Friday, June 24, 2011

The Irrelevance of Legitimacy

(As I intimated a while ago, I’ve grown weary of the concept of legitimacy. This is an experiment in thinking about how one might understand political life without recourse to this idea, or with a very different version of it).

Both everyday and academic explanations of uprisings and revolutions tend to make heavy use of the concept of legitimacy. For example, a common argument suggests that some of the regimes of the Middle East (Egypt, Tunisia, Libya) collapsed in part because they had long forfeited their legitimacy due to the abusive ways in which they treated their own people, whereas others (Morocco, the absolute monarchies of the gulf) are likely to weather the current crisis because their governments are still considered legitimate by the majority of their populations. (A very sophisticated version of this argument can be found in this piece by Jack Goldstone). More generally, I often come across arguments for the view that some action or discourse “legitimates” certain forms of power and thus helps sustain it, or conversely that the breakdown of particular power relations can be explained (at least in part) by pointing to the fact that people have ceased to consider them “legitimate.” Yet I find most of these explanations for the maintenance or breakdown of regimes unsatisfactory. They seem to amount to little more than saying that regimes (or, more generally, relations of domination) endure so long as they are accepted by the ruled, and when they are not, they don’t. But this is not obviously true.

For one thing, it is not empirically clear that “acceptance” needs to be very deep to sustain many forms of domination and oppression. Consider the variety of ways in which we might say that someone accepts their domination. For example, a person might sullenly submit to some oppressive institutional order because of his or her inability to imagine a different one; or (more commonly) because of his or her inability to mobilize collective action in favor of some alternative order (they face a coordination problem); or because despite the fact that a different institutional order would be better for a large group, it is individually “rational” for individuals to defect from collective efforts to change the current institutional order (they face a standard “prisoner’s dilemma”); or because the institutional order so shapes his or her interests and identity that they find challenges to the order against their “long-run” interests (their interests and those of the order are ultimately aligned, though they still think of themselves as oppressed); or (very rarely) because they think that the institutional order that dominates them is right and just. Many obviously oppressive social orders are not believed to be right and just by majorities of the dominated and yet they endure for a very long time, at least if we believe studies like James C. Scott’s Domination and the Arts of Resistance or Weapons of the Weak, which thoroughly document the fact that peasants in many agrarian societies do not come to accept their domination as rightful and just in any sense. The same is true of most authoritarian regimes, where preference falsification is often rampant, as I indicated in passing in my cults of personality post. Yet it is also clear that many people in such orders also accept their domination in a loose sense of the term: they conform publicly, they vote, they don’t rebel, they even contribute to the maintenance of the oppression by denouncing others or taking advantage of opportunities to climb the social ladder at the expense of others, and so on. Should we say that these social orders are considered “legitimate”? I say no: they should not be considered legitimate in any empirically relevant sense (let alone in any normatively relevant sense, but that’s another story).

The basic (and probably correct) intuition behind the use of the concept of legitimacy to explain the endurance of oppressive regimes or social relations is the idea that power – and more specifically, relationships of domination - cannot normally be sustained by private incentives (payments and threats) alone; “something more” is necessary if domination is to endure for any length of time. Domination is involved in relationships that are typically contrary to the interest of at least one of the parties, and hence it is likely to be resisted whenever the opportunity presents itself. Domination thus often requires repression to sustain the relationship, but repression is costly and often ineffective over the long run if the relationship is supposed to induce the cooperation of the dominated in some productive endeavour; hence domination needs to be “legitimated,” i.e., needs to be based on a set of shared and relatively stable beliefs that enable those who benefit from relationships of domination to direct the actions of those who are in subordinate positions with a minimum of repression even when such direction is against the interests of the latter. When domination is actually sustained in the long run, the argument goes, it must be because those who are dominated somehow accept their domination, however grudgingly, and in particular because they believe certain things about the people or institutions that dominate them (e.g., that the powerful have a “right” to command, or that they have a special sort of charisma, or that certain institutions represent the natural order of things). Conversely, if domination breaks down, then it must be because the dominated have stopped believing these things. (Note that I am talking here about “empirical” legitimacy, not “normative” legitimacy: I am interested in the role the concept of legitimacy plays in explaining domination, not in whether particular relationships of domination are legitimate in some interesting normative sense. Empirical legitimacy claims to be about the beliefs that people actually do have, not about the beliefs that they ought to have).

