Between Radicalism and Moderation: Determining Leadership in Mass Movements

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Eun A Jo, covers the new article by Heng Chen and Wing Suen, University of Hong Kong, “Radicalism in Mass Movements: Asymmetric Information and Endogenous Leadership”.

In 2020, across the United States, millions of Americans mobilized for the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Owing to its decentralized model, activists with varying political reform agendas organized under the broader objective of racial justice; and as the movement gained steam, it generated heated discussions about how to address police brutality, racial violence, and even socioeconomic inequality. Yet, in different localities, leaders articulated different demands—some calling for structural overhaul (what we might call radical change); others seeking incremental changes (what we might call moderate change).

This raises two questions: What determines the radicalism of leaders in mass movements—and when do radicals, as opposed to moderates, end up leading those movements?

Heng Chen and Wing Suen provide answers to these questions in their new article for the American Political Science Review. Using a game-theoretic model, they present a theory of leadership in mass movements. In this model, leaders face a conundrum: if their reform agendas are too moderate, they may not trigger sufficient alarm and inspire action; but if they are too radical, they may discourage more moderate followers from joining their cause. Leaders must thus choose strategically, between their own personal preferences for change and the need to draw followers to increase the chances of their movement’s success.

This calculation is complicated by two facts: (1) that leaders typically have a better sense of the stakes at hand; and (2) that citizens often infer how bad a situation is based on the scale of reform leaders propose. Leaders therefore have an incentive to overstate the problem by demanding a larger reform. Yet, this is problematic for radical leaders, who are known to prefer radical ideals; their claims and proposals are difficult to be seen as credible even when their solutions are suitable for the situation. Citizens would interpret that it is driven by their radical preferences and believe that the situation is not that serious.

In order to command credibility, then, they must radicalize their reform proposal further and call for what may appear to be an irrationally large reform, which may critically jeopardize their chances of success. That helps explain why sometimes leaders of mass movements have to pursue very radical agendas even though they are aware that they will lose support. There is not much room for them to soften their position or seek compromises.

They show that repressive or punitive environments give rise to radical leaders and that this mechanism reinforces and exacerbates the signal issue that leaders must deal with 

It is often said that desperate times call for desperate measures. In some sense, Chen and Suen show that the flip side to this also makes sense for mass movements: desperate measures are a sign of desperate times, i.e., political leaders choose radical reform agendas as a costly signal to inform citizens that society badly needs to change. Chen and Suen also theorize under what conditions radicals instead of moderates end up leading movements. They show that repressive or punitive environments give rise to radical leaders and that this mechanism reinforces and exacerbates the signal issue that leaders must deal with.

  • Eun A Jo is a PhD student in the Government Department at Cornell University, specializing in international relations and comparative politics. She is interested in political rhetoric, emotions, and the domestic politics of international reconciliation, with a focus on East Asia. Currently, Eun A is working on two papers, exploring the drivers of South Korean responses to (1) Japanese apologies and (2) Chinese economic retaliation. She is the 2019-2020 Director’s Fellow of the Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies at Cornell and the editor of The Asan Forum, a bimonthly journal of the Seoul-based think tank Asan Institute for Policy Studies. Prior to her study, Eun A worked as an advisor in international security at the South Korean Permanent Mission to the United Nations. She holds a BA from University College Utrecht and an MPP from Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University.
  • Article details: American Political Science Review Volume 115 Issue 1 , “Radicalism in Mass Movements: Asymmetric Information and Endogenous Leadership” by Heng Chen and Wing Suen, University of Hong Kong, February 2021 , pp. 286 – 306
  • About the APSA Public Scholarship Program.