U.S. Politics in the Age of the Babbling Equilibrium

Ever since Sean Spicer’s press conference in which he insisted, against all evidence, that President Trump’s inauguration crowd was the biggest in history, the Trump administration has faced a problem of credibility. Every time the administration issues a message that is demonstrably false, it undermines trust that any future message can be trusted.

One illustration of the consequences of diminished administration credibility is the current debate about the American Health Care Act (no link provided because as I write this, no one knows what it actually says). One argument for repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act is that individual state exchanges are so fragile that the health system will collapse anyway. Here’s a quote from NPR’s Kelly McEvers interviewing Alabama Representative Bradley Byrne yesterday afternoon:

What we are hearing from people in the health insurance industry is that these plans are deteriorating so rapidly that we cannot wait.

There was a time when I would have interpreted this piece of information about the fragility of Alabama’s health system as evidence that there is something fundamentally wrong and that needs to be addressed, regardless of my views about Byrne’s own political views and how he might solve such a problem. Yet as I listened to the interview yesterday, I realized that there has been a fundamental change in the way that I process information delivered by President Trump and his surrogates. My first instinct is now that I simply do not believe what they say. I no longer believe that “these plans are deteriorating so rapidly that we cannot wait.” Or more precisely, the fact that President Trump’s surrogate has uttered that phrase no longer has any effect on whether or not I believe that it is true. It could be, it could not be.

Welcome to the age of the babbling equilibrium in U.S. politics.

The term “babbling equilibrium” comes from game theoretic models of communication, in which a “sender” takes an action that is meant to convey information to a “receiver,” but both the sender and the receiver realize that there are strategic incentives to act in certain ways. This way of thinking is useful for making sense of all sorts of things: poker, nuclear strategy, buying a used car, dating, and so forth. In many situations, such as those just listed, the actions of the sender can be characterized as “cheap talk” (informal presentation here, formal presentation here [PDF]). As an example, when buying a used car, it is almost certainly irrelevant to base your decision on how clean the car’s exterior is, because it is nearly costless to wash a car and it conveys no information about how good the engine is, and you ought to know this, and so should the used car dealer.* The word “babbling” in babbling equilibrium conjures the image of a 6 month old child babbling—the content of the babbles doesn’t tell you anything, and so you don’t change how you respond based on hearing “goo goo” versus “ga ga.” This is an equilibrium in the sense that neither the sender nor the receiver has any information to behave any differently based on how each expects the other to respond.

Political speech has always, of course, been strategic. “Talk is cheap,” and babbling equilibria exist in any cheap talk game. But it is important to contrast the difference between a babbling equilibrium world and a world in which the sender and the receiver differ on how to interpret and act based on the same facts. It was supremely important for the George W. Bush administration to use evidence to support its intention to invade Iraq in 2003. The Obama administration similarly relied on evidence and reasoning to develop its case for health insurance based on the costs and benefits of the ACA relative to the status quo. In neither case did their opponents agree, but both administrations benefited from a general consensus that the arguments would need to be evaluated on their merits. They did so, I presume, because they recognized the benefits of establishing their own credibility for future negotiations.***

In a babbling equilibrium, the Trump administration’s public statements mean nothing. They mean nothing in the precise sense that their interlocutors should learn nothing about what the administration’s actual position is, or what it is willing to do, from the administration’s public statements (see, for example, the negotiations over changes to the draft of the AHCA that are unfolding as I write this). This undermines the administration’s ability to be persuasive, which is bad for the administration’s ability to direct legislation.

But it is also bad for U.S. politics more generally. By now, it is common to observe that the administration will at some point in time need to tell the truth about something important. That doesn’t just hurt the administration, it hurts everyone who is affected by administration policy. The worrying scenario is something like a national security emergency or a homeland security threat. In that scenario, citizens should want to be able to trust the administration to say true things and not false things. Without that, I cannot see how this administration could ever make good policy about the things that I care about, even if we share the same interests.


* The precise definition of a babbling equilibrium from Sobel (PDF) is “the sender’s strategy is independent of type and the receiver’s strategy is independent of signal.”
** Recall how politically meaningful the “Bush Lied, Thousands Died” slogan was?
*** For the argument that the credibility motive can sustain truthful communication over time, see (here [PDF]).