But this general understanding of how domination requires legitimacy is, I suspect, incorrect or at least fundamentally confused. Though belief may on occasion help sustain domination, the idea that domination is always sustained by (shared) belief is not true. At the very least, the majority of the mechanisms that sustain relationships of domination over the long run are not reducible to beliefs in the rightness or charisma or naturalness of certain people or institutions. For example, we ought to distinguish between a belief in a lack of alternatives (which may make people sullenly conform to a social order they deem oppressive), and a belief in the rightness of a social order, or between the idea that some of the mechanisms through which people are dominated are “hidden” and the idea that these power relationships are considered to be legitimate.

In order to make some progress on thinking about this problem, it may be useful to take a somewhat lengthy detour into Max Weber’s Economy and Society, where Weber rigorously tries to define the idea of empirical legitimacy in order to explain what constitutes a “social order” or a regularity of social action (feel free to skip the next 3-4 paragraphs if this is not your cup of tea). This is still the standard understanding of legitimacy in the social sciences (though it is not the only possible one, other conceptualizations of legitimacy typically draw on it), so it is worth examining in some detail (and improving on it, if possible). At the very beginning of the work, Weber analyzes how different sorts of reasons for action (“micromotives,” to use Schelling’s term) give rise to and disrupt different kinds of social order (“macrobehaviors” or patterns of social action). According to him, there are only three kinds of social order (I draw here on Habermas’ interpretation of Weber’s thought in his Theory of Communicative Action, especially I.ii.1, pp.157-185 and I.ii.4, pp. 254-271; the relevant passages of Weber are mostly in Economy and Society I.i, especially sections 4-6):

  1. In habitual orders, social regularities emerge and are kept in existence through the unthinking inertia of everyday activity (“habitual action”); reasons do not play a motivating role in their creation. Such orders are not stable, however, to the introduction of reflection; when people think about what they are doing, they may sometimes act differently, transforming their social order into an interest-based or a legitimate order.
  2. In interest-based orders (such as markets, though Weber does not think that markets are sustained purely by interest), social regularities emerge from the mutual adjustment of the activities of more or less instrumentally rational actors engaging in tactical and strategic activity in pursuit of their various interests. Reasons here play a motivating role in the emergence of social regularities, but only privately: each actor has his or her own (different) reasons for acting as he or she does in pursuit of his or her interests, yet social regularities still emerge from the private adjustments each actor makes to his or her behavior in light of the actions of others. In modern game-theoretic terms, the social order is an equilibrium of some game, given people’s (potentially heterogeneous) private incentives for action. Weber thinks, however, that pure interest-based orders are generally unstable, and are thus often stabilized by what we might call “shared” or “public” reasons, which transform interest-based orders into “legitimate” orders properly speaking.
  3. In legitimate orders social regularities emerge from the shared acceptance by agents of certain reasons for action or inaction. These reasons are usually understood as normative constraints on the kinds of courses of action that agents might privately consider, such as for example beliefs about the validity, justice, fairness, or virtue of particular actions or norms. Here reasons produce social regularities not through their being held privately (as in interest-based orders) but through their being shared or “public” reasons that can rule out of bounds or override, so to speak, certain kinds of private reasons for action (e.g., reasons to revolt). Weber goes further and identifies three basic ideal kinds of legitimate order: the traditional order, where the legitimating reasons refer to the supposed naturalness of an institution (people fail to imagine alternatives; this is the legitimate equivalent of a habitual order); the charismatic order, where the legitimating reasons refer to the special qualities of a person or persons from whom rules issue; and the legal-rational order, where the legitimating reasons refer to the special qualities of a set of rules (which can themselves be used to generate further rules). These ideas are rather abstract, but the basic point is, I think, generally comprehensible. In a traditional order, when one asks the question “why do you obey/submit/follow somebody’s commands?” the expected answer is “because that is the way we do things here” (not “because otherwise I will be beaten over the head with that stick”). Similarly, in a charismatic order, the expected answer is “because my leader or messiah told me,” and in a legal-rational order the expected answer is “because (other) rules authorize it” or “because the rules are just (i.e., in accordance with the rules or principles of justice).”

