Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Sunday, 18 March 2018

A road to right wing authoritarian government


This post is inspired by another, by Jan-Werner Müller. I have talked about Müller's ideas on populism before. This particular post is a plea to focus less on the voters who elect populist politicians, and more on the politicians themselves. He writes
In 2010, Viktor Orbán did not campaign on a promise to draft a new constitution, weaken checks and balances, and radically reduce media pluralism. Instead, he presented himself as a competent mainstream Christian Democrat. In Poland, the Law and Justice (PiS) party went out of its way to stress its character as a reasonable conservative party which simply wanted to provide more benefits to families with children.

The idea that most voters should see beyond the mask to understand who politicians really are is ridiculous. As the 2016 US general election showed, the information content of the broadcast media can be increasingly small.

Does Trump provide a counterexample of this, because he was an 'outsider' who was elected? I would say no for two reasons. First, the Republican party had played a large part in creating the political environment that allowed his populism to win votes. Second, the Republican party seems quite content to behave in ways which complement Trump's authoritarianism. (By attacking the CBO, for example.)

The message is that if you want to investigate populist regimes (using populist in the Müller sense) you need to look at political elites rather than the electorate. I think he is right. But what makes an elite adopt an authoritarian path? I am sure there are many answers to that question, but what I will try to do below (in no doubt a very 'untutored' way) is to show one route in what had been a pluralistic democracy by which elites from the right can move in a populist, authoritarian direction. I'm an economist, so I use a simple model.



Here is a two dimensional variation on the familiar left-right diagram. The additional dimension is sometimes called 'identity' or 'culture'. Let us assume that voters are evenly distributed inside the circle. (Not necessarily a good assumption: see here.) In a two party system you might expect both parties, if their main concern was to be elected, to adopt positions that put them close to the centre. This is because the party a voter will vote for is governed by the party that is nearest to them.

But suppose that a party wants to take a less centrist position, either because its backers wish this or because its politicians believe is some ideology. To be concrete, suppose the party of the right wants to adopt a very right wing economic policy that involves, for example, distributing income from most people to the very rich. In a one-dimensional left-right space such a party would be doomed. But suppose their opponents, for whatever reason, were fairly liberal. If we assume that the left is fairly moderate on economic issues, then that places the two parties at the position given by P in the diagram above. That leaves them evenly matched. (To see why, see below.).

The party on the right will want to focus on their socially conservative platform, while the party on the left will stress their more 'moderate' economic platform. This looks like a stable situation, which contains no threat to a pluralistic democracy. What could change to upset it? Here is just one possible route.

If the right has more influence on the media than the left, they can campaign on a platform that differs from the platform they intend to implement. If you can pretend that you are a moderate party on economic issues rather than an extreme right party, and this pretense works, then your party wins. So in terms of voter perception, the party on the right moves along the upper arrow from position P to C. The left party might respond in kind by pretending they are less liberal than they are, but because they have less media influence they cannot move so far from their true position. If we look at the campaign positions of the two parties, marked by C, it is intuitively clear that the right wing party wins any election. (The dotted lines show a proof – see [1])

We see this in the US with tax cuts (pushing the idea that lower corporation taxes will mainly raise wages), in the UK with austerity (which was really a policy to shrink the state much further than most wanted, dressed up as some kind of moralistic injunction that governments should be like households) and especially Brexit, where advocates pretended there would be no economic cost to leaving the EU. The counterpart of hiding a right wing position is to emphasise conservative issues. This is most obvious with the culture war in the US, together with the politics of race. In the UK the key social issue was immigration, which the Conservatives started focusing on from the late 1990s. (The great thing about immigration as an issue for the right is that it can be (falsely) given an economic dimension.) Again Brexit is an exemplar, with not just immigration ('protect our borders') but nationalism ('take back control').

While this results in short term gains for the right, as a tactic it is unstable in the longer term because governments once in power implement their real economic policies. We will move back from C to P on the lower arrow. Voters observe tax cuts for the better off at their expense, they observe the impact of austerity and, in the UK, they observe the consequences of Brexit. It may take some time, but right wing leaders know they are vulnerable to reality winning out over spin, so they may wish to take actions to offset the democratic consequences of being found out.

