Stability and Revolutions

This post is inspired by the exchange between Chris Arnade and Adam Ozimek.

Arnade argues that Trump voters are not irrational for supporting his disruptive program. They are playing for the high variance outcomes, gambling on the “unknown.”  The “stable” continuity offered by Clinton and the status quo political regime is that they have to stay along their downward trajectory, with little chance of escape.  Trump offers the chance to shake things up, and maybe, just maybe, they might be able to escape the path that they are trapped in.

Ozimek’s point is,, in the end, that this is illusory.  Disruption strikes hardest on those who lack insurance, and the dispossessed, by necessity, lack the insurances to ward against things going wrong.  People who know about politics of the developing world should remind themselves that revolutions and social disruptions are not so bad for the elite, who do have stocks of money and such stowed away abroad.  Many well-endowed Venezuelans who oppose Chavez and his movement have done relatively well, by moving to Miami instead of staying in Caracas, for example.  The social and economic disruptions that accompanied the Chavez movement hit those who remained in Venezuela very hard, including most of the impoverished Chavez supporters.

For all the grandiose rhetoric, it is hardly clear Chavez was really a champion of the common folk in Venezuela, at least any more than Trump is today.  In the end, Chavez was an ambitious, unscrupulous, and self-absorbed politician who wanted power and got it whichever way he could, whether a coup (that he tried at and failed) or at the ballot box (that he succeeded).  Most importantly, he succeeded because his opponents were weak, lacking the support of the broad populace without political connections whom they left behind, or in the lingo of political science, “agendaed out of relevance.”  This is the real lesson of why democracies (or indeed, any government) fail:  it is not because many people actively oppose democratic rule, but they grow weary, indifferent, and cynical, and refuse to play the game that they regard, usually rightly, as rigged.  As a Greek peasant allegedly said during the decline of the Byzantine Empire (paraphrased from R. Lopez’s Birth of Europe), “Of course we know there is an emperor.  But to us, it doesn’t matter who or what he is:  he might as well Agamemnon, son of Atreus.” (or something like that).  The point is simply that, to the peasants, the bloody of politics of Constantinople or even the bloody fights against the Muslims and Crusaders, were none of their business, nothing worth getting excited about, and certainly not worth sticking their necks out, regardless of how they panned out.

In other words, governments fall not because they are hated, but because the populace is indifferent.  The fall of Peter II and the Brazilian Empire, where no one, even the emperor himself, did not care much for preservation of the government, even if a moderate and relatively enlightened one, should remind us of this.  And people are indifferent because they are left out, not just in economic terms, but in social and psychological terms.  No one dares ask “ask what you can do for your country,” because the answer is too likely to be a deafening silence.  Without citizens willing to defend their country, it is not unusual for a third world government to fall to a coup involving mere dozens of foreign mercenaries, or a few hundred troopers at most.  Somewhat the same logic, even if less forceful, would apply to democratic politics as well:  As much as I’d nitpick, Taleb is right:  it is easy for a loud minority to take over a democratic polity, as a century of political science research, until it has been recently pushed aside, has noted.  Madison might have said without virtue, democratic rule is doomed–but virtue is a normal good, too:  people without money, without sense of purpose, without identity, without self-respect, can’t afford virtue.

Riker’s argument, with regards “minimum winning coalition,”  was that all (non-essential) players should be squeezed until they are barely better off than under the alternative.  This is why minimum winning coalitions always fall:  people whom they leave behind won’t fight to protect them.  So they are barely strong enough to get by, on average–and when things fall below average, they are toppled by someone else with minimal support needed to topple them, because no one else thinks it their business to protect the status quo.   That Riker-esque thinking is the conventional wisdom in today’s politics, for all sides, knowingly or not, is a serious problem.




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