The Seventy-Year Itch

Paul Pillar

Amid uncertainties over whether China's combination of authoritarian one-party rule and a rapidly evolving economy can persist, an academic at the Beijing Institute of Technology notes that many Chinese intellectuals wonder whether 70 years is about as long as any single party can remain in power. The wondering comes from looking at the examples of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party. Uninterrupted rule by the Chinese Communist Party will hit the 70-year mark in 2019.

There certainly is an unresolved tension between China's authoritarian politics and the vibrant entrepreneurial economics that Deng Xiaoping launched more than three decades ago. The tension mainly has to do with free market economics creating independent centers of power, and power inevitably having political implications. Maybe 70 years really is about as long as anyone can finesse a way through such contradictions.

Longevity per se is probably not the critical factor in bringing one-party rule to an end. It is longevity combined with an inability by the ruling party to overcome its founding myths and to stand convincingly for something that entails a bright and successful future and that has positive resonance with the alternative power centers and the general population.

The Chinese and Soviet Communist Parties and the Mexican PRI are revolutionary parties. A fundamental problem with a revolutionary party as a ruling party is that is that its raison d'etre is stuck in the past. The party exists because it was formed to overthrow something in the past, or in the case of the PRI to consolidate the results of a past revolution. Such a party finds it hard to change its identity, in its thinking about itself and the image it has among the public, to something much different that has to do with the future. In effect its new raison d'etre, if any, is just to perpetuate its own power.

For a demonstration of how a different kind of ruling party will not necessarily run up against a time limit, look at Singapore. Despite the difference in size, the ethnic Chinese character of Singapore may make it an apt comparison with China. Singapore is in effect a one-party state; the People's Action Party has governed Singapore without interruption since independence in 1965, and for several years before that when Singapore had self-government under British sovereignty. The PAP holds all but a handful of seats in the national legislature.

The PAP is not a revolutionary party. It convincingly stands for what makes Singapore the modern success story that it is: a stunningly successful entrepot that is far cleaner—both physically and in terms of avoiding corruption—than China and also gets high marks for commitment to the rule of law. What underlies the success and what the PAP stands for is a rational, pragmatic, legal approach to public affairs. Involved in that is a strong commitment to meritocracy. Recognition of the importance of government and of excellence in government for economic success is reflected in the compensation for ministers and senior bureaucrats being among the highest in the world.

The PAP still has several more years of rule before its 70-year mark. But it is a good bet that as it approaches that mark it will not—even if Singapore does not become appreciably more democratic than it is now—elicit the kinds of doubts that are being voiced now about the rule of the Chinese Communist Party. Those doubts are expressed as China is about to transfer power to a new party chief who, whatever his talents, is a revolutionary princeling who represents ties with the past at least as much as the future.

TopicsAutocracyDemocracyEconomic DevelopmentPolitical Economy RegionsChinaRussiaMexicoSingapore

Ideology and Tribalism

Paul Pillar

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker offers an explanation for why so much of the United States has become divided fairly clearly and consistently into red and blue states—into regions that lean decidedly toward Republicans or toward Democrats. Borrowing ideas from other scholars, including historian David Fischer and psychologist Richard Nisbett, he suggests it is largely a legacy of the patterns of settlement in colonial America. The North was settled mostly by English farmers; the inland South mostly by Scots and Irish herders. Anthropologists tell us that herders, whose wealth is mobile and can easily be stolen, develop a “culture of honor” with an emphasis on using self-reliance and one's own guns, rather than depending on government, to avoid being victimized by rustlers. And from that one can implicitly draw various positions that are associated with the present-day political Right. Farmers do not have the same set of vulnerabilities and thus developed a different culture. As time passed and each culture moved with the frontier westward, the political traditions persisted.

It is an intriguing hypothesis and probably has some validity. There are many other aspects of current American attitudes that are strongly rooted in American history, even going back to colonial times. But before getting to the regional question, Pinker addresses why the views on disparate political issues tend to correlate at all into a Republican clump and a Democratic clump. Why, for example, does knowing someone's view on gay marriage help us to predict the same person's view on military spending? Pinker adduces an explanation—which he appears to accept as valid, even if it does not explain as much as the anthropological hypothesis about settlement patterns—that is based on contending views about human nature. The Right, according to this explanation, has a “Tragic Vision” of people being “permanently limited in morality, knowledge and reason.” This leads to views ranging from the need for guns and a large military for protection against unreasonable people, to respect for customs of religion, sexuality and the like to avoid a slide into barbarism. The Left is said instead to have a “Utopian Vision” that considers human nature to be malleable and “articulates rational plans for a better society and seeks to implement them through public institutions.”

This explanation is not persuasive, partly because it is blatantly inconsistent with some actual political positions associated with the Right or Left. Consider foreign policy, where one of the biggest and clearest examples of a utopian vision is found in the neoconservative belief in being able to remake foreign societies in America's image. The neoconservatives' biggest project, the Iraq War, was about implementing an ostensibly rational plan for making a better society in the Middle East, administered from above by the Coalition Provisional Authority and based on a belief that malleable Middle Easterners could be made into reasonable practitioners of liberal democracy.

