Sunday, December 14, 2014

Turkish Politics in Context

Today's news is naturally dominated by the police raids to arrest a number of journalists who have criticized Erdogan. Obviously, this is an outrage in any state that claims to be democratic and that aspires to EU membership. It is also viewed as latest evidence of Erdogan's 'authoritarian turn,' and not without reason. (By the way, there was always good reason to expect this day would come. Erdogan did, after all, liken democracy to a bus that that one takes to a destination and then exits).

But it would be a mistake to view today's developments (or those of the past year) strictly through the lens of Erdogan's personality or governing style. While it is an important part of the story, Erdogan's actions also fit a broader theme of Turkish politics over a much longer time.

Viewed through the lens of comparative politics, Turkey shares a similar history to many of the countries of Latin America (or other middle-income states) in that it democratized early (in the early/mid 20th century) at a relatively low level of economic development and with weak political institutions. In this context, 'democratization' mostly meant creating multiparty elections, without strong state institutions to ensure fair administration of law, respect for the rights of all citizens, the ability to ensure law and order, and so on. In this context, corruption flourished, the enforcement of the law was weak (note the prevalence of honor killings and polygamy--both officially illegal in pre-AKP and contemporary Turkey), and politics was unstable.

The result in Turkey, as in many similar states was a 'syndrome' of problems. Elections in the absence of the rule of law led to hyper-majoritarian rule and efforts to centralize power. In many respects, this legacy has its roots in Ataturk's era--as he ruled by dictate, opened opposition parties only to close them when they actually opposed him, and so on. Menderes tried this in the 1950s, just as Erdogan has today. (In the 1970s and 1990s, this was prevented by the inability of any part to win a majority consistently). Faced with this, opposition groups resorted to illegal methods. This generally took two forms: street violence and terrorism (facilitated by the weakness/corruptibility of the police) and military interventions. Again, this was roughly the same story you would see in the history of Argentina, Egypt, Thailand, and plenty of other states.

The problem is that this 'syndrome' of elections without rule of law reinforces a flawed understanding of democracy in which the point is simply to seize power so you can govern as you wish with no regard to the opposition. Viewed in this context, Erdogan's actions make sense--and maybe even seem reasonable. After all, Ataturk repressed and exiled his opponents, the military overthrew and repressed elected governments, and even Ecevit wouldn't allow an MP wearing a headscarf to take her seat in parliament, so why shouldn't Erdogan be able to do the same--particularly when he can actually command an electoral majority? In this sense, Erdogan's rule is just the latest, if extreme, manifestation of that pattern in Turkish politics.

This is the real challenge that Turkey faces: to escape this trap of 'electoral majoritarianism' and to establish a functioning political system that simultaneously can govern the whole society effectively while ensuring the rule of law and limitation on its own power.  It should be clear that Erdogan has no intention of undertaking these reforms (quite the opposite!), and so there can't be any real progress until he is gone from power. Democratization can only occur in a post-Erdogan Turkey.

The Good News?
Turkey has modernized a great deal in the past decades, and modernization brings with it a citizenry with greater concern for democratic values. (When I get a chance, I'll take a look, but my expectation would be that public opinion data such as the World Values Survey would find increasing levels of tolerance for others and support for the procedural aspects of democracy). As political scientists Adam Przeworski and Fernando Limongi observed, democracy is much more likely to survive in societies that have achieved a moderate level of economic development. Why? Modernization brings with it a host of social changes: higher education, urbanization, secularization--all of which tend to reinforce abstract values like justice and liberty, while increasing demands for individual rights and decreasing blind trust in authority. The crucial elements of democracy, after all, are that the governing majority respects certain core rights of the opposition, and that the opposition in turn respects the rights of the majority to govern within those limits.

