What Donald Trump teaches us about the stability of electoral democracies

Intra-elite checks and balances within America’s Republican Party are in shambles. It is increasingly clear that Donald Trump might be the exception that proves the rule that The Party Decides. Over the last 8 years the Republican Party has spawned and ceded power to all manner of groups and organizations aimed at delegitimizing and obstructing the Obama Administration. But by empowering fringe groups and ideas, the Republican party also ceded its power as a gatekeeper to key institutions like the U.S. Congress, state legislatures and governorships, and the U.S. presidency.

The result of this has been the Donald J. Trump presidential campaign. Trump is sort of self-financing (with loads of free publicity from an insatiable media), a fact that has left him untethered from the control of party elites who typically bankroll election campaigns in America. Electoral freedom from party elites has afforded Trump the luxury of dabbling in heterodox policy positions that are at variance with the positions of party elders. He is a populist who is promising a neglected segment of the Republican base a lot of goodies whose logical implication is an even bigger government — something the anti-tax establishment wing of the party doesn’t like. Trump also has a knack for plainly saying out loud what mainstream Republicans only ever communicate through dog whistles. This all makes for excellent political theater. It’ll be interesting to see if the party actually manages to stop the Trump juggernaut from getting the nomination.

The Trump phenomenon offers important lessons on political development in general and democratic consolidation in particular.

A key source of democratic stability in America has been the existence of robust intra-elite checks and balances within the leading parties. For much of American history the choice set presented to voters has been, for better or worse, significantly regulated by elites. This system has served to protect America from delegative democracy — whereby elected officials do whatever they want in-between elections. In other words, intra-elite checks — in an attempt to protect party brand names or sectional interests — have served to limit the variance between what politicians promise and what they do while in office. It has also protected the American political system from wildcards like Donald Trump.

The danger of posed by politicians like Trump is that because they are independent from fellow elites they are hard to keep in check in-between elections. This is a crucial point. Most voters do not have the time or interest to follow the everyday actions of their preferred politicians. Only a few activist citizens do. So the bulk of the monitoring of elected officials in-between elections tends to be carried out by other elected officials (like Members of Congress) or civilian elites (like lobbyists). A candidate that is untethered from these kinds of checks poses a real danger to political stability. Because they derive their power from opposing institutions, they are very likely to destroy the same institutions once elected. Trump has so far proven that he can win electoral contests without any support (and implied constraints) from America’s rightwing political and economic elites. Reasonable Americans have good reason to be very afraid.

Now imagine that Trump wins the nomination and the November 2016 election. What stops him from cobbling together a coalition that would win him reelection? All he has to do is give everyone what they want — crazy nativist talk for some, a nice dose of social services for others, and side payments to specific segments of the middle class to keep them comfortable. In this scenario the only thing that would stop Trump is America’s consolidated constitutional term limits. And even then the damage will already have been done.

Everyday politics in most young democracies have a lot of similarities to Trumpism. In these contexts the richest person in the country (or the one with the most power to determine who becomes rich) also tends to be the leading politician. Such politicians typically have the power to raise all the money they need to win elections. And because of their superior access to resources they also tend to have the power to determine who gets elected to legislatures and other important elective positions. The lack of independently wealthy elites that can finance rival factions, and because all elected officials typically depend on the one who controls the money spigot, means that very little intra-elite balancing happens in-between elections. In addition, political parties typically operate as personal enterprises of the president.

Notice that in these contexts, elections alone do not provide the panacea to the lack of intra-elite checks and balances. Anti-institutionalists can and do win free and fair elections.

Also notice that the failure of elections to correct the behavior of elites in-between elections is not because voters in these contexts are particularly dumb. It is just that most voters do not consider the institutional consequences of their personal electoral choices. It is elites who operate within institutions. And it is elites who care about institutional strength. When structural conditions dis-incentivize elite investments in institutional strength, personalist politics under a delegative democracy obtains.

In America, pro-Trump voters are probably not thinking about what a Trump victory will mean for democratic stability. They are simply responding to the bundle of solutions to their specific problems that Trump is selling them. And there are elites like Chris Christie who might join the Trump bandwagon, again for personal reasons or a resignation to the fact that Trump has voters on his side and the only way to stay relevant is to join Trump.

American institutions are old and strong enough to withstand the Trump candidacy (I think). They are also buttressed by strong informal (extra-institutional) intra-elite checks on presidential power. Chances are high that American democracy will survive Donald J. Trump.

But imagine this happening in a young democracy with a non-existent upper class and therefore almost zero informal checks on presidential power in-between elections. Such democracies almost always fail on their first contact with some variant of Trumpism. Trumpists violate term limits. Trumpists are erratic with policy. Trumpists know how to run populist campaigns and win elections. Trumpists undercut fellow elites and destroy institutional checks on presidential power.

