Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Erdogan's Authoritarian Worldview and Turkey's Gloomy Future?

Another week of protests in Turkey. What have we seen?
1. Terrible acts of violence by the government against the protestors.
2. Erdogan and other AKP officials making inflammatory speeches, continuing to denounce the protestors in ways suggestive of their "other-ness".
3. Increasingly paranoid rhetoric by government officials, blaming outside forces for the protests (most incredibly, in this official statement).
4. Continued claims by the Erdogan government that it is fully democratic, and it is the protestors who seek to destroy.

In short, the Erdogan government is turning the protests into an "us vs. them" battle in which force (including, apparently, calling out the military and treating all present in Taksim Square as "terrorists") is justified to maintain order against a threat posed by extremists and outsiders. The events of the past few days are very consistent with my claim in previous posts (here and here)  of a worldview gap between AKP supporters and protestors.

What is important to understand is this: Erdogan's behavior and rhetoric reflect his actual worldview, not a calculated strategy!

Research on the authoritarian personality suggests Erdogan (and many AKP supporters) believes:
1. That he and his supporters embody the true national will of the dominant national community. Only outsiders, deviants, and troublemakers don't share this view, and they seek to undermine the national community. Note Erdogan's comments from his Sunday speech in Istanbul: the crowds supporting him are "the real Turkey" and the protestors just "a minority."
2. These outsiders and troublemakers pose a genuine threat to the continued vitality of the national community, making it a necessary fight to protect the community. Indeed, overnight, Turkish police indefinitely detained dozens of suspected protestors.

Seen through this lens, the violent crackdown becomes logical, even as the protestors themselves are predominantly non-violent. In addition, Erdogan's heavy-handed governing style, which has included restrictive laws on the sale of alcohol, public displays of affection, and family planning, make more sense. After all, as the leader of a community with shared values, it is his job to govern in the best interests of all. More broadly, his view of democracy is shared by his supporters: as one man in Kayseri said, "everything the government does is for the good of our country." As noted before, this sort of binary thinking (good vs. evil, us vs. them) is characteristic of the authoritarian personality.

In short, expect the Erdogan government to continue its harsh repression of the protests and to lash out against both the protestors and international critics.

And expect core AKP supporters to back him in these measures.

(Note: If you don't believe my claim that the authoritarian personality tells us a lot about what's happening in Turkey, compare Erdogan's response with that of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who said in response to anti-government protests in Brazil: "Peaceful demonstrations are legitimate and part of democracy. It is right for the youth to protest." Similar situation; utterly different responses by leaders!)

So what happens next? 

Political scientist Burak Kadercan raises the ominous possibility of a Turkish Winter, in which repressive measures by the Erdogan government result in either the creation of a fully dictatorial regime or in a civil war between government supporters and protestors. As distressing as his argument is, I find it very compelling. In the short term, Turkish democracy is in real danger of collapse.

But it may be based on a flawed assessment of just how much public support Erdogan has. Kadercan, along with many others, seems to assume that the 45-50% of the vote that the AKP received in the past 2 national elections is a constant or a baseline (Turkey expert Soner Cagaptay makes the same claim here).

I don't think this is quite right. We know that electorates reward governments for good times. The Erdogan cabinet, for its flaws, has governed during a period of political stability and sustained economic growth. That is why its share of the vote increased from about 35% in 2002 to just under 50% in 2011. But that fact should also remind us that many AKP voters are unattached or "swing" voters who do not share the authoritarian outlook of Erdogan.

These swing voters are less likely to support Erdogan's repressive methods, particularly if they believe he is the cause of the protests. And, indeed, a recent survey suggests this may be the case. Pluralities or majorities of Turkish respondents express concern about the authoritarian nature of the Erdogan government on a range of dimensions. Importantly, only 35% indicate that they would vote AKP at the next election. In short, public opinion can turn against the government, and this would be reinforced by further images of police brutality or especially if continuing protests were to harm the Turkish economy. A Gallup Poll shows that support for AKP, even before the protests, was at only 30% in Istanbul (and under 50% elsewhere). It is quite possible that the AKP will lose control of municipal governments in Istanbul and other major cities. Moreover, the protests have had a powerful galvanizing effect among those unhappy with Erdogan's rule and may well lead to a more compelling opposition party in the next election.