But what does it mean for reasons for action to be shared or public? The obvious interpretation (and the one that Weber seems to prefer) is that reasons are shared and public to the extent that many agents believe the same thing about why they or their rulers should or should not act in particular ways. In game-theoretic terms, we might say that in legitimate orders social order emerges not from the private adjustment of behavior by participants in a game according to their private reasons for action (the expected "utility" they might derive from acting in one way rather than another), but from the shared beliefs of participants about the rules of the game, which limit the strategies available to them: a legitimate order is simply one in which enough participants accept the rules of the game as rules (and not merely as constraints imposed on them by the action of others in equilibrium). Empirical legitimacy enables a social order to economize on coercion both by consistently narrowing the range of the possible strategies open to actors and by clearly signaling any violations of the  rules (and hence enabling violators to be more easily punished). This sort of legitimacy is also conceptually related to trust: a government that is illegitimate is one that violates the (shared) rules consistently enough to lose the trust of the population.

One might want to say that to the extent that some people believe in the legitimacy of a social order (that is, believe that the rules structuring the social order, or the persons who have authority to produce such rules, are somehow the right rules, or the right persons), that social order will be made more “resilient” to changes in the habits or private reasons people may or may not have for conforming to the demands of the social order in question (e.g., rewards/penalties and the probability of physical punishment for nonconformity). How else should we explain the enormous investment that dominant groups make in the deployment of what we might call (I’m trying to use this term neutrally) “ideological” resources (persuasive arguments, sophistic arguments, propaganda, cults of personality, the mobilization of scientific or other authoritative discourses to “naturalize” certain institutions or practices, etc.)? How else should we think of these efforts to “legitimate” particular social orders, if not by seeing them as efforts to change people’s beliefs (by means fair or foul, good-faith persuasion or underhanded manipulation) so that they conform better to a particular social order? But then: should we really say that when Robert Mugabe holds a rigged election in Zimbabwe, for example, he is attempting to legitimate his rule?

The key to a different understanding of this problem lies in taking seriously the idea that supposedly “legitimating” beliefs are shared. What matters for (what we normally call) charismatic legitimacy, for example, is less the belief that some particular person is a demigod but that this particular answer to the question “why do you submit/obey/do X/etc.?” becomes expected in some group, and that not giving the expected answer singles one out for sanctions, exclusion, and other bad things. And just as we can have the spectacle of charismatic legitimacy without charisma, we should be able to see legal-rational “legitimacy” in the midst of corruption, or (I suspect) traditional “legitimacy” even when there is widespread awareness of the newness of tradition. Legitimacy is thus underpinned primarily by signals, not beliefs: those who do not provide the appropriate answer in the right circumstances (or rather, those who do not provide a credible answer) identify themselves as violators. Even the corrupt bureaucrat gives lip service to the law, whatever he or she may believe privately, and the irreligious king still takes seriously the traditional liturgical forms.

“Legitimate” social orders thus function like a signaling system in which rulers and ruled, dominator and dominated, both provide (credible) signals of their commitment to particular rules or persons or existing practices; and insofar as the system “works” it produces authority, i.e., it identifies certain people or rules or forms of speech as precisely those people or rules or forms of speech that one is expected (by other people subject to the social order) to follow or use in particular circumstances. But “credible” signals are not always “true” signals; that a signal – a particular answer to the question, “why do you submit/obey/ do X?” – is taken as credible by a relevant receiver does not mean it actually reflects some deep belief about the rightness or justice of the system (though it of course may). Credibility in a signaling system may be achieved in many ways, only some of which involve any sort of belief in the content of the signals.

