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Posts Tagged ‘political science

“The real war will never get in the books”*…

Still, historians try. And as Anton Jäger argues in his consideration of Charles S. Maier‘s The Project-State and Its Rivals- A New History of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, that’s a challenging, frustrating, but ultimately very useful thing…

“We thought we knew the story of the twentieth century,” Charles Maier notes in an announcement for his new book The Project State and Its Rivals. Both haunting and tantalizing, the sentence’s past tense speaks to a profoundly contemporary mood. As the twenty-first century progresses, confident visions about the previous century conceived from the vantage point of the 1990s—the “age of extremes” resolved by a set of liberal settlements—no longer seem safe and secure. In 2023, the European extreme Right is establishing itself as a force of government, populism is going global, and inter-imperial tensions have ushered in a new arms race. In Germany, the Alternative für Deutschland is currently polling above 20 percent, while Modi is set to win another term in India with an approval rating near 80 percent. To the desperation of liberals nostalgic for the 1990s, the “end of the end of history” has arrived.

As Maier surmises, there might be a connection between this sense of surprise and the comfortable judgments we tend to make about humani­ty’s last hundred years. “If the twentieth century meant the triumph of liberalism,” he asks, “why have the era’s darker impulses—ethnic nationalism, racist violence, and populist authoritarianism—revived?” The question provides the working hypothesis for Maier’s new mono­graph, a self-described “rethinking of the long twentieth century,” which aims to “explain the fraying of our own civic culture” while also “allowing hope for its recovery.” Provocatively, Maier’s focus is on “both democracies and dictatorships that sought not just to retain power but to transform their societies,” next to “new forms of imperial domination,” “global networks of finance,” and “international associations” that both challenged and shaped the state. The ambition is nothing less than a new general theory of the twentieth century, one that would allow us to deal with an unmastered past, but also to gain proper self-understanding in a new and confusing century.

Readers would be hard-pressed to find a more suitable candidate for the task than Charles S. Maier. At eighty-four, Maier—still teaching European and international history at Harvard—remains a scholar with panoramic disciplinary reach. His 1975 debut, Recasting Bourgeois Europe: Stabilization in France, Germany, and Italy in the Decade after World War I, swiftly established itself a masterpiece of comparative political history. Based on a prior Harvard dissertation complemented with a decade of additional archival research, it examined the fraught resolution of the crises of liberalism after 1918, and what factors deter­mined the potential emergence and stymieing of authoritarian regimes. After works on Germany’s collective memory of the Holocaust and an elite-driven account of the fall of East Germany, he waded into histori­cal political science with Leviathan 2.0: Inventing Modern Statehood in 2014, followed by Once within Borders: Territories of Power, Wealth, and Belonging since 1500 in 2016. Clearly a product of a buoyant Cold War academe, Maier has always been locked in an uneasy pas-à-deux with Marxism: attentive to the class content of political life, but never taken to monolithic views of business interests and overly abstract notions of capital. His work on political economy looked closely at the class coalitions that gave way to divergent corporatist settlements in the 1920s and ’30s, and how these national blocs interlocked with differing international arrangements—a Marxist historiography despite itself. He also took the force of ideas seriously, weaving a tapestry of conceptual, political, and economic history, which explains the unique force of his writing. Yet unlike cultural historians, Maier has retained an interest in causality through the construction of comparative counterfactuals—what Britain and Germany shared in 1918, for instance, or why English Tories did not need a Duce and why the American South was different from the Mezzogiorno—a sensibility that also informed his consistently transnational approach to the twentieth century.

The Project State and Its Rivals exudes a similarly boundless ambition. As the book’s announcements make clear, Maier is on the lookout for a unifying category to cohere our historical experience of the twentieth century—or, more specifically, the forms of statehood that emerged in the interwar period, and that still present such vexing challenges to our intellectual imagination…

A critical account of Maier’s hypothesis, eminently worth reading in full: “The Rise and Fall of the Project State: Rethinking the Twentieth Century,” from @AntonJaegermm in @AmericanAffrs. Via Adam Tooze/@adam_tooze.

* Walt Whitman


As we keep searching, we might pause to contrast the rigorously serious with the frivolously venal: it was on this date in 1835 that the New York Sun began a series of six articles detailing the discovery of civilized life on the moon; circulation soared.  Now known as “The Great Moon Hoax,” the articles attributed the “discovery” to Sir John Herschel, the greatest living astronomer of the day.  Herschel was initially amused, wryly noting that his own real observations could never be as exciting.  But ultimately he tired of having to answer questioners who believed the story.  The series was not discovered to be a hoax for several weeks after its publication and, even then, while the paper did admit (on September 16, 1835) that the whole thing was a “satire,” it never issued a retraction (and didn’t suffer a drop in sales).

