ermakoff book forum 3: group identity and rational choice
This part of the book forum is about Ivan Ermakoff’s theory of collective abdication. It’s a little complicated, so bear with me. First, in analyzing the March 1933 vote in Germany or the 1940 vote in France, Ermakoff rejects the views that it was simply a matter of external pressure or “defecting” to the bad side. In his reading of events, people were able to resist and they were not Nazis or sympathizers. And of course, if you are afraid of Nazi retaliation, giving them unlimited power would not solve the problem. He also rejects the view that it was a matter of political incompetence. Perhaps, some historians have argued, German and French legislators simply underestimated how bad the Nazis were going to be. In reading the original source materials, Ermakoff finds plenty evidence to the contrary. At the very least, the main actors in the story were highly skilled politicians and many knew exactly what might happen.
So what does Ermakoff propose? Roughly speaking, he argues that authoritarian challenges can result in abdication when the challenge effectively dissolves pre-existing social structures, which then allows for a re-alignment that the challenger can shape. The result is that the re-alignment can inflate the support for the challenger as people try to infer what other people think and mistakenly acquiesce because they think others are doing so.
To help understand this theory, let’s choose the example of a large academic humanities department, with, say 50 professors. Then let’s assume hurricane Katrina hits and its hard for people to come to work or otherwise communicate normally. All of a sudden, the Dean shows up and demands that the department become a new data science program and that you have to vote on it right now. A lot of people don’t know what to do and normal communication is no longer an option. So people look at each other and see that there is a pretty set group of people who like the Dean’s proposal. Little by little, people move to the Dean’s proposal and the English department switches to being a humanities data science program.
Ermakoff shows (in a technical appendix) that as long as you have a not tiny faction of people who agree with the dean and people are trying to coordinate with each other, you can get a lot of people to switch. In other words, when people deliberate on extremely high risk activities, they try coordinate with each other in a number of ways. Such forms of coordination in the absence of normal constraints can result in allowing the challenger to win. It’s an interesting argument in that it combines a social psychology explanation (people look to each other for meaning) and embeds it inside a nested game.