game of Houses** in Indonesian politics. Former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s son Agus Harimurti is challenging Ahok for Governor. So too is Anies Baswedan, who has embraced hardline Islamists and is supported by Prabowo Subianto. Ahok, brought into Jakarta politics from Bangka-Belitung by Prabowo, is now supported by Megawati Sukarnoputri. Ahok, being a Christian of Chinese descent, is uniquely vulnerable to criticism that he has insulted Islam.

On December 2 of this past year, a mass demonstration was held in Jakarta entitled “Defending Islam Action III.” Perhaps as many as 750,000 people attended. Greg Fealy’s analysis addresses the potential links between this anti-Ahok protest and the possibly Islamist motives of many of the participants. As Sana Jaffrey has observed, recent years have seen a rise in actions protesting “insults” and “offenses”, although the December 2 demonstration is obviously different from the kinds of mob actions which comprise the bulk of such incidents.

The global optics of Islamist mobilization in Indonesia are not good (see e.g. this New York Times story from last week). Hary Tanoe sided with Prabowo in the 2014 elections. He has defended the Indonesian police in the Ahok case, and criticized Jokowi for not dealing swiftly enough to forestall the December 2 protests. (It is not clear what Hary Tanoe thinks Jokowi should have done besides being decisive and authoritative in some abstract way.) I happen to believe that the current emphasis on Islamic radicalism in Indonesia is misplaced; such headline-grabbing events happen every couple of years, and Indonesia has a long history of Islamist movements in politics, all the way back to Sarekat Islam. But that does not much matter, especially to any observer who is uninterested or ill-equipped to understand Indonesia’s political history or the complex motivations of those who participate in Indonesian social movements.

How then should we understand the new Trump administration in the context of Indonesian national politics? Best case scenario: business as usual for a country located far from the Eurasia-Oceania alliance. I suspect, however, that relations may change, perhaps not deteriorating, but resting less on mutual strategic interests and more on the transactional nature of Trump’s own interests in Indonesia.

The implications could be important. For example, in the context of an administration less focused on foreign policy but with personal and business connections to wealthy elites seeking political power, a new narrative might emerge about Indonesia in DC. Under Obama, as under Bush, Indonesia was a partial success story, an example for other Muslim majority countries of how democracy and Islam can mix even under inauspicious conditions (relative poverty, extreme inequality, territorial fragmentation, etc). Under Trump, the stage is being set for Indonesia to be portrayed as acutely vulnerable to Islamic extremism under the weak leadership of mild and indecisive leaders like Jokowi.

The premise of the U.S.-Indonesian relationship would thus change, from one of “basically Indonesia has it right, how can we help?” to “basically Indonesia has it wrong, what can we change?” That is a U.S. position that Indonesians have good, historical grounds to fear.

It would also be completely counterproductive. Not only does it play perfectly into the hands of the Islamists, it would also make it harder to work with a Jakarta security establishment that is already quite sensitive to foreign interference.


* It seems like Indonesia is always at a crossroads, as Homer Simpson observed. (Here is The Economist explaining the Simpsons mocking The Economist.)

** A.k.a. Daes Dae’mar.

Posted in Current Affairs, Indonesia, Islam, Politics

Lorraine Chuen on Food, Race, and Power

This is relevant to my interests (HT Angry Asian Man).

The amount of power that White people hold continues to both amaze and disturb me. White folks have the power to tease, torment, and mock (this food smells like poo, they’ll tell you, or perhaps: your lunch looks like worms, or maybe, simply: that’s disgusting, with a pinch of their nose). I spent an entire childhood lying about my favorite foods and being embarrassed about bringing noodles to school for lunch because of the casual racism that White folks learn apparently as early as middle school. White adults are no better: I recently had a coworker tell me, over dim sum, that chopsticks were the laziest eating utensil ever invented (whatever that even means).

White folks have the power to torment, often without consequence; but the special thing about White people is that they also have the power to make a trip to your home country for a month or maybe twelve, get inspired, and dictate when your previously unpalatable dishes suddenly become socially acceptable, trendy, and profitable in the Western world. And inevitably, with the popularization of certain ethnic dishes, comes erasure. I can’t help but wonder, what becomes of dishes when they are prepared for the white gaze – or in this case, white palette? What remains of food, after it’s been decontextualized? What are flavours without stories? What are recipes without histories? Why are people of colour forgotten, over and over again, while their food (also: vocabulary, music, art, hair, clothing) are consumed and adopted?

