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

Everyday Authoritarianism is Boring and Tolerable

Malaysia is a country that I know well, and whose political system I have studied closely for fifteen years. It is also a country whose political liberalization I have long awaited. Malaysia has a multiparty parliamentary system of government, but the same coalition of parties has been in power for six decades, and has never lost a general election. The government retains—in a holdover from the British colonial period—the legal authority to detain people without trial if it so desires. The print and broadcast media are fairly compliant, mostly owned by the corporate allies of political elites, and rarely criticize the government.

Living in Malaysia and working on Malaysian politics has taught me something important about authoritarianism from my perspective as an American. That is, the mental image of authoritarian rule in the minds of most Americans is completely unrealistic, and dangerously so.

Even though Malaysia is a perfectly wonderful place to visit, and an emerging market economy grappling with the same “middle income trap” issues that characterize most emerging market economies, scholars of comparative politics do not consider it to be an electoral democracy. Freedom House considers Malaysia “Partly Free.” The Democracy-Dictatorship dataset codes Malaysia as a civilian dictatorship, as do Boix-Miller-Rosato. Levitsky and Way consider Malaysia to be a classic case of competitive authoritarianism. There are quite a few other countries like Malaysia: Mexico and Taiwan for most of the 20th century, Russia, Turkey, Singapore, Cameroon, Tanzania, and others.

The mental image that most American harbor of what actual authoritarianism looks like is fantastical and cartoonish. This vision of authoritarian rule has jackbooted thugs, all-powerful elites acting with impunity, poverty and desperate hardship for everyone else, strict controls on political expression and mobilization, and a dictator who spends his time ordering the murder or disappearance of his opponents using an effective and wholly compliant security apparatus. This image of authoritarianism comes from the popular media (dictators in movies are never constrained by anything but open insurrection), from American mythmaking about the Founding (and the Second World War and the Cold War), and from a kind of “imaginary othering” in which the opposite of democracy is the absence of everything that characterizes the one democracy that one knows.

Still, that fantastical image of authoritarianism is entirely misleading as a description of modern authoritarian rule and life under it. It is a description, to some approximation, of totalitarianism. Carl Friedrich is the best on totalitarianism (see PDF), and Hannah Arendt of course on its emergence (PDF). But Arendt and Friedrich were very clear that totalitarianism is exceptional as a form of politics.

The reality is that everyday life under the kinds of authoritarianism that exist today is very familiar to most Americans. You go to work, you eat your lunch, you go home to your family.* There are schools and businesses, and some people “make it” through hard work and luck. Most people worry about making sure their kids get into good schools. The military is in the barracks, and the police mostly investigate crimes and solve cases. There is political dissent, if rarely open protest, but in general people are free to complain to one another. There are even elections. This is Malaysia, and many countries like it.

Everyday life in the modern authoritarian regime is, in this sense, boring and tolerable. It is not outrageous. Most critics, even vocal ones, are not going to be murdered like Anna Politkovskaya, they are going to be frustrated. Most not-very-vocal critics will live their lives completely unmolested by the security forces. They will enjoy it when the trains run on time, blame the government when they do not, gripe at their taxes, and save for vacation. Elections, when they happen, will serve the “anesthetic function” that Philippe Schmitter attributed to elections in Portugal under Salazar in the greatly underappreciated in 1978 volume Elections without Choice.

Life under authoritarian rule in such situations looks a lot like life in a democracy. As Malaysia’s longtime Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad used to say, “if you don’t like me, defeat me in my district.”

This observation has two particular consequences. One, for asking if “the people” will tolerate authoritarian rule. The premise upon which this question is based is that authoritarianism is intolerable generally. It turns out that most people express democratic values, but living in a complicated world in which people care more about more things than just their form of government, it is easy to see that given an orderly society and a functioning economy, democratic politics may become a low priority.** The answer to the question “will ‘the people’ tolerate authoritarian rule?” is yes, absolutely.

