Pepinsky and Snyder

Pepinsky and Snyder put forward two different ways a society can descend into authoritarian rule. In Snyder’s piece “Him,” descent into authoritarianism is a plunge into the depths of darkness with a Nazi-esk end. By contrast, Pepinsky argues that a descent into authoritarianism would be pretty much unnoticed and boring. Using Malaysia as an example, most people live their lives much like us here in the U.S. without thinking about living in a competitive authoritarian regime. Pepinsky notes the difference between authoritarianism and totalitarianism, the latter of which is what most people here think of when they think of authoritarian rule. Democracy will end, Pepinsky argues, without a bang and instead with a whimper.

I think Pepisnky’s vision of descent into authoritarian rule is the most feasible. Using Bermeo’s framework, most people are on the sidelines in political life and are ambivalent about politics, except when it directly affects them. Thus, I think that most people will not even notice when the same groups of elites win election after election. Furthermore, going back to Dickson and the CCP, most people in China legitimize their institutions by the outcomes of prosperity, stability, etc. I believe most people around the globe think this way as well. So, as long as many people are able to make money and the government doesn’t totally wreck the economy, a majority of the population will be content. However, when the economy turns sour or regime incompetence or extensive corruption become known, these autocracies could be in trouble. But again, the amount of polarization and mobilization against the regime would probably not be all that high, Bermeo would probably argue, but enough to threaten the regime’s survival perhaps.

The Polarization Model

Nancy Bermeo makes the basic argument that elites bear the brunt of the blame for democratic backsliding and the rise of authoritarianism. She looks at the post-WWI European governments, who all were newly experiencing democracy and found that in almost every example, elites voluntarily ceded power to Fascists, authoritarians, or anti-democrats. Even in the case of Germany, where there was probably the most support for the Nazis, Paul von Hindenburg’s hatred of the Left and distaste for parliamentary democracy led to the rise of Hitler and Nazi Germany. She concludes that citizens mostly had a peripheral role in the breakdown of democracy, unlike other scholars like Lipset and Huntington who blame the lack of education for the poor quality of the citizenry and the rise of too many pressure groups, respectively, on the breakdown of democracy.

In the contemporary U.S., I think Bermeo’s model is more sound than what, say, Huntington would argue. What we saw in the primaries and subsequent general election was turnout from groups of people who normally stay at home, voting and actively supporting insurgent candidates. A little over half of the voting-age population cast ballots the November election (55%), which means a significant percentage of people stayed at home. Thus, when Bermeo says a majority of people stay on the periphery, I think she is right.

What we did see happen, especially with the Republicans, is conservative elites mostly standing by and watching as an insurgent candidate rose in the polls and eventually capturing the nomination. Establishment Republicans knew that Trump had a significant percentage of vocal support that, if they spoke out against him, his supporters would lash out against them thus potentially putting their chances of election/incumbency at risk. Thus, a somewhat awkward coalition seems to have been made as the establishment’s self-interest dominated over other factors like ideology.

The Chinese Private Sector

The CCP has been quite successful in maintaining control over civil society. The Party’s idea of civil society goes back to the Mao era and the “mass line” concept, in which the Party uses the ideas of the masses and concentrates them into systematic ideas, then placing the ideas back onto the masses until they embrace the ideas. Dickson explains that it is “a pragmatic approach to governing that involves consultation with society without requiring the Party to be accountable to it” (98). Thus, reforms are framed as a “continuation of the mass line” instead of the Party providing transparency to policy. In the modern Chinese era, as Dickson explains civil society is more complex and can be classes into two categories: civil society I and II. Civil society I groups are primarily economic and social with goals that include social betterment and improvement. Civil society II groups are political in nature and include social movements and effectively want regime change. The CCP actively suppresses these groups.

An interesting case of the liberalization of China with the watchful eyes of the Party is displayed by the dynamics of the Chinese private sector. After the opening up and gradual liberalization of China after the Cultural Revolution, the private sector has been essential to the growth of the economy that has become the second largest in the world. Further, it has provided much needed tax revenue for the regime. However, the CCP has tried to tighten their grip on the private sector by creating Party organizations in as many private firms and NGOs as possible (156). These organizations are not as overbearingly political as they used to be, but they still are very much a show of the Party’s influence and strength in the economy. Dickson points out that most of the Party’s influence in the private sphere is less about indoctrination and more about management and branding. Thus, the Party is paternalistic in their dealings with the private sphere. So, their control over this part of civil society is quite successful, without being overtly repressive.

The Dictator’s Dilemma and Regime Strength

In The Dictator’s Dilemma, Bruce Dickson maps out the strategies the Chinese Communist Party uses to stay in power, and their corresponding dilemmas. Dickson identifies four features that the CCP uses for its legitimacy and maintenance of power, including repression, censorship, population control, and anti-corruption campaigns. He argues that although the regime may not necessarily be resilient, it is durable. Furthermore, economic growth by itself is not a reliable indicator of assessing CCP regime survival. Other methods are needed to ascertain the strength of the Chinese state.

