Movements Mobilized by the State – Paradox of Democracy

Governing by other means: movements mobilized by the state

What are the movements mobilized by the state?

About ten years ago, Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan overturned academic attitudes about civil resistance as a political strategy. They showed that civil resistance was more effective than violent civil wars in bringing about regime change. Further research has also shown that it is more likely to lead to democratic results. Chenoweth and Stephan have not changed political strategies on the ground, but they have changed the way political scientists interpret their behavior. So when nonviolent protests arise in countries like Tunisia or Sudan, activists and academics have good reason to expect significant change.

Chenoweth and Stephan focused their research on a specific form of political mobilization known as nonviolent or civil resistance. However, political mobilization has many different purposes. Totalitarian regimes have mobilized their people to produce undemocratic ends, but modern authoritarians also use popular support to achieve their goals. A recent document from Journal of Democracy notes that “between 2003 and 2015, 13% of the protests in authoritarian regimes globally were organized by the autocratic rulers themselves.”

The recent book Governing by other means examines the phenomenon of state mobilized movements (SMM). Examine how authoritarian governments use popular mobilization to achieve political goals. These state-led movements confuse activists and democratic theorists, because they involve popular movements in support of leaders who want to limit public participation. Their very existence is a paradox. This curated volume helps explain this phenomenon through case studies in China, Russia and even the United States. Sometimes the movements accomplish the goals of the state, but they can also create new challenges. This book introduces a new area of ​​research needed to understand politics in authoritarian political environments.

The authenticity of the movements mobilized by the state

It is easy to dismiss state-mobilized movements as bogus. Timothy Frye documents how in Russia, “rather than sending troops against the protesters, the Kremlin organized counter-protests… It induced the fans to fill the stadiums with counter-demonstrators in support of President Putin. Some of these counter-protesters have been paid and others have been forced to participate. ”But many participants in the movements mobilized by the state express genuine enthusiasm for their participation.

One example that strikes many Americans is the role of state-mobilized movements during the civil rights era in Mississippi. David Cunningham and Peter Owens document how law enforcement replaced known KKK members during periods of protest, showing “unspoken support for the growing counter-mobilization of vigilantists.” Indeed, the American South had long relied on informal vigilante organizations to enforce segregation during the Jim Crowe era.

Likewise, authoritarian regimes draw support from different elements of society. Graeme Robertson and Samuel Greene wrote: “Rather than just absorbing the blaring propaganda from their televisions, they have actively made choices about which media to consume and which messages to believe. And they made these choices with the awareness of what media consumption habits and political attitudes were socially acceptable. “From Mao’s China to Putin’s Russia, these authors document various forms of state-mobilized movements based on genuine citizen support. At the state.

The dangers of movements mobilized by the state

Of course, a hallmark of authoritarian government is its opposition to popular participation in politics. Hence, it is surprising to find examples where authoritarian regimes actually encourage popular participation as a political strategy. Indeed, dictators use state-mobilized movements with caution, because they are not easily controllable for long.

Unlike civil resistance campaigns, state-mobilized movements are rarely non-violent. Sebastian Hellmeier and Nils B. Weidmann stress that “pro-government rallies more frequently cause the injury of bystanders, opposition activists or police officers”. The state will often encourage violence as a form of social control. Mark Beissinger describes the typical Ukrainian counterrevolutionary as “fitter physically (disproportionately belonging to sports clubs), more likely to have had clashes with the law and legal institutions, and more likely to be dissatisfied with their material situation”.

At the same time, public participation raises challenges for autocratic regimes. To begin with, vigilante organizations undermine the state’s claim to monopoly over the legitimate use of force. But even gentler movements mobilized by the state change the political dynamics in an authoritarian regime. They allow people to express their political feelings and can easily evolve into a force for change rather than stability. Autocratic governments such as China and Russia have found it necessary on more than one occasion to curb movements originating from the state.

Final thoughts

Perhaps it helps to return to the more popular literature on civil resistance. In her most recent book, Erica Chenoweth cites a study in which 1 in 7 protesters actually support the state. He makes this reference in recognition of the dynamic nature of political participation. Civil resistance campaigns raise political awareness, but they can also mobilize counter-protests. From this perspective, movements mobilized by the state become part of a larger ecosystem of different forms of political participation along with civil resistance.

Protest is meaningless without the possibility of a counter-protest. A theory of revolution is incomplete without an explanation of the counterrevolution. Thus, this book becomes part of the growing literature on political participation and popular mobilization. It also makes it clear that the public has a political role even in repressive environments. Of course, it also raises many questions about authoritarianism. I called this project the Democracy paradoxbut it is obvious that autocratic or authoritarian government is not immune from its own paradox.

Finally, it is important to refer to the book itself. The scholarship focuses a little on China (including Taiwan and Hong Kong) and post-communist countries. But some chapters also broaden the topic to include the United States, Egypt, and Venezuela. A notable absence is sub-Saharan Africa. The dynamics in many African countries where democracy faces the challenges of electoral violence and patrimonialism would create a fascinating environment for studying movements mobilized by the state. But these are all conjectures. Governing by other means it is a useful read for any student of politics, because it challenges our assumptions and expands the universe of political possibilities.

Gregorz Ekiert and Elizabeth Perry will join the podcast tomorrow to discuss state-mobilized movements. They help explain the concept even more thoroughly and offer a number of examples.

Further reading

Sabine C. Carey and Neil J. Mitchell (2017) “Government militias,Political Science Annual Review

Erica Chenoweth (2021) Civil resistance: what everyone needs to know

David Easton (1975) “A reassessment of the concept of political support, ” British Journal of Political Science

Grzegorz Ekiert, Elizabeth J. Perry and Yan Xiaojun (Editor) (2020) R.uling by other means: movements mobilized by the state

Tim Frie (2021) Weak strongman: the limits of power in Putin’s Russia

V. Ximena Velasco Guachalla, Calla Hummel, Sam Handlin and Amy Erica Smith (2021) “When does competitive authoritarianism take hold?Journal of Democracy

Sebastian Hellmeier and Nils B. Weidmann (2019) “Pull the strings? The strategic use of government mobilization in authoritarian regimes, ” Comparative Political Studies

Marlene Mauk (2020) Citizen support for democratic and autocratic regimes

Graeme Robertson and Samuel Greene (2017), “How Putin Wins Support?, ” Journal of Democracy

Yang Zhong and Yongguo Chen (2013) “Support for the regime in urban China, ” Asian survey

Podcast on the paradox of democracy

Elizabeth Perry and Grzegorz Ekiert on movements mobilized by the state

Erica Chenoweth on civil resistance

More episodes from the podcast


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