Second, for knowing if you are living in an authoritarian regime versus a democratic one. Most Americans conceptualize a hypothetical end of American democracy in Apocalyptic terms. But actually, you usually learn that you are no longer living in a democracy not because The Government Is Taking Away Your Rights, or passing laws that you oppose, or because there is a coup or a quisling. You know that you are no longer living in a democracy because the elections in which you are participating no longer can yield political change.

It is possible to read what I’ve written here as a defense of authoritarianism, or as a dismissal of democracy. But my message is the exact opposite. The fantasy of authoritarianism distracts Americans from the mundane ways in which the mechanisms of political competition and checks and balances can erode. Democracy has not survived because the alternatives are acutely horrible, and if it ends, it will not end in a bang. It is more likely that democracy ends, with a whimper, when the case for supporting it—the case, that is, for everyday democracy—is no longer compelling.


*The parallelism between this sentence and The Lumberjack Song are entirely inadvertent.

**It is also the case the many people find democracy rather intolerable too. By this I do not mean that people do not value democracy. Rather, I mean that in democracy, it is also the case that most of the very things that motivate people to oppose authoritarian rule—corruption, cronyism, inequality, unfairness—usually still exist.

Posted in Malaysia, Politics

First Mee Hokkien

I recently learned that I am no longer allergic to shellfish. I first received a diagnosis of a shellfish allergy back in 2004 after undergoing the standard allergy test, but since then had never experienced an adverse reaction despite several incidents of involuntary exposure. Curious as to how this could be possible, I visited a different allergist in summer 2016, who conducted the same allergy test that was conducted twelve years earlier, and gave me the opposite diagnosis. It’s not clear if I somehow grew out of my allergy, or if the first diagnosis was in error.

One consequence of my diagnosis in 2004 is that I have never before tried some of the most classic dishes of Indonesian and Malaysian cuisine. Never before have I eaten chilli crab, or most versions of curry laksa, or char kway teow, or any number of other signature dishes featuring prawns or squid.* As I find myself in Kuala Lumpur for the next week, I now have an opportunity to try all of these things that I’ve never tried before.

For my inaugural Indolaysian shellfish meal, I chose Hokkien mee, a dish that I’ve always lusted after. I chose “KL-style” over “Singapore-style” as it’s the version I first came to know, and because I tend to enjoy the dark sweet soy sauce noodle flavor. I visited a place called Mun Wah Hokkien Mee on the recommendation of several internet sources that claimed it was among the best places in central KL for Hokkien mee. Here is what we have.

Glistening, glorious Hokkien mee

Glistening, glorious Hokkien mee

Visible here: those fat Hokkien-style noodles, little pork cracklings, sliced pork, squid, veg. Not visible here: wok hei, shrimp, and the pig liver that is the Mun Wah signature touch and which creates an ultra-rich sauce. The verdict: those cracklings are oh so fun, and the mouthfeel of the slippery mee is just as good as I had hoped, but this dish was not as good as I expected! I suspect that I would have preferred a liver-free version. I found the occasional ocean-y bite to be not unpleasant, but not particularly delicious either.

Mun Wah the restaurant was quite the experience. I infer that despite serving Hokkien mee, the restaurant is run by Cantonese speakers, as they kept referring to me as the gwai lo rather than the ang mo. The proprietor (and also the chef) spent quite a bit of time explaining all of the other dishes that I should also order to try, despite the fact that he speaks no English and I speak no Cantonese. I tried to speak Malay to him, but no dice.


* It’s actually worse than it sounds. One of the consequences of my (alleged) allergy was that I had to be extra careful about ordering even those dishes that don’t normally have shellfish in them, like many versions of nasi goreng and otak-otak. I learned this the hard way in Sydney on our honeymoon, when I ordered hot and sour soup and it came with prawns floating in it. Incidentally, I have also never eaten a Moreton Bay bug.

Posted in Food and Drink, Malaysia

Berman on Fascism

Sheri Berman has written an excellent essay at Vox on fascism, populism, and president-elect Trump. Read the whole thing here, but here are the main points.

