Sunday, April 29, 2018

Three on Politics

Democracy in Retreat by Joshua Kurlantzick 

In the years following the fall of the Soviet Union, democracy appeared triumphant around the world. Yet now, in the second decade of the 21st century, things appear very different. People in countries that transitioned to democracy now feel disenchanted with it, and in many places authoritarianism is creeping back. This 2013 book attempts to explain this situation. 

Kurlantzick examines a range of countries, including Thailand, Malawi, Egypt and Taiwan, and he looks critically at what Western democracies have done to encourage democratization, as well as China’s emergence as an alternative model. Thailand seemed to make concrete steps towards democracy and then regressed, while Malawi's economic problems that accompanied democratization have left many people cynical.

Taiwan has, if anything, consolidated and strengthened its democracy in the years since the book was written in 2013. The country does not come off looking so great here, as Kurlantzick focuses on the excesses of the Chen Shui-bian administration that followed the country's democratic transition. But I do appreciate that he treats Taiwan with dignity by dealing with it on its own terms, rather than as an eccentric appendage of China. 

Some notes that represent my takeaway from the book: 

  • The so-called Washington Consensus caused people to associate the adoption of democratic systems with World Bank-sponsored economic policies in the early 2000s. This indirectly did massive damage to democracy’s reputation when the economic crisis of 2008 hit. Democracy had become tied to economic reform in many people’s minds. When economic reform failed, people's impression of democracy took a hit along with it.
  • Another reason why people become disenchanted with democratization: it often seems to lead to increased corruption. Sometimes this is merely perception. In authoritarian regimes, it’s easier to hide corruption (see China’s ability to suppress news), while in a country with a freer press, muckracking journalists are able to blow up corruption scandals. But it can also be genuine. When you have free elections, the incentives for corruption become so much greater, because political campaigns in fair elections need money. Not just for campaign advertising and other legitimate expenses, but also for vote-buying and other shady tactics that are not necessary in fully authoritarian systems. 
  • Western countries often focus on elections as if they’re the be-all and end-all of the democratization process, while neglecting other things such as a fair judiciary and the promotion of NGOs and civil society. Also, it certainly doesn’t help matters when the USA gives the impression that it thinks free elections would be a great thing just so long as the Washington-approved candidate wins. 
  • They also promise too much. The West proclaims, when you become a democracy, your economy will improve and it will be all roses and unicorns! And then when that doesn’t happen, the middle and lower classes become discontented and pine for authoritarians again. By contrast, look at Nelson Mandela, who encouraged South Africans in the 1990s to believe in democracy while also warning that it would be a long, hard road. 
  • Many democratic developing countries, such as India and Brazil, are wary of criticizing the internal affairs of other, more authoritarian developing countries because they remember colonialism and interference by outsiders. 
  • The elites in newly democratized countries were often the oppressed opposition under the old authoritarian regime, and they may continue the same mindset once they are in power. Unfortunately, what worked for them when they were bravely resisting their authoritarian oppressors may not transfer well to the new reality when they’re the ones in charge. 
  • Note that even when democracy is in decline, things aren’t as bad as the worst days of authoritarianism in a country that’s never seen democracy. Putin’s Russia is not as bad as Stalin. Thailand in 2010 is not as bad as Thailand in the 1970s. 

Umbrellas in Bloom by Jason Y. Ng


This is an account of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement of 2014, told by local activist Jason Y. Ng. It doesn’t pretend to be unbiased, which is fine with me. Ng is very clear and upfront about his pro-democracy opinions and his involvement with the movement -- he was one of the regular denizens of the camp at Admiralty, where he helped students with their schoolwork and was apparently a fixture of the political discussions there. I’m putting this all up front in case anyone wants to say some variation of “Dude, Ng’s biased and he lets his opinions seep into his reporting!” My response would be: Duh, of course he’s got opinions, it’s a personal account. 

The Umbrella Movement was the physical manifestation of Hong Kongers' displeasure at how they were being treated by Beijing. After seventeen years of "One Country Two Systems", it had become clear that the Chinese government had absolutely no intention of giving up its heavy-handed interference in Hong Kong's internal governance. For several weeks that autumn, three urban sites in Hong Kong were occupied by large groups of protestors. While they did not succeed in getting Beijing to back down, they got the attention of people across the world. The Umbrella Movement may well turn out to have been the proving ground for a new generation of Hong Kong leaders -- people who the Beijing government would very much like to shut up for good right now.

I like visiting Hong Kong. It feels like more of a busy, bustling city than Taipei, and so it’s is good to visit once in a while just to experience the contrast. It is fun to explore and the food is excellent. Every time we go, we spend some time roaming the ground floor of Chungking Mansions growing inexorably fatter and fatter. But I feel like I’d only have to live in Hong Kong for a short time in order to feel disenchanted with it. Part of it is the fact we’d probably end up paying twice as much rent to live in half as much space. But I’m also afraid I’d get incredibly disheartened with the politics if I followed it on a day-to-day basis. 

From a Taiwanese perspective, Hong Kong is a warning of a dystopian possible future. The more Beijing tightens its grip on HK’s political system, the more convinced Taiwan becomes that they don’t want any of that, no sir. 

I admit that my background knowledge about Hong Kong is not terribly substantial, so I won’t comment on Ng’s book in a deeper way than this. But I do appreciate the information he provided about how Hong Kong elections work (or at least, how they worked in 2014), and the gap between what locals want from the government and how Beijing is shaping things -- which is rather ironic, as Ng seems to think this is the most boring part of the book! 

