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New Texts Out Now: Marc Morjé Howard and Meir R. Walters, “Mass Mobilization and the Democracy Bias”

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Marc Morjé Howard and Meir R. Walters, “Mass Mobilization and the Democracy Bias,” Middle East Policy 22.2 (2015): 145-155.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this article?          

Marc Morjé Howard and Meir R. Walters (MMH & MRW): We wrote this article in response to problematic-seeming reactions to recent uprisings in places such as the Arab world and Ukraine. We saw journalists, policy commentators, and some academics echoing popular narratives that use clichés to talk about uprisings. For example, clichés about seasons (spring, winter) or colors (orange, green, rose) turn complex events into marketable catchphrases. These simplified narratives tend to be ethnocentric, and focus on whether protestors are really like “us”—in their use of social media, embrace of Western Europe and free markets, or their democratic aspirations. We found this focus on democratization and aspirations to develop along the lines of the United States and Western Europe to be somewhat myopic, as it treats protest movements as highly cohesive and teleological events. This is the case whether such overly simplistic narratives are employed by liberals as triumphalist stories about the inherent appeal of democratic values, or by conservatives relishing the “failure” of uprisings, supposedly illustrating that Arab publics are “not ready” for democracy.

Responses to these recent uprisings also highlight common perspectives political scientists bring to questions about regime type and democratic transitions. Given the reality that many authoritarian regimes have proved to be highly durable and adaptable, scholarship on authoritarian politics over the past fifteen years or so has challenged earlier work that was overly optimistic about the prospects for global democratization. However, a current emphasis on “authoritarian persistence” simply brings the “democratizing bias”[1] back in with a new terminology. That is, studying the staying power of authoritarian institutions is often implicitly or explicitly driven by questions about the absence of institutional democratic reform. This focus on democratization or its absence can lead scholars to ignore more pressing questions about how mass mobilization occurs, how it is experienced by both participants and non-participants, and how it can transform state-society relations. In contexts in which the barriers to a quick transition to stable democracy are overdetermined, focusing on questions about “authoritarian persistence” risks deemphasizing important political transformations that are underway that may not be conducive to building democratic institutions.

J: How do you see your focus on the “democracy bias” as potentially affecting understandings of popular uprisings and revolutions in Egypt and elsewhere?

MMH & MRW: In our article, we argue that four key misconceptions about the connection between mobilization and democratization lead to misguided analysis in journalism, policy writing, and scholarship:

Misconception I: Uprisings Often Lead to Democracy. Mass uprisings have frequently led to non-democratic outcomes. This is true of epochal revolutions (for example, in France, Russia, and China), national liberation movements (for example, Algeria and Tunisia), and more recent urban uprisings (for example, the 2004-05 Orange Revolution in Ukraine).

Misconception II: Barriers to Democratization Are Barriers to Mobilization. As uprisings in places such as Egypt and Ukraine illustrate, barriers to democratization can be different from barriers to mobilization. In other words, these cases show how mobilization is possible despite the fact that various structural factors and entrenched power networks make near-term institutional democratization difficult.

Misconception III: Mobilization Is an Expression of Democratic Norms. Mass movements against a dictator are not necessarily movements for democratization. Rather, protest movements are frequently marked by contingency, surprise (even for participants), and lack of a unified ideological position among demonstrators. Surveys from Egypt, Tunisia, and Ukraine show that in all of these cases most protestors were not unified by a shared commitment to specific democratic reforms.[2]

Misconception IV: Lack of Democratization Is Best Studied as “Authoritarian Persistence.” A focus on “authoritarian persistence” is merely the reverse side of the coin of a “democracy bias.” That is, focusing on the absence of democracy minimizes the importance of studying other changes that uprisings bring about that are not tied to institutional reforms.

Overall, the concept of “pro-democracy” uprisings is a misnomer. It takes a single narrative and treats it as definitively reflecting the motivations of diverse participants and even the broader public.

J: How does this article connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

MMH & MRW: This article is a follow-up piece to another paper we co-authored, “Explaining the Unexpected: Political Science and the Surprises of 1989 and 2011,” which was part of a symposium in the journal Perspectives on Politics. In this earlier article, we compare political scientists’ attempts to explain the Arab uprisings and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989.[3]

In that piece, we argue that there is disciplinary pressure within political science to study geostrategically important regions in terms of their political and economic “underdevelopment.” This marginalizes questions not tied to the dynamics of “modernizing” reform.[4] That is, focusing on the Arab world largely as an important object of study because of its supposedly “exceptionally” durable authoritarian regimes or the Soviet Union as an anomalously totalitarian system problematically exoticizes these regions, foreclosing comparison between political experiences in them and in Western democracies. The latter simply serves as a model for successful development. This deemphasizes the possibility that questions about repression could be studied across various institutional contexts and regime types, not simply in institutional autocracies.[5] In “Mass Mobilization and the Democracy Bias,” we expand upon some of these points, and apply them by comparing uprisings in the Arab world and Ukraine.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

