Understanding Dysfunctional Democracies


Over the last few days a fractious discussion about contemporary Thai politics has arisen over at Zenpundit, the premier space on this side of the blogosphere for discussions of strategic theory, history, political ideology, and the intersections between them. Yesterday  Lynn Rees, a superb essayist who posts regularly at the site, entered the discussion with a lengthy–but quite frankly, brilliant–comment that matches any other analysis I have seen of the issues at hand. His conclusions are of such quality that they really deserve their own post. I copy his words here in their entirety with a few comments of my own at the end:

Nothing of the use of the combats in Thailand strikes me as giving either of these factions a special patina of righteousness. Thai factions and their respective Western useful idiots show little appreciation of the cultural nuances of Western culture.

Here we see the culturally invariant phenomenon of elite factions in a small pool escalating their squabbling over the division of power in that small pool. The incumbents are largely drawn from an older stratum of the Thai ruling class and their middling servitors centered in the cities, predominantly Bangkok. The challengers are drawn from a more marginal class of more rural and provincial elites who are trying to increase their share of the pie at the expense of the existing. Both seek predominance over the coercive mechanisms of the Thai establishment, an agglomeration of ostensible public institutions like the state and ostensibly private institutions such as a large mobile phone company.

Neither seeks the more abstract ideals silly Westerners would see such as the Benthamite ideal for public sector institutions i.e. the greatest good for the greatest number or a private sector institution i.e. a profit maximizing entity striving in an antiseptically depoliticized consumer market. Instead they fight for control over a limited number of assured profit streams secured by a diversified portfolio of investments in both public and private entities with the resource flows and other assets secured by the core bedrock of violence backed assets. Add to this the even more parochial interests of factions within factions such as those of the anachronistic royal court, the dead enders of the legacy Thai aristocracy with impeccable breeding, the traditional perks of the Thai military leadership, and middling urban Thais whose ancestors already escaped toil in the rice paddies and don’t want to slide back as other peasants threaten to do the same. Toss in the usual animosity of an economically poor ethnic majority, especially those semi-educated members who’ve drunken too deeply from the shallow yet potent brew of cheap knock off French Revolution-era flavored nationalism with its trappings of respectable formalism, toward an economically well off ethnic minority and the enhanced animosity raised when the more ambitious among that minority seek to add political and social power to their riches and the elite battles are likely to be tense.

I suppose the question has been asked more than once by some Thais: how Thai is Mr. Thaskin? Is Thainess based on blood descent or is Thainess a state of mind? Is Thainess based on % of blood or % of devotion? Mr. Thaskin’s immediate forbears changed their name from Goldberg to Smith to become more Thai. The same forebears were tax farmers, a distasteful practice outsourced by many incumbent insiders to uppity minorities e.g. Armenians, Lebanese, Jews, Chinese that can be periodically shaken down, disposed of, or plausibly denied when their efficient exactions from a beleaguered populace trigger the inevitable peasant rage. Mr. Thaskin’s family fortunes are derived from similar rental sources like conveniently acquired telecom monopolies and other takings which are tax farming operations behind their thin veneer. I suspect most of those who would cast Mr. Thaskin down are not so concerned with his rent-seeking at the expense of the majority of Thais but are concerned that he’s the one rent-seeking instead of those to whom rents should go as a matter of right.

As with any elite squabbling, an arms race is set off in which each faction, however finely sliced, seeks more and more mobilizable allies as the struggle for power intensifies. Where the fashionable mechanism of acquiring a patina of legitimacy is snout-counting, this involves bringing new supporters into the electorate e.g. Mr. Thaskin’s peasant vote buying. The primarily urban anti-Thaskinites probably see themselves as “democratic” and possibly do have some snout-counting legitimization role within the narrow based electorate that usually follows the initial phase of urbanization. A major centralizing role has been played between traditional core aristocrats or monarchs and the aspiring middle against the petty snobbery of traditional provincial elites and the more uppity new aristos. The traditional elites can point to a centralization resisting aristocratic faction and say to those beneath the aristocratic threshold: you may be poor but at least your Thai unlike those evil Hakka oppressing you.

Long live the king.

Another usual technique in the intensification of elite squabbling is not only seeking to mobilize internal political support but to mobilize external political support. At its most marginal this involves attracting foreign sock puppets, be they knowing fellow travelers or unknowing useful idiots, and wringing them for whatever small puffs of power they’re good for. At its most potent this involves attracting patronage from foreign power, usually with far more violence-backed assets than locals, and turning them on your enemies. I suspect many Thai elite factions are more aware that many of their most important constituents live in Beijing, Washington, Tokyo, New York, or some other foreign domicile and not in urban or rural Thailand and that, if speaking of the will of the people, it is the will of those people and not the Thai people, inasmuch as the Thai people have and can express a will, that matters.

