Born Weak, Growing Strong: Anti‐Government Protests as a Signal of Rebel Strength in the Context of Civil Wars

Author Summary by Bahar Leventoğlu and Nils W. Metternich


Born Weak, Growing Strong: Anti‐Government Protests as a Signal of Rebel Strength in the Context of Civil WarsProtests during civil wars have received little attention in political science literature. This is surprising since protests are common in the context of civil wars and seem to be associated with the emergence of peace agreements. In our recent article we explore how strong rebel organizations can trigger larger anti-government movements by exposing weakness of the government, which in turn allows them to attain favorable civil conflict outcomes. We propose that urban middle-class individuals, who are less likely to express their discontent through joining rebel organizations, demonstrate their anti-government sentiments through protest and strikes. Based on cascade models (Granovetter, 1978; Kuran, 1989; Lohmann, 1993; Yin, 1998), we provide a theoretical argument demonstrating that governments faced with protest in the context of civil wars are more likely to enter peace agreements and negotiations.

Our article relates to a prominent debate in the social movement literature (Goodwin and Skocpol, 1989), namely the link between rebel organizations that operate on the periphery of the state and the middle-class that tends to organize in urban areas. In fact, Skocpol (1979: p.113) argues that: “Without peasant revolts, urban radicalism in predominantly agrarian countries has not in the end been able to accomplish social-revolutionary transformations.” This literature also suggests that supporters in urban areas can be involved in fighting (Gugler, 1982), but don’t necessarily engage in most costly forms of anti-government behavior (Almeida, 2003). Instead, they engage in protest and demonstrations to express their dissatisfaction with the state.  Our theoretical argument is inspired by this literature and highlights how wars expose the weakness of the state and create opportunities that can be exploited by social movements (Skocpol, 1979; Tarrow, 2011).

Current civil conflict research is realizing that battle related fighting is not the only factor that determines conflict outcomes. In particular, the recent literature on non-violent campaigns (e.g. Chenoweth and Stephan, 2011; Chenoweth and Cunningham, 2013) and earlier work on collective sentiments (e.g. Kuran, 1989) demonstrates that conflict dynamics are not simply a function of military strength. We contribute to this literature by arguing that political behavior short of fighting (e.g. demonstrations or strikes) can be the consequence of successful rebel organizations, which signal government weakness and enable larger spread anti-government behavior.

About the Authors: Bahar Leventoglu is Associate Professor of Political Science and Economics at Duke University. Nils W. Metternich is Reader in International Relations at the School of Public Policy at the University College London. Their research, “Born Weak, Growing Strong: Anti‐Government Protests as a Signal of Rebel Strength in the Context of Civil Wars” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.



Almeida, Paul D. 2003. “Opportunity Organizations and Threat-Induced Contention: Protest Waves in Authoritarian Settings.” American Journal of Sociology 109(2):345–400.

Chenoweth, Erica and Kathleen Gallagher Cunningham. 2013. “Understanding nonviolent resistance: An introduction.” Journal of Peace Research 50(3):271–276.

Chenoweth, Erica and Maria J Stephan. 2011. Why civil resistance works: The strategic logic of nonviolent conflict. New York: Columbia University Press.

Diaz, John. 2010. “Liberia: Women key to uneasy peace forged in 2003.” San Francisco Chronicle (12/12/2010) .

Goodwin, Jeff and Theda Skocpol. 1989. “Explaining Revolutions in the Contemporary Third World.” Politics & Society 17(4):489–509.

Granovetter, Mark. 1978. “Threshold models of collective behavior.” American Journal of Sociology 83(6):1420– 1443.

Gugler, Josef. 1982. “The urban character of contemporary revolutions.” Studies in Comparative International Development 17(2):60–73.

Hayward, Susan. 2015. Women, Religion, and Peacebuilding. In The Oxford Handbook of Religion, Conflict, and Peacebuilding, ed. Atalia Omer, R. Scott Appleby and David Little. Oxford: Oxford University Press pp. 307–332. Kuran, Timur. 1989. “Sparks and prairie fires: A theory of unanticipated political revolution.” Public Choice 61(1):41–74.

Lohmann, Susanne. 1993. “A Signaling Model of Informative and Manipulative Political Action.” American Political Science Review 87(2):319–333.

Pedersen, Jennifer. 2016. In the rain and in the sun: women?s peace activism in Liberia. In Handbook on Gender and War, ed. Simona Sharoni, Julia Welland, Linda Steiner and Jennifer Pedersen. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing pp. 400–418.

Sengupta, Somini. 2003. “In the Mud, Liberia’s Gentlest Rebels Pray for Peace.” New York Times (07/01/2003). Skocpol, Theda. 1979. States and social revolutions: A comparative analysis of France, Russia and China. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Tarrow, Sidney G. 2011. Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Yin, Chien-Chung. 1998. “Equilibria of collective action in different distributions of protest thresholds.” Public Choice 97(4):535–567.