The “ruby amphitheater” on the Moon, per the New York Sun (source)

“Games are a compromise between intimacy and keeping intimacy away”*…

… Maybe, as Greg Costikyan explains, none more so than Rochambeau (or “Rock-Paper-Scissors” as it’s also known)…

Unless you have lived in a Skinner box from an early age, you know that the outcome of tic-tac-toe is utterly certain. At first glance, rock-paper-scissors appears almost as bad. A four-year-old might think there’s some strategy to it, but isn’t it basically random?

Indeed, people often turn to rock-paper-scissors as a way of making random, arbitrary decisions — choosing who’ll buy the first round of drinks, say. Yet there is no quantum-uncertainty collapse, no tumble of a die, no random number generator here; both players make a choice. Surely this is wholly nonrandom?

All right, nonrandom it is, but perhaps it’s arbitrary? There’s no predictable or even statistically calculable way of figuring out what an opponent will do next, so that one choice is as good as another, and outcomes will be distributed randomly over time — one-third in victory for one player, one-third to the opponent, one-third in a tie. Yes? Players quickly learn that this is a guessing game and that your goal is to build a mental model of your opponent, to try to predict his actions. Yet a naïve player, once having realized this, will often conclude that the game is still arbitrary; you get into a sort of infinite loop. If he thinks such-and-so, then I should do this-and-that; but, on the other hand, if he can predict that I will reason thusly, he will instead do the-other-thing, so my response should be something else; but if we go for a third loop — assuming he can reason through the two loops I just did — then . . . and so on, ad infinitum. So it is back to being a purely arbitrary game. No?


Read on for an explanation in this excerpt from veteran game designer Greg Costikyan’s book Uncertainty in Games: “The Psychological Depths of Rock-Paper-Scissors,” from @mitpress.

* Eric Berne


As we play, we might send carefully-plotted birthday greetings to Vilfredo Pareto; he was born on this date in 1848. An engineer, mathematician, sociologist, economist, political scientist, and philosopher, he made significant contributions to math and sociology. But he is best remembered for his work in economics and socioeconomics– particularly in the study of income distribution, in the analysis of individuals’ choices, and in his studies of societies, in which he popularized the use of the term “elite” in social analysis.

He introduced the concept of Pareto efficiency (zero-sum situations in which no action or allocation is available that makes one individual better off without making another worse off) and helped develop the field of microeconomics. He was also the first to discover that income follows a Pareto distribution, which is a power law probability distribution. The Pareto principle ( the “80-20 rule”) was built on his observations that 80% of the wealth in Italy belonged to about 20% of the population. 


“Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried”*…

… Still, ours is clearly going through a rough patch. David Karpf offers a pragmatic– and provocative– perspective on how we might begin to heal it…

Let me begin from first principles: much of the rhetoric surrounding democratic theory and practice begins from a presumption of equality. We invoke the first clause of the Declaration of the Independence — “We the People” — and consider democratic forms of government to be a thing that manifests from the shared deliberation of the public at large. Through this rendering, it follows that all people have equal voice, equal protections, equal representation under and by the law. We imagine that the purpose of a democratic government is to produce wise and just outcomes for the whole of society.

From this presumption of equality, a whole field of study has arisen, asking whether citizens have the requisite skills and knowledge for democracy to live up to these ideals. This field dates back roughly a century, at least to the time of Walter Lippmann. (Sean Illing and Zac Gershberg wrote an excellent historically-engaged book on this topic last year, btw, titled The Paradox of Democracy.) For the past couple decades, contributors to the field often turn their focus toward the internet, asking whether we are enhancing or degrading the capacity of citizens to engage in productive democratic practices.

I will grant that this is a powerful and attractive rhetorical trope. Indeed, it might be the case that it is an essential constitutive myth — that in order for democracies to succeed, we must pay rhetorical homage to the collective presumption of equality.

But it is also, as an empirical matter, clearly suspect. If we want to make sense of contemporary elite political behavior — of how the powerful act and what they prioritize — I think the presumption of equality does us a disservice. And that’s because it has never, empirically speaking, been an accurate description of actually-existing democracy. We have, for starters, never had a mass public that lived up to our imagined ideals for good citizenship (c.f. Michael Schudson’s book, The Good Citizen).