Thailand is a small insignificant nation: the fact that it is so small and insignificant is what makes those scrambling to control so much more passionate about its politics than than contenders in a bigger shark tank like America the Beautiful i.e. . Rama IV, when not bursting into song duels with the foreign help, and Rama V, when not being forced to listen to song duels with the foreign help, recognized their insignificance and used their small size and impotence to triangulate between the various Western imperialists and maintain more control over their kingdom than if they’d mattered or been something France and Britain cared to come to a codominum over.

Since many Thais have adopted or had imposed upon them a straight jacket drawn from Western norms over the past 150 years or so, they invoke words like democracy, human rights, &tc, at least to silly Westerners and perhaps even among themselves. Their understanding of the nuances of the original Western context is muddled, probably because the Western understanding of the nuances of the original Western context is equally muddled if not more so. Politics is the division of power and Western politics, inasmuch as it functions as an ideal, is a dispersed and balanced division of power.

When Cliesthenes and the more sketchy figure of Publius Valerius Publicola created the original demokratia and res publica in the last decade of the sixth century before Christ, they aimed to keep one from  individual winning all the shiny marbles for themselves. In Thaskin and his rivals, you see people who want anything but a system that keeps them from winning all the shiny marbles for themselves. When Mr. Thaskin wins power by buying rural votes with spending give aways, it’s a victory for “democracy”. When his rivals allow the Thai army to topple a “democratic” government in the name of protecting their interests, it’s a victory for “democracy”. Neither want victory for an abstraction like the will of the people: they just want to win. If they can get away with doing that by snout counting, well and good: one snout counted one time and I win forever. If they can get away with that with a coup d’etat, well and good: one coup one time and I win forever. 

Cliesthenes, an old-time aristocrat whose factional discontents required a more creative solution, broke up the traditional kinship and class based structures in Athens while Athens existence was threatened by the aggressions of its neighbors led by the Spartan king Cleomenes. Out went voting among a narrow elite faction. In came elevation to office by playing Plinko. Out went the division between rural and urban. In came the deme, each consisting of an urban area, a coastal region, and an inland rural area. Ostracism was instituted to let the people vote to send over mighty politicians into exile for a decade without confiscation of their property. The Thais seem to be working towards that with Mr. Thaskin. These measures coincided with a revival of Athenian military fortunes, which gave them a thick coat of legitimizing gloss. So thick that their original creator, Cliethenes, disappears in a quiet non-Mr. Thaskin way from the historical record.

Key take away: it’s not about voting or which righteous cause is elevated to the supreme reforming sotto voce redistributing role. The will of the people for the breakdown of how spending is split between rural peasant and urban functionary is ultimately no more relevant to the rightness of governmental form than the preference of the will of the people for curry over pad thai burritos. The key is a broad and enduring division of power within a polity where no one can ever win one true victory.

Usually this involves dumping your king by exile, cozy retirement, or lopping off their head but Americans cannot definitively take the high ground on this issue: we still insist on electing a king every 4 years. If the Thais magically invoke les majeste and the sacral character of their monarch as a way of saying king dumping will never happen here, the Nepalis would advise caution on that. Beware the sudden leveling wind. And if the Thai man on the street bothers to ask whether my emaciated furin’ scribblings here are driven by concern with the politics of my own country or my concern with Thailand’s politics, the answer is yes for myself and (I suspect) Mr. Yon. A pox on both our houses. (Color emphasis added).  [1]

 Mr. Rees’ central point transcends the electoral intrigues of Bangkok politics.  Indeed, it explains many of the tensions we see in unstable democracies across the globe. Representative democracy did not originate as an abstract design in a philosopher’s head. It was a creation centuries in the making, the product of negotiation, conflict, and a myriad of historical contingencies. Many educated Americans of our day, heirs to one of the longest and most stable democratic traditions on Earth, have little understanding of the circumstances in which their system of government was created or the concerns that determined its ultimate structure. A great number of America‘s most serious political predicaments reflect our reliance on institutions designed to meet the needs of  a different age.

The mismatch between the political institutions modern America has and the type of institutions that would best meet the needs of her citizenry is the end result of hundreds of incremental decisions made over decades of American history. For the world’s “third wave democracies” this political transition was more jarring. Often their new institutions did originate as abstract ideas in politico’s heads, more firmly grounded in Westerner’s platonic ideal of what democratic government should be like than in the political realities on the ground. The results of haphazardly grafting Western institutions onto these societies are often tragic. As Virak Ou sadly reflected  in a recent lecture on Cambodian politics, “The problem with Cambodia is not its constitution. Cambodia has one of the best constitutions in the entire world… [the real problem is that] the constitution doesn’t matter[2] and it has not mattered since Hun Sen, the siting Prime Minister, violently removed his political rivals from power in 1997. This is not a curse unique to Southeast Asia. The same troubles beset any fledgling democracy where local elites have been forced to clothe themselves in Western ideals and institutions to validate their quests for power.