As a student of fascism and National Socialism, particularly in the 1930s, I side with those who say that Trump still falls on the “populist” side of the spectrum. That hardly means that he or the people who claim to be part of his movement do not pose a threat to democracy, but the type of threat differs from that posed by “classical” fascists.

Still, given how prevalent the term fascism has become in American and European political debates — and there is a parallel discussion across the Atlantic over whether France’s Front National, led by Marie Le Pen, or Germany’s Pegida party, or Austria’s Freedom Party ought to be described as fascist or populist — it is worth carefully considering what made fascism distinct and so politically powerful. Doing so will allow us to gain a better handle on whether we face similar dangers today to those of the ’30s.

Academics have fought passionately over how to define fascism, but scholars generally focus on four crucial characteristics. First fascists were nationalists: They believed the nation, rather than individuals (like liberals) or classes (like Marxists), was the key actor in political life; that it existed above or separate from the citizens composing it; and that it had a special mission or “soul” that needed to be nurtured and protected from internal and external enemies…

Second, fascists shared a deep suspicion of capitalism, because it disrupted and divided national communities and destroyed national traditions. They therefore advocated a level of state intervention in the economy surpassed only by the contemporary Soviet Union…

Third, fascists were deeply anti-liberal and anti-democratic. Liberalism was rejected for its promotion of individualism and individual rights, its emphasis on reason and rationality, its acceptance of pluralism, and its cosmopolitanism. As Mussolini once argued, “The man of fascism is [not merely] an individual, he is nation and fatherland.” The good life, he suggested, is one “in which the individual, through the denial of himself, through the sacrifice of his own private interests, through death itself, realized that completely spiritual existence in which his value as a man lies.” (Self-denial and the sacrifice of self-interests are not qualities that Trump is especially known for.)…

Fourth, fascists embraced violence as a means and an end. Fascism was revolutionary: It aimed not to reform but to destroy the modern world — and for this, a constant and probably violent struggle would be necessary. Violence was not merely the method through which revolution would be accomplished; it was valuable in and of itself, providing supporters with powerful “bonding” experiences and “cleansing” the nation of its weaknesses and decadence….

I recommended Berman’s treatment of social capital and the fall of the Weimar Republic in my post on Comparative Politics and the Trump Administration, as the interwar years provide an excellent example of what the rise of fascism actually looked like. One key point that I take from Berman’s work on the rise of the NSDAP in Germany is that fascists organize.* Fascists don’t crush unions, they embrace them so that they can be used. EDIT: This is a fine point. In the German case, independent trade unions were smashed almost immediately, with workers reorganized into a compulsory centralized union, the Deutsche Arbeitsfront. Fascists don’t want people to be politically anesthetized, eyes glued to the popular media, they want people to sacrifice time and money to show their might as a movement. What made the NSDAP distinctive in interwar Germany was not its virulent anti-Semitism, but rather its ability to organize a political movement and later the administrative machinery to act upon that anti-Semitism.

The phenomena to look for in anticipating fascism—in the US and anywhere—are corporatism, syndicalism, and organized mass mobilization. Not celebrity, cronyism, and politics by tweet.


* It is in this sense that Indonesia’s Golkar (“functional groups”) under the New Order—with its embrace of (heavily controlled) labor unions, its forced mass mobilization, and metaphors of nation as body and family—was the closest thing that Southeast Asia has ever had to a fascist organization.

Posted in Current Affairs, Politics

Comparative Politics and the Trump Administration

Last week I wrote a silly post about international relations theory and the Trump administration. The purpose of that post was to poke some fun at the dozens of paradigms employed to make sense of the field of international relations, and also to comment obliquely about the radical uncertainty surrounding Trump administration foreign policy. Careful readers will have identified the last line—“Post-paradigmatic IR Let’s ask a comparativist—as the ultimate insult to post-paradigmatic international relations. If you’re not paradigmatic, just what are you doing?

