Dictators use the Media Differently than Narcissists and Bullies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Current Affairs, Indonesia, Malaysia, Politics

Personal Rule and Political Institutions

Daron Acemoglu has a strong essay in Foreign Policy on democratic institutions and the incoming administration. It make the case that American political institutions may not suffice to contain a leader who wishes to challenge them. It is a powerful piece given that one of Acemoglu’s signature contributions, together with James Robinson and coauthors, has been to argue for the primacy of political institutions in political economy (e.g. here, here, here, all PDFs, and here). From the FP essay,

What makes America vulnerable to being blindsided by such a threat is our unwavering — and outdated — belief in the famed strength of our institutions. Of course, the United States has much better institutional foundations and a unique brand of checks and balances, which were entirely absent in Venezuela, Russia, and Turkey. But many of these still won’t be much help against the present threat. Not only are America’s institutions particularly ill-equipped, in this moment, to stand up against Trump; in some cases they may actually enable him.

How do might we square Acemoglu’s emphasis on political institutions in so much of his published research with his concerns about their weakness in the present case? One place to look is elsewhere in Acemoglu’s own research: specifically, his work on political order and stability in institution-free environments (see e.g. here, here, here, all PDFs again). This work is relatively less appreciated outside of theoretical political economy, as it tends to admit fewer clean comparative statics that suggest empirical tests. Yet it entertains exactly this sort of question: without the assumption that laws are self-executing or that constitutions automatically constrain, when and what kind of order will emerge?

The most relevant piece is probably “Kleptocracy and Divide-and-Rule: A Model of Personal Rule” (PDF, also joint with Robinson and Thierry Verdier). The model is designed to capture something other than American politics (the first sentence begins “Many developing countries…”) but the underlying political context seems to capture what it is that Acemoglu is worried about:

A study of the political economy of such regimes must depart from the standard presumptions of most research in economics and political science, which assume that rulers make choices within strongly institutionalized polities. In these polities, formal political institutions, such as the constitution, the structure of the legislature, or electoral rules, place constraints on the behavior of politicians and political elites, and directly influence political outcomes. In contrast, kleptocracy emerges in weakly institutionalized polities, where formal institutions neither place significant restrictions on politicians’ actions nor make them accountable to citizens…. What determines corruption, rent extraction and bad policies when institutions are weak? Indeed, the qualitative nature of politics appears to differ markedly between strongly and weakly institutionalized polities: when institutions are strong, citizens punish politicians by voting them out of power; when institutions are weak, politicians punish citizens who fail to support them. When institutions are strong, politicians vie for the support and endorsement of interest groups; when institutions are weak, politicians create and control interest groups. When institutions are strong, citizens demand rights; when institutions are weak, citizens beg for favors.

The argument builds on the idea that a personal ruler can use favors to forestall opposition coordination. But interestingly, such favors are not actually doled out in equilibrium. Rather, they are credible threats that prevent opposition coordination, with the result that the kleptocrat just steals but no one does anything about it.

Now, there is some slippage between this model and American politics at present. In particular, the difference between the “two producer groups” in the model (who, by assumption, have solved any internal coordination problems) and the issue multidimensionality of American politics (urban-rural, rich-poor, identity, geography…). But the logic is interesting and potentially generative. We might build on it through analogy. For example, the precondition for overthrow of the kleptocrat in Acemoglu et al.’s model is opposition coordination. If the opposition will not coordinate (for reasons outside of the model), then that undermines accountability still further. Strong partisan polarization could do this—if members of different parties just will not cooperate, then the result is not one party holding the other accountable. Instead, it is neither party holding the executive accountable, and one party believing that it may benefit from favors that it never will receive.

One area to explore further is the destruction of political institutions as a strategy by an aspiring kleptocrat. The Acemoglu et al. model begins without strong institutions. What would have to be true for a society that does have strong institutions to find them undermined by a kleptocrat? There are two possibilities. One is that what we call “strong institutions” are actually illusory, the names that we give to what are actually equilibria among various social and political forces. Although I have written about how institutions can appear effective when they are not, I do not believe this to be true in the U.S. case. The other is that rulers can take actions that undermine what were once real, strong institutions. I am not aware of any formal theoretical treatments of such a phenomenon, but it would be interesting to read one. We do have many good descriptions of how institutions are undermined in places like Venezuela, Turkey, and Russia.

One might wonder what the policy recommendation or action item is from this discussion. I can suggest two, both in the spirit of the FP essay that inspired me to write this. One is to see with clear eyes that institutions do not constrain politicians automatically. They do so because politicians (or citizens, or movements) act. I happen to hold the personal political view that Americans do not have political rights because the Constitution guarantees them, we have a Constitution that guarantees them because people demanded them. The other is to see the importance of bridge-building with one’s political opponents in defense of the system that allows us to disagree meaningfully in the first place.

NB: Some readers may find the title of this post familiar. I adopted it from Bill Liddle’s essay on Indonesia’s New Order in the 1980s, entitled “Soeharto’s Indonesia: Personal Rule and Political Institutions.” It is also worth a read, although it asks the question of how a personal ruler can build political institutions, rather than how an institutionalized executive can undermine them.

Posted in Current Affairs, Politics

Comparative Methods: New Syllabus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Teaching

U.S.-Indonesian Relations at a Crossroads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

** A.k.a. Daes Dae’mar.

Posted in Current Affairs, Indonesia, Islam, Politics

Lorraine Chuen on Food, Race, and Power

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Asia, Food and Drink

Finding and Eating the Old Malacca

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

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

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

Don't Mess with Melaka.

Don’t Mess with Melaka.

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

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

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

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

Kampung Portugis Home

Kampung Portugis Home

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

Texeira Street

Texeira Street

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

Bong Anu Nobu = Bom Ano Novo = Happy New Year

Bong Anu Nobu = Bom Ano Novo = Happy New Year

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

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

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


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

Perfect Cendol

Perfect Cendol

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

Isaac Tan Kong Ming with his family tree

Isaac Tan Kong Ming with his family tree

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

Fishing boat jetty, Kampung Portugis

Fishing boat jetty, Kampung Portugis

Huge new construction dominating the Kampung Portugis skyline

Huge new construction dominating the Kampung Portugis skyline

Commentary on the community messageboard

Commentary on the community messageboard

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

Posted in Food and Drink, Malaysia, Travel

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
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