There are lots of directions this authoritarian turn can take. Taking greater control of the media, either directly by shutting down critical media or buying off media owners in exchange for support, is one direction we see taken in Hungary. Gerrymandering is favoured by Republicans in the US. Portraying opposition leaders as traitors is favoured in the UK. Ramping up nationalism and the 'threat' from immigration almost everywhere.

Politics that is exclusively along the social conservative/liberal axis can degenerate into a kind of identity politics where you just vote for your tribe. As Müller writes
The problem starts when citizens view every issue purely as a matter of partisan identity, so that the credibility of climate science, for example, depends on whether one is a Republican or a Democrat. It gets worse when partisan identity becomes so strong that no arguments from or about the legitimacy of the other side ever get through.”

The path to authoritarianism I set out here is not meant to be the whole story, and is not meant to correspond with any particular country. What I hope it does illustrate is how an authoritarian government can emerge when a party adopts a very right wing economic policy, and pretends it has not. It happens without voters changing their views or preferences in any way. It is authoritarian populism that comes from the behaviour of right wing elites.


[1] To see which party wins (assuming my geometry is correct), draw a line between the two positions, and then draw a line at right angles that bisects it. Every voter on that line is indifferent (equidistant) between the two parties, and therefore every voter either side of the line votes for each party.

18 comments:

  1. I'm afraid I'm not understanding your story here. And I don't see why adding the second dimension makes any difference.

    Start with the standard one-dimensional median voter ice cream sellers on the beach Hotelling model, where both parties are side-by-side at the median voter. Now add some randomness, so the parties move away from the median voter, because they trade off probability of getting elected with their internal party preference for a particular position. Now add media bias, so the right party can move further right while appearing to stay in the same place and so keep its 50% chance of winning. (Or appear to move towards the centre while actually moving right and increasing its chance of winning above 50%.)

    (In the US, the media were overwhelmingly against Trump IIRC.)

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    1. You could do that, but why would you want to? You lose the reason why right wing parties put so much emphasis on socially conservative issues, which is important in distracting attention from their actual economic position.

      I think your final statement in brackets needs some unpicking. The MSM played a big role in building Trump up during the primaries, and their coverage was favourable because the MSM has to find a justification for 'winners'. In the election, was there more coverage of Trump's faults than Clinton emails? From memory I think the answer is no.

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    2. I'm looking at your picture, which I *think* I understand, and I'm imagining the vertical axis shrinking to nothing, so we just get a line along the horizontal axis, and it doesn't seem to make any difference to your results. Unless you assume that adding a second dimension makes the voters' problem more complicated so it's easier to fool them?

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    3. Here's another thought: each party has a preferred position in 2D space, and there's an initial symmetric equilibrium where each party chooses a platform that is partway along a line between their preferred position and the position of the median voter. Then the blue party gets hold of a new dissembling technology that reduces the price (in terms of lost votes) along the X dimension. That reduced price has both a substitution effect and an income effect, which would presumably go in opposite directions, on its chosen platform on the Y dimension. We know it will move towards its preferred position on the X dimension, but don't know which direction it will move on the Y dimension.

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    4. I'm not sure it's correct to say the US media were "overwhelmingly against Trump". Sections of the US media were but other weren't, and channels like Fox New, favoured by a very large part of Trump's constituency were biased towards him. It's also true that while mainstream print media tends to be staffed by the more liberally minded, the entities that own the publications are part of the arch conservative movement - the disease that Trump symptomises.

      It's also true that the USA has become for more dominated by false belief systems that the UK - Conspiracy theories are a political weapon and many on the right in particular get their news from sources like Breitbart, talk radio and hermetic internet forums.