And yet what would happen if we actually asked a comparativist about the Trump administration? That is the subject of today’s post, which is a bit more serious. It also responds to another disciplinary concern within political science, as many of my Americanist colleagues have commented to the effect of “we need to be talking to comparativists more” in recent weeks. Some colleagues have put together asources on current American politics that focus on questions such as illiberal politics and democratic breakdowns (see e.g. Jeff Colgan here). What I have done instead is more general. I took a general, introductory grad-level syllabus in the field of comparative politics (PDF), and scanned it for readings that seem particularly timely and useful. Below is what I found, based on “required readings” only. At the end of the post, I reflect on limitations of this particular syllabus.

Consider the list of readings below as “comparative politics answers” to “Trump administration questions.”

Theda Skocpol. 1985. “Bringing the State Back In,” in Peter Evans, Dietrich Rueschemeyer, and Theda Skocpol (eds.) Bringing the State Back In. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Just what is this thing “America” that will be made great again? A state. Just what is a state, and what allows it to have properties such as “greatness” (if at all)? Skocpol synthesizes an emerging research agenda from the late 1970s and early 1980s on the state that has remained influential for thinking about both the American state and others around the world.

Randall Calvert. 1995. “Rational Actors, Equilibrium, and Social Institutions.” In Explaining Social Institutions, edited by J. Knight and I. Sened. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan.

One of the more urgent questions that many progressives are asking is how American political institutions will constrain a party that controls all major branches of government. So why do politicians act the way they do? Because institutions constrain them. But who creates institutions? Politicians. Then just how do institutions constrain politicians? No easy answers. Calvert helps us to construct a framework for thinking through some possibilities.

Robert Dahl. 1972. Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Philippe C. Schmitter and Terry Lynn Karl. 1991. “What Democracy Is…And Is Not.” Journal of Democracy 2(3): 3-16.

What do we mean by “democracy”? These are two classic statements. For Dahl, democracy is an ideal, and actually existing political systems depart from it in terms of how inclusive and how competitive they are. For Schmitter and Karl, the important thing is that democracy is not the same as “all sorts of good things like justice and peace and fairness.”

Adam Przeworski. 1999. “Minimalist conception of democracy: a defense.” In Democracy’s Value, ed. Ian Shapiro and Casiano Hacker-Cordon. New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 23-55.

Why do we consider democracy to be something to be valued in the first place? Przeworski entertains lots of possible answers, and gives us a good synopsis of reasons why we ought to dismiss things like “the common welfare.” His answer is perhaps surprising, that it allows us to know who would win in a conflict without actually having the conflict.

Jeffrey Winters. 2011. Oligarchy. New York: Cambridge University Press.

It’s common to hear complaints that the United States is an oligarchy. But what does it mean analytically to say that the United States is an “oligarchy”? Winters offers one answer, in which oligarchy is the defense of wealth by individuals whose political power derives disproportionately from their material resources. Just about every actually existing society is, for Winters, an oligarchy (which makes “the U.S. is an oligarchy!” not a very interesting statement), but oligarchies nevertheless vary, and that is interesting. Winters also distinguishes oligarchs from elites and (although not explicitly) plutocrats.

Sheri Berman. 1997. “Civil Society and the Collapse of the Weimar Republic,” World Politics 49 (3): 401-439.

There was a time in which Tocquevillians believed that a strong civil society was a bulwark against illiberalism. Berman uses the case of late Weimar Germany to show how an active civil society can not just allow illiberalism to flourish, but also encourage it.

Kenneth Roberts. 2006. “Populist Mobilization, Socio-Political Conflict, and Grass-Roots Organization in Latin America,” Comparative Politics 38(2): 127-148.

Roberts is one of the best scholars of populism around. This piece provides a typology of different kinds of populism and their relations to different kinds of mass social organization and party organization. I suspect that his category “partisan populism” where “the development of labor and civic organizations lags behind the development of the party apparatus” best describes President-elect Trump’s brand of populism—partisan, but organizationally fragmented.

Contributions by Karen Beckwith, Teri Caraway, Leslie A. Schwindt-Bayer, Aili Mari Tripp, Lisa Baldez, and Georgina Waylen to “A Comparative Politics of Gender,” Perspectives on Politics 8(1): 159-231.