The biggest lesson from the American 2016 election cycle is that elections, on their own, cannot protect political institutions in young democracies from characters like Donald J. Trump.

The long-run firm level effects of apartheid cronyism in South Africa

The FT has this fascinating piece on the troubles facing South African mining giant Anglo-American:

Anglo was not apartheid’s victim but its beneficiary, not only allowed to exploit black workers but shielded from competition. That encouraged it to behave like the old nickname for the Oppenheimer family empire, “the octopus”. It spread tentacles throughout the South African economy, extending into Botswana through De Beers, the Oppenheimer diamond group.

Anglo was not a state-owned enterprise but an enterprise that became a state — a skilled bureaucracy expert at controlling resources and wielding hegemony. Its elite cadre of Anglophile managers were not as astute as they thought they were, or were clever in a way that lost relevance. Some expected, as one former rival executive puts it, “to be rewarded for showing up”.

…. A structure and culture that was highly experienced at navigating the closed, politicised world of apartheid South Africa was outmatched by global capital markets. “It felt like we were being compelled to do things it was not in our nature to do,” says one Anglo executive.

On a related note, read this on corruption in apartheid South Africa.

All things for older people to remember before reminiscing over the good old days under apartheid as South Africa continues to struggle under the singularly inept leadership of Jacob Zuma.

Women Also Know Stuff: An excellent list of women political scientists

Manels suck. Don’t do manels. Do not do manels, I tell you.

Women Also Know Stuff is a website dedicated to making it easier for journalists, policymakers, and the wider public to easily access experts in different issue areas. You no longer have an excuse to organize an all-male panel of experts.

Here is a brief description of the website.

So often while planning a conference, brainstorming a list of speakers, or searching for experts to cite or interview, it can be difficult to think of any scholars who aren’t male. We’ve all been there… you just know that a woman has got to be studying that topic… but who?

This site is intended to provide an easily accessible database of female experts in a variety of areas.

This site was created and is maintained by political scientists and, as such, focuses on politics, policy, and government, but also on methods in the social sciences. (We’re certain that women know stuff in other fields too, though!)

And here is the Monkey Cage blog post on the same.

Italian woman faces jail for not doing “enough” housework according to husband

This is not an Onion story. And no, you did not travel back in time. It is 2016.

The Guardian reports:

An Italian woman faces six years in jail after her husband accused her of not doing enough cooking and cleaning at home.

Her husband made a formal complaint to the paramilitary Carabinieri police, saying that his wife was slovenly, failed to put meals on the table and left their home in a dreadful mess.

….. The crime, article 572 in the Italian penal code, “punishes whoever mistreats a person in their family or a person entrusted to them for reasons of education, care or custody.”

Her husband, 47, accused her of “bad management of domestic affairs”, in a case that reinforces the image of the harassed Italian wife stirring a steaming pot of pasta sauce while small children run round her feet and the man of the house puts his feet up with a newspaper.

Also this:

It is the second time in a week that the Italian judicial system has shown itself to be less than enlightened when it comes to relations between the sexes.

On Wednesday, a court in Sicily ruled that a male boss who was accused of groping three female colleagues was not guilty of sexual harassment because his behaviour was playful, not “lascivious”.

The court in Palermo said that 65-year-old Domenico Lipari had been driven by an immature sense of humour, rather than a desire for sexual gratification.


Nigeria’s Africa Internet Group posts the Continent’s first “unicorn” startup

This is from the FT:

Africa Internet Group is set to become the continent’s first “unicorn” after securing an investment valuing the ecommerce group at more than $1bn.

… African Internet Group’s valuation could be matched by Interswitch, the Nigerian fintech group that processes payments for banks, if the company decides to float later this year.

Over the next couple of decades the mobile and tech market in Africa will only grow bigger — watch out for Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire ….. and Ethiopia when they finally liberalize (which I hope will happen sooner rather than later). According to the same FT piece:

Smartphones have begun to transform the way Africans live and work. The continent is projected to have 360m smartphones by 2025, when internet penetration on the continent will hit 50 per cent, according to McKinsey Consultants.

H/T Tyler Cowen.

Median vs Per Capita Income in Africa

CGD’s Anna Diofasi and Nancy Birdsall compiled median income (2011 PPP) data for 144 countries. In the data they find interesting cases of a mismatch between median and per capita incomes:

the median reflects how much the person at the 50th percentile of the income distribution earns (or spends), giving us a better picture of the well-being of a “typical” individual in a given country. Take Nigeria and Tanzania: in 2010, Nigeria’s GDP per capita (at PPP) was $5,123; Tanzania’s stood at only $2,111. This suggests that Nigerians were more than twice as well off as Tanzanians. Yet, if we compare consumption medians, a different picture emerges: a Nigerian at the middle of the income distribution lived on $1.80 a day, while his or her Tanzanian counterpart had 20 cents more to spend, at $2 a day.