American democracy was not founded by a mass citizenry coming together and uniting around a single set of shared principles. It was founded by elites — men who owned land, men who owned printing presses, men who owned people. America, just like every other mass democracy on the planet, was founded by an elite. And the purpose of democracy as a form of government was to maintain the privilege and status of that elite — to preserve the social order. We can better make sense of democratic practice today if we instead proceed from a presumption of hierarchy.

The presumption of hierarchy turns our focus away from “We the People,” toward another bedrock phrase: “the consent of the governed.” We ought to parse that term. It suggests the existence of two distinct groups — those who govern (the elites) and those who are governed (the masses). And from the masses, it merely requires that we reach a minimal threshold of “consent.” Consent is not robust, informed participation. It does not require deliberation or engagement. or engaged. We can consent to being governed in much the same passive way we consent to a website’s terms of service. Consent, in this context, can best be understood as social stability. Social unrest is synonymous with the governed withdrawing their consent. The lack of social unrest is synonymous with consent being maintained.

More provocatively, let me suggest the following: from the perspective of political elites, the central purpose of any form of government is the preservation of social order. And by that I also mean the preservation of the existing status hierarchy. Let’s call this the outcome of social order, by which I mean that governments are actually, in practice, evaluated on how well they preserve the status hierarchy with minimal changes.

From this perspective, the key innovation that has made democracy preferable to all other forms of government is that it produces a legitimate avenue for social dissent…

Neil Postman famously remarked in Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985) that the real threat to Democracy came not from the ubiquitous government surveillance depicted in George Orwell’s (1949) 1984, but rather from the ubiquitous entertainment options that leave citizens passively disengaged in Aldous Huxley’s (1931) Brave New World. Many cultural commentators have noted in recent years how well Postman’s broadcast-television-era warning seems to fit the age of digital entertainment…

In the 2000s, it was common among political communication scholars and civic technology practitioners to look with hope at the influx of new technologies. There was, amongst many of us, the shared belief that, as information and communication technologies lowered the cost of citizen engagement, we would witness the emergence of a more engaged, informed citizenry.

I was always a bit suspicious of that instinct…

But even my early-onset-orneriness did not prepare me for the authoritarian turn of the mid-’10s. Ethan Zuckerman described this well in his essay “QAnon and the Emergence of the Unreal.” The same civic technologies that were being used to build and support civic communities in the ‘90s and ‘00s were used to support conspiracy theories and hate groups in the ‘10s. Likewise, as I noted in a 2018 essay, the thing that made QAnon different from past conspiracy theories was that it had all the trappings of an immersive ARG (alternative reality game). QAnon is not just a means of making sense of a chaotic world that has not gone your way. Participating in QAnon forums is the same type of fun as participating in Reddit forums or other online communities. The people who get involved in politics are the people who attain joy or profit from that involvement…

At the elite level, I fear what has happened is the erosion of the “myth of the attentive public” among our political elites. As I described in a 2019 essay, this was a load-bearing myth, necessary for the maintenance of an at-least-barely-functional democracy…

Over the past almost-decade, this myth has been eroded as the Huxleyite version of the public on stark display. If misinformation and propaganda flow at least as well as truth and adversarial journalism, then why bother worrying about the potential effects of negative news cycles? If the only members of the public engaging in political life are your worshipful fans and your crazed enemies, why bother focusing on the messy, complex work of actual governance? (It’s all just kayfabe anyway, right?)

We don’t solve these problems by building better citizens through media literacy camapaigns. We don’t solve them through kumbaya efforts that hearken back to an era when “people could disagree without being disagreeable” (which people, one ought always ask in response).

We solve these problems by building better elites — and by better elites, what I probably mean is elites who are appropriately concerned that they are going to lose the social order and stability they have come to take for granted.

The trouble with the presumption of equality is that it leads us to pursue fantasy solutions to the crisis of democracy. We begin by asserting that all citizens are equal under the law, and then find ourselves asking what all citizens should expect from one another. This can be an interesting thought experiment, I suppose. But it is a dead end for pragmatists trying to diagnose how we got where we are today.

I find the presumption of hierarchy more fruitful because it more accurately describes what actual, existing democracy is, and has been. It is a marvelously effective means of maintaining social order. Social order is generally good. We would sorely miss it if it were gone. Countries that face violent overthrow are not prosperous or great to live in. (It’s easy for revolution-minded intellectuals to imagine chaos and anarchy as a welcome change. It is not.)