What matters [for explanations of social change] are the conditions under which alternative legitimacy claims can emerge as focal points for new signaling systems, or under which the signaling equilibrium is disrupted. Here traditional explanations based on legitimacy have somewhat more to say: there are many common conditions under which, for example, the failure of authorities to demonstrate a credible commitment to norms of justice to which a population is committed produces anger and in turn triggers activities that reduce the costs of coordinating signals of commitment to a different social order (a different set of rules or persons). And from this point of view, “ideological” investments (or such practices as blatantly rigged or fraudulent elections, or unbelievable cults of personality) are thus useful not so much because they make people believe in the rightness or special qualities of particular people or institutions, but because they prevent the emergence of alternative focal points for legitimacy claims - e.g., because they destroy the common knowledge necessary for collective action, or because they are too salient for other foci of collective justification to easily emerge (they colonize public space).

But if this analysis is even partially correct, then it seems to me that legitimacy in the traditional sense (as beliefs in the rightness of people or institutions) is irrelevant to the explanation of political phenomena such as revolutions. Legitimacy still matters normatively – we want to live under social orders that are just or fair – but not so much for explaining social change. 

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

1989 and the Arab Revolutions of 2011 redux: A plea for theory-driven comparisons

Marc Morjé Howard has a guest post up at The Monkey Cage summarizing some of the similarities and differences between the revolutions of 1989 in Eastern Europe and the current revolts in the Middle East. (I don’t like the term “Arab Spring,” since spring is not a season in Arabia, as somebody reminded me recently, and anyway the implicit comparison with the Prague Spring of 1968 or even the “Springtime of Nations” of 1848 is needlessly discouraging). I hesitate to disagree with Prof. Howard, since he is a real expert on Eastern European politics who has published widely on the events of 1989 and their aftermath, whereas whatever knowledge I have acquired about the fall of communism comes from teaching the events of 1989 at the undergraduate level over the last four years and basically learning on the go. And I am mostly in agreement with what he says about the similarities between 1989 and 2011 (though I might demur on the point about the importance of prediction, but we’ll leave that for another day).

Yet I think the basic idea of the post, in which Howard notes various similarities and differences between the regimes and argues that the differences outweigh the similarities, making him pessimistic about the ultimate democratization of the region, leads to misleading conclusions. In order to know whether the similarities between the cases outweigh the differences, and more importantly whether the differences mean that we should expect much less democratic change in the Arab world than in Eastern Europe in 1989, we need to have a theory or a set of theories that tell us how to weigh them; and it is not clear that Howard provides such a theory, or that the theories that he does discuss support the more pessimistic conclusions about democratic change he draws. Consider the differences between Eastern Europe 1989 and the Middle East now that Howard describes:

1)      The larger geo-strategic environment is very different today.  The movements of 1989 took place within the context of the Cold War, with two main super-powers and their mutually assured destruction.  Today there are numerous complicating factors—some of which existed previously, but now have their own post-Cold War dynamic—including oil, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the rise of China, and many others.

This is true, but these changes in the geo-strategic environment may push in both directions: some of them might favour democratization, some might favour authoritarianism, some might favour regime collapse followed by a different authoritarian regime, and some might be a wash. For example, the global “norm” of democracy has been arguably strengthened since 1989 (and perhaps because of the events of 1989), a change that would make the revolts in the Arab world more likely to lead to liberalized electoral regimes than the revolts of 1989. Theory does suggest that oil gives incentives to elites in authoritarian regimes to hang on to power at great cost (as appears to be happening in Libya, though for many different reasons), and it might give the USA incentives to be protective of their big oil clients (like Saudi Arabia), but some of the best empirical work on the question (by Haber and Menaldo) suggests that oil does not necessarily lead to authoritarianism, at least not in any simple way, and at any rate not every Middle Eastern country is oil-rich (Egypt and Syria, for example, are not, and Tunisia produces only trivial amounts of oil). My point is not that there have been no geo-strategic changes of any significance between 1989 and today, but that in order to say that the differences matter we need a more explicit theory, or at least a more explicit causal story, connecting these differences to likely outcomes (whether democratization or authoritarian survival).

2)      It is important to remember that the East European states were not autonomous.  Indeed, the Soviet Union was the guarantor of stability and continuity in the region.  When Gorbachev made it clear that the Soviet Union would not intervene in Eastern Europe, the gates opened (quite literally in Hungary).  Today’s Middle East contains a mix of small and large states with different levels of autonomy, but there is no equivalent to the Soviet Union lurking in the shadows.