AJPS Author Summary: The Two Income-Participation Gaps

Author Summary by Christopher Ojeda

AJPS Author Summary - The Two Income‐Participation Gaps

It is well-established in the United States that the rich participate in politics more than the poor. Given that income shapes how much Americans pay into and get out of the system, whose voices are heard by policymakers is of real consequence. But what does it mean to be rich or poor? Political scientists typically define these terms using household income in the year prior to the behavior being studied. For example, scholars might assess the income-participation gap by correlating income in 2015 with turnout in the 2016 presidential election.

This approach, however, overlooks Americans’ economic backgrounds. Yet given what we know about the long-term ramifications of childhood poverty, it seems likely that whether someone grew up in a rich or poor family affects whether they engage in politics. Many of the explanations offered for the income-participation gap—disparities in political interest, education, social networks, and mobilization by political parties—are rooted in adolescence and young adulthood, suggesting that economic background may be quite important.

To test whether economic background affects participation, I analyzed six survey-based studies that included measures of each respondent’s current income, economic background, and voter turnout. Some studies measured economic background by asking respondents to recall their family’s income from when they were an adolescent. Other studies interviewed respondents and their parents every year or two from childhood to adulthood and asked about current income each time; this approach provided me with more precise and reliable accounts of economic background.

Irrespective of measure, I consistently found that respondents who grew up in rich homes voted more often than those who grew up in poor homes. This difference remained even after accounting for factors like current income, gender, race, age, parental education, church attendance, and marital status. The results also indicated that economic background matters because it shapes important predictors of participation, such as interest in politics, partisan strength, education, health, and current income.

Altogether, the results reveal that there are two income-participation gaps: one that arises from inequalities in current income and another that arises from inequalities in economic background. That the income-participation gap originates in childhood—well before individuals have a political voice—should magnify our concerns about this problem. Even for those who achieve the American Dream and leave behind their class, the negative effects of growing up poor linger.

About the Author: Christopher Ojeda is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Tennessee. “The Two Income‐Participation Gaps” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

Chains of Love? Global Production and the Firm‐Level Diffusion of Labor Standards

Author Summary by Eddy Malesky and Layna Mosley

AJPS - Author Summary - Chains of Love

Can participation in global supply chains lead to improvements in worker rights in low and middle income countries? Past studies have found evidence, at the country-level (and occasionally industry-level), for the globalization-based diffusion of labor and environmental standards. Actors in developing countries appear to improve their standards in response to actual or perceived demands of export market investors, firms and consumers.

The country-level focus, however, obscures the actual decision-making progress of business managers. As a result, we explore the possibility at the firm level. Participation in global production allows firms to expand their sales and revenue, and to access new production and management technologies. We predict that developing country firms will be willing to expend significant resources on labor-related upgrading if doing so offers access to global supply chains. We expect that firms will be particularly willing to invest in upgrading when exporting to mature markets: managers assume that labor-related concerns are greater among firms and consumers in developed countries. This promises higher payoffs for labor-related upgrading.

We survey foreign-owned firms in exportable sectors in Vietnam about their willingness to make labor-related improvements. These firms are typically small, employing 125 workers on average, and most are owned by firms elsewhere in Asia (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China are the most common). These firms, which participated in the broader Provincial Competitiveness Index survey, were asked to imagine a scenario in which they were contacted by an international consulting company, which wants to shortlist their firm (along with two others in the region) as potential suppliers to a European/Indian company that sells primarily to the European/Indian market.

The vignette also stated that, to be eligible for the shortlist, the firm would need to adopt a Labor Code of Conduct for Suppliers, covering items such as worker representation, health and safety and over time. We then asked the firms’ managers how much, as a percentage of their current operating costs, they’d be willing to spend to make such improvements. Our “contingent valuation” question also had an experimental component: some firms were asked the question with the multinational and consumer market described as “European.” Other firms were asked the same question, but the multinational partner and market was “Indian.” By randomly varying this element, we sought to understand how incentives for labor rights improvement might vary with destination market (and with opportunities for higher product markups).

From the point of view of improving labor conditions, our findings were encouraging: firms were willing to spend 6.5 percent of their operating costs, on average. And firms that received the “Europe” version of the question were willing to spend more (about half a percent, a statistically and substantively significant amount) than those with the “Indian” version. We also find that it is firms selling products with the greatest markup differential – the gap between the price for the same product in India versus in Europe – that were most sensitive to our experimental manipulation.