      I wholly concur with Simon's view of right wing parties getting elected on premises of reasonable policy and then implementing far more regressive measures once in power. They are deeply ideologically driven and have an agenda that, since Trump's election, has become open. Their version of small government is "no government" and they can speak to their core constituency directly, attacking the MSM as false news.

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    5. You do not recall correctly. The press - the NYT in particular, which guides most "serious" coverage - hated Clinton and spent huge amounts of time and space reporting the non-issues of the Clinton emails and the Clinton foundation. MSNBC and CNN gave Trump huge amounts of free media, and NPR led almost every news broadcast with whatever Trump had been up to that day.

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    6. Simon is absolutely correct to use the 2-dimensional model. It is the only way to explain how the GOP has recruited working-class voters to support a party that has been against their economic interests for decades. And that is: using social (cultural) rhetoric, especially regarding race & gender. (This also bring in conservative Christians into the GOP fold.) What the media did entirely wrong is let the GOP get away with the Southern Strategy narrative from Nixon on.

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    7. Nick, you were obviously not reading the NY Times or following cable news where for months Trump was given hours of free time (great for ratings) & Hillary was a bunch with sneaky email practices. Editorials against Trump were meaningless.

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  2. "I'm an economist, so I use a simple model."

    I'm glad you're not a judge, I would not want to be tried on methodology like this.

    In the end we must all build up the story on the basis of (quantifiable and non-quantifiable) facts, and facts alone.

    NK.

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  3. I think what needs to be thought of is not so much the fact people want to vote for populist parties, but more that they feel let down. Think of the US. Trump, it seems, was not that popular, in fact people didn't (and I think still don't) like him. But they prefer him to returning to the devil they know. Perhaps they feel the establishment need a bit of a shake up. In both the UK and the US with Bill Clinton and New Labour, people were willing to give globalisation (liberalised global labour, capital and goods flows) and ideas based on neo-classical theory the benefit of the doubt. But they were severely let down. They now want to listen to other ideas. Trump and Eurosceptics have not been the only beneficiaries. The left have also benefited - one could not have imagined Bernie Sanders or Corbyn doing so well during the so-called Great Moderation/Cool Britannia era.

    NK.

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    1. derrida derider21 March 2018 at 16:48

      That's surely just the simplest model of all - economic ills build support for political extremes while prosperity helps consensus politics.

      The Polish example doesn't fit that, though - that's just a case of lying politicians gaining control of the media and corrupting state institutions rather than any underlying change in the voters.

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  4. I think the Simon's model makes more sense if we assume that social conservatism is more popular than economic rightism - then, the right-wing economic parties have indeed an interest in complementing economic rightism with social conservatism.

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  5. This paper relates to Russia, but could well cover The USA, and even here at home where Oligarchs live and the corruption of money laundering in the City of London along with connections to the Conservative Party:

    https://www.loc.gov/rr/frd/pdf-files/RussianOrgCrime.pdf

    I believe that with the aid of artificial intellegince, this small elite and criminal associations think they can do whatever it takes to rest power and wealth unto themselves, irrespective of the cost to the poulations as a whole.

    https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2012/nov/30/activities-of-conservative-friends-of-russia


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  6. How fucked is the UK?

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  7. The Political Science community has done an enormous amount of work on this. Rather than go your own way I suggest that you look at it, or at least talk to someone who has.

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    1. I have, so perhaps you could be a little more helpful and suggest the particular work you have in mind.

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  8. Hammer, nail ... Economics is just one link in the causal chain that yields US authoritarianism. The US constitution advertised itself as democratic but was designed to protect the wealth of the rich---not least the wealth of southern slaveholders---from democratic voters. When the Democrats went over to anti-racism in the 1960s, troglogyte southern white Christian voters with a strong bent for authoritarian religion switched to the Republicans, who're much more for hierarchy and greed than for egalitarian politics and economics. It's a three-legged stool--rightwing racism, rightwing religiosity, rightwing wealth protection.

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  9. In the US, "the right has more influence on the media than the left" because: 1) we have minuscule public sector news media; 2) the right by definition protects wealth; 3) wealth can buy our private sector media, and does.

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