Gender is everywhere in politics. It is a lot more than “when are women elected to office?” and “do women represent ‘women’s interests’?”. Read these selections to learn more.

John Aldrich. 2011. Why Parties? A Second Look, 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

This is one of the few “Americanist” books that makes it onto the comparative politics required readings list, as it helps to understand what political parties are actually for without resorting to the idea that they are an organic expression of some set of interests. Once we take away that assumption, it becomes much easier to understand why partisans are, well, partisan.

Gary W. Cox. 1997. Making Votes Count: Strategic Coordination in the World’s Electoral Systems. New York: Cambridge University Press.

This is basically the careful, scientific explanation for why we in the U.S. always have to choose between Kang and Krodos. “Go ahead, throw your vote away.”

David J. Samuels and Matthew S. Shugart. 2010. Presidents, Parties, and Prime Ministers: How the Separation of Powers Shapes Party Organization and Behavior. New York: Cambridge University Press.

This book is a great introduction to two things. One, the difference between presidential and parliamentary systems. Two, to the relationship between presidentialism and the types of parties and legislative-executive relations that follow. In our presidential system, parties are presidentialized, which means that the GOP and the Democrats (and also the Greens and the Libertarians and the Reform Party) reflect the style and the priority of the executive much more than is the case in a parliamentary system. Basically, forget “A Better Way,” focus on whatever it is that President Trump stand for. Maybe The Party Decides the nomination, but the president decides what partisanship will mean. The introduction to this book also contains some helpful snark on what Americanists and comparativists have not learned from one another.

Kenneth M. Roberts. 2013. “Market Reform, Programmatic (De)Alignment, and Party System Stability in Latin America,” Comparative Political Studies 46(11): 1422-1452.

Roberts again, this time on party systems, arguing that when leftist parties embrace neoliberal or pro-market principles, they may reap temporary electoral gain but at the cost of severing the link between party and ideological position. When that happens, the party system itself is at risk. Originally developed to explain Latin America; apply to New Democrats and New Labour at your own risk.

Robert Putnam. 1993. Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. Princeton University Press.

A classic explanation of “why government works” in northern Italy but not southern Italy, focusing on civil society and social capital. Americanists are usually familiar with Putnam’s Bowling Alone, but Making Democracy Work raises some questions about politics around the U.S. Does “democracy work” equally well in the Rust Belt and in the Bay Area? Might we link the decline of civic associationalism to the kinds of anomie and despair we learn about in Hillbilly Elegy?

Herbert Kitschelt. 2000. “Linkages between Citizens and Politicians in Democratic Polities,” Comparative Political Studies 33(6/7): 845-879.

Kitschelt provides the best typology out there of differences in how politicians get votes from citizens. “Charismatic politicians disarticulate political programs thatwould distract from their personality and force them to invest in techniques of resolving the problem of social choice. They tend to promise all things to all people to maintain maximum personal discretion over the strategy of their party vehicle.” It also usefully breaks down the notion that “programmatic” linkages are characteristic of “advanced” democracies and “clientelism” or “charismatic” of “developing countries.”

Bo Rothstein and Jan Teorell. 2008. “What Is Quality of Government? A Theory of Impartial Government Institutions.” Governance 21(2): 165-90.

Everyone is in favor of “good governance,” but almost no one can define it. Rothstein and Teorell focus on impartiality, and are suitably thoughtful about what it means for a government to be impartial. There are interesting implications for swamp dwellers and swamp drainers alike.

Gøsta Esping-Andersen. 1990. The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Welfare systems are not an “on-or-off” variable, and there is no single dimension along which we can categorize welfare provisions. Esping-Andersen identifies three “systems” or “worlds” of welfare in capitalist societies: means-tested programs that identify the needy and support them, solidaristic or corporatist arrangements that tie benefits to types of employment, and universalistic arrangements that grant benefits to everyone regardless of need or station. Behind each kind of system there is a political story.