Posted in Current Affairs, Politics

An Interpretive Ethnography of Interpretive Ethnography

While reading Lisa Wedeen‘s “Reflections on Ethnographic Work in Political Science” I was struck by this description of ethnography due to my grad school friend Tim Pachirat*:

Ethnography as a method is particularly unruly, particularly undisciplined, particularly celebratory of improvisation, bricolage, and serendipity, and particularly attuned to the possibilities of surprise, inversion, and subversion in ways that other methods simply are not. If we think of the range of research methods in political science as a big family, ethnography is clearly the youngest, somewhat spoiled, attention-seeking child, always poking fun at and annoying her more disciplined, goal-oriented, and outwardly-successful older siblings. Ethnography is the method who [sic] comes home to family reunions with the new mermaid tattoo, with the purple hair, with yet another belly button ring, and with a moody, melancholic artist for a girlfriend. At the dinner table, she is the method who interrupts her older brother’s endless description of his stock portfolio with tales of the last full moon party on Phi Phi Island in Thailand. Given that kind of unruliness, it’s no wonder that the older siblings and father figures of our discipline often revert to the language of “disciplining” and “harnessing” ethnography, of bringing her wild and unruly impulses under control by making her abide by the rules of the dinner table. In short, ethnography may be fun and exciting, but she might also get you excommunicated from the family.

It is an exciting characterization! Perhaps coming from my background in Asian studies, however, is strikes me as strange. In the community of anthropologists, qualitative sociologists, “Indologists,” critical political economists, and others who together constitute the undisciplined world of “Southeast Asian political studies,” nothing could be more established or conventional than ethnography or interpretivism.

This raises interesting questions when read next to the rest of Wedeen’s essay about ethnography, specifically her invocation of “work” in the Foucauldian sense:

Ethnographers beholden to Foucault do this by analyzing the “work” discourses do—their underlying assumptions, omissions, implications, and effects, as well as their historical conditions of possibility.

What I find interesting is the “work” that the self-understanding of ethnography as an unruly outsider method does, both in the context of the broader discipline of political science and to those scholars who produce texts and train students. I am quite certain that an interpretive, ethnographic approach would be the right one here. What is being conveyed—to whom, for whom—with the bit about “purple hair”? What models of the social world are implicit when we suppose that an academic discipline is like a family? What are the “conditions of possibility”** for ethnographic methods to be understood as “young”? In the true Foucauldian sense, how does this discourse of unruly outsiderness challenge, reconfigure, or even construct relations of power; and between whom?

I mean this completely seriously. The importance of actually understanding how different scholars create meaning is a theme that Andrew Little and I took up in our discussion of critiques of formal models of comparative politics. As an illustrative exercise about the work that discourse can do, I tried to recreate Pachirat’s unruly outsider paragraph from the lens of a different group who consider themselves something of an unruly, insurgent outsider group*** who read voraciously from across multiple disciplines and borrow promiscuously from them:

Causal inference is particularly unruly, particularly undisciplined, particularly celebratory of critique of established scholars and their findings, and particularly attuned to the possibilities of surprise and subversion in ways that other methods simply are not. If we think of the range of research methods in political science as a big family, causal inference is clearly the youngest, somewhat spoiled, attention-seeking child, always poking fun at and annoying her more disciplined, established, and outwardly-successful older siblings. Causal inference comes home to family reunions with a copy of Cryptonomicon under one arm and a TV on the Radio LP under the other, and snickers at her father’s admonition to “use probit or else!” At the dinner table, she interrupts her older brother’s endless description of his last full moon party on Phi Phi Island in Thailand by interjecting “how utterly conventional” and leaving it at that. Given that kind of unruliness, it’s no wonder that the older siblings and father figures of our discipline often revert to the language of “disciplining” and “harnessing” causal inference, of bringing her wild and unruly impulses under control by making her abide by the rules of the dinner table. In short, causal inference may be fun and exciting, but she might also get you excommunicated from the family.

I will note that this wasn’t particularly hard to do. I wonder if it rings true.

I’ll conclude by clarifying what I fear might not be clear from above: If you are reading this as anti-interpretivist snark, you have missed my point. I take it as incontrovertible that interpretivist methods and ethnography have value and place in political science. I am suggesting that we use these methods to understand ourselves better.


* Tim’s Every Twelve Seconds is the closest thing to a new classic of anything written by anyone near to my grad school cohort. At least, that’s what I think.
** I have never been able to pin down this term satisfactorily. It is not good that I can still use it in a sentence.
*** For example, “the credibility revolution” and “randomista.”

Posted in Research, Teaching

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
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