I’m not sure I see that much difference between the Middle East today and Eastern Europe in 1989 in this respect; it all depends on how we define the extent of the regions. As Howard concedes, autonomy is a relative term, and Eastern Europe in 1989 contained a mixture of more and less autonomous regimes. At one end of the spectrum were the GDR, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, which were clearly not autonomous from the Soviet Union: they hosted large numbers of Soviet troops and had only managed to remain in power with direct Soviet support in the past. At the other end were Romania, Yugoslavia, and Albania, which had been able to retain power without significant Soviet support (and sometimes in opposition to Soviet policy). But even a regime like the one in Poland – which was clearly less “autonomous” than, say, Albania or Yugoslavia – did not necessarily depend on the Soviet Union to survive. Jaruzelski’s declaration of martial law in 1981 was not forced on him by the Soviets (though I don’t remember whether he was worried about Soviet intervention if he did not act), and he managed to arrest most of Solidarity’s leadership all by himself. Similarly, the regimes of the Middle East display varying degrees of autonomy from the USA, from states like Bahrain (where the American fifth fleet is stationed) to states like Libya. To be sure, one might argue that the kind of support that the Soviet Union provided at least some of the regimes in the region was qualitatively different from the kind of support the USA provides to its client states in the region, so that when the Soviets withdrew that support, the Eastern European regimes had to fall; but this argument certainly would not apply to Romania, and I think it’s quite dubious for Poland. (And the Albanian regime survived until 1991). Without a fuller causal story about the mechanisms connecting superpower support (or not) to regime preservation, we cannot draw any significant conclusions about the effects of any differences between Eastern Europe in 1989 and the Middle East today for the outcomes of the Arab revolts.

3)      The 1989 movements were not the first democratic protests in the region.  Earlier movements had taken place in East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Poland in 1980-81), but these were all crushed.  Nonetheless, they still stood as important precedents, to both the regime and the citizenry, which became useful later.  Although dissent has been brewing in the Middle East for the past decade, there are no comparable precedents to these earlier East European movements.

I think this is incorrect. There may be no precedents that are well known in the West, but there have been antiregime protests in Libya, Syria, and other Middle Eastern countries before the last decade (all of them crushed). The levelling of Hama by Hafez al-Assad in response to antiregime protests there occurred in 1982, and (I think, though I can’t find my source) there have been occasional riots in Benghazi against the Gaddhafi regime since 1969. Whether one should refer to these protests as “democratic” protests is a different matter, but it is worth noting that among the precedents Howard cites the 1956 revolution in Hungary was not necessarily a “democratic” revolution (at least initially, its main leadership did not want to get rid of the communist party’s monopoly on power, though that changed once tanks rolled in), and that after 1953 there were no democratic protests of any significance in East Germany (and for that matter, there were few protests of any significance in Romania). At any rate, it is unclear what the fact that there were protests in some Eastern European countries is supposed to show; as a recent working paper by Krichner, Livne, and Magaloni notes, though more repressive regimes experience fewer mass protests, they tend to fall at higher rates when they do experience such protests. (The intuition is simple: repressive regimes make it very costly to protest. So mass protest in such circumstances signals quite extensive dissatisfaction). One could perhaps tell a story about the building up of democratic movements through protests, but though this story makes sense for Poland, it makes no sense for the GDR and Romania, where the opposition was small and thoroughly infiltrated by the security services.

4)      The East European movements generally fit the classic (from O’Donnell and Schmitter’s Transitions from Authoritarian Rule, published in 1986) model of elite agency, whereby divisions between hard-liners and soft-liners in the regime led to pacts with the opposition, resulting in compromises on both sides.  In this model, the “resurrection” of civil society only came later.  In the Middle East, in contrast, the “popular upsurge” came first, before the elite divisions became apparent.