Torben Iversen and David Soskice. 2015. “Democratic Limits to Redistribution: Inclusionary versus Exclusionary Coalitions in the Knowledge Economy.” World Politics 67(2): 185-225.

The current mantra among many cosmopolitan liberals is that the real source of disappearing jobs for low skilled workers is not globalization, it is technological change. Assume that this is true—that the problem is not the global economy, it is the knowledge economy. Iversen and Soskice explain that defending the interests of unskilled labor in a knowledge economy requires coalitions between the unskilled workers and skilled workers. Such coalitions are unlikely in majoritarian political systems such as the United States.

Errors and Omissions

Obviously I did not design the syllabus above to be maximally useful for making sense of contemporary American politics. Were I to construct such a syllabus, what would I change? Not very much, but here are three things that I would do.

First, I would move into the required reading some pieces on elections and “the control of politicians,” perhaps Ferejohn (1986) or Fearon (1999). The question to ask is, under what conditions do elections incentivize politicians to respond to the interests of their constituents, which is only addressed indirectly in the assigned readings.

Second, I would look harder for something else on identity and comparative politics that goes beyond attempts to estimate the effect of ethnic diversity on something, or old-fashioned Parsonian functionalism, and asks why identity motivates political action in the first place.

Third, I’d find a way to address race explicitly. Comparative politics is good at identity, including ethnicity and nationalism. On the comparative politics of race as a distinct analytical category, this syllabus is weak.

Posted in Current Affairs, Politics, Teaching

International Relations Theory and the Trump Administration

Yesterday afternoon, a student asked me in office hours what International Relations Theory has to say about the new Trump administration. There has been some discussion of realism and Mr. Trump’s foreign policy, and some musings about the Trump administration’s implications for different IR paradigms. There is also, obviously, a lot of serious debate about issues of American foreign policy and national interests. Engaged IR scholars such as Elizabeth Saunders, Jeff Colgan, Dan Drezner, and Jessica Weiss (among many others) have contributed significantly to these discussions.

In the interest of adding just a bit of levity to current events, though, here is the answer that I wanted to give her. Try not to be too offended.

Offensive realism – Let’s go ahead and invade Latvia first. Heads up, Latvians.

Defensive realism – Let’s go ahead and fortify Latvia first. Heads up, Latvians.

Classical realismPlataea sounds kinda like Latvia.

Neoclassical realism – We really need a good way to distinguish empirically between underbalancing and nonbalancing right about now.

Structural realism – If President Trump is not constrained by the international system, then his actions lie outside of the ambit of a Proper Scientific Theory of International Relations.

Liberal IR – Take preferences seriously yes but also take institutions seriously too. Like the Electoral College.

Open Economy PoliticsStolper-Samuelson. Michigan. *mic drop*

Constructivism – See, structure does not determine interests.

Feminist IR – We’ve been warning you about this for some time now.

Queer IR – In a post-fact world, foreign policy statements are neither sincere nor strategic.

Practice theory – Most of what the incoming President does all day is Tweet. We must understand this habitus as constitutive of American foreign policy.

Bureaucratic politicsUm Gottes Willen we hope that we are relevant.

Neoliberal Institutionalism – We’ll second that.

The English SchoolYou know, we’re living in a society.

Environmental IR – We are pretty much f*cked.

Postmodern IRDa Da Da.

World systems theory – Make America the Core Again!

Dependency theory – Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

Postcolonial IR – In othering Putin, you have created him.

Formal Theories of IR – Um, are we forbidden from employing the common priors assumption now?

Democratic Peace TheoryRemain calm. All is well!

Power Transition Theory – China (HT Scott A.W. Brown)

Post-paradigmatic IR – Let’s ask a comparativist.

Posted in Politics, Research

Interests, Ideas, and Identity

Nothing is more productive for stale academic debates than a momentous yet unexpected political event. 2016 has seen at least two such events: Brexit and Trump. As a sometime-participant in a stale political debate on ideas versus interests in political economy, these two momentous events have been nothing if not intellectually productive.

