The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Anatomy of a political theory controversy

What happens when political theorists are read by everyone else?

After Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, political science subfields had different reactions to the worst-case scenarios. This Twitter thread summarizes some of them. (Jacob Levy/Jacob T. Levy)
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One of the dirty secrets of political science is that very few scholars read much in the way of political theory. Sure, the political theorists do, but the rest of the discipline views them as the weird kids sitting together at lunch. Political scientists who specialize in American politics, comparative politics, or international relations likely read some Hobbes or Locke or Nietzsche or Arendt back in the day, but there are few requirements to read the classics in graduate school training. Political theory does not impinge on their day-to-day research.

This should not be read as an indictment of the field. Specialization is inevitable, and someone specializing in, say, the implications of artificial intelligence for international security or the effect of elite cues on public opinion does not need to be well-versed in Plato. And this specialization cuts both ways: political theorists do not necessarily dive deeply into empirical political science either.

What it does mean, however, is that on those rare moments when a scholarly controversy breaks through sub-disciplinary boundaries, there is an excellent chance of mutual misunderstandings.

This brings me to the recent controversy surrounding an American Political Science Review article and what it says about the perils of public engagement.

Last month the APSR — the flagship journal of the discipline in the United States — published a political theory article by Ross Mittiga titled “Political Legitimacy, Authoritarianism, and Climate Change.” Mittiga writes that he is “interested in determining under what conditions authoritarian climate governance may be considered legitimate and, more broadly, how governments’ responses to climate change influence normative assessments of their political legitimacy.”

If I understand Mittiga’s meaning correctly — and I am not a political theorist — “authoritarian” does not mean an authoritarian government (though it certainly includes that regime type), but rather instances in which leaders, even democratically elected ones, invoke states of emergency to give themselves enhanced executive power.

The article spells out two concepts of political legitimacy, foundational legitimacy (FL) — when “essential safety needs are met” — and contingent legitimacy (CL) — when “the power used by the government … [is] ‘acceptable’ to all those who are subjected to it.” As Mittiga puts it, “FL is about living, CL about living well.”

From this Maslow-like hierarchy of legitimacy needs, Mittiga’s argument is that unless democracies are able to surmount their political imperfections and take concerted action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, there will be a climate crisis. And in a crisis, “political legitimacy may not only be compatible with authoritarian governance but actually require it.” Possible authoritarian measures include, but are not limited to, “curbing meat-heavy diets,” “a censorship regime that prevents the proliferation of climate denialism or disinformation in public media,” and “imposing a climate litmus-test on those who seek public office.”

I will confess to not being crazy about a lot of the arguments contained in the article. The definitions are contestable. I’m not sure that CL, as defined, can ever exist. The definition of “authoritarian” is so expansive as to be of limited utility. Mittiga casually asserts that authoritarian governments like China are doing better at climate action than democracies with little empirical foundation. There is too much hand-waving at various points in the article, particularly on the downside risks of authoritarian actions. And there are too many ways that a short scene from “The Dark Knight” does a better job of wrestling with some of the trade-offs.

Still, the idea that there are multiple sources of legitimacy is undeniable. Mittiga is also explicitly not advocating for authoritarian rule. He writes: “the argument presented here should not be understood as an endorsement of authoritarianism but rather as a warning: should we wish to avoid legitimating authoritarian politics, we must do all we can to prevent emergencies from arising that can only be solved with such means.”

What happened next is … well, Twitter is what happened next:

Read the whole thread, as well as Mittiga’s response thread. Their engagement is civil and constructive. The problem is that Alexander Wuttke’s initial tweet was sufficiently inaccurate to set off an entire social media debate in which many have behaved badly. Valid critiques of Mittiga’s argument have been crowded out. A lot of political scientists who do not read political theory are reading partial summaries of one political theory article and not quite comprehending what is going on. Others who proclaim their fidelity to methodological rigor have generalized wildly from a single data point. All of this is from folks with relevant doctorates: the response from non-academics to a partial and distorted summary of one article could best be defined as “not great.”

So what are the takeaways? First, as more crises come down the pike, debates like the one Mittiga is trying to provoke will also take place. It would therefore be great if everyone could get on the same page about what terms like “authoritarian” mean. Second, no one is going to get on the same page about terms because of trends in the marketplace of ideas that make such consensus about first principles incentive-incompatible.

Third, political theorists and other political scientists need to engage with one another a bit more when not on Twitter. And last, all the talk about how political scientists need to do more public engagement has omitted the possible downsides of misperceptions and recriminations. This entire kerfuffle, one in which everyone comes away looking worse, is an example.