What happens in the long run hinges on many factors: the success of opposition parties in organizing and contesting future elections, whether moderates within the AKP will continue to support Erdogan, the response of international markets, just how far Erdogan's government can and will go to suppress protest, whether the AKP can manipulate future elections to stay in power, the role of the military, and the ongoing public relations "battle" between the government and protestors.

In short, there are many reasons to be pessimistic about Turkey's short-term future. But the experience of the civil rights protests in 1960s America, of Latin America in the 1970s/80s, and Eastern Europe in 1989 tells us that mass democracy movements are hard to resist in the long run even with overpowering force.

Monday, June 10, 2013

More on authoritarians and the Turkish protests

In my last post, I claimed that AKP supporters (and, presumably, elites) display strong authoritarian dispositions. To provide some sense of what that looks like in practice, I present evidence from the 2008 European Values Study (EVS) public opinion survey.

Authoritarians display higher levels of intolerance. We can look for survey-based measures of that intolerance to see if substantial differences emerge between supporters of the AKP and of the opposition CHP. The EVS includes some useful questions to that end.

One such question presents respondents with a set of different groups and asks the respondent to indicate any which he or she “would not like to have as neighbors.” The categories on this list can be split into two groups. The first, one could argue, are groups that reasonable individuals would not want as neighbors: criminals, drug addicts, and heavy drinkers. But the latter group simply indicates harmless groups who just happen to be members of social minorities. Specifically, I identify five such groups: people of a different race, immigrants, Jews, Gypsies, and Christians (remembering that this is Turkey). One would expect authoritarians, who more intolerant, to be less willing to have these groups as neighbors. And what do the results show?

Would not want as neighbor…
AKP Supporters
CHP Supporters
People of a different race

The results are pretty striking. For each group in question, AKP supporters are less willing to have them as neighbors by at least 20 percentage points. Shockingly, over three-quarters of AKP supporters wouldn’t want Jews as neighbors! (A broader point one might make is how much religious intolerance there is apparently in Turkey generally; even more than half of the “liberal” supporters of the CHP still wouldn’t want Jewish or Gypsy neighbors—by contrast, these percentages are typically under 20% in most West European countries).

Another way to approach the question is to look at attitudes towards authority and uncertainty. Authoritarians, as the term implies, are more likely to believe absolutely in traditional sources of authority. Religious attitudes are a pretty good way of observing such attitudes in practice. The EVS gives respondents a set of four statements about religion and asks respondent to choose the one that best describes their view. While three of the four statements allow respondents to express varying degrees of uncertainty or acceptance of other religions (e.g., “There is only one true religion, but other religions contain basic truths as well”), the first statement is “There is only one true religion.” Full stop. And what do we find? Nearly 75% of AKP supporters agree with this statement. By contrast, only 47% of CHP supporters do.

Finally, there is the question of acceptable behavior. Bob Altemeyer has argued that one characteristic of authoritarians is “conventionalism,” an adherence to socially acceptable forms of behavior and a desire to make others behave that way as well (or, to put it differently, to repress unacceptable forms of behavior). The EVS asks respondents if they ever have, or would, attend “lawful demonstrations”. Note here the wording: lawful demonstrations (other questions ask about engaging in illegal or semi-illegal acts). Fully 71% of AKP say they never would, while slightly less than 52% of CHP supporters say they wouldn’t. All around the numbers are high, suggesting a strong overall preference towards maintaining the social order among Turks. Nonetheless, there is a substantial gap between AKP and CHP supporters on these questions. No wonder the protests have been so divisive in Turkey!