And that’s particularly true in todays United States. I have mentioned this elsewhere, but it’s worth saying explicitly here as well. One ought not hope for violent confrontations when the opposition has all the guns…

The nice thing about focusing on elites is that there are, relatively speaking, not a lot of them. It is less work to convince the wealthiest 0.1% of the country that they ought to alter their behavior/have an ounce of shame or humility than to convince the other 99.9% that they should all be civil and respectful of their betters and pursue civic engagement but only in the right channels at the right times…

Pragmatic or defeatist? Read the full article for Karpf’s “basic elements of a successful mass democracy,” or as he styles it, “a minimalist theory of democracy”: “Huxley’s Electorate,” from @davekarpf.

[Image above: source]

* Winston Churchill


As we get down with government, we might recall that on this date in 1956 President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act, landmark legislation that funded a 40,000-mile system of interstate roads (commonly known as the Interstate Highway System) that ultimately reached every American city with a population of more than 100,000. Today, almost 90% of the interstate system crosses rural areas, putting most citizens and businesses within driving distance of one another. Although Eisenhower’s rationale was martial (creating a road system on which convoys could travel more easily), the results were largely civilian.  From the growth of trucking to the rise of suburbs, the interstate highway system re-shaped American landscapes and lives.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 29, 2023 at 1:00 am

“Geography is destiny”*…

Why are some large regions (like China) politically unified, while others (like Europe) are divergent? Researchers at The Centre for Economic Policy Research have tested a leading theory…

Why are some parts of the world politically fragmented while others tend to be dominated by a single state? This age-old question has implications for many important topics in comparative economic development such as the origins of the Great Divergence (see Broadberry 2021) or the divergence in political institutions between China and Europe (see Jia et al. 2021).

Scholars going back at least as far as Montesquieu and Hume have attributed the rise of Western Europe to its persistent political fragmentation. More recently, Jones (2003), Mokyr (2016, 2017), and Scheidel (2019) have developed this thesis in novel ways. These authors acknowledge that a polycentric state system has static costs such as tariff barriers and more wars but argue that, on the net, it is associated with better dynamic incentives for intellectual innovation and state building.   

But what determines these patterns of fragmentation? More concretely: what factors account for the prevalence of political polycentrism in Europe and the prominence of political centralisation in China? A leading explanation of this phenomenon is the ‘fractured land’ hypothesis, most famously stated by Diamond (1997). According to this view, fractured land such as mountain barriers, indented coastlines, and rugged terrain precluded the development of large empires in Europe. In comparison, China’s geographical features led to its recurring unifications.

While the fractured land hypothesis has been widely cited and much criticised (e.g. Hoffman 2015), it has not been formally modeled or tested. In Fernández-Villaverde et al. (2022), we fill this gap by providing a quantitative investigation of the fractured-land hypothesis. We do so by modeling the dynamic process of state-building and exploring how fractured land shaped inter-state competition in unexpected, non-linear ways…

Simulating the model between 1000 BCE and 1500 CE, it can replicate the fragmentation of Europe and the consolidation of China. Modified versions of the model can predict patterns of development in the Americas and Africa, while future extensions could try to disentangle the importance of culture and religion versus geography…

Fascinating: “The fractured land hypothesis: Why China is Unified but Europe is not,” from @cepr_org.

* Abraham Verghese


As we muse on the model (and remember that “fragmentation” is relative), we might recall that it was on this date in 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, that West Virginia was admitted as a state to the Union.

A key border state during Civil War, it was the only state to form by separating from a Confederate state (Virginia), one of two states (along with Nevada) admitted to the Union during the Civil War, and the second state to separate from another state, after Maine separated from Massachusetts in 1820.

Some of its residents held slaves, but most were yeoman farmers, and architects of statehood provided for the gradual abolition of slavery in the new state constitution. Indeed, the state legislature abolished slavery in the state, and at the same time ratified the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery nationally on February 3, 1865.

Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight, a statue on the grounds of the West Virginia State Capitol (source)

Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 20, 2023 at 1:00 am

“We can learn from history, but we can also deceive ourselves when we selectively take evidence from the past to justify what we have already made up our minds to do.”*…

Brad DeLong on the dangerous misunderstanding at the root of the current discussion of the “Thucydides’s Trap,” a phrase coined by Harvard’s Graham Allison, meant to evoke the potentially deadly tensions that arise when a major rising power (read “China”) threatens to displace a major ruling power (read “the United States). Allison’s account is very pessimistic; DeLong argues that it needn’t– shouldn’t– be so..