He also gives rebuttals for the most common arguments that you hear from the pro-Beijing side -- that discontent in HK is caused by Western interference aimed at destabilizing China, that Hong Kongers are merely jealous that they’re not Asia’s premier financial capital anymore, and so on. 

Ng also adds some of his own thoughts on protest movements, how they can work, and some of the potential dangers. My own knowledge of the theory and practice of street protests is shamefully lacking, given that if anything they’re growing in importance both in my country of citizenship and my country of residence. I do notice a copy of L. A. Kauffman’s Direct Action sitting on my bookshelf unread. Hm... 


Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government by Christopher H. Achen and Larry M. Bartels

This is a pessimistic title but I’ve got good news: it's mostly stuff you probably already suspected. That’s a relief, perhaps? 

Let me make one thing clear immediately. This book is about elections. It is not about a free press, freedom of assembly and association, a thriving civil society, the rule of law rather than the whims of those in power, the freedom to not be oppressed by a tyrannical government, or any of the other things that we associate with democracies rather than authoritarian systems. At least, not directly. You could certainly make a case that free elections are a necessary precondition for some or all of the other good stuff. 

In other words, this book is not repeat NOT making the case that democracy is no better than authoritarianism. 

Rather, it focuses on demolishing the idea that free elections, by themselves, produce responsible government attuned to what the voters want. Achen and Bartels center their argument around what they call the “Folk Theory of Democracy”: the great masses of people have sufficient good sense to make wise decisions at election time, even if many individual voters are severely lacking in this regard. 

The book attacks this idea from several directions. When voters are passing judgement on the performance of the party in power, how can they assign credit or blame accurately? Is even possible for most voters to vote for the party that fairly represents their views, when voters’ choices are dictated from the top down by the parties? And this presupposes that most voters even make voting choices based on coherent already-existing beliefs, when there is quite a bit of evidence that for many (most?) people, their political views are a consequence of their party and group loyalties, not a cause of them. 

The authors make a convincing case, and anyone who feels a sense of deep disagreement or revulsion with the previous paragraph should give it a read so that they can respond to it. 

How does it mesh with the two other, unrelated books I wrote about above? Well, Kurlantzick’s book does take aim at people who see free elections as the be-all and end-all of democratization, which fits with Achen and Bartels, though coming from a different direction. As for Ng’s memoir of the Umbrella movement, one might think I’d suffer cognitive dissonance by reading the book so close to Democracy for Realists. The events of 2014 were the result of calls for free elections, after all. But the underlying issue was the desire that the future of Hong Kong ought to be in the hands of Hong Kongers, and free elections for Hong Kong would, by the very definition of “free”, not be controlled by Beijing. Nothing in Achen and Bartels’ book undermines that. 

I am strongly pro-democracy, and I remain so after reading Achen and Bartels' book. They weren't trying to make people give up hope on democracy. They merely want us to have a realistic view of what elections actually are. Democracy for Realists makes important points about human nature and politics -- points that many of us have probably suspected for a long time, but that here are stated clearly and openly.

 Some bits that stick in my mind, weeks after I finished it: 

  • There’s a wonderful section about how an uptick in shark attacks in New Jersey in 1916 may have cost Woodrow Wilson a considerable number of votes in that state. Wilson, of course, did not run on a pro-shark platform. But the shark attacks might have contributed to a sense of bad times, which puts voters in a mood to punish the incumbent. It didn’t change the result of this particular election, but the authors go on to make a far more alarming suggestion. They estimate that if not for the effects of voters “punishing” the Democrats for poor climate during the late 1990s, Gore might have comfortably beaten Bush in the Electoral College. 
  • Economic performance in Q14 and Q15 of a Presidential administration’s term is a fairly strong predictor of the incumbent party’s reelection. By contrast, there is no strong evidence that voters consider the economic performance in previous quarters. This is a major flaw in the so-called “retrospective” theory of voting, the idea that elections are a judgement on how the party in power has handled things (which in practice often means the economy). When you consider the length of a Presidential administration, basing your judgement on economic performance in the two quarters just before the election means you’re practically letting random chance decide. 
  • Franklin Roosevelt’s reelection in 1936 is often described as voters ratifying the changes in direction that Roosevelt and his team had brought to the government during the Great Depression. But Roosevelt’s success in 1936 owed a lot to rising incomes in several key states. Voters who felt themselves to be better off chose to reward him. If Roosevelt had had to run for reelection in 1938, when ordinary Americans felt the economy to be much weaker, he might well have lost. 
  • And speaking of the Great Depression, it actually brought about a strong sentiment of “throw the bums out” across a wide range of countries. The authors survey several Western democracies, which shared the common feature of punishing the party that was in office when the Depression hit, regardless of their ideology. They also look at the provincial government of Alberta in Canada, where voters frustrated with the Depression voted in the Social Credit Party, best known for its significantly outside-the-mainstream monetary policies. 
  • There’s a nifty analysis of how self-identified Republicans’ views on abortion changed in the 1970s and 1980s; as the party shifted from being neutral on the issue to becoming explicitly pro-life, the party members’ views also shifted. And this was true of men much more than women, as you would expect if you assume women feel more personally invested in the issue. 
  • At the close, the authors list some genuine benefits of democratic elections that they believe do indeed stand up to scrutiny. Even when controversial, the results are widely seen as legitimate. (No one died in violence associated with the 2000 recount in Florida. In some countries, that would be miraculous.) There is reason to tolerate a vigorous opposition party, and politicians seeking reelection have every incentive to avoid violating ethical norms, knowing that their opponents might be in power in the future. Finally, democratic elections promote civic engagement.

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