My hunch is that the next big conceptual move for political economy is to take identity seriously. The task for political economists now is to integrate identity into our theoretical architectures as a conceptual primitive rather than as a nuisance, a behavioral distraction, or as merely a consequence of something else.

[If you are reading this and pounding the table, saying “I’ve been doing this for years,” please bear with me. I recognize that scholarship on identity and political economy has a long history. I am proposing that we need to do it more, and rather differently.]

What would this look like? Take, for example, the literature about preferences for economic integration. One view holds that people’s preferences are a function of their economic interests: in the simplest Stolper-Samuelson world, low skill workers in advanced economies should oppose trade, and high skill workers should favor it. In a world in which ideas are foundational, individuals favor trade because they have learned (or come to believe in) a cosmopolitan worldview in which trade is good—they possess a causal belief about what trade does. In a world in which identity matters, people oppose trade because they are part of a community that opposes trade.

The first thing to observe about this identity-based explanation is how vacuous it seems. “One does X because one is an X-doer” is infinitely generative claim, but that is because it is nearly tautological. Here is a more pointed way to think about identity in political economy. When people search for information about what they should do, how do they go about it? One view is that they consider costs and benefits, although not necessarily in a materialist or egoistic way. Another view is that they consider their existing beliefs about how the world works, and then try to apply them by analogy. The third is that they look for cues among the beliefs and actions of people whom they consider to be like them. That third possibility is an argument for identity in political economy.

Another example: Why does Spain remain in the Euro? An argument about interests would suspect that it is in the interests of Spain’s leading sectors or a majority of citizens to remain within a monetary union with (most of) the rest of Western Europe. An argument about ideas would imply that the Spanish public and/or Spanish policymakers holds a belief about what leaving the Euro would mean. An argument about identity—one that seems consistent with my own impressions—would hold that being part of the Euro means identifying with a particular European project and aspiring to take part in that. My point is not that this argument is novel; far from it. Rather, my point is that explanations such as this one must be brought in to the “hard core” of political economy, whether it be from the perspective of open economy politics or critical political economy.

The good news is that there are many places to start for integrating identity into political economy. At the individual level, social identity theory is (in my view) among the most productive literatures in the social sciences. At the aggregate level, so-called “constructivist international political economy” has tended to be more interested in ideas than in identity (there are exceptions) but can otherwise offer useful insights. There is a rapidly growing literature on identity and political economy in comparative politics and development economics, although this literature has tended to be more interested in either explaining why identity comes to matter (why nationalism? are ethnic groups “real”?) or on the political and economic consequences of ethnic diversity or polarization. In American politics, racial orders are an obvious place to start, but even something as simple as partisan identity ought to taken seriously by political economists as not just an uninteresting control variable but as a theoretically meaningful explanatory concept.

So what should the road ahead look like? No one seriously believes that identity doesn’t matter at all in politics; the debate should be about when, under what conditions, how much, and in which domains? The first step will be to establish some empirical domain in which identity explains some political economy outcome that neither interests nor ideas can explain. The second and more interesting step will be to integrate ideas, interests, and identity into a coherent theoretical framework. Fortunately, there is good new theoretical work to build on. George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton and Moses Shayo and Sharun Mukand and Dani Rodrik have made essential contributions. The smart money is to follow these leads.

There are some interesting conceptual challenges that political economists working on identity will need to ponder. In a political economy of identity, how one comes to understand one’s own identity is itself interesting. I suspect that one of major conclusions that we will draw from Brexit and Trump is that modern political economies and communication technology are more communally isolating than ever before, making it easier and easier to construct everyday social worlds in which we interact meaningful only with people who are “like us.” Sociology’s perspective on this is homophily in social networks. How do these networks facilitate identification itself, or shape how one understands new information about an in-group? As an exercise, pause for just a moment and ponder just what the concept of a “basket of deplorables” signified in this light.

Another challenge is how to put identity into a causal model? Identities are not fixed or static, but emergent and situational—they can be shaped, they can evolve, and they can themselves be the consequence of identities and interests. One reason why identity has struggled in much political economy is that it is plausibly epiphenomenal on some other deeper thing. I outlined one version of this debate several weeks back, and my own thinking has evolved even from there.