Using Bueno de Mesquita/Smith and Schmitter/O’Donnell as theoretical guide, two obvious strengths of the CCP come to the fray. First, the CCP’s groups of essentials are very small, which keeps accountability and transparency at a minimum and thus power is more secure. The Politburo, the central decision-making body of the CCP, is not elected but rather chosen by larger central committee made up of party loyalists. Second, the CCP uses the right amount of repression to maintain order while still retaining legitimacy. They showed during the Tiananmen Square protests that they were absolutely willing to apply whatever force was necessary to maintain their grip on power, even if it meant massacring unarmed protesters. However, in order to maintain legitimacy, the regime has allowed some civic engagement and, of course, the opening up of markets and allowing citizens to accumulate wealth. The regime uses just the right amount of repression to keep order.

A key weakness of the regime’s strategy for holding on to power is highlighted in Schmitter and O’Donnell and that too much liberalization is a bad thing for the consolidation of authoritarian rule. With the widespread use of technology, increased mobility of the population, and increased openness of Chinese society presents potential problems for the regime. However, Dickson does note that the CCP’s censorship techniques are quite sophisticated and increased individual wealth tends to correlate with higher regime support. Thus, while the opening up of Chinese society presents potential problems for the regime, current analysis determines that the regime is relatively stable.

On Electoral Fraud

The articles all show the innovative, ingenious, and brutal ways electoral fraud was carried out in the late 19th century and early 20th century. As Democratic Party boss in Louisville, John Whallen masterminded the large-scale voter fraud in order to keep Democrats in power and his economic and political interests in tact. In Adams County, people from all classes bought and sold votes in municipal elections for small sums of money. The system was entrenched and hard to reform. In Campbell’s article, we can see both forms of voter fraud, adding votes and suppressing votes, in the 1905 Louisville election.

As to which form of electoral fraud is worse for democracy, actively suppressing opponent’s vote total is worse. Campbell provides a plethora of examples of the documented ways in which John Whallen went about suppressing the opposition. The most concerning of the evidence was the collusion between the political bosses and the police. On registration day and on election day itself, police officers threatened and beat would be voters and election officials. Furthermore, they abused their position as law enforcement to refuse African Americans to vote because they lived in ‘disreputable places’ and by busing in elderly voters to vote immediately at the expense of other voters who had been patiently waiting in line for hours (284). It is hard to vote if policemen harass and intimidate you while registering or waiting in line to vote.

It is important to note that as Campbell explains, Louisville is an example of how voter frauds occurs even when there is healthy competition among parties and a free press (278). Whallen and his cronies found ways to make sure that their preferred candidates won, by all means necessary, even with competition. The case study of the 1905 Louisville election and those in years previous show there are always cracks in the system that clever and corrupt men like Whallen are willing and able to exploit for their own gain.

Essentials, Influentials, and Interchangeables

What Bueno de Mesquita and Smith show in The Dictator’s Handbook is democratic leaders, as well as autocrats, are selected and held to account by the same ideas. The key difference however is the size of the leader’s ‘essentials’ and their ‘influentials’, or their key support and selectorate. Furthermore, even leaders like Kim Jong Un due not rule alone and are held to their influentials’ standard for autocratic rule.

Due to most autocratic regimes’ small influential groups, they are afforded the luxury of not having to have a robust policy platform. Instead, autocrats just have to placate and appease a very small group of elites in order to keep their job. Democrats on the other hand have a large group of ‘interchangables’ that have to be wooed by a thorough economic and political agenda. It is much harder to placate a large group of people rather than just a small group of powerful cronies. Thus, with democratic regimes, we can see their political agendas most of the time gravitating toward the center ground to appeal to as many people as possible.

To make democratic regimes more democratic, the simple answer would be to increase the number of interchangeables and the selectorate. Bueno de Mesquita and Smith use corporations as microcosm example of government throughout the book and increasing the number of shareholders definitely increases transparency of the corporations. For autocratic regimes, increasing transparency and the selectorate is key. One point Bueno de Mesquita and Smith offered was to not bailout autocrats when their economies are trashed. Bailing out bankrupt dictatorships gives money to despots to pay off their security forces and placate their cronies long enough to continue their leadership. When the money runs out, theoretically autocratic regimes have to reform and perhaps they would become more democratic.

American Democracy and the Racial State

Race and the construction of a racial state has mainly influenced the concept of citizenship in the process of democratization in the U.S. Race, as Olson points out, was a construction of white elites to prevent class war against them in 17th century Virginia. Citizenship came to be valued by the poor white men as something that could be, at any moment, taken away from them. Thus, white men came to resent and fear blacks because the blacks’ slavery could have become the white working class slavery. To poor whites, African-Americans represented everything they did not want to have happen to them.