I don’t think this is right. The only two countries that fit the standard O’Donnell and Schmitter pattern in Eastern Europe were Hungary and Poland. Certainly these were important countries, and it is true that they were also the countries where transitions to democracy were most successful initially (except for the GDR, which is sui generis). But regime change happened in the GDR, Romania, Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia despite the fact that these regimes were dominated by hardliners who were unwilling to make compromises until protests had forced them to, and democracy emerged quickly in Czechoslovakia (less quickly and less perfectly in Romania and Bulgaria). The “popular upsurge” came first in the GDR, Czechoslovakia, and Romania, and reformers within the Bulgarian communist party emerged more as a result of a fuite en avant by nomenklatura members who got rid of Zhivkov when they saw the writing on the wall than as a result of a struggle between hardliners and softliners in O’Donnell and Schmitter’s sense (though my old teacher Venelin Ganev should be able to correct me here if this is wrong, since he wrote the book on Bulgaria after 1989).  It seems to me that a better model for what happened in Eastern Europe is the “elite defection” model Mark Beissinger describes in his piece on modular revolution: divisions within the elite played a big role in the first two cases, but then the other regimes fell as elites failed to find the right combinations of repression and concessions to stop popular mobilization. This may not be the right model for the middle East right now (“elite learning” seems more appropriate, where later leaders learn what combinations of repression and concessions will stop popular mobilization), but it is not clear that there is that much of a difference between Eastern Europe in 1989 and  the Middle East today in this respect. And to the extent that there is a difference, it is not clear to me that O’Donnell and Schmitter’s model of “pacted” transitions is the best lens for analyzing these differences.

5)      Unlike today in the Middle East, when the “opposition” is largely faceless, in Eastern Europe there were well-recognized dissidents who had much popular legitimacy.  Although they may have been small in number, these writers, pastors, and environmental leaders were quite influential.  In contrast, many of the long-standing opposition leaders in the countries of the Middle East are ineffective, coopted, or disconnected from contentious politics, thus contributing to the large gap between elite opposition politics and popular demands for democratic change.

Again, I think there is less here than meets the eye. The opposition was entirely faceless (not to mention disorganized and infiltrated) in the GDR, where the Stasi estimated that there were only 60 “core” dissidents in the entire country (see Stephen Kotkin’s “Uncivil Society,” p. 10). There were simply no well-recognized East German or Romanian dissidents, they were all caught by surprise by the revolutions, and they had little role to play in shaping the aftermath (Barbel Bohley? Mircea Dinescu?). Even in Czechoslovakia, Havel was simply not a well-recognized opposition leader under very late, and his influence really came with the revolution. Only in Poland do we meet with real opposition leaders with genuine popular legitimacy, like Walesa. But this point is moot, for revolutions make leaders, not the other way around; and at least Egyptians and Tunisians do seem to have leaders with some legitimacy and name recognition, even if not necessarily wide popularity yet. (What are Amr Moussa and Mohammed El-Baradei, chopped liver? Or Wael Ghonim and some of the other youth leaders of the April 6th movement?). These are not perfect leaders, but neither was Walesa (or many of the leaders in the rest of Eastern Europe), and revolution and democratization do not depend on having popular and legitimate leaders before a transition.

6)      Except for the Catholic Church in Poland, religion was almost entirely absent in the East European movements.  Although churches were sometimes a “safe zone” in communist countries, the movements themselves were not religious, and the societies are the least religious in the world.  In contrast, in the Middle East, although the movements have not been particularly religious, the societies certainly are, and the role of religion in political life remains a big, open, unanswered question.

The Polish exception is big enough to drive a truck through (since Poland was the birthplace of the 1989 revolutions); the religious component of the Polish revolution was huge, and the society was very religious. (I also think that Romanian society was also more religious than is perhaps generally recognized). But anyway, it is unclear what the religiosity of Middle Eastern societies (which varies widely, by the way, and is organized in many different ways) is supposed to imply, given that, as Howard notes, the movements leading the revolts there have not been particularly religious. Without a good theory, we cannot say much about its effect on regime collapse or democratization – it could be positive, negative, or a wash. What little we do know suggests that the background religiosity of a society (as opposed to the religiosity of particular movements) does not appear to have much effect on political regime (see, for example, Przeworski’s “Culture and Democracy,” unfortunately not online, or Ronald Inglehart’s work). So, granted that there are differences between the religiosity of Middle Eastern and East European societies, we simply cannot tell whether this is a positive fact for revolution and democratization (maybe more religious societies sustain the solidarity necessary for protest better? Or have more ways of organising resistance, as with Friday prayers?) or not; one must remember that Iran was also a relatively religious society that had a world-historical revolution in 1979 (even if the resulting regime was later pushed into a less democratic direction for a variety of reasons).