Explanations for political beliefs that are based on something like a supposedly coherent view of human nature give far too much credit to present-day American ideologies for being logically consistent. There isn't really any good, logical reason particular views on gay marriage ought to accompany particular views on military spending; it takes intellectual gymnastics to try to tie the two together.

Such explanations nonetheless continue to be offered, largely for two reasons. One is that the explanations themselves may be part of a political agenda or political slant. Pinker acknowledges “conservative thinkers” to be the source of the concept about Tragic Visions and Utopian Visions. That is not surprising. Utopianism is something one is much more likely to attribute to an opponent than to claim for oneself.

The other reason is the tendency of intellectuals to over-intellectualize—to come up with a nifty logical construct and then to assume this reflects the thinking of others. Another example of this is the lead article in the current International Security, which offers an explanation for the different policies of presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy toward the defense of Western Europe, with the former preferring to rely on self-defense by the Europeans and the latter favoring more of a forward commitment by the United States. The article, by Brendan Green, is based on solid scholarship and explores in admirable detail the perspectives of the two presidents to the challenge of deterring aggression by the Soviet Union. But the author then invokes Isaiah Berlin and his two concepts of liberty and tries to explain strategies for European defense in terms of “negative liberals” and “positive liberals.” That's a stretch.

When looking not at presidential policies but instead at voters' preferences, explanations of this type are not just a stretch; they are simply incorrect. Voters going to the polls next week will not have made their choice after brushing up on their Isaiah Berlin and contemplating the different varieties of liberty. Nor will they have contemplated human nature and deduced, based on that contemplation and on ideas about tragedy and utopia, the best ways of dealing with the human condition.

To the extent that the views of most voters on different issues do tend to be grouped into recognizable clumps, this is not because they are all going through the same coherent thought process—or any coherent thought process. It is because they are taking cues from groups with which they identify. The groups might be organized interest groups or identifiable segments of society or the economy. They might be friends and neighbors—and if so, this would accentuate the regional patterns that Pinker addressed. Most of all, the cues come from political parties. Most voters identify with Republicans or with Democrats, and because of this they tend to adopt most of the views that go with their preferred party. A person's views on some issues might underlie the party identification in the first place, but once identified, the rest of the views in the clump associated with the selected party are usually taken on as well.

Anthropologists could help in understanding this phenomenon. It is essentially a form of tribalism. People identify with either the Republican tribe or the Democratic tribe and shape their views on matters of public policy accordingly.

One indication of how much political views and alignments are at least as much a matter of group affinity as an intellectually cogent approach to formulating an ideology is the role of a very anti-intellectual factor: racial affinity and racial preference. Voters' preferences this year are at least as much divided along racial lines as in any other recent election. This no doubt reflects not only the less malign forms of racial affinity but also differential patterns of racial prejudice between followers of the two political parties.

All of this is yet another regrettable consequence of the evolution of American party politics in the direction of a sharper, harsher party division with little room for intraparty free thinking. The demise of moderate Republicans is the principal manifestation of this evolution. The message implied by much of the party politics of today is that all the right answers exist on one side of the divide or the other. This has made the American electorate more mentally lazy than ever. Its part in the political game is simply to pick a tribe and fall in line.

Image: boris.rasin

TopicsDomestic PoliticsHistoryIdeologyPublic OpinionPolitical TheoryPsychology RegionsUnited States

Poorly Learned Lessons About Terrorism

Paul Pillar

Feature articles over the last couple of days in the Washington Post and New York Times demonstrate how counterterrorism as practiced by the United States is subject to contradictory forces and trends. A series in the Post describes how the centerpiece of U.S. counterterrorism has become an increasingly institutionalized killing machine that appears destined to operate indefinitely against a continually replenished list of targets. A piece in the Times describes a backlash over the monetary expense and compromises to privacy and civil liberties, a backlash that seems strong enough to force changes in counterterrorist programs. The different directions implied by this reporting reflect how the nation has failed to assimilate some basic principles about terrorism and measures to counter it.

One of those principles is that terrorism is not something with a beginning and an end. It is instead a tactic that has persisted throughout history. And yet the notion of a beginning and an end persists in thinking in this country about terrorism. The counterterrorism machine has gotten cranked up to run in ways that would not be acceptable to most Americans if it were to run forever, and yet there is no evident point at which, once turned on, it should be turned off. It was inevitable that a backlash would set in.

Related to this point is the prevalent, and equally mistaken, notion that fighting terrorism involves wiping out or incapacitating some identifiable set of people: “the terrorists.” That is the idea behind the hit lists and target matrices. The Post's series depicts a U.S. counterterrorist effort that has become increasingly and narrowly focused on eliminating the people in the matrices rather than on what leads people to become terrorists and to get into the matrices in the first place. The United States, through its policies and actions, does a lot to affect which people, and how many people, become terrorists. Those actions include the drone strikes, with their collateral damage and power to enrage, that have become the preeminent means of elimination.

