Focused on partisan back-and-forth? Take a step back and appreciate the workings of a free society with The Watchtower Project. I look at the interests of states, while David Cappella looks at the ways society interacts with government.
The Master’s Tools: State Power in Society
The election of the 114th Congress came with pomp and circumstance. Speaker of the House John Boehner invoked Sam Rayburn and said:
“Let’s make this a time of harvest, and may the fruits of our labors be ladders our children can use to climb the stairs to the stars.”
Yet why should our government want to make Americans’ lives better? Political systems work toward their own survival rather than altruism, a concept called the autonomy of the state by political scientist Theda Skocpol. Regime leaders make cost-benefit calculations which preserve and enrich their governing coalitions.
The collection of norms and social structures known as institutions influence and constrain state decisionmaking. As a result, states are left with certain policy options. For example, John Adams had the Alien and Sedition Acts, while 21st-century presidents have the coercive security-industrial complex.
There are three general types of state-society connections in which regimes exert influence. (The reality is much more complex: Fareed Zakaria has a good starting point for the many categories of states to consider, as does the Polity Scale.) Each of the three loosely connects to democracy, mixed/anocracies, and autocracies.
1. The “Win-Win” Case: In some circumstances, state and society thrive in common purpose. Nordic Social Democracy is an example of such cooperation: a state earns political capital by providing for the welfare of the society and sustaining economic growth. Unity on such economic policies is rare, however, as governments seesaw between different economic strategies during cycles of growth and contraction.
A more common area of win-win is political and social issues. Germany, in its response to neo-Nazi Pegida protests and the United States in response to Japanese aggression, demonstrates the power of mobilized social force and the interests of the state. The result is a virtuous cycle of might and right which strengthens political culture.
2. The “Win-Lose” Case: A state in other cases finds social demands incompatible with survival, and uses its power to harness society into acquiescence. Passive forms of this use of power include diversionary actions, rally ’round the flag and the use of nationalist rhetoric and symbols in the case of Napoleon or Putin.
More active and assertive uses of state influence of society include incitement to ethnic civil war and/or genocide: including post-Reconstruction Jim Crow, Rwanda and the Balkan wars . States exploit social divisions, or manufacture social divisions, as in 1930s Nazi Germany and its pseudo-scientific racial theories.
3. The “Lose-Lose” Case: States which have pushed to extreme measures to survive resort to self-destructive policy options which also collapse social institutions. These states eliminate opposition through militarization and Orwellian surveillance. The brutality of the Holocaust and the forced industrialization of Stalinism are such examples.
Sadly, some of these states persist today. North Korea, as exposed by Blaine Harden’s Escape from Camp 14, runs a merciless military dictatorship that prevents a market economy, free speech and unregulated social ties. Thankfully, the world system can apply pressure through international institutions as substitutes or supports for weakened domestic institutions.
Freedom and accountable government are blessings tied to shared goals of state and society. Americans should take pride in and responsibility for the institutions which sustain this shared national interest.
Tying the Knot: State Survival and the Marriage of Trust and Legitimacy
The power of the state in society has always been of central importance to scholars, practitioners, and politicians. John Locke in the wake of the English Glorious Revolution wrote:
“The liberty of man, in society, is to be under no other legislative power, but that established, by consent, in the commonwealth; nor under the dominion of any will, or restraint of any law, but what that legislative shall enact, according to the trust put in it.” (2nd Treatise of Government, Chap. IV, Sec. 22).
Locke closely ties the concepts of government legitimacy and the trust people have for government. If trust is so important to legitimate power, what then determines trust in government? There are four broad channels through which society evaluates the trustworthiness of government:
- Performance: Reason, intelligence, cognition, and knowledge all are guides for how effectively, pragmatically, and expertly government conducts itself.
- Values: Morals, ethics, and virtue all relate to questions of right and wrong.
- Culture: media, historical traditions, and what people are talking about all serve important roles in trust.
- Affect: The final piece of trustworthiness involves what energizes and moves people—emotions, charisma, enthusiasm, even hope and faith.
As a society, we relate to the state through these four interrelated channels. Governmental and social institutions formalize these channels into concrete actions. For example, elections give us a chance to put in office those who share our values and excite us (affect). Law enforcement and the army protect us (performance) and make us feel secure (affect). Of course the real picture is much more complex, society is full of ambivalent and contradictory tensions. But institutions outline a general framework for substantively realizing trust in the legitimacy of government.
What is the relationship between legitimacy and the survival of a state? The answer lies in the strength of the connection between government institutions and the four channels of trustworthiness within a given context. In other words, is the state allowing society to deem it trustworthy?
In the 1770s, Americans were dissatisfied with British rule because they believed they were being treated unjustly (taxation without representation). The French Revolution was driven by the failure to address the poor economy and a moral conviction that the divine right of kings was unsubstantiated. In both cases performance and values justifications were bolstered by charismatic leaders, visceral resentment, and word of mouth (culture and affect)—leading to state failure. Similarly, the 2011 Arab Spring brought many to the streets to express their distrust through vehement protest.
The ongoing struggle of bringing trusted government institutions to Arab nations in the wake of 2011 attests to the limits of society’s influence on the state. The key is balance. Contemporary autocratic regimes do well in some trust channels but poor in others. For instance, the Chinese government tends to conform with many Chinese values but still restricts political expression in the media (culture).
The path to the foundation for a legitimate state is fraught with difficulty, but policymakers ought to start by seeking a balance in government institutions between the four channels of trust. Only then can the state’s survival be assured, securing the Lockean knot of legitimacy and trust.