I enjoyed following the discussion between Ross Mittiga and Alexander Wuttke last week on climate action and authoritarian policies (threads:paper). Both Wuttke and Mittiga engaged constructuively on an issue they care a lot about and the discussion clarified many tricky points. It’s exactly the kind of cross subfield discussion between theorists and empirical researchers that we need more of (though I am not convinced twitter is the place for it). Cross-field criticisms are sometimes not welcomed—e.g. we saw charge against amateur theorists not staying in lane—but Mittiga’s response was just a model of grace.
The discussion raises, I think, some interesting questions for work that depends on both normative and empirical claims—as does a lot of theoretical work in political science. Below I summarize where I think things ended up and where I think there are points of confusion. I end with a question about whether or when theory papers should provide support for empirical premises on which a normative conclusion depends.
There are lots of interesting parts to Mittiga’s paper, but I think the core of the argument relates to three propositions. (Note this is just my attempt to reconstruct the argument; it is not found in this form in the text so apologies to Ross if I mix it up.)
- A: Any policy that is incompatible with survival of a polity is ipso facto not legitimate
- B: Non-authoritarian policies are incompatible with the survival of a polity in situation X (a state of exception)
- C: Authoritarian policies are legitimate in situation X
We want to get from A and B to C. In my reading we can’t quite get there directly since A and B only get us to “Non-authoritarian policies are not legitimate in situation X.” So we seem to need something more. One possibility might be to add an assumption:
Assumption O: In any situation some set of policies is always legitimate.
Under Assumption O, C is implied by A and B.
If we don’t maintain Assumption O then we could still get to C with variations on A and B (A’ : “Any policy that is required for the survival of a polity is ipso facto legitimate“; B’ : “Authoritarian policies are required for the survival of a polity” 1) Other strategies might involve moving beyond necessity and sufficiency statements to more continuous statements (such as “better able to ensure the survival of a polity”).
There are two further distinct types of conclusion that follow from C:
- D: “Avoiding legitimation of authoritarian policies requires avoiding situation X”
- E: “A and B imply D”
We might call D the strong conclusion—it follows if A and B are true (assuming O or similar); and E the weak conclusion, an analytic claim of the if-then variety that does not require A and B to be true.
I think the key contribution of the article is claim E not claim D (though I have some confusion on this, see below). That is, to point out that “if A and B are true then C and D are true.” Sure enough, given Assumption O, C follows from A and B. And D follows from C. D then is useful insofar as it connects the dots and highlights an important conclusion for anyone who thinks A and B are plausible.
A second contribution, I think, is to argue that A is true.
Points of confusion
Beyond the missing assumption noted above, I see a few points of confusion (that is, where I was confused). Some of these have been addressed in the discussion but not all:
Regimes or policies? The term “authoritarian governance” is not too clear to me: at some points it sounds like authoritarian regimes are meant, not authoritarian policies implemented by democracies (the title mentions “authoritarianism”; the early discussion compares states of different regime types); Mittiga’s responses emphasize that policies not regimes are meant and this is also laid out quite clearly in the section “Authoritarian Climate Governance”.
Strong or weak claim? I think it is sometimes unclear whether Mittiga is making the stronger or weaker claim. At some points it sounds like Mittiga is in fact supposing A and B are indeed true and so inferring that C and D are indeed true. Thus claiming D itself, rather than the weaker claim “If A and B then D”. The last line of the abstract for instance seems to state D directly, but it is caveated in a way that suggests to me that the weaker claim is meant (because of the uses of “suggests” / “may” and, critically, an incorporation of a version of A as a condition of the statement itself). The conclusion uses somewhat similar wording that seems more in line with the weak claim.2 The tweeted responses suggest though that the strong (“disturbing”) claim is meant.3
Is A true by definition? There are parts of the text that suggests A is true by definition, but ultimately I think A is meant as a normative claim. When foundational legitimacy (FL) is defined we are told that “FL requires that citizens’ essential safety needs are met.” So meeting needs seems to be part of the definition of FL. Later we have “legitimacy requires that governments ensure the safety and security of their citizens” (emphasis added). I understand this to mean that FL is not definitional to legitimacy, but rather, following the argumentation in the text, that in fact FL is necessary (though not sufficient) for legitimacy. Thus CL and FL are not types of legitimacy, but rather are things that can contribute in some way to legitimacy (indeed, sometimes: “political legitimacy will depend more (or even exclusively) on whether security needs are met than on whether CL factors are satisfied”).
Is B true by definition? There’s a part of the text that suggests that B might be set up to be true by definition but ultimately I think B is meant as an empirical proposition. The challenges arise where there is a “state of exception,” where a “state of exception […] is precipitated by an emergency (or credible threat thereof) of sufficiently great magnitude that prevailing political institutions, processes, norms, etc. either impede the swift action needed to preserve/restore normal conditions or simply break down”. This sounds like the inability of democratic institutions to address the problem is part of the criteria determining whether you have an SOE. But such a tautology would I think defang claim D; and elsewhere versions of B seem to be treated as empirical claims not a tautology (indeed: “ultimately an empirical question whether authoritarian governance is better able to realize desired environmental outcomes”). So the key part of B , not contained in the definition, is the idea that authoritarian governance would fare better (or: some policies will work).
Is a still stronger claim implied?: some of the reactions were to a stronger claim than Mittiga made. But there might be a reason for this. If you in fact buy A and B and you believe we now are in situation X (understood as a crisis), then the same logic would lead you not to D but to: “D’: authoritarian governance is legitimate.” So a more extreme conclusion can follow depending on what you think about X — the state of degradation of the climate.
Combining theoretical and empirical propositions
This discussion has been interesting because it was between an empirical and a theoretical researcher. Evaluation of the argument calls, I think, for that kind of discussion. The conclusions depend on what you think of A (a normative claim) and B (an empirical claim). So attention naturally goes to these.
A (the normative claim): Assuming A is not meant to be true by definition I’d like to learn more about why we should believe A. Addressing this requires a sharper statement of legitimacy (and not just of FL and CL) than we have in the text, I think. It doesn’t seem hard to me to imagine notions of legitimacy that are consistent with self sacrifice: taking actions that threaten survival but are good for other reasons purpose. Does A hold broad support among theorists?
B (the empirical claim): Wuttke is concerned with B and I think both sides agree that you can’t use Mittiga’s argument to get to D if you don’t buy B. Mittiga doesn’t do a lot to establish B however. Should he? More generally, what do we think is the responsibility of theorists to establish the plausibility of a condition on which a normative conclusion (here C and D) depends? I think the answer depends in part on whether claims like the strong claim or the weak claim are meant. If the strong claim is meant then B really is needed for the argument and Wuttke’s concerns are critical. If the weak claim is meant then the importance of the claim (rather than the validity of the claim) depends on whether B is plausible. In that case might it be enough to argue that many people believe B or at least that many believe B to be possible?
I invoke Assumption O rather than the stronger version of A because Mittiga emphasizes that ensuring survival may be necessary but is not sufficient for legitimacy (with a nice discussion of Hobbes and Williams). A difficulty with Assumption O is that it is inconsistent with A if no policies are consistent with survival. ↩
“But if adhering to CL factors proves incompatible with responding effectively to the climate crisis, then political legitimacy may require adopting a more authoritarian approach” (emphasis added). ↩
“In short, the article is an attempt to draw our attention to one of the most significant threats to our ability to maintain democratic institutions and robust human rights… Should those of us fortunate enough to live in liberal-democratic states fail to respond adequately to the climate crisis, we open the door to legitimating darker, more authoritarian forms of climate governance.” ↩