The American experience of the construction of the “racial state” shows the lengths elites go to maintain their grip on wealth and power. Our earlier case study of Nigeria certainly has some parallels of the American example. While I would argue the Nigerian case had more to do with economics than citizenship, one can make the case that working class Nigerians were insecure about their rights of citizenship. Elites in Nigeria stirred up ethnic tensions in order to achieve higher returns at the ballot box. The stirring up of ethnic tensions was not just out of pure cynicism, but rather a calculated strategy to divide up the lower classes to prevent a class war, since there are many more lower-income people than wealthy elites. Ethnicities as well as race are both invented concepts in order to carve up and control the working classes.

The Struggle in the Early Republic

The economic situation in the early American republic was in pretty bad shape. The war of independence against Britain was destructive, as well as expensive. One of the problems of going to war with your biggest (and richer) trading partner is they control the terms of trade, thus resulting in unfavorable circumstances. The new government in Philadelphia had to generate revenue to improve the credit of the new republic, so elites and the government could borrow money.

The problem America had was how to get the cash. Bouton and Holton both explain how the state governments became more aggressive with tax collection. It was James Madison’s belief that new laws needed to be enacted to crack down on debtors, thus one of the reasons, as Holton points out, for his lobbying for a new constitution and federal government. More aggressive means to collect taxes and debts hurt the working class, since they had no money to pay the debts off. Many people had their property seized, or they were just thrown in jail. The working class debtors wanted tax and debt relief, but more specifically they wanted more fiat money in circulation. If more paper money was to be put into circulation, they could more easily pay off their debts since inflation would rise.

By contrast, the elites wanted a tight monetary policy with the money supply low. This was extremely lucrative to the speculators who owned the securities. Thus, the thousands of people who owned these debts lobbied state governments for stricter laws on taxes and debtors. Bouton and Holton both point to this as one of the primary reasons the Framers wanted a federal government; so the new, stronger central government would not cave to the masses on tax and monetary policy.

Islam and Democracy

First off, I do not think any religion is necessarily “incompatible” with democracy. When the Sunday Times article mentions that there is no word for ‘government’ or ‘state’ in the Qur’an or “democracy is based on one simple principle: equality”, arguing that Islam does not contain these things, they leave out important details. For instance, the Qur’an is detailed on inheritance and property rights for women, when the Judeo-Christian Bible is not. Furthermore, there are not going to be words like ‘government’, ‘state’, or ‘politics’ in the Qur’an because these terms are all modern conceptions, just like the terms ‘Catholic’ and ‘religion’ are all 17th and 18th century concepts. Thus I think cherry-picking information on a religion (which is usually Islam) to prove it is not democratic is fallacious. It is probably important to note, however, that as explained in Dr. Kendhammer’s chapter, Islam itself is not democratic. If somehow it were possible to create a society of the Prophet’s time, it would most likely not be classified as a democracy. But this would be impossible because the mechanisms of the modern nation state make a true emulation of the laws of the Qur’an nonexistent. Thus, with the advent of modernity, true sharia cannot work.

Dr. Kendhammer provides an excellent dichotomy between “what Islam is” and “what Muslims want”. Many in the West fear sharia and its negative influence on western liberal values, as shown by the preemptive bans on sharia by some U.S. state legislatures. Islamic legal systems in many places that have been implemented from the top-down have indeed been undemocratic, as Dr. Kendhammer points out. Much like most Americans and their distaste for an overreaching government, many Muslims resent the intrusion of government-mandated literal applications of sharia. Most seem to prefer the “spirit” of sharia as a check on the depravity of citizens. As Aliyu in one of the focus groups says, “…if there’s no discipline, no education, anything can happen” (188). Thus, many Muslims seem to want a check on the morality of the people, just like many Americans did in the lead up to Prohibition. This does not necessarily mean that Islam is inconsistent with democracy, but rather Muslims want a better-behaved and pious citizenry, which would therefore lead to a more democratic society.

Modernization and Democracy

In the consolidation of democracy, I believe wealthier societies do have an advantage in crafting and sustaining stable democracy. However, it is not just wealthier societies in general, but wealthier individuals that promote democracy. Although Lipset concludes in his piece that the data as a whole is inconclusive to say that economic prosperity is necessary for democracy’s spread and stabilization, it is indeed part of the equation for democratic culture. The most important part of this argument is the existence of a substantial private sector. Lipset refers to this part of democracy as the “mass society” and it provides an essential counterbalance to governmental institutions. Part of this “mass society” is the private sector, where there is wealth and investment that is not necessarily directly connected to the regime. When there is a larger, wealthier middle class, they tend to moderate conflict and reward pragmatic and democratic parties, as Lipset argues.

Huntington and Lipset both speak to the necessity of legitimate institutions as the primary driver of democracy. Economic development has the chance to make a society unstable, as Huntington points out. He also argues that the old American model of economic modernization without proper development of legitimate political democratic culture leads to instability and conflict. True, rapid economic growth without the proper institutional catch-up usually leads to vast inequalities, both political and economic. But I do believe that capitalism promotes democratic culture, however the wealth that is generated as a result must be invested back into society, especially in the private sector. A strong private sector promotes a strong middle class, who in turn tends to support democracy.