One of These Things is Not Like the Other

…or maybe it is.

I was in DC for work last night and stayed with a classmate from my political science doctoral program at UC Berkeley last night. We were talking about how the current moment is when comparative politics, which I was trained in, really has something to say. As I’ve observed based on a great piece published in Alliance magazine, there are a variety of factors that influence why certain regimes are toppling in the face of popular revolt and others aren’t.

So let’s clarify a couple of issues in the current wave of revolt/potential democratization in the Middle East that poli sci can tell us something about:

  • The role of elite-popular coalitions in democratic transitions: Power isn’t given, it’s taken. And one of the ways it’s taken – and kept – is when there are fissures in the elite coalition that help a regime maintain power. Popular movements can ally with elite dissenters to form coalitions that can help democracy to emerge. What those elite factions might look like in Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere is an open question, as is what organizational forms their popular counterparts will take when the hard work of negotiating governance begins.
  • The difference between democratic transition and consolidation: When is a democratic transition “done?” “Consolidation” is the problematic but basically helpful concept that tries to describe this condition. It may be a certain numbers of peaceful transfers of power – in which case, we can’t tell what really will stick in the Middle East until we see a new post-Mubarak regime peacefully transfer power via elections. Or it may be an episode – like Argentina in 2001 – when the military could intervene during a democratic breakdown but elects not to do so. I think new chapters in the story of this concept will be written in the Middle East….
  • The varieties of authoritarian regimes: Some regimes are propped up by oil, others by superpower patrons because of their geopolitical importance. But not all dictatorships are of a piece, and not all authoritarian regimes are built the same way – which means that they don’t all fall apart the same way, or leave the same kinds of fragments behind. Understanding better the variety of authoritarian regimes in the region is important.
  • The role of security forces: They’re not unitary – the police and the army (not to mention navies or air forces) often developed differently, may have different institutional affiliations (Ministry of Defense vs. Ministry of the Interior – which is not about the environment like the U.S., but is more like a catchall domestic-governance portfolio in many countries), and may react differently to rebellion – see my conversation with Greg Hoadley about the role of the police vs. the army in Egypt.
  • The nature of political “contagion”: This is one of the most distinctive parts of the current situation – that rebellion has spread so quickly and so far from Tunisia in such a short time. Political science will be figuring this out for a while to come. Usually the study of “diffusion” or “contagion” – for example, of environmental standards – is of phenomena that evolve over years and decades. We’re talking weeks and months here. Much to be learned.

So given that my two questions on this blog are about philanthropy and democracy, I’ll want to look at how philanthropy can play a role with respect to these different issues.

To be continued….

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One Response to “One of These Things is Not Like the Other”

  1. The Blog Briefly Known as "Democratizing Philanthropy?" » Blog Archive » Soldier of Love Says:

    […] The Blog Briefly Known as "Democratizing Philanthropy?" BETA version, new title in the works. New post each Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday (for now). « One of These Things is Not Like the Other […]

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