A related issue is the distinctiveness of identity as an explanation. At a recent meeting of the International Political Economy Society, one argument introduced by a colleague is that standard mainstream IPE fared relatively well in explaining the outcome of the 2016 election. Those who stand to lose the most from globalization and deindustrialization voted against the incumbent party. So do we conclude that our existing theoretical architecture “worked”? Or do we include that we must ask different questions, why a particular class of distributional losers understood their interests to be represented in one particular way by a party campaigning using a particular discursive strategy? There are no easy answers. But these are essential questions for knowing whether a research community, in this case IPE, must adapt in response to a momentous political event.

I expect that this issue of identity in political economy will be a major theme in my own work over the coming years (see a preliminary output here [PDF]). I hope to see others take up this task as well.

Posted in Politics, Research

Inferring Whether the Polls Were Correct

Let’s say we want to estimate a quantity \theta. We form an estimate of that quantity \hat{\theta}_{A} = 51, with a 95% confidence interval of (49,53). Let’s say we form another estimate \hat{\theta}_{B} = 49, with a confidence interval of (47,51). And then it is revealed to us that \theta = 50. Which estimate, \hat{\theta}_{A} or \hat{\theta}_{B}, is the correct one? Can we infer that \hat{\theta}_{A} is correct?

It is easy to see that the answer to the first question is “we can’t tell, the data are equally consistent with both estimates.” The second question is more subtle, but the existence of \hat{\theta}_{B} suggests to us that we ought to be cautious about inferring that \hat{\theta}_{A} is somehow “correct.”

This toy example reveals something fundamentally rotten in the election polling postmortem.

Many polling pundits are arguing this week that the polls were “correct” in some sense because polling results produced estimates with confidence intervals (or credible intervals) that captured the final two-party vote share, either nationally or by state. Here is one example but there are many others to find. The above example makes clear that such inference should not be drawn. If we call the election poll aggregates \hat{\theta}_{A}, the results from Tuesday’s election (call them \theta) are equally consistent with the hypothesis that the aggregated estimates were perfectly unbiased and that those estimates were biased upward by four points.

The general point is this. The confidence interval around the two-party votes share estimate from polls reflects the standard error of the…estimate from the polls. It is not a confidence interval that captures the actual two-party vote share except under the hypothesis that the data generating process that produces the polls is the same data generating process as generates the vote. The same point holds for polling aggregates. We may not infer anything about the accuracy of the polls or the quality of the poll aggregates from the relationship between the election result and some confidence interval except for by maintaining that hypothesis. If we maintain an alternative hypothesis that the polls were systematically subject to substantial error in modeling turnout and/or voter intentions, these results are also consistent with many such hypotheses about the size of that error.

This point has momentous implications for public opinion polling and for American democracy. If one makes inferences about the quality or correctness of polls from C.I. coverage, then one might conclude that there is no need to reevaluate the polls themselves. Estimates of uncertainty are necessary in public opinion polling, but they also make it hard to diagnose fundamental, systematic error. The more informative way to proceed is to identify errors, as Sam Wang has done (“The business about 65%, 91%, 93%, 99% probability is not the main point”), and going forward, to learn how to minimize that error.

There is no way to avoid the secondary conclusion that this will be hard. As I wrote two days ago,

Future aggregates for future elections by sites like 538 are going to use historical performance (i.e., prediction error today) to weight or “adjust” future polls. It is possible that some polls were more accurate than others because they had better models of turnout and voter intentions. It is also possible that all polls were just off (“correlated errors,” in the lingo), and some of these randomly happened to be less off than others. If the latter is true, then adjustments in the future will be worse than useless—they will be chasing noise.

The future of election polling is not “whose polling aggregation method had the greatest uncertainty?” The future is “whose polls are the most accurate, and how do we know?” Anyone who suggests otherwise is either confused, or trying to sell you something.

Posted in Current Affairs, Politics, Research
On Twitter
%d bloggers like this: