Politics against domination: A conversation with Sterling Professor Ian Shapiro

Ian Shapiro, Sterling Professor of Political Science, grew up in South Africa during the apartheid era. He recalls that people there could easily list the regime’s injustices, but often struggled to describe a just alternative.

This observation — people know what they oppose better than what they favor — informs Shapiro’s argument in his latest book, “Politics Against Domination.” He makes the case that resisting domination should be the overriding purpose of politics, both domestically and in foreign affairs.   

He explains which form of government is best suited to prevent domination. (He argues it is not American-style republican democracy.) He also advocates a “stop the bully without becoming one” approach to foreign policy.

Shapiro, the Henry R. Luce Director of the Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale, recently discussed his book with YaleNews. An edited version of the conversation follows:

What do you mean by the term “domination” in your book’s title?

I think of it as the illicit use of power to get people to do things that are against their interests or that they otherwise wouldn’t do. It is a reactive idea. Much political philosophy sets up ideals like equality or freedom, and my view is that those ideals miss the fact that people usually have a much better idea of what they don’t want in politics than what they do want — what they’re against rather than what they support.

For example, I grew up in South Africa during the apartheid era, and people could tell you in four-part harmony what was unjust about apartheid. If you asked them to describe a just social order, they didn’t know where to begin. I started going to the Soviet Union in the late 1980s. It was the same thing. People could tell you in great detail what was unacceptable about the Soviet system, but if you asked them to articulate what they actually wanted, they had only the most vague notion. I don’t think those examples are exceptional. I think they are characteristic of the human condition. We typically know much more about what we’re against than what we favor. The idea of resisting domination captures that ideal and tries to build on that impulse.

Indeed, a lot of the political philosophy literature reminds me of the joke about the fellow who goes up to a farmer in Donegal and asks how to get to Dublin and the farmer answers, “Well, I wouldn’t start from here, sonny.” I think we have to start where we are and think about how to move things in a better direction. That’s often moving away from a bad direction and fumbling into the future. That’s the basic impulse behind the idea of politics against domination.

What system of government is most effective at preventing domination?

Democracy offers the best hope of limiting political domination. But which form of democracy is best? The two main systems on offer are American-style republican democracy or parliamentary democracy based on majority rule.  Republican democracy is based on the separation of powers and checks and balances. As Madison put it in the Federalist Papers, ambition should be made to counteract ambition. You check the possibility of domination by the state by creating a lot of checks and balances within the state. The alternative, which is exemplified by the Westminster system, is competition for power over time. Governments replace one another over time, but while they are in power, they have a monopoly of power. All the power worth speaking of in the British system is in the House of Commons, and the prime minister can be toppled by a “no confidence” vote at any time. The courts are relatively powerless.

I think majoritarian democracy has a better record of defending against domination principally because the trouble with ambition counteracting ambition is there’s no real mechanism for it to work. Instead you get a multiplication of veto players in the system. Both houses of Congress have to approve legislation and then we have judicial review, which can block things in various ways, and, of course, the president can veto, and supermajorities are needed to override a veto. This is all in the name of protecting minority rights, but, in fact, these systems don’t protect minority rights any better than parliamentary systems. Generally speaking, multiplying veto points tends to create inertia and works in the favor of powerful interests. It’s the very well-heeled and the very well-resourced who can get their way in these systems. It takes a lot of heft to move an elephant.

You argue that the merits of judicial review are oversold. How so?

America is famous for its independent courts. In fact, there’s no evidence that having courts on top of democracy protects minorities any better than just having a well-functioning democracy. American courts have in some ways been subversive of democracy, particularly, as I argue in the book, in the area of money in politics.  Everyone complains about Citizens United v. FEC [regulating campaign spending by organizations], but the real problem began with Buckley v. Valeo in 1976 when the Supreme Court determined that money is speech. Everything else more or less followed that decision. It was only a matter of time before we’d wind up with Citizens United. That’s an instance where far from protecting minorities, courts have created this world in which individuals can spend any amount of money on their own campaigns or to finance other campaigns, and we also now have the problems of unaccountable money and dark money. All of this flows from that 1976 decision.

Hasn’t the U.S. Supreme Court often taken the lead in protecting individual and minority rights through decisions like Brown v. Board of Education?

It’s important to be clear that the Warren Court is a historical outlier. The great champions of judicial review were all born in the 1930s and came of age during the Warren Court. They tend to think of it as the new normal, but the truth is that over the course of the long swath of American history, the Burger Court, the Rehnquist Court, and the Roberts Court are much more typical of what courts are like. They tend, for the most part, to follow — not buck — public opinion. Even if you look at school desegregation, all the evidence shows that it’s been done through the legislatures to the extent that it’s been done at all. Earl Warren was a big surprise because he had been a conservative governor of California and his behavior on the court was completely unpredicted. He’s the exception that proves the rule.

