Successful once, protesters may hesitate to return to streets

Even as the impact of the Arab Spring takes shape, research warns that the protests which swept the Middle East and North Africa may mark more of an isolated occurrence than a permanent rise of people power.

In a paper published online in January by the American Journal of Political Science, “People Power or a One-Shot Deal? A Dynamic Model of Protest,” Princeton politics professor Adam Meirowitz and New York University politics Professor Joshua Tucker lay out a theoretical model that helps answer a real-world question: Why do people who take on the considerable costs and risks of protesting to change the type of government in their country sometimes stay off the streets when the new government turns out to be just as bad — or worse?

“The answer we came up with is that maybe they learned something. Not just that the new government was bad but that in this new democratic world maybe all the governments are likely to be corrupt,” said Meirowitz, the John Work Garrett Professor in Politics at Princeton and director of the Graduate Program in Political Economy. “Generally, your willingness to absorb the cost of protesting in the face of failure is going to diminish over time. You have two choices: absorb the costs and go to the streets or just walk around unhappy. After enough bad governments, it’s just easier to stay home and be unhappy.”

The innovation in the theory and the paper, Meirowitz said, is the emphasis on what people in countries that are moving from a nondemocratic regime toward democracy learn about all possible democratic governments if their first — or first few — are “bad,” which could mean unable to obtain results, sloppy, uninterested in citizen welfare or willing to engage in corruption.

To illustrate the idea, Meirowitz said, imagine that the nature of a new government is determined by a protester simply drawing a piece of paper from a hat. The paper might say “good” or it might say “bad.” Before the first draw, the protester knows nothing about the likelihood of drawing “good” as opposed to “bad.” But if the first draw is “bad,” that result affects what the protester expects in the next draw. If the protester continues to draw “bad” each time, the protester has less and less uncertainty about what is coming next.

That’s the situation people new to a type of government face, Meirowitz said. The first few regimes in a new type of government significantly shape how the people feel about what is likely to come next.

“And if all governments are just going to turn out to be bad, then why take to the streets?” Meirowitz said.

Rick Wilson, editor of the American Journal of Political Science and the Herbert S. Autrey Professor of Political Science at Rice University, said the idea at the core of the paper “should prove to be path-breaking for the discipline.”

440px-Info_box_collage_for_mena_Arabic_protests“The article asks a very reasonable question: Should we expect to see continuing protests in countries as the government is changed?” Wilson said. “For example, once citizens have organized protests in Tunisia that toppled an autocratic regime, should they continue to protest in light of the new regime? Especially if the new regime does not live up to its promises?

“One would think so. You could imagine that protestors have learned that protesting is an effective way to get rid of a bad government. But, as this article illustrates, this may not be true,” Wilson said. “If citizens get rid of one bad government only to get another bad one, it is easy to think that protest is futile. How many times will citizens protest (which can be quite costly) only to find out they are still no better off? Protests that lead to a change in government is no guarantee that the new government will be accountable.”

While the long-term impact of the Arab Spring protests that first erupted at the end of 2010 isn’t yet clear, Meirowitz and Tucker argue that a recent example in Ukraine offers a demonstration of the theory in action.

The 2005 Orange Revolution in Ukraine that drew thousands to the streets swept Viktor Yanukovych out of office in response to his 2004 re-election, which was widely seen as corrupt. But in 2010, he returned to power and the streets remained quiet despite an opponent’s claims of new electoral fraud.

The idea proposed by Meirowitz and Tucker could have implications for the foreign policy of the United States and other nations, by emphasizing the importance not just of the change in the type of government of nations but in the regime that follows.

“If you think about the U.S. government trying to figure out what it should be most worried about or where it should allocate resources, it might focus on the success of some of these first or second governments in new systems,” Meirowitz said.

And in the future, similar techniques could be used to examine which types of people in a particular nation are likely to protest, based on factors such as knowledge of government systems, the cost of protesting and how important the future is to an individual.

Meirowitz focuses his research on topics including positive political theory, game theory, social choice theory and electoral politics. He co-authored, with Princeton politics Professor Nolan McCarty, the book “Political Game Theory.”

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