MMH & MRW: We are currently working on a related article, tentatively titled “Repression and Resistance across Regime Type,” which attempts to further expand upon the arguments we made in our previous two papers. Major protest movements occurred around the same time in the Arab world, Ukraine, and the US. They raised potentially analogous questions about how publics experience and react to repression. Yet very little political science research attempts to compare how repression is experienced and resisted across institutional democracies and autocracies. In our new working paper, we trace how political scientists discuss the concept of repression, and argue that there is a persistent emphasis in comparative politics on studying repression almost solely through the lens of regime type. This is problematic, because limiting the study of repression to institutionally authoritarian contexts depoliticizes systematic forms of repression in established democracies (for example, systemic racism, police brutality, a biased criminal justice system, and rising inequality in the US). We propose a research agenda that puts the experience of repression in both democracies and autocracies in direct comparative perspective.

This next paper draws on our shared interest in studying issues related to systematic repression across regime type. Marc Howard is currently completing a book manuscript on American criminal justice and prisons in comparative perspective. The book examines how and why the American model is far more punitive and cruel than those in other advanced democracies. Meir Walters’ ongoing dissertation project examines the politics of censorship and media control in post-Mubarak Egypt. It argues that acts of censorship are most successful when they are not perceived as authoritarian violations of a right to free speech and are justified in populist terms. State control over liberalized but constrained media under authoritarianism can sometimes operate analogously to politicized media in established democracies.

Overall, we hope to broaden debates about the politics of repression and resistance so as to reveal potential similarities in experience between autocracies and democracies. We hope that this can help to demystify and disaggregate the study of authoritarianism, enabling us to learn from analogous circumstances across institutional regime types.

Excerpts from Mass Mobilization and the Democracy Bias”

In July 2013, the cover of Time magazine announced that Egypt has both the world’s “best protesters” and “worst democrats.”[6] In the same month, the cover of The Economist asked, “Has the Arab Spring failed?”[7] The media oscillated between euphoria over the democratic potential of “Facebook revolutions” and dismissal (or even gloating) when they did not seem to pan out. This response to the Arab uprisings is part of a broader trend. Popular accounts of mass uprisings tend to label them neatly by color (orange, green, rose) or season (spring, winter). They give an oversimplified portrait of mass mobilization as teleological: Protests are “successful” if they quickly bring about a stable democracy, and “failed” if they do not. This is often matched by a fascination over whether protesters are “like us”—by their use of social media, rejection of extremism, embrace of Europe and free markets, or hatred of dictatorship. Indeed, debates about the success or failure of mass uprisings often reflect a problematic obsession with the question of whether protesters are “ready for democracy.”

Journalists, policy analysts and (sometimes) academics tend to employ this narrative linking mobilization and democracy. However, it risks obscuring the character of uprisings, the (possibly diverse) goals of participants and the potential impact of uprisings on future power dynamics. Analyzing mass mobilization through the lens of democratization or—the reverse side of the regime coin—“authoritarian persistence,” minimizes the importance of how power relations can be reconfigured short of regime change, and how people’s everyday relationships with the (still authoritarian) state change after uprisings.

Recent events in Egypt and Ukraine illustrate how this tendency to characterize anti-regime mobilization as democratic can lead to misguided analysis. Both Egypt and Ukraine recently experienced two sets of dramatic protest movements. In Egypt, the first uprising led to the ouster of longtime strongman Hosni Mubarak in February 2011; the second took place in the summer of 2013 and ended with the removal of President Mohamed Morsi through a military coup. In Ukraine, the large-scale protests of 2004-05 prevented Viktor Yanukovych from winning the presidency through an allegedly fraudulent election. Nearly a decade later, after Yanukovych had won the presidency in 2010, another wave of mass mobilization in 2013 forced him to flee the country in 2014. Violent identity politics also emerged both in Egypt after Mubarak’s ouster and in Ukraine following the removal of Yanukovych in 2014. In Egypt since 2011, the temporary unity of protesters devolved into fierce political (and sometimes physical) clashes between supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and its diverse opponents. The post-Mubarak period also saw the emergence of increasingly pro-military nationalism and xenophobia, with numerous media outlets labeling oppositional domestic political factions as foreign agents, as had occurred under previous Egyptian administrations. In Ukraine, the non-negotiated ouster of Yanukovych in 2014 paved the way for foreign intervention, violent ethnolinguistic nationalist conflict and the rising prominence of far-right groups.