If you look at countries that have gone from not having judicial review to having it — like Israel, Canada, and New Zealand — there’s very little evidence that it makes any difference whatsoever. From the point of view of protecting individual rights and protecting minorities, the important fact is that democracies do much better than non-democracies. Adding judicial review doesn’t seem to have any additional effect.

What factors determine whether a democratic system will take hold and survive?

You need alternation: what political scientists call the “two turnover rule.” They don’t like to call a country a democracy until a government has twice lost an election and given up power. If a country has two or three turnovers they tend to continue.

What gets alternation going? Some if it is luck, but there are factors that make it more likely.

A diversified economy that provides alternatives to politics for people makes it more likely that alternation will occur. In 2000, even though Al Gore thought the election had been stolen, there was no question of tanks rolling down Pennsylvania Avenue. One reason was that Gore had other options. He could go off and be on corporate boards and make a movie about climate change. I saw an article that he is worth $200 million — he’s doing just fine.

In the early American republic, the fact that Washington, D.C., was a mosquito-infested swamp was good for alternation. People didn’t want to be there. They had many better things to do with their time. That’s good for politics because the opposite scenario is called the “oil curse,” in which the only access to wealth and prosperity is through the government. That’s the worst situation because nobody wants to give up power.

What would be a better alternative to the American election system?

A great advantage of the parliamentary systems is that they don’t have fixed elections. This is one area where the British are fixing a system that is not broken because they’re moving toward fixed elections, which are a bad idea. The British rule used to be that the next election had to be called within five years, but it could be called at any time. Now they’ve moved to a rebuttable presumption that elections happen every five years. This produces a lot of perverse behavior when people know an election is coming in advance. A lot of game theory will tell you that cooperative behavior thrives when the future is relatively uncertain. You create an endpoint that produces uncooperative behavior as people approach it.

In the British system, as it used to operate and still does to some extent, election campaigns typically last a month. Then people get on with governing. There’s some positioning for the next election, but it’s nothing like the U.S. House of Representatives, which is in a permanent state of reelection.

Elections are competitions for power. It’s an unusual market because there are only two major competitors and it has to be regulated. There should be a system of public financing.  This is another area where the British example should be emulated.

You present “stop the bully without becoming one” as an effective model for opposing domination internationally. Can you explain that concept?

As I explain in the book, there was a huge missed opportunity after the Cold War. The unsung hero is George Herbert Walker Bush. His response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait is a blueprint for what I’m arguing for in most respects. The fact that he got authorization from the U.N. Security Council and assembled a broad coalition, which included every Arab country except Jordan, was important. He was authorized to expel Iraq from Kuwait, which he accomplished. Then there was enormous pressure to go into Baghdad and topple Saddam Hussein, but he didn’t do it. He showed exactly the kind of restraint and proportionality that I argue for in the book: stop the bully without yourself becoming one.

If this had become the template for future international interventions, I think we would be in a much better place today.

How have subsequent administrations ignored that template?

In 1999 the Clinton administration led a NATO bombing campaign in Kosovo, which went well for a lot of contingent reasons and lulled people into a false sense of security about how these operations can go. It’s led to this idea of Responsibility to Protect, which was adopted by the U.N. in 2005 and applied catastrophically by NATO and the Obama administration in Libya in 2011.

The biggest mistakes have been in Afghanistan and Iraq — and now Libya.

What we should have done in Afghanistan after the Taliban refused to turn over al-Qaeda is ignore the government in Kabul and gone after al-Qaeda ourselves. We didn’t do that because the George W. Bush administration wanted to do it on the cheap by working with the Northern Alliance, which was penny-wise and pound-foolish. The Northern Alliance was a nearly defeated force in the Afghan civil war at that point, making it virtually true by definition that if we put them in power, they wouldn’t be able to govern because they lacked sufficient support. They became a puppet regime dependent on us, which made it impossible for us to leave.

In the meantime, the Bush administration by 2002 was so preoccupied with invading Iraq that it didn’t put enough troops into Afghanistan to defeat al-Qaeda and the Taliban, which reconstituted itself in Pakistan. Then the United States engaged in regime change in Iraq, which produced catastrophic failure.

Where do things stand now?

There’s virtually no learning curve here. Look at Syria. It's a product of what political scientists describe as the moral hazard of intervention. Our intervention in Libya led to the escalation in Syria because the Syrian opposition concluded that NATO would help them too if they started an insurrection against the Assad regime. Until then the Syrian protests had been peaceful. People forget that history. We have this mantra of “Assad must go,” but then what? That’s the crucial question that never gets posed. There’s no opposition in Syria that has the slightest democratic credentials. As I argue in the book, the only difference between Syria and Afghanistan, or between Syria and Libya, is that instead of a two-sided civil war, it’s a three-sided civil war. There is no evidence to support the notion that, if we topple Assad, the result will be any better than what is happening now in Libya.