Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Why Do We Care About Ethnic Outbidding?

One of the central concerns for those who study ethnic conflict in democracies is to figure out ways to avoid ethnic outbidding.  Ethnic outbidding is when politicians compete for the support of a particular ethnic group, leading to ever greater demands to protect that group at the expense of others.  This competitive position-taking is like an auction where the politicians think that the way to win is to be ever more extreme in the defense of one group.

The key example in the literature is the process that took Sri Lanka for a peaceful society to one torn apart by civil war (and helped to give us suicide bombing):
  • with more than 80% of the population from the Sinhala ethnic group, and political institutions over-representing whichever part that gained more votes, politicians learned to play to the one group
  • it started with language politics since the colonial inheritance meant that the English speaking Tamils had better access to government jobs and beyond, so one party promised to make Sinhala the national language
  • the other party learned and responded in the next election with similar promises to help the Sinhala at the expense of the Tamils
  • in the early 1970s this led to policies that largely excluded young, bright Tamils from university.  Where did they go?  Into the business of insurgency.
This is a somewhat stylized example, but illustrates the basic problem--that making promises to help the larger group at the expense of smaller, more vulnerable groups helps to generate violence.  Academics have recommended a variety of institutional designs to reduce ethnic outbidding:
  1. Power-sharing (Lijphart): give each group guaranteed access to power not just to give each group the ability to stop bad policy but also to reduce competition within groups.
  2. Vote-pooling (Horowitz): Create incentives for politicians to reach out beyond a single ethnic group by requiring them to win the votes of other groups if they want to win office.  
  3. Power-dividing (Roeder/Rothchild): reduce the stakes of competition by creating varying jurisdictions for government services so that winning one election is not so important.
The stakes are high precisely because the efforts by politicians to demonize others inspires violence, not just by the excluded seeking recourse as in the Sri Lankan example, but by the majority whose fears are whipped up by the leadership.

That is where we are today: Trump is outbidding the other Republicans--trying to be the most hostile to America's Muslims.  The campaign has led to discussions of banning Muslims from entering the US, of monitoring Arabs (who may or may not be Muslims), to closing mosques, and on and on.  And now we see violence aimed against Muslims increasing across the country.  Trump is no joke--he is a threat to Americans.  Not just for giving ISIS what it wants, but by encouraging Americans to beat other Americans simply because they follow a different religion.  Well, maybe, since ignorant racists often attack the "wrong" people, such as Sikhs.

To be clear, this is not just about Trump.  It is about the Republican Party which has been fostering and tolerating this outbidding.  Check out most of the candidates' statements on accepting refugees--Christians ok, but Muslims not?  Thanks, Jeb!  And on and on.  Sure, there are those in the Democratic Party who might hate Muslims, but thus far the national candidates have not engaged in outbidding.

There is so much tragedy involved in this: that Trump is essentially giving aid and comfort to the enemy, that the people are learning the wrong lessons from Japanese internment during World War II, that the GOP is self-destructing at a time where having two real parties and genuine oversight might be handy, that innocents are being harmed because of the ambition of a few.

It is not too late for those in the Republican Party to speak out--to say that they would vote for the Democrats if Trump gets the nomination, to drop out of the campaign so that the anti-Trump forces could concentrate, to stop using the language of fear and hate and to stop taking stances that are aimed at a very small minority.  Much damage has been done, but the US is resilient.  While many Japanese-Americans were harmed in the 1940s, they face relatively little harassment and discrimination today.  Let's not have create the circumstances now that cause us to consider reparations forty years later.


3 comments:

Anonymous said...

"It is not too late for those in the Republican Party to speak out--to say that they would vote for the Democrats if Trump gets the nomination, to drop out of the campaign so that the anti-Trump forces could concentrate, to stop using the language of fear and hate and to stop taking stances that are aimed at a very small minority."

Well, this has been the GOP's dilemma since the emergence of the 'Sixth Party System.' If your goal is cynical, short-term presidential electability, jettisoning the Dixiecrats/Tea Party wing is not an option. The harsher, yet scattered, criticism of Trump's newest outburst is rather telling: Priebus and co. genuinely fear that, unlike 1992, a third-party candidacy would be potent enough to deny them the electoral votes in the Deep South to get even near the big 270. But they can no longer ignore this late into the primaries that their frontrunner and his fans are advocating Johnson–Reed ver. 2 (citing Japanese interment, and hilariously enough, Carter's attempt to deport Iranian students during the hostage crisis, as defences) ...and is willing to go even further.

Who knows exactly how this will end up, but witnessing a party that made its mark in American history as an anti-slavery coalition enter existential tumult over its abetting of racism is: a) tragically ironic, b) good riddance (especially if you're a Democrat), and c) absolutely horrifying.

Anonymous said...

That was rhetorically gorgeous.

Steve Saideman said...
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