The cases of Egypt and Ukraine also show how protest movements that unseat incumbents can occur in contexts that are not necessarily auspicious for democratic reform. Governments can be susceptible to popular mobilization even when formal political institutions are rigged, opposition groups suffer from co-optation, and the overall structures of state power are difficult to change. In short, unexpected large-scale protest movements (albeit of different sorts) in Egypt and Ukraine reveal that mobilization against an authoritarian regime or incumbent is not necessarily tied to a process of democratic reform and consolidation, nor hindered by factors that serve as barriers to democratization.

There is no formal consensus that uprisings against authoritarianism are necessarily movements for liberal democracy. Indeed, framing uprisings as pro-democratic works against insights from scholarship on social movements, politics under authoritarianism and even democratic transitions, which tend to look at democratization as a process of strategic bargains among self-interested parties. Yet assumptions about the democratic character of uprisings still cloud journalistic narratives and policy analysis, and sometimes make their way into academic discussions. All of these fields would be better served by separating the analysis of mass mobilization from democratization, and overcoming four key misconceptions about how these two phenomena are supposedly linked.



The concept of “pro-democracy” uprisings implies that protest movements are teleological: “successful” if they bring about democratic reforms, “failed” if they do not. This imputes a shared vision among protesters that may never have existed in the first place or can change dramatically over time. It takes the narrative of some activists, journalists and commentators as definitively reflecting the motivations of the overall movement, or even the hopes and desires of the broader public. This ignores the inherent complexity of mass movements and the latent tensions that often violently arise in their wake. It also tends to ignore the role of non-participants, who are generally the overwhelming majority. Mobilization does not naturally lead to—and often works against—democratization.


In order to assess the impact of mass mobilization, scholars should eschew the “authoritarian persistence” paradigm and clearly distinguish between the durability of a broadly construed regime type and the stability of a particular ruler, elite coalition or state-society relations. Doing so would underscore the fact that mass mobilization can work for and against the interests of dictators.

Publics often rally behind issues such as nationalism and xenophobia, which establish a new authoritarian status quo as often as they threaten the stability of future executives’ power. Thus, while elites often attempt to co-opt protest movements in the wake of mass uprisings, they are not always successful at limiting mobilization that does not serve their interests. The rise of xenophobic nationalism, pro-state propaganda and popular support for security crackdowns do not presage democratic reform. Yet they may signal that the state is in crisis or going through dramatic shifts in power relations, and not simply returning to the status quo prior to mobilization. Focusing on the details of how elites attempt to reestablish power, manipulate their public image and renormalize state-society relations, as well as how publics respond to such political maneuvers, would tell us much more about the impact of mass mobilization under authoritarianism than accounts that primarily seek to explain the absence of democratization.

In sum, questions about regime change tell us little about why protests occur, how they evolve, and how they reshape power relations in autocracies. Scholars and policy analysts should study extraordinary events, such as mass mobilization, on their own terms for the changes they bring about. Decoupling the study of popular uprisings from regime change would emphasize how protest movements can bring about fundamental shifts in power relations without leading to, or even necessarily aiming for, democratization.


[1] Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way, “The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism,” Journal of Democracy 13 (April 2002): 51.

[2] Mark R. Beissinger, “The Semblance of Democratic Revolution: Coalitions in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution,” American Political Science Review 107 (August 2013): 574-592; Keith Darden and Lucan Way, “Who Are the Protesters in Ukraine?” The Monkey Cage Blog, Washington Post (12 February 2014).

[3] Marc Morjé Howard and Meir R. Walters, “Explaining the Unexpected: Political Science and the Surprises of 1989 and 2011,” Perspectives on Politics 12 (June 2014): 394-408; Marc Morjé Howard and Meir R. Walters, “Response to Eva Bellin, Ellen Lust, and Marc Lynch,” Perspectives on Politics 12 (June 2014): 417-419.

[4] Marc Morjé Howard and Meir R. Walters, “Explaining the Unexpected: Political Science and the Surprises of 1989 and 2011,” Perspectives on Politics 12 (June 2014): 394.

[5] Marc Morjé Howard and Meir R. Walters, “Explaining the Unexpected: Political Science and the Surprises of 1989 and 2011,” Perspectives on Politics 12 (June 2014): 401.

[6] Time, July 22, 2013.

[7] The Economist, July 13, 2013.

[Excerpted from Marc Morjé Howard and Meir R. Walters, "Mass Mobilization and the Democracy Bias," Middle East Policy 22.2 (2015): 145-155, by permission of the authors. © 2015 Middle East Policy Council. For more information, or for access to the complete issue of this journal, click here.]

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