7)      All movements depend on communication—this has not changed—but the speed of the new media has obviously changed tremendously.  Much of the information in the East European movements spread via samizdat (precious photocopies of texts and information from the outside that were smuggled around secretly).  Today the spread of information is almost instantaneous via Facebook, Twitter, and blogs.

But this particular fact (if it is a fact: remember the feedback loops with TV in the East German revolution) would support the view that the revolutions in the Arab world are more likely to result in democratic change. Of course, if Evgeny Morozov is right, then the effect of this might go in the other direction: Facebook, Twitter, and the like will just make it easier for authoritarian regimes to suppress revolts. But we need a more explicit theory to evaluate the significance of this difference between Eastern Europe 1989 and the Middle East today, and what theory we do have does not indicate that this is particularly likely to retard democratization or even simple regime change in the region; on the contrary.

8)      After the movements of 1989 ran their course, the communist regimes actually fell (even if they reorganized and competed electorally in some cases).  In the Middle East, this has not happened (yet?).  The outcomes of the ongoing transitions in Egypt and Tunisia are unclear, and it remains to be seen whether they will yield a clean break from authoritarian politics.  In the other countries, autocrats still remain in charge, even if they have been shaken by the protests.

Here I think the significance of this point depends on what you mean by “the regimes fell.” Did the regime really fall in Bulgaria? Or for that matter in Romania, where Ion Illiescu and the National Salvation Front (basically repainted communists) took power after Ceausescu fell? The regime fell much more thoroughly in Tunisia than it ever did in Bulgaria, it seems to me (the former ruling party has been suspended, people from the regime elite have been put on trial, etc.). And protests are still ongoing. Revolutions don’t always happen in a day; it took 10 years in Poland.

9)      Extending from point 5, when the communist regimes fell, known opposition leaders were ready to assume office.  Poland’s Lech Walesa and Czechoslovakia’s Václav Havel were the most prominent, but most East European countries had new leaders ready to fill the gap.  This remains an open question in the Middle East.

See my response to point 5). I think “most East European countries had new leaders ready to fill the gap” is a vast exaggeration; it is only in retrospect that this seems to be the case.

10)   In terms of the eventual consolidation of democracy in Eastern Europe, NATO and the European Union have played crucial roles by encouraging democratic reforms and making them conditions of membership.  There are no equivalent regional organizations in the Middle East that could help to push these regimes to further democratize, and they are certainly not going to be invited to join NATO or the EU.

This is true, but what is the marginal effect of this causal mechanism on democracy? If these organizations had not existed, do we think that Poland and Hungary would not have become democratic? Other forces push countries towards more democratic forms of government, and while I do not want to discount the positive influence of the incentive to join the EU and NATO, I am just not sure that we know this was a very big cause of democratization (as opposed to, for example, the availability of the democratic model and its relative success in Western Europe).

I am not arguing here that there are no differences between Eastern Europe 1989 and the Middle East in 2010. Of course there are. But in order to evaluate the significance of these differences for both regime change and democratization, it seems to me better to engage in theory-driven comparisons, where, to use Przeworski and Teune’s phrase, we substitute variables for country names. For example, we might say “countries with a history of democratic protest are more likely to democratize than countries without”; or “countries with a higher GDP per capita are more likely to sustain democracy than poorer countries, though they are no more likely to democratize;” and so on. And then we try to tally the weight of each of these effects, and consider whether (and how) the theory applied both in 1989 and today. For what is worth (and I’m no Middle East specialist), this sort of exercise suggests that Tunisia and Egypt are in relatively good shape to become more democratic (and perhaps Syria, if the regime collapses there, and Jordan and Morocco, if the monarchs there act reasonably), though obviously nothing is guaranteed; other middle Eastern countries less so.