Thursday, February 23, 2012

Varieties of Political Competition

(Part 1.5 of a series on the history ofpolitical regimes. This gets a bit technical in the second half, which contains a sort of blurry sketch of a theory of political regimes)

Our political vocabulary has a very long history. Terms like democracy, dictatorship, autocracy, tyranny, and even words of more recent vintage like authoritarianism or totalitarianism carry a great deal of descriptive and evaluative baggage, acquired in the course of political debate over a long time. They are rich, many-layered concepts, useful for simultaneously referring to and evaluating complex and vaguely-defined combinations of institutional, cultural, and other aspects of social systems. But by the same token, all that baggage makes it very difficult to use these terms to track the history of political institutions in anything but the roughest fashion. Or at least the history of the forms of political competition for power in states.

Consider an apparently simple question like how long the USA has been democratic. Since independence in the late 18th century? Since the 1820s? Since reconstruction? Since the introduction of women’s suffrage? Since the 1960s? Never? Since the 1960s but only until recently? Until the 1930s? Historically, the idea of democracy has provided support for all of these answers, and all of them have had advocates. And though the current usage of the word "democracy" makes some answers more plausible than others, the controversy is pretty much ineradicable. We may at best be able to agree that the USA today is likely to be more democratic in some ways than in the late 19th century (a more inclusive suffrage, more tolerance of certain forms of dissent), but perhaps less democratic in other ways than in the 1930s (a more entrenched and pervasive national security bureaucracy that is impervious to political control, greater structural barriers to entry into political competition, etc.). Moreover, even if we agreed that the USA has been democratic for some particular period, this would not necessarily tell us much about how competition for control of the state changed during that time: how norms of leadership selection evolved, how barriers to entry into political competition changed, how the ability to constrain the actions of the winners of the competition for power waxed or waned, etc.

Now consider instead the question of how long the USA has selected its top political leadership via competitive elections where candidates must enlist the support of a substantial fraction of a relatively large group (much greater than Dunbar’s number) to gain power, and where entry into political competition is normatively regulated (there are relatively well-enforced rules about who can be a candidate for power) but where such regulation does not impose large formal barriers to entry (the rules imply the existence of large pool of potential candidates representing a wide variety of interests and with a wide variety of life experiences and skills, even if structural barriers like access to money or racism considerably reduce this pool in fact). This question is in principle answerable (a: since the early 20th century, at least), but it is not identical to the question of whether the USA is or ever was a democracy, whether in the USA “the people” or “the rich” or “the well connected” rule or have ever ruled, or indeed the question of whether its political system is any good at all.

It seems plausible to say that this method of leadership selection (competitive election) must be a component of democracy in large states (i.e., that no state without some such method of leadership selection can be called a democracy), yet this implies a whole theory of democracy relating competitive elections to ideals of inclusion and autonomy that is itself contestable. Ancient Greeks, for example, thought elections were characteristic of “oligarchic” regimes (rule by the rich), for understandable reasons having to do with the typical barriers to entry into political competition they presuppose (when offices are open to election, only the rich are able to compete for them effectively, as the American primary season certainly suggests); in their view, sortition [selection by lottery], not election, was more appropriate to the ideals of citizen equality implicit in the notion of demokratia (the power of the demos) and isonomia (citizen equality before the law) as they understood it. (They were certainly right for their political context; and perhaps their ideas are worth taking seriously today as well). Even the idea that elections are an institution of accountability (and hence something that helps “the people” to rule) rather than a mechanism of selection (useful only as an efficient way to discover the most talented rulers for an already established hierarchy) is a relatively recent development. At any rate, even if we agreed that competitive leadership selection through vote-gathering in large electorates is part of any definition of democracy in modern states, this does not imply that we would agree on the relative importance for democracy of such elections relative to, say, the inclusiveness of the electorate, the existence of a culture of tolerance, the responsiveness of elected officials to public opinion, or the protection of various rights.

