Uncertainty, Process, Coups, and Transitions

The big news of the past twenty-four hours as been the unfolding situation in Zimbabwe (coverage at CNN, BBC, The Guardian, and the NY Times).

It is nearly impossible for observers to know what is going on at the moment. Is it a coup or not? Is 93-year old Robert Mugabe being sidelined, or overthrown, or just confined to his house until order is restored? All of the coverage of the situation in Zimbabwe is centered around answering these and other questions, to figure out what is really happening. The Al Jazeera article carrying the title “Zimbabwe: What’s Happening?” illustrates this well.

In that context it is helpful to step back from these details to consider what we know about coups and other forms of political transitions. A central insight from process-based conceptualizations of political transitions is the central role that uncertainty plays in political transitions. Uncertainty is not a bug, a problem of our ability to detect the “real” events on the ground from afar. Rather, uncertainty is a core feature of the politics of transitions; in the words of O’Donnell and Schmitter (1986),

the high degree of uncertainty and indeterminacy which surrounds those who participate in a transition, both with respect to their short-term interactions and, even more so, with respect to the medium- and long-term consequences which ensue. It is not just that the actors are uncertain about the identity, resources, and intentions of wthose with whom they are playing the transitional game. They are also aware (or should be aware) that their momentary confrontations, expedient solutions, and contingent compromises are in effect defining rules which may have a lasting but largely unpredictable effect on how and by whom the “normal” political game will be played in the future.

This has implications for how we approach the news coverage of events in Zimbabwe. The question “is it a coup or not” misses the very point of what’s happening: actors themselves may not know, the outcomes do not depend neatly on the intentions of the participants, and all players have incentives to bluff and misrepresent their true intentions and the strength of their positions. (O’Donnell and Schmitter call this “playing coup poker.”) What this means is that the “facts on the ground” to be uncovered are not some objective estimates of how strong various actors are, but the messy processes through which actors interact with one another in real time. It is just as interesting to ask “who do the coup participants think is listening to their proclamations?” as it is to examine what these actors are saying.

That this kind of politics is disorganized and uncertain is not a problem of us being able to detect what is happening, or a consequence of us being unable to wade through the noise to find out the true state of affairs. That it is disorganized is a reflection of the very nature of these kinds of transitional moments.

Early Analysis of the Trump Presidency: A Retrospective Personal Evaluation

Starting in early 2017, I wrote several essays on this blog about how to make sense of the new Trump administration, applying some basic insights from comparative politics and political economy. Those essays were inspired by popular commentary that the U.S. had elected an authoritarian leader, and/or that the new administration was dragging the country towards authoritarian rule. Here are links to the essays:

  1. Everyday Authoritarianism is Boring and Tolerable (later reposted at Vox)
  2. Personal Rule and Political Institutions
  3. Dictators use the Media Differently than Narcissists and Bullies
  4. Weak and Incompetent Leaders act like Strong Leaders
  5. Democracy is not Government by Democrats, and Authoritarianism is not Government by Authoritarians (later reposted in a modified form at the Monkey Cage)

Just the other day, Crystal Huff tweeted this:

It’s a great question. How have those early analyses stood up after nine months of the Trump administration? Although it would be better to have others evaluate my writing rather than me doing it myself, I view those pieces to have been remarkably accurate about some key features of the Trump administration.

The first thing to note is how weak the president is as a force for policymaking and overall governance. The theme of “Weak and Incompetent Leaders Act like Strong Leaders” is the observational equivalence of most accounts of the real workings of the Trump administration. I have been convinced by the writings of Matt Glassman that the Trump administration is distinctly bad at governing, and more broadly at setting and following through on the policy agenda. Some of its decisions seem frightening (strike that: for many Americans they are frightening), but the president has not distinguished himself whatsoever as a strong leader. Weak and incompetent seems right.

But what that essay underplayed is how much damage to norms and institutions can be done by an incompetent president.

Second, the problem of holding personalist leaders accountable is a big problem, and that has been the characteristic problem of the GOP Congress since January. From “Personal Rule and Political Institutions”:

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.

This is probably my most prescient single observation in those five essays. The administration has been very effective at self-dealing, the GOP has gotten much less than it might otherwise have out of supporting it, and yet without cooperation among the GOP and the congressional Democrats it will not be held to account.

But what that essay didn’t appreciate is just how pernicious that lack of accountability could prove to be. The odds of a pointless war with North Korea are far too high right now.

Third, the administration’s media strategy is a hot mess, not a coherent plan. From “Dictators Use Media Differently…”:

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 pattern repeats itself, and has completely undermined the administration’s credibility among probably 2/3 of the U.S. population. That credibility will never be rebuilt. And the administration will never create the kind of media dominance that it needs to control official political discourse.

But what that essay didn’t consider was how media segmentation would allow the remaining 1/3 of the U.S. population to be insulated from the self-undermining media behavior. It also did not address the idea that “fake news” might undermine mass acceptance of all news.

Finally, in “Democracy is not Government by Democrats…,” I wrote that trying to divine the true interior mental state of national leaders is a pointless exercise. Rather,

Just as democracies can be governed by authoritarians, so too can true-believing democrats lay the groundwork for authoritarianism. This, to me, is where those studying American democracy in these times ought to focus. Not on what elites believe, but what they do to the norms and institutions that sustain our current political regime.

Just yesterday I saw a commercial on CNN in which a billionaire plutocrat argued that the president should be impeached. The implications should be obvious for anyone who thinks that a Democratic president may someday hold office.

In all, these five essays captured well some core dynamics of the Trump administration long before they were plainly obvious. In that regard, I count them a success. They also missed some important features of current politics too. For that reason, it makes sense for political scientists—and especially comparativists—to continue to show how the tools that we have developed can make sense of a truly unprecedented presidency. After all, as I also wrote last February, this is the best time ever to study political science.