State-Mobilized Movements

State-Mobilized Movements
Ruling by Other Means: State-Mobilized Movements

What are State-Mobilized Movements

About ten years ago, Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan turned academic attitudes about civil resistance as a political strategy on its head. They demonstrated civil resistance was more effective than violent civil wars at producing regime change. Further research has also shown it is more likely to lead to democratic outcomes. Chenoweth and Stephan did not change political strategies on the ground, but they did change how political scientists interpret their behavior. So, when nonviolent protests arise in countries like Tunisia or Sudan, activists and academics have good reasons to expect significant change.

Chenoweth and Stephan focused their research on a specific form of political mobilization known as nonviolent or civil resistance. However, political mobilization has many different purposes. Totalitarian regimes mobilized their people to produce undemocratic ends, but even modern authoritarians use popular support to achieve their goals. A recent paper from the Journal of Democracy notes that “between 2003 and 2015, 13 percent of protests in authoritarian regimes globally were organized by autocratic rulers themselves.”

The recent book Ruling by Other Means examines the phenomenon of state-mobilized movements (SMMs). It looks at how authoritarian governments use popular mobilization to achieve political goals. These state led movements confound democratic activists and theorists, because they involve popular movements in support of leaders who want to limit public participation. Their very existence is a paradox. This edited volume helps explain this phenomenon through case studies in China, Russia, and even the United States. Sometimes the movements accomplish the goals of the state, but they can also create new challenges. This book introduces a new area of research necessary to understand politics in authoritarian political environments. 

The Authenticity of State-Mobilized Movements

It’s easy to dismiss state-mobilized movements as fake. Timothy Frye documents how in Russia, “Rather than sending in the troops against the demonstrators, the Kremlin organized counterprotests… It bused supporters to fill stadiums with counterdemonstrators in support of President Putin. Some of these counterprotesters were paid, and others were coerced to attend.” But many participants in state-mobilized movements express genuine enthusiasm in their participation. 

One example that hits home for many Americans is the role of state-mobilized movements during the Civil Rights Era in Mississippi. David Cunningham and Peter Owens document how law enforcement deputized known members of the KKK during periods of protest, while showing “tacit support for rising vigilantist countermobilization.” Indeed, the American South had long relied on informal vigilante organizations to enforce segregation during the Jim Crowe Era. 

Authoritarian regimes similarly draw support from different elements of society. Graeme Robertson and Samuel Greene have written, “Rather than merely absorbing the propaganda blaring from their television sets, actively made choices about what media to consume and what messages to believe. And they made these choices with an understanding of what media consumption habits and what political attitudes were socially acceptable.” From Mao’s China to Putin’s Russia, these writers document different forms of state-mobilized movements based on genuine citizen support for the state. 

The Dangers of State-Mobilized Movements

Of course, a hallmark of authoritarian government is its opposition to popular participation in politics. So, it is surprising to find examples where authoritarian regimes actually encourage popular participation as a political strategy. Indeed, dictators use state-mobilized movements with caution, because they are not easily controlled for long. 

Unlike civil resistance campaigns, state-mobilized movements are rarely nonviolent. Sebastian Hellmeier and Nils B. Weidmann point out “pro-government rallies more frequently result in injured bystanders, opposition activists or police officers.” The state will often encourage violence as a form of social control. Mark Beissinger describes the typical Ukrainian counterrevolutionary as “more physically fit (disproportionately belonging to sports clubs), more likely to have had run-ins with the law and legal institutions, and more likely to be dissatisfied with their material situation.”

At the same time, public participation raises challenges for autocratic regimes. For starters vigilante organizations undermine the state’s claim to the monopoly on the legitimate use of force. But even more gentle state-mobilized movements change the political dynamics in an authoritarian regime. They empower people to voice their political sentiments and can easily evolve into a force for change rather than stability. Autocratic governments like China and Russia have found it necessary on more than one occasion to dial back movements originated by the state. 

Final Thoughts

Perhaps it helps to circle back to the more popular literature on civil resistance. In her most recent book, Erica Chenoweth cites a study where 1 in 7 protests actually support the state. She makes this reference as recognition of the dynamic nature of political participation. Civil resistance campaigns raise political awareness, but they can also mobilize counterprotests. From this perspective, state-mobilized movements become part of a larger ecosystem of different forms of political participation alongside civil resistance.

Protest does not make sense without the possibility of counterprotest. A theory of revolution is incomplete without an explanation of counterrevolution. So, this book becomes part of the growing literature on political participation and popular mobilization. Moreover, it makes clear the public has a political role even in repressive environments. Of course, it also raises many questions about authoritarianism. I have called this project the Democracy Paradox, but it’s obvious that autocratic or authoritarian government is not immune to its own paradox.

Finally, it’s important to refer to the book itself. The scholarship focuses quite a bit on China (including Taiwan and Hong Kong) and the post-communist countries. But a few chapters also widen the topic to include the United States, Egypt, and Venezuela. A noticeable absence is Sub-Saharan Africa. The dynamics in many African  countries where democracy faces challenges from electoral violence and patrimonialism would make for a fascinating environment to study state-mobilized movements. But this is all conjecture. Ruling by Other Means is a worthwhile read for any student of politics, because it challenges our assumptions and expands the universe of political possibilities.

Gregorz Ekiert and Elizabeth Perry join the podcast tomorrow to discuss state-mobilized movements. They help explain the concept in even greater depth and offer a range of examples. 

Further Reading

Sabine C. Carey and Neil J. Mitchell (2017) “Progovernment Militias,” Annual Review of Political Science ·

Erica Chenoweth (2021) Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know

David Easton (1975) “A Re-Assessment of the Concept of Political Support,” British Journal of Political Science

Grzegorz Ekiert, Elizabeth J. Perry, and Yan Xiaojun (eds.) (2020) Ruling by Other Means: State-Mobilized Movements

Tim Frye (2021) Weak Strongman: The Limits of Power in Putin’s Russia

V. Ximena Velasco Guachalla, Calla Hummel, Sam Handlin, and Amy Erica Smith (2021) “When Does Competitive Authoritarianism Take Root?” Journal of Democracy

Sebastian Hellmeier and Nils B. Weidmann (2019) “Pulling the Strings? The Strategic Use of Pro- studiesGovernment Mobilization in Authoritarian Regimes,” Comparative Political Studies

Marlene Mauk (2020) Citizen Support for Democratic and Autocratic Regimes

Graeme Robertson and Samuel Greene(2017), “How Putin Wins Support,” Journal of Democracy

Yang Zhong and Yongguo Chen (2013) “Regime Support in Urban China,” Asian Survey

Democracy Paradox Podcast

Elizabeth Perry and Grzegorz Ekiert on State-Mobilized Movements

Erica Chenoweth on Civil Resistance

More Episodes from the Podcast

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