[1] Lynn Rees, Comment #16 (2 May 2014) on a post by Charles Cameron, “Michael Yon Discussing ‘Possibly one of the Largest Peaceful Uprisings in History,'” Zenpundit (30 April 2014).

[2] Virak Ou, “Will Cambodia See a ‘Spring’?,” lecture at the Stanford Center for Development and the Rule of Law (3 February 2014), YouTube video (posted 7 February 2014).

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I suppose it could be argued that many episodes of political instability in Southeast Asia might be trace to discontent with the dominance of the Chinese, even if, in the case of Thailand, the Chinese in question have done everything possible to assimilate — by taking up Thai names, intermarrying with Thai (albeit upper-stratum Thais), etc. I believe every Thai prime minister has been at least partly Chinese. In Fiji when ever an Indian gets elected as PM the native officer corps overthrows him ! Malaysia deals with the latent resentment through strong autocracy and bumiputra-favouring NEP because the Malay elites realise that the Chinese must be allowed enough leeway if they are to be fleeced.

"For the world's "third wave democracies" this political transition was more jarring. Often their new institutions did originate as abstract ideas in politico's heads, more firmly grounded in Westerner's platonic ideal of what democratic government should be like than in the political realities on the ground"

Funny you use the word "mismatch" because I’ve been thinking along the same lines.

Constitutions and formal institutions are only as good as the willingness of people to abide by them.

I don’t think a single government in the UK has ever received a majority of the popular vote since Clement Attlee. I have to check that, but definitely in the last four decades British governments were, if not “minoritarian”, then “pluritarian”. The Tories under Thatcher never got more than 43% of the vote. Yet this does not create political instability — well, at least not to the point of breaking — and such “pluralitarian” governments can implement their programme in face of the majority of who don’t vote for them, because the social cohesion of the Anglosphere requires the acquiescence to the political rules of the game.

But I imagine given the greater heterogeneity of the Anglosphere that political cohesion would be more tested if it adopted proportional representation. Because PR frequently results in too many small parties getting elected — it is the nature of the mechanism — it also frequently results in political instability. So in a way the Anglosphere has optimised its political institutions according to its social competencies.

France under both the Third and Fourth Republics also used PR and was also subject to political instability. In the 1950s there were huge divisions over the Algerian War — this is before the 1960s and the counterculture — and these were far more destabilising than the divisions of the Vietnam War in the United States. The PR system was just not suited to France. But the French take themselves far more seriously than the Italians for whom a government forming or falling hardly matters. Thus De Gaulle and the 5th Republic superimposed an absolute-majoritarian presidential model on the underlying PR parliamentary system. (Under previous republics, the presidents were ceremonial.) This has worked quite well and has been tested by “cohabitation” periods when the president and the prime ministre have come from opposing parties.

I’ve always wondered whether, in their imitation of Western political models, some non-Western countries failed to consider what might have been more appropriate for their national personality characteristics. Take Turkey, which is very much in the news now. The amazing thing about the rise of the AKP (the Islamist party) is that it was permitted by the odd combination of proportional representation and the 10% rule. But for some reason many countries don’t think of abandoning PR as the solution, but decide to put a stupid fix on it. So Turkey imposed a 10% rule — any party must win 10% of the vote to get into parliament — which is a very high threshold. I believe most countries have got 5%. Yet without this gross distortion the AKP wouldn’t have been able to form a government. When the AKP won power in 2002, they received only ~34% of the national vote !!! Too many opponent parties were excluded by the 10% rule and never made it to Parliament. Amazing, really.

"I suppose it could be argued that many episodes of political instability in Southeast Asia might be trace to discontent with the dominance of the Chinese,"

Indeed, it could be argued. But I'll hold off making any such arguments until I've gotten data on the matter.

" In Fiji when ever an Indian gets elected as PM the native officer corps overthrows him !"

Incidentally, I talked today with a gentleman who spent some time in Suva last year. he said most of the Indo-Fijjians supported the military government because "they all said that after the coup they felt much safer and more secure." Interesting how that works some times…

"So Turkey imposed a 10% rule — any party must win 10% of the vote to get into parliament — which is a very high threshold"

I was unaware of this; thanks for telling me. it is quite interesting.