Worth Reading (Sept. 30, 2014): Perspectives on Politics Debates Political Science, Foresight, and Popular Protests

This issue of Worth Reading highlights a symposium featured in the June 2014 Perspectives on Politics. The main article, “Explaining the Unexpected: Political Science and the Surprises of 1989 and 2011” by Marc Morjé Howard and Meir R. Walters, is available here, free of charge. This article received three responses: from Eva Bellin, and Marc Lynch, and International Forum for Democratic Studies Research Council Member Ellen Lust. Their responses are summarized below and can be accessed through any academic journal archive or database containing Perspectives on Politics. Finally, a counter-response by Howard and Walters is available here.

“Explaining the Unexpected: Political Science and the Surprises of 1989 and 2011” by Marc Morjé Howard and Meir R. Walters

In “Explaining the Unexpected: Political Science and the Surprises of 1989 and 2011,” Marc Morjé Howard and Meir R. Walters examine why most scholarship prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall or the Arab Spring “suggested… the persistence of Soviet-type systems and stable leadership successions in nepotistic Arab autocracies.” Rather than asking why political scientists failed to predict the fall of autocratic regimes, the authors describe how the marginalization of “questions that were not obviously tied to regime change or ‘modernizing’ reform” left political scientists “ill-equipped to explain the uprisings.” In the study of the communist world, they argue that the two competing paradigms, Sovietology and modernization theory, each prioritized the study of elite politics over that of mass politics. When the regimes fell, political scientists began to argue that communist regimes’ failure to modernize made their decline inevitable, thereby “reducing explanations of popular mobilization and revolutionary movements to a mere phase in a transition towards institutional democracy.”

Similarly, Howard and Walters argue that in the Middle Eastern context, “a continued overemphasis on democratization (or its absence) risks overlooking questions about how the uprisings unfold that may not be tied to regime change. It also minimizes the significance of popular mobilization and everyday forms of political contestation as issues worthy of study in their own right.” While the authors stress that questions of regime type and institutional design are worth studying, they argue that a strict focus on these issues has limited “the types of questions that scholars ask, and how they conceptualize problems tied to political repression, participation, and deliberation.”

Responses from Eva Bellin, Ellen Lust, and Marc Lynch

In the same issue of Perspectives on Politics, three prominent scholars of Arab-world politics published responses to Howard and Walters. Eva Bellin’s response notes that “surprise is an intrinsic fact of political life” and that mass uprisings will always be surprising regardless of what sort of analyses political scientists conduct. The second response, by Research Council Member Ellen Lust, argues that Howard and Walters’ reading of the literature on Arab world politics is selective, that pre-Arab Spring scholars did not argue that “regime breakdown was impossible” but rather focused on how these regimes were sustained, and that scholars have and will continue to study “a wide range of issues that extend far beyond democratization.” The third response, by Marc Lynch, maintains that “the survival of most Arab regimes in the face of protests and the resurgence of the old regime in Egypt suggests the continuing relevance of attention to the power of these authoritarian structures.”

Counter-Response from Marc Morjé Howard and Meir R. Walters

In their response to the above authors, Howard and Walters’ make three main points. First, they argue that while scholarship on the Arab world is diverse, “major tensions” exist within the field and that “much of comparative politics continues to study authoritarianism primarily as the absence of democratization.” Second, they emphasize that the common focus on regime stability before the uprisings “is not merely reflective of a failure of prediction, but also a manifestation of theoretical blind spots.” Finally, Howard and Walters note that many scholars’ focus on authoritarianism “cannot accommodate a reality in which the sites of salient political and social conflict are often not directly related to regime type,” stressing that “the uprisings reveal a much broader set of struggles.”

About Worth Reading

NDRI LogoWorth Reading is a list of featured readings on democracy disseminated semi-monthly by the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy. Many thanks to Marc Morjé Howard for bringing this symposium to our attention and for his contributions to the issue, as well as to Meir R. Walters, Eva Bellin, Ellen Lust, and Marc Lynch for their research and insight. If you have materials that you would like to be considered for inclusion in Worth Reading, please send us an email at ndri@ned.org.