I got curious and made maps of median (2011 $$) and per capita (2010 $$) incomes on the Continent.

income differences

What is going on with median incomes in Central Africa from CAR through to Mozambique? Also, what’s up with Zambia?

The political phenomenon that is South Africa’s Julius Malema

nkandlaYoung South Africans are presently debating the merits of their country’s post-apartheid settlement. Many feel that in a rush to secure a stable political and economy transition the ANC leadership did not bargain hard enough for structural changes in South Africa’s political economy (here’s Mbembe on the subject). No leader encapsulates this sense of post-apartheid disappointment better than Julius Malema, this week’s guest on Lunch With the FT. Here is an excerpt:

Within a year of setting up the Economic Freedom Fighters, Malema’s party had become a force in South African politics. “They used to say, it’s cold outside the ANC, but we have made it very warm,” he grins, vowing to topple the ruling party within a decade. “If Zuma can be a president of this country, anyone can,” he scoffs, referring to a leader enveloped in sexual and political scandal.

When I challenge his assertion that the end of apartheid has changed nothing, he shifts seamlessly into crowd-pleasing rhetoric. “We are voting, but we can’t eat that cross,” he starts out quietly, referring to the right to vote that black South Africans won in 1994. “That cross has not taken our kids to school. That cross has not given our people the better life that was promised,” he says, his voice rising. “That cross has not returned our land. That cross did not return the minerals. So, when you say to me we have ended apartheid, when there is a huge economic apartheid in this country, I don’t know what you mean.”

His own party, which draws inspiration from Marx and Frantz Fanon, a Caribbean-born revolutionary who advocated the violent overthrow of colonialism, promises to rectify the situation. It proposes seizing white-owned land, with minimum compensation, and nationalising mining companies and banks.

Malema deftly combines incendiary revolutionary rhetoric, street politics, and a mastery of the institutional game within the South African Parliament. For example, partially due to unrelenting pressure from the EFF and Malema in Parliament, President Jacob Zuma was recently forced to return state funds that were used to renovate his private home in Nkandla.

Not long ago Malema was a boorish rubble rouser with a dim political future after being expelled from the ANC. Political commentators argued that:

Malema without the ANC is nothing… The tradition and the history of the ANC, he needs that in order to be able to make his point. Without that he’s very much isolated

But his image is slowly being rehabilitated. The ANC’s failures and economic stagnation add fuel to the fire that is EFF’s message of economic nationalism. malemaAppearances at Chatham House, meetings with business leaders at home and abroad, and modest successes in Parliament further add to the emerging image of an insurgent party that knows the rules and can play by them (even if with a view of eventually changing the same rules).

Just today, Malema was in court in a bid to secure a ruling that President Zuma violated the constitution in his initial refusal to refund the Treasury over Nkandla, thereby opening a window for impeachment.

The most potent revolutionaries are those that have the added advantage of knowing how to play the institutional game. Watch this space.

On the high cost of corruption in Nigeria

This is from the Economist:

In 2014 a respected former central-bank governor lost his job after claiming that $20 billion had been stolen. But this captures only a small share of the damage done by corruption. The much bigger question is where Nigeria could be if its politicians and officials were a little more honest.

One answer comes from economists at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). They compared Nigeria to three other resource-producing countries that are somewhat less corrupt than it, though by no means squeaky clean: Ghana, Malaysia and Colombia. PwC concluded that Nigeria’s’s economy, which was worth $513 billion in 2014, might have been 22% bigger if its level of corruption was closer to Ghana’s, a nearby west African country.

By 2030, the size of Africa’s biggest economy should triple in real terms come what may. Yet if Nigeria manages to reduce corruption to levels comparable to Malaysia (itself hardly above suspicion: its prime minister recently had to explain how almost $700 million had made it into his bank account), its economy could be some 37% bigger still. The additional gain would be worth some $534 billion (adjusted for inflation), or about as much as the economy is currently worth. If it does nothing to change then the cost of corruption in Nigeria would amount to almost $2,000 per person a year by 2030, PwC reckons.

Corruption in Nigeria has inspired interesting strategies of combating the vice:naijacorruption

The full PwC report is available here.

Also, a gentle reminder that not all government money gets stolen through corruption (most estimates I have seen from leading African economies cap the figure at around 30% of budgets being lost). That means that there is still upwards of 70% of government budgets that never get spent well, or in some cases, never get spent at all.

Improving state agencies’ capacity to absorb budgetary allocations and to effectively carry out their duties is therefore just as important as fighting corruption.

Btw, Nigeria only collects about 8% of its GDP in taxes. Which is absolutely nuts.