When I look at the repertoire of work that White chefs and restaurateurs have built on ethnic cuisine, it feels in a way, dehumanizing. White people are able to establish outrageously successful careers for being experts and authorities on the stuff that racialized folks do every day simply by existing. But of course, people of colour will rarely, if ever, be called experts on how to simply be themselves. It’s as if racialized folks and their ways of life are objects to be observed—study material, of sorts—rather than entire countries, cultures, and individual complex lives.

It reminds me of this, which I wrote a year ago, and which may strike some readers as rather more (or, for some, rather less) urgent right now.

Posted in Asia, Food and Drink

Finding and Eating the Old Malacca

Yesterday I took a day trip from Kuala Lumpur to Malacca. I first visited in 2005, and things have changed. What then seemed like a pleasant little historic town has been aggressively developed for the tourist market. The development is still on-going: see this upcoming monstrosity. There are a number of enormous hotels and waterfront apartments still under construction, and the old neighborhood around Jonker Street and the river has been cleaned up and sanitized. More on this in a bit.

Last time we visited we enjoyed some lovely Peranakan food, but never ventured out of the main tourist area near Bukit St. Paul and Jonker Street. I wanted to see if I could find some real Malacca Portuguese food, and had heard about a little hawker center in the Kampung Portugis (Portuguese settlement) neighborhood. So I set off to find it.

Along the way, one of the best things I’ve ever seen.

Don't Mess with Melaka.

Don’t Mess with Melaka.

It would have been better had they added “Remember Albuquerque!” but maybe that’s asking too much.

Not having anything more than a tourist map, nor any data on my phone, I did the best I could. My walking route looked something like this

Doing a full loop around the Hatten City project earned me my fair share of stares, but it did ensure—together with the midday sun at a balmy 88 degrees—that I was good and tired by the time I got there.

The last bit of the walk was through a quiet residential area. What had seemed like generic middle class Chinese bungalows quite abruptly changed to bungalows decorated with crucifixes and Merry Christmas signs.

Kampung Portugis Home

Kampung Portugis Home

Upon reading an intersection, I turned to my right and discovered that the street was now called “Texeira Street.”

Texeira Street

Texeira Street

From there it was not far to the restaurant area. I especially appreciated the signage in papia kristang.

Bong Anu Nobu = Bom Ano Novo = Happy New Year

Bong Anu Nobu = Bom Ano Novo = Happy New Year

Espaço Korsang = Espaço Coração = "Heart Space" Sentru Saudi = Centro Saude = Health Center (a health clinic it seems)

Espaço Korsang = Espaço Coração = “Heart Space”
Sentru Saudi = Centro Saude = Health Center
(a health clinic it seems)

Typical of such adventures, after walking for almost an hour in the hot sun, all of the restaurants were closed. Except, thankfully, for one. On the advice of the owner, I had spicy baked fish and kangkong belachan, which were both fantastic.


I spent most of the rest of the afternoon wandering around the old Portuguese fort (called, as all Portuguese forts in tropical Asia seem to be called, “A Famosa”) and looking at old Dutch graves. I concluded the afternoon with an ice cold cendol at a very attractive little cafe called Straits Affair.

Perfect Cendol

Perfect Cendol

I had a very nice conversation with the proprietor Isaac Tan, an eighth-generation Peranakan Chinese who is part of the same illustrious family that gave us Tun Tan Cheng Lock and Tun Tan Siew Sin.

Isaac Tan Kong Ming with his family tree

Isaac Tan Kong Ming with his family tree

Tan views the new and booming tourist development around Malacca as having really affected the local communities, and his cafe celebrates the old Baba-Nyonya food culture. He relates how the neighborhood in which he grew up, near Jonker Street, is now no longer affordable for the people who had long lived there. I saw similar signs in Kampung Portugis of local frustration with the new development.

Fishing boat jetty, Kampung Portugis

Fishing boat jetty, Kampung Portugis

Huge new construction dominating the Kampung Portugis skyline

Huge new construction dominating the Kampung Portugis skyline

Commentary on the community messageboard

Commentary on the community messageboard

It would be interesting to learn more about the political economy of the new tourism development boom. Ahem.

Posted in Food and Drink, Malaysia, Travel
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