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 Leah Costik, covers the new article by Leonardo Arriola, University of California, Berkeley, Jed DeVaro, California State University, East Bay and Anne Meng, University of Virginia, “Democratic Subversion: Elite Cooptation and Opposition Fragmentation“
How can sitting presidents prevent the emergence of a strong opposition? History demonstrates that leaders around the world resort to illegal tactics to stay in power. But what about perfectly legal tactics leaders across a range of government types, from democracies to authoritarian regimes, use to “quietly subvert democracy”? In their new article, published in the American Political Science Review, Leonardo Arriola, Jed DeVaro, and Anne Meng demonstrate how incumbents legally coopt, or bring into the fold, opposition candidates. Incumbent presidents reap benefits not necessarily by gaining the votes of the opposition candidates; instead, they benefit from competing against a more divided opposition field.
To demonstrate how incumbents benefit from cooptation, Arriola, DeVaro, and Meng investigate presidential elections across 35 sub-Saharan African countries from 1990-2016. A game theoretic model, which shows strategic and repeated interactions among rational decision-makers, highlights how the relationship between “patronage cooptation and opposition fragmentation” occurs. Incumbent presidents enact a trade: they offer ministerial cabinet positions to financially constrained opposition candidates in exchange for their temporary political allegiance. For opposition candidates who often lack the financial resources that incumbents possess, a cabinet position brings with it an ability to collect money, give jobs to allies, and/or allocate resources to their supporters. When offered a cabinet position, opposition candidates seize the opportunity so they can enhance their own individual political fortunes. The cooptation of weaker opposition candidates triggers fragmentation, or breaking up and weakening of the opposition.
Incumbent presidents can gain a reputation for coopting opposition candidates with a cabinet position in exchange for political support. Once opposition candidates become aware of this reputation and potential opportunity, they are more likely to run independently or to create splinter parties instead of joining in a broad opposition party or alliance. In fact, rewarding an opposition politician with a cabinet position impacts future elections by encouraging even more opposition candidates to enter the presidential race. Arriola, DeVaro, and Meng demonstrate that opposition candidates enter presidential races not because they expect to win; instead, they enter hoping incumbents will offer them a cabinet position. Incumbent presidents not only buy off individual politicians; they weaken the electoral opposition as a whole.
“Cooptation weakens and divides opposition parties, preventing broad parties or allegiances. Incumbent presidents.” Arriola, DeVaro, and Meng’s article makes two important contributions. First, the authors demonstrate that the tactic of “opposition fragmentation through patronage” is a perfectly legal strategy for decreasing the strength of an opposition party that can occur within different types of governments, from democracies to authoritarian regimes. While much existing scholarship focuses on the violent strategies incumbents use to stay in power, their article focuses on a quiet subversion that is neither coercive, violent, rule-breaking, nor repressive. Second, the authors provide a “corrective” to existing literature that discusses opposition parties in transitioning and democratizing powers. Their study shows that opposition parties are not “born” weak. Instead, opposition parties can be made weak by national politicians.
In sum, Arriola, DeVaro, and Meng’s findings scramble the oft-repeated phrase “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” into “if they join you, they can’t beat you.” The authors illustrate for readers that incumbent presidents prevent loss in future elections by coopting opposition candidates. Cooptation weakens and divides opposition parties, preventing broad parties or allegiances. Incumbent presidents do not have to benefit by receiving support from new voters; instead, they mainly benefit from dividing and thereby weakening existing opposition parties. For decades, incumbents’ use of illegal strategies to remain in power have been discussed by academics and rejected by protestors. Arriola, DeVaro, and Meng’s research adds a critical new assessment of ways leaders can subvert democracy and stay in power: legally.
- Leah Costik is a third-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Political Science with a minor in Global Public Health at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Her research interests include rebel governance, public health, and civil war.
- Article details: ARRIOLA, LEONARDO R., JED DEVARO, and ANNE MENG. “Democratic Subversion: Elite Cooptation and Opposition Fragmentation.” American Political Science Review, 2021, 1–15.
- About the APSA Public Scholarship Program.