Activism related to worker rights also plays a role: civil society groups have made worker rights salient in some industries, such as apparel and footwear; firms producing such goods have even greater incentives to focus on labor conditions. For instance, the Europe-India difference was especially pronounced for the firms in our survey that produce apparel, compared with those that produce plastic carrier bags. While both products have similar Europe-India markup differentials, labor rights activists have paid little attention to conditions in the plastics sector. And European demand for their product has fallen, as governments outlaw or tax plastic bags. Indeed, Vietnamese firms in the plastics sector reported being willing to invest more in labor-related improvements when India, rather than Europe, was named as the destination market.

Our analyses also indicate that we have much more to learn about how global supply chain involvement might be consistent with improvements to labor rights. Such a process likely requires sustained attention from lead firms, shareholders, consumers, activists, intergovernmental institutions, or some combination of these. Finally, capturing gains from multinational production is not simply an economic process. It is also a political one: if workers do not have the rights to form unions or to bargain collectively, then it may be factory owners and other elites who capture the bulk of the benefits from multinational production.

About the Authors: Edmund J. Malesky is Professor in the Department of Political Science at Duke University. Layna Mosley is Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Their research, “Chains of Love? Global Production and the Firm‐Level Diffusion of Labor Standards”, is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

Audience Costs and the Dynamics of War and Peace

Author Summary by Casey Crisman‐Cox and Michael Gibilisco

AJPS Author Summary - Audience Costs and the Dynamics of War and PeaceAudience costs—or the costs leaders pay from backing down before their opponents in interstate disputes—have a prominent place in international relations. Researchers use them to explain crisis bargaining, war duration, economic sanctions, and the democratic peace. After 20 years of research, conventional wisdom suggests we cannot measure audience costs: if they were indeed large enough to be observed, then leaders would rationally anticipate their application and never back down in a dispute. This strategic foresight has led some researchers to label audience costs “dark matter” of political science (Schultz 2012).

How can we measure audience costs? Previous work proxies audience costs with democracy measures or other regime type information based on a priori expectations (e.g., Partell and Palmer 1999). In our paper, we directly consider the strategic anticipation of leaders by modeling audience costs as a country-specific parameter in an infinitely repeated dynamic game of crisis escalation. Given fixed audience costs, the model predicts a specific distribution of conflict outcomes, e.g., initiation, backing down, standing firm, and escalation, between countries over time. We select the audience costs, along with other parameters, that best fit these predictions to observed data on interstate disputes, producing estimates for 125 countries. This approach allows us to then test the long-held conjecture that democracies have higher audience costs and analyze the substantive effects of audience cost on equilibrium behavior.

Contrary to previous intuition, our results demonstrate that increasing a country’s audience costs encourages it to initiate disputes. After disputes erupt, audience costs serve as a commitment device: they tie the hands of their respective countries, thereby encouraging them to stand firm and coercing their opponents to back down in disputes. Thus, countries with enhanced audience costs more freely initiate disputes to capitalize on these advantages, a result that does not emerge in reduced-form regressions (Clark and Nordstrom 2005; Prins 2003; Weeks 2012).

We find that previous proxies overlook important international and domestic factors that determine audience costs, although democracy measures positively correlate with our estimates. Interstate rivals attenuate audience costs within democracies. Democracies with rivals have, on average, audience costs that are roughly similar to autocratic regimes with legal provisions for executive removal (e.g., China), suggesting that voters may provide leaders leeway when escalating disputes with rivals. A free press can strongly increase audience costs, a finding that matches those from formal models (Slantchev 2006).

Finally, our paper helps scholars and policy practitioners appreciate the global effects of audience costs on peace. On the one hand, larger audience costs incentivize countries to stand firm and initiate disputes. On the other hand, increasing a country’s audience costs may deter others from initiating disputes against it, as they avoid entering a crisis against countries with that are committed to standing firm. We find that the second effect dominates in the data. That is, increasing audience costs in every country should increase peace worldwide.

About the Authors: Casey Crisman‐Cox is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Texas A&M University and Michael Gibilisco is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at California Institute of Technology. Their research, “Audience Costs and the Dynamics of War and Peace”, is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

Enough and as Good: A Formal Model of Lockean First Appropriation

Author Summary by Brian Kogelmann and Benjamin G. Ogden

AJPS Author Summary - Kogelmann OgdenHow do people come to have property rights in initially unowned things? Perhaps the most famous answer offered in response to this question is given by John Locke in The Second Treatise of Civil Government: persons come to own things by mixing their labor with them. If you plow an unowned field you own the land; if you cut down an unowned tree you own the timber. Of course, there is a common objection to this theory of appropriation: what if someone mixes their labor with too much, and thereby comes to own too much. This, it seems, is unfair. To which Locke responds: persons must leave “enough and as good” for others.

But what does this actually mean? This is something contemporary scholars fight about. The so-called right libertarians interpret “enough and as good” without much teeth: for them, it is better if we ignore these kinds of restrictions, and let persons appropriate as much as they please. On the other hand are the so-called left libertarians, who interpret “enough and as good” as imposing quite strict requirements. In short, people are only entitled to appropriate an equal amount of resources from the initially unowned stockpile, leaving the rest for others.