“Thucydides Trap” claims to be shorthand way of describing the grand-strategic dilemmas of the Classical Greek city-states of Athens and Sparta in the second half of the -400s. But it is a bowdlerized version. The actual complexities of the situation have been elided.

Thus important parts of the lessons that can be drawn from Thucydides’s description in The Peloponnesian War of the start of the war have been ignored.

And lessons can be drawn. For, as Thucydides said, he had tried to write his history as:

a treasure for all time… [because] knowledge of the past… [is] an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it…

The situation in the second half of the -400s in the Greek world was thus:

The Spartan oligarchy had held preeminence. It had conquered and continued to dominate Laconia and Messenia. Its enserfment of their populations meant that Sparta alone, among major city-states, had a large and rich enough class of landlords who could train intensively for war, since they not have to assist in the farming themselves.

But there was a big problem with the Spartan system, as Aristotle was to note: Rich Spartan men tended to marry rich Spartan women. Thus, over time, wealth inequality grew. This diminished the size of the pool of Spartan landlords who could afford the full training régimen. The number of full Spartans in the military phalanx was dropping steadily, by perhaps a quarter in each generation.

The Athenian democracy, by contrast, was gaining in strength from generation to generation.

Athens held a central place as the maritime-commercial hub of a Greek world rapidly growing in population and wealth. Each generation saw more economic activity flow through Athens. Each generation saw Athens grow bigger and richer. Each generation saw more silver flow into its treasury. Athens had—excessively cleverly—transformed other city states’ agreements to provide warships to stave off any renewed Persian invasion into cash payments to Athens, which Athens then could and did use as it wished. Thus each generation saw the power of the Athenian state grow as well. And each generation saw a greater share of other Greek city-states become what local democrats elsewhere called “allies” and local oligarchs elsewhere called “subjects”.

In 500 Athens would have had no chance in an all-out war with Sparta. In 430 it could go toe-to-toe. By 360, had catastrophic defeat in the Peloponnesian War been avoided, Athens’s hegemony would have been near indisputible.

In this situation what, from a rational perspective, should the grand strategy of Athens in the second half of the -400s have been? It is clear:

  • Do not annoy the Spartan lion.
  • Focus on growing trade and commerce
  • Focus on making alliances
  • Focus on solidifying the nascent Athenian empire.

The future was on the side of Athens.

Korkya came to Athens at the start of the 430s, and said “we will join your alliance if you well help us push Sparta’s ally Korinth out of Epidamnos”. The Athenian answer should have been this: “You have not been our friend in the past. Join our alliance first. Then, in a generation, we will back you in all your disputes. But not now.”

Instead, Athens backed Korkyra with military force. And Korinth went to Sparta. Sparta was, usually, wary of large long-term commitments outside its heartland—the main purpose of its army, after all, was to keep the helots subservient and the taxes flowing, which was hard to do if the Spartan phalanx was far from Laconia. But Athens’s choice of open military confrontation with a key Spartan ally was enough to overcome their reluctance.

And so the Athenian Empire fell.

The lesson for a rising power? Whatever you seek to do now that may be very difficult will be easy in two generations. So postpone doing anything potentially difficult and wait for the tide to bring all the good things to you.

The lesson for a declining hegemonic power it is somewhat more complex. Outside the frame of Thucydides is the Peloponnesian war, Sparta was not the beneficiary of its generation long war against Athens. The beneficiaries were in the short-run, Persia; in the medium-run, Thebes; and in the long-run, Makedon. A declining power should take a long, hard look at itself, and consider whether curbing this particular rising power is in its own long-run interest. The task for a declining power is to create a world in which it can live comfortably when it is no longer hegemon. You can argue over whether Sparta would have had a comfortable and valued place in a counterfactual Athenian Empire circa -300. But it certainly did not have such a place in the post-Athenian Ægean world of Thebans, Argaiads, and Hellenistic despots.

From his invaluable newsletter, Grasping Reality, “The Deceptive Thucydides Trap,” @delong.

Margaret MacMillan


As we heed history, we might recall that on this date in 1966, the #1 song in the U.S was The Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out.”

Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 8, 2023 at 1:00 am

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