My take is that recent events (including the Gezi Park protests) show evidence of a growing respect for liberal democracy among segments Turkey's population. For the most part, these are likely to be young, educated individuals--the sort who have grown up in a more prosperous Turkey. (The real test of this might be the Kurdish question: does an individual support greater political and cultural rights for Kurds?). It's notable, of course, that such individuals don't support AKP as much as less-educated, working poor voters (who have not experienced this modernization process to the same degree). Turkish society is increasingly polarized, with a main axis of that conflict being an authoritarian government and increasingly liberal opposition. (Turkey has traveled some distance from Ecevit saying "put this lady in her place!").

This process of modernization is likely to continue as younger generations grow up in a more economically developed Turkey and attain higher educational levels. And, while the Erdogan government will seek to block this process through increases in religious education and conservative 'values' legislation, historical experience suggests that this is unlikely to work (considering cases such as Portugal or Spain in the 1970s as instructive). Of course, nothing in politics is inevitable, and so it will depend on the opposition of Turkey to organize effectively in order to achieve a liberal order when the opportunity arrives. But the evidence suggests that a liberal democracy would be quite likely to survive in Turkey today--if it can be established in the first place.

The short term for Turkey is likely to be depressing. Regrettably, Erdogan has surprised many (including me) in how far he will go to centralize his power. International market sentiment and his own government's policies may fuel an economic crisis. Protests will be met with greater repression. Nonetheless, history gives one reasons for guarded optimism about Turkey's long-term future.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

This is why we need the liberal arts

It's great that President Obama has encouraged everyone to learn how to write computer code, and that he has learned to do so himself. Coding is a useful skill, and it forces you to solve problems and think in different ways that can only benefit you in various ways. In the end, learning a new skill--and particularly one that has obvious job-market appeal--is hardly ever a bad thing.

But one thing that coding cannot help you to do is think ethically. It can help you become better at solving problems or making things work. It cannot answer the question, "is this the right thing to do?" or "would our society be a better place if we did this?", and so on. That is a different skill set, and one that requires a different sort of education.

It would be hopelessly naive to suggest that the horrifying acts of torture (this article describes some of the worst abuses) within the CIA after 9/11 wouldn't have happened if the CIA directors had read more political theory and fewer technical manuals. Nonetheless, these abuses would have been less likely if more individuals had been willing to ask the difficult questions about how torture is compatible with American values, with Christian thought, and so on. These questions require deeper thought about complex moral question and social questions--the type of skills we sometimes include under the label "critical thinking."

It isn't just that, though. Moral issues aside, the CIA's program of torture raised all sort of practical questions. There's the obvious question of whether torture even "works" (i.e., if it yields accurate information that wouldn't have been revealed otherwise). One can't begin to address that question without a firm understanding of the social sciences--psychology in particular. There was also the practical question of whether torture (assuming that it would sooner or later become common knowledge) was particularly beneficial to US foreign policy. Political scientists have debated the role of "soft power" (i.e., influence deriving from values, image, etc--as opposed to "hard power" deriving from military or material interests) in American foreign policy. It would have done the CIA chiefs and Bush administration to spend more time considering whether damaging the credibility of the US as a state committed to human rights was worth it for whatever information torture extracted.

Unfortunately, in recent years it has become among political elites to downgrade the role of the liberal arts in favor of "practical" education (as exemplified by Obama's admonition to learn to code). "STEM" education is the rage these days (despite the fact that most American high school graduates lack anything like the technical ability to study science or engineering), and the liberal arts are seen as a wasteful luxury.

If anything, the torture scandal reveals the ongoing need for the liberal arts. University graduates need to grapple with the fundamental (and eternal) questions of justice, representation, and the good life. They need to train their minds to entertain uncomfortable ideas that don't reinforce existing biases (after all, I'm sure every individual who signed off on the torture programs thought that "we're the good guys here"--a classical psychological error). And graduates need to learn to think in the manner of a social scientist about the broader implications of a decision--how will this affect how others view us, the willingness of others to cooperate with us, and how others behave in similar circumstances?

So, by all means, learn to code. But study the humanities and social sciences as well.