Another concept that is only slowly and belatedly being appreciated is that counterterrorism involves inherent trade-offs, between security and such things as civil liberties, personal privacy, and alternative use of public resources. The common absolutist attitude toward preventing terrorism, which was especially stark in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, has led most public discussion of the topic to be phrased in terms of what measures are necessary to do the job. But there is no “necessary” level. It is instead a matter of how much security to buy at what price. The answer to that can vary, and vary over time as the same population changes its attitudes. This is a lesson that is only being learned over time and as backlashes have set in.

Most of the important lessons about this subject still have not been assimilated by most of the American public. Over the next few years public support for counterterrorism probably will ebb and flow as it always has: sharply up after a terrorist incident, gradually down as the costs and downsides become more apparent with any incident-free passages of time. Such fluctuation will have little or no correlation with the pattern of actual terrorist threats or with a rational approach to countering the threats.

TopicsPublic OpinionTerrorism RegionsUnited States

Libya Forgotten

The Buzz

Earlier this morning, former secretary of state Colin Powell endorsed Barack Obama for reelection in 2012 during an interview with CBS. It’s unclear what effect this will have on the campaign, but there is one line in his comments that is certainly worth noting. Discussing the Obama administration’s foreign policy, Powell said that he

saw the president get us out of one war, start to get us out of a second war, and did not get us into any new wars.

It is truly amazing that only a year and a half after the Libyan intervention, a general as distinguished as Powell can talk as if it simply never happened. Leave the debate over whether the intervention was a good idea aside. The United States (along with NATO) used armed force for months to help overthrow Muammar el-Qaddafi’s regime in Libya. With this in mind, the fact that Powell can say that Obama “did not get us into any new wars” and that no one at CBS even blinked an eye in response speaks volumes about the warped way in which we have come to think about war.

Of course, the Obama administration claimed that Libya did not amount to war, as “American involvement fell short of full-blown hostilities.” But this is hardly convincing. Stephen Walt put it best at the time when he said in response:

By any reasonable, common-sense standard, in short, we are at war. It doesn't matter that we aren't using our full strength to help the rebels or that other states are doing more than we are. The plain fact is that the United States is using its military forces and intelligence capabilities to attack Libyan forces. In plain English, we are killing (or helping to kill) Qaddafi loyalists (and occasionally innocent civilians), in an openly-acknowledged campaign to drive him from power. Sounds like war to me, and to anybody else who isn't being paid to find ways to evade or obscure reality.

TopicsDefenseHumanitarian InterventionSecurity RegionsLibya

How Much Does Facebook Know about You?

The Buzz

After a rocky IPO, Facebook finally had a good day on Wall Street, with the company's stock recording its largest single gain on Wednesday. The optimism among investors was apparently due to a positive quarterly earnings report. But the traders must not have read a story earlier this week in the Washington Post, which suggested that Facebook is facing some backlash in the form of a lawsuit from European users concerned about its commitment to consumer privacy.

The Post profiles the quest of an Austrian law student, Max Schrems, to find out how much data Facebook is retaining on its users—and whether hitting the delete button really means that information has been permanently expunged.

Schrems was motivated to contact European regulators when he found out that the data held on him by Facebook—when brought in to a non-digital medium—ran to no less than 1,222 pages.

Pictures uploaded from smartphones included precise global positioning system coordinates, the identities of anyone tagged in the photos and the moment — down to the second — when the shutter clicked. Information that users thought they had deleted survived in Facebook files.

Based on the documents, the German newspaper Taz made a diagram of Schrems’s social life, with distinct clusters around different phases — his time as an exchange student in the United States, his stint as a volunteer with an ambulance corps, his current life as a law student living in an apartment in Vienna.

“That’s basic FBI stuff,” Schrems said. “Thirty years ago, you [would] put up a pin and look for the connections. Now you know in a click.”

Americans are known as rugged individualists, with a right to privacy now assumed to be written between the lines of our Constitution. But it's Europe that has more robust rules on such issues. And Schrem is taking full advantage of these strict privacy laws as he raises money to take on Facebook in court.

It's no surprise that the old world is more sensitive to privacy issues. For at least some Europeans, memories of domestic surveillance by Stasi-like regimes are relatively recent. Older generations can remind younger ones of the horror of finding one's life summarized in a file compiled by strangers.

Facebook, of course, is no Big Brother. After all, users freely sign up and agree to give away personal data to the service. But they might consider more carefully what their role is in the transaction. What seems on the surface to be a "free" service is really paid for by turning over information that is valuable to advertisers. As some have put it, to Facebook executives, "you are the product, not the customer."

This cold economic reality is hard to swallow at a time when the Internet is still held up as the world's great equalizer and promoter of liberal democracy. Yet the powerful social experience provided by Facebook comes at a cost. And many users will reject Schrem's concerns and feel no hesitation at handing over a profile of intimate details to unknown parties.

Facebook is banking on it.

TopicsSociety RegionsEurope