From the point of view of trying to write a history of political regimes, it may thus be best to proceed in a disaggregated way: to speak not of democracy but of regimes where leadership selection is conducted on the basis of competitive elections with large electorates and few formal barriers to entry, for example, as I tried to do in my previous post. Instead of saying “democracy” we say CE/LG/LBE regimes (competitive elections/large group support/low barriers to entry). We thus substitute collections of small and relatively unimportant ideas like political competition through elections for large but important ideas like democracy, and then check whether these individually small and unimportant institutions come together in particular ensembles that make a difference to the things we care about. (E.g., like whether some particular combination of large-group elections, low barriers to entry into political competition, etc. actually tends to evolve over time, and whether these combinations tend to make a difference to the realization of particular ideals of autonomy or freedom). This avoids the historical tangledness of existing regime concepts, though at the cost of bracketing, at least for a time, evaluations of actual institutions. But at least then the important questions become either empirical (which institutions lead to the realization of particular ideals?) or purely philosophical (how should we weigh the relative importance of political values like equality, participation, etc.?).

I am primarily interested here in the institutions that shape political competition for the control of states (so non-state spaces are out of consideration for the moment), as well as the institutions that constrain the winners of such competition: the “varieties of political competition” for short. What we want to know are the “parameters” that describe such competition. What distinctions are useful for thinking about these varieties? A sketch of a theory of political competition might look at the following questions, only some of which overlap with the traditional concerns of democratic theory:

  1.  As in the previous post, we might want to know whether the selection of those who control the state is regulated by more or less “self-enforcing” norms or not; periods where people attain power primarily by force (coups, revolutions, etc) seem to be substantially different than periods where people attain power in a normatively regulated way. Whether norms are self-enforcing depends on the commitments and resources of the actors subject to them, not on the norms themselves, since no third parties outside the regime exist to enforce them by definition (in other words, constitutions are mere pieces of parchment unless everyone can credibly commit not to defect). It would then be useful to know whether we can say anything general about the conditions that make some selection norms (hereditary, competitive, etc.) self-enforcing, not just competitive electoral selection norms.
  2. We might also want to know which form the norm of leadership selection takes: whether the norm is to select people who fit a certain definite description (as in monarchies, where the next ruler is the heir of the current ruler), or to select people whose names are produced by some random process (lottery), or who meet a certain explicit standard (“meritocracy”), or, more commonly, who can show sufficient evidence of support within a group of “selectors” (election, acclamation, negotiation within the Politburo, etc.). (Mixtures of all of these selection norms are possible, especially when the state contains more than one center of power; in which case we might want to know something about the relative “powers” of these centers of power). Which selection norm is in force seems to have some effect on how long a leader is in power; selection norms that require a leader to show “evidence of support” appear to make it harder for leaders to keep control of states than selection norms that do not. It might also have an impact on the quality of political leaders (ungated), or on their social background. 
  3. We might wish to know the size of the group whose support must be mustered when selection is regulated by “evidence of support” or "random" norms, as well as the kinds of barriers to entry into this group. This is in part because when contenders for power must show support from large groups (say, 4-5 times Dunbar’s number, or around 600 people, the size of the typical Central Committee of a communist party), elective institutions almost invariably develop; usually the only way to show that you have the support of 100,000 people is to count them. Moreover, small selector groups almost always indicate highly hierarchical social structures, require different sorts of “payment” by contenders hoping to secure support, and are easier to “cartelize” (preventing contenders from expanding the boundaries of the group by escalating political competition outwards).
  4. We might wish to know the sort of “industrial organization” prevalent in the political arena (by analogy with this). For example, in many countries where control of the state is allocated to those who can show support from large numbers of adult citizens via elections, the political arena is typically organized around a few large multipurpose “firms” (parties) who are the main competitors for control, along with a large number of small special purpose groups (think-tanks, civil society groups, PACs, etc). Though the formal barriers to entry into this arena are low, the structural barriers are large (creating a party capable of appealing to large numbers of people takes real economic and symbolic resources), so that political competition operates in practice in an “oligopolic” manner. In other countries, political competition is fully monopolized by a single multipurpose “firm;” in yet others there is a dominant political firm but many special-purpose groups that cannot directly compete for power. Moreover, competition between the main “firms” in the political arena can be more or less regulated by norms that limit the permissible methods of competition. I know there is a well-developed theory of party systems for democracies, but it is not integrated with a theory of politico-industrial organization in other political systems; and we might want to put all of this in a single framework if we are interested in the history of the varieties of political competition.

Simplifying a bit, you might end up with a typology of varieties of political competition like this:

The table could be extended further; but it might get a bit too technical, and I’m not sure how illuminating it would be (more in part 2 with actual graphs and less theory, assuming part 2 ever arrives). The interesting questions would then be about which forms of politico-industrial organization can stably coexist with particular selection norms, and which of them actually produce good consequences, if any; but it might take me a while to get there, if ever.

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