The Department of Government
The Department of Government

The Logic of Compromise

Sat, October 30, 2010

It’s a very basic point of inquiry in social science: why would anyone with power voluntarily give it up?

In political science, one area where this question has been asked is the study of regime change. If an authoritarian regime can repress its opposition, why would that regime ever moderate, agree to share power, and exercise authority in a more inclusive and accommodating fashion? Why would an authoritarian regime ever compromise with its opponents?

One answer to this question is the “credible commitments” answer, which states that for an authoritarian regime to relinquish power, the opposition must be capable of credibly committing to safeguarding the incumbents’ basic interests following any power transition. The theory holds that when the opposition sends credible signals about how they would behave following a regime change, it allows the authoritarian incumbents to control their ranks and bring everyone on board for a successful compromise.

However, as Jason Brownlee, associate professor of Government, shows in an article forthcoming in “Studies in Comparative International Development,” the credible commitments argument leaves unaddressed the question of why the authoritarian incumbents would be willing to strike a compromise in the first place. In the article, “Unrequited Moderation: Credible Commitments and State Repression in Egypt,” Brownlee shows, through an empirical study of Egypt, that the influence of credible commitments is wholly dependent on incumbents’ willingness to cede power and, therefore, credible commitments may have limited impact on authoritarian regimes across North Africa.

What Brownlee argues is that authoritarian incumbents face two different scenarios. In one scenario, the incumbents can choose between compromising with the opposition or face a retrenchment of their privileges and power. In this situation, credible commitments by the opposition may lead to moderation and reform. However, in a second scenario, incumbents can choose between compromising with the opposition or maintaining hegemony over government. In this instance, incumbents will choose the status quo and not moderate, regardless of what signals the opposition sends about their willingness and ability to protect the incumbents after a power transition.

The broader point is that there is very little the opposition can do in negotiating with an incumbent authoritarian regime to induce that regime to moderate and reform. Rather, an authoritarian regime is driven by the degree of cohesion within the ruling elite. When the ruling elite is unified in its unwillingness to give up power, the opposition is helpless. The critical factor is not the opposition’s behavior, but rather the likelihood of really bad things happening to the incumbents, for example, pending economic collapse or a real threat of radicals about to assume power. Incumbents need to face confrontation and real disruptive threats to be induced to compromise.

This new research is consistent with a strand of thought in political sociology largely pioneered by Government Professor John Higley, who has spent his career building and refining a theory of elites to explain cross-national political patterns. Higley’s central proposition has always been that political outcomes are a factor of national elite configurations – whether elites are unified, and if so how and on what basis. Historically, however, national elites are disunited, and only impending doom can induce them to set their differences aside and practice a tame form of politics that guarantees survival for all. The upshot is that in a world lacking in fundamental altruism, those with power do not compromise and do not moderate unless they absolutely have to.

The tradition is now extending into a new generation of students. Matt Buehler, one of Brownlee's Ph.D. advisees, is advancing this line of research in his dissertation by examining when and how secular and Islamist opposition parties choose to build alliances and coordinate their activities in North African authoritarian states. Buehler, through a Boren fellowship, has left for North Africa to conduct Arabic field interviews and archival research related to the topic.

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