In short, it’s pretty clear that there is a substantial difference in worldviews between the highly authoritarian AKP supporters and the relatively less authoritarian CHP supporters. Because this worldview tends to shape attitudes about the appropriate nature of authority, socially acceptable behavior, and permissiveness towards deviant behavior, it is not surprising that the protests have generated such a severe response from AKP elites, supporters, and the police.  For individuals in these latter groups, these protests have violated social norms and justify coercive measures to end them.

(And on a broader point: these attitudinal differences between AKP and CHP supporters are far stronger than any related to "traditional" political questions like economic policy or redistribution. Differences between AKP and CHP supporters on such questions is mild. Turkish politics is heavily animated by a conflict in worldviews).

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Authoritarian Personality and the Turkish Protests

An observer of the anti-government protests in Turkey might conclude that the two sides are virtually inhabiting different realities. Anti-government protestors representing a broad spectrum of Turkish society are dismissed by Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan as "looters" and "bums". And while the protestors complain that the Erdogan government ignores the rights of the opposition, Erdogan responds by stating "We will build a mosque in Taksim and we do not need the permission of the [opposition] to do it."

Turkish and international media have struggled to characterize the protestors, with many assuming they are simply secularists worried about growing Islamic influence. Though this is an important element of the protestors' concerns, their demands are more comprehensive. A recent survey of the protestors by two political scientists at Istanbul Bilgi University highlights this point: few of the protestors identify with a specific political party, and they do not seek a particular policy aim. Instead, the protestors are nearly unanimous (over 95%) in demanding "greater respect for liberties" and "an end to police violence". What's more, over 80% of the protestors self-identify as "libertarian", compared to just under 65% who describe themselves as "secular". Perhaps most notably given Turkish political history, nearly 80% of the protestors responded that they do not want the military to stage a coup. It is clear that there is something different about these protests compared to previous political conflicts in Turkey.

Fundamentally, these protests represent a clash of worldviews. The view represented by Erdogan and his supporters--that an elected majority gives his government the right to impose its agenda, that the protestors are marginals and extremists, and  that Islam provides a better guide to public policy than secular laws (passed by "a pair of drunks")--are characteristic of the authoritarian personality studied by political psychologists for over 50 years. What distinguishes authoritarians is a tendency to subsume individual autonomy to group conformity, to view the world in binary terms ("good vs. evil", "us vs. them", etc), and--importantly--a willingness to coerce others who do not conform to the desired in-group behavior. As Karen Stenner shows, authoritarians display high levels of political intolerance and punitiveness towards "deviants". The brutal police crackdown against protestors makes sense in this light: repression is justified in the minds of authoritarians against those violating the norms of the majority. Meanwhile, the protestors' behavior--ranging from demands for more political liberty to the ironic appropriation of the insult "looter" as a a term of pride--is characteristic of the non-authoritarian (or "libertarian") personality.

What does this mean for Turkish politics? Using data from the 2008 wave of the European Values Study, I find that authoritarians are significantly more likely to support the governing Welfare & Justice Party (AKP), while non-authoritarians were at the time more likely to have voted for the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP). This has two implications, I think. The first is that public attitudes towards the protests will be divided: core supporters of the AKP have highly authoritarian personalities, and--if anything--they are likely to support rather than oppose harsh crackdowns against the protestors. These protests will be polarizing in Turkish politics, much as the Vietnam War-era protests were in the United States. Which leads to the second, broader, point. Turkish electoral politics is not so dissimilar from other democracies. Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler argue that polarization in US politics is the result of authoritarians heavily supporting the Republican Party while non-authoritarians support the Democrats. My research (here behind a paywall) shows that public support for the European Union is divided along authoritarian/non-authoritarian lines. The US experience shows that this polarization--which emerged in the 1960s--is stronger than ever today, suggesting that this worldview conflict is likely to be a durable feature of Turkish electoral politics.