Right and left libertarians usually do battle over the enough-and-as-good clause on moral grounds. Which interpretation of Locke’s proviso seems most fair or just? We, however, take a different route. Using the tools of modern social science, we wanted to look at the economic impacts of implementing different versions of the proviso. In short, what would overall welfare look like in a world governed by the right libertarian or left libertarian interpretations of the proviso?

Our major finding is that, if one waits long enough, the right libertarian version of the proviso makes all persons better off, regardless of whether they are naturally advantaged or disadvantaged. This is a striking result, for one might think that the left libertarian version of the proviso is better for those who are naturally disadvantaged – those who are constrained in their ability to appropriate land.

The reason why our result holds, though, is due to the effects of investment that come along with appropriation. If land is appropriated and becomes property, it is typically made more productive by the owner. These productivity gains disperse themselves across society by lowering the price of goods relative to wages. Thus, a case can be made that it is better for all land to be appropriated and invested in as early as possible, even if ownership of this land is unequal. In fact, this effect is greatest when inequality of opportunity is the most persistent. If one waits long enough, the effects of investment will end up making everyone better off, even those who missed out on getting some land during the initial grab. This, we think, offers some reason to support a more lax interpretation of “enough and as good,” particularly if one is primarily concerned with the welfare of the worst-off or unlucky.

About the Authors: Brian Kogelmann is Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Maryland and Benjamin G. Ogden is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Texas A&M University. “Enough and as Good: A Formal Model of Lockean First Appropriation” will appear in a forthcoming issue of the “American Journal of Political Science” and is now available in Early View.

AJPS Author Summary: Analyzing Computational Models

Author Summary by David A Siegel

AJPS Author Summary - Siegel

Computational models have been underutilized as tools for formal theory development, closing off theoretical analysis of complex substantive scenarios that they would well serve. I argue that this occurs for two reasons, and provide resolutions for each. One, computational models generally do not employ the language or modes of analysis common to game-theoretic models, the status quo in the literature. I detail the types of insights typically derived from game-theoretic models and discuss analogues in computational modeling. Two, there are not widely established procedures for analysis of deductive computational models. I present a regularized method for deriving comparative statics from computational models that provides insights comparable to those arising from game-theoretic analyses. It also serves as a framework for building theoretically tractable computational models that can build on prior work. The method relies on techniques that are commonly employed by empirical scholars, including simulation and numerical optimization, making its use straightforward for theory development. I illustrate this last point with an example of a computational model intended to provide theoretical expectations for a program evaluation. Together, these contributions should enhance communication between models of social science and open up the toolkit of deductive computational modeling for theory-building to a broader audience.

About the Author: David A. Siegel is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Duke University.  “Analyzing Computational Models” will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science and is now available in Early View.

AJPS Author Summary – International Constraints and Electoral Decisions: Does the Room to Maneuver Attenuate Economic Voting?

Author Summary by Spyros Kosmidis

AJPS Author Summary - KosmidisGlobalization influences domestic politics in various ways. A long line of research, for example, indicates that globalization attenuates the economic vote. This is because politicians use ‘globalization’ as a scapegoat to justify their (alleged) limited control over the economy and to shirk responsibility for bad economic outcomes. Due to this ambiguity in assigning political responsibility, voters consequently tend to deemphasize the economy in their electoral considerations. While this globalization-induced erosion of the economic vote has been consistently verified in studies on economic voting, the mechanism behind it has not been subject to experimental testing. Yet such testing is especially warranted given the post-2010 election results in Southern Europe – a region where governments had lost their capacity to implement their preferred economic policy. Notably, these election results and the relevant academic studies reveal that economic voting was strong even when there was no room to maneuver the economy. To test the exact mechanism underpinning the relationship, a simple survey experiment was devised that manipulated political responsibility over economic policy and outcomes. The experiment was conducted in Greece just as the second bailout program was about to end. The results show that while the experimental manipulation was effective, the economic vote remained equally strong across the experimental groups. This carries important implications for party strategies, voting behavior and the quality of democratic interactions.

About the Author: Spyros Kosmidis is a Departmental Lecturer in Quantitative Methods at the University of Oxford in the Department of Politics and International Relations. His research “International Constraints and Electoral Decisions: Does the Room to Maneuver Attenuate Economic Voting?” will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science and is now available in Early View.

AJPS Author Summary – Encouraging Political Voices of Underrepresented Citizens through Coproduction: Evidence from a Randomized Field Trial

Author Summary by Morten Hjortskov,  Simon Calmar Andersen, and Morten Jakobsen

AJPS - FB PostsThe idea in our new study is that involving citizens in the production of public services not only benefits the quality of services but may also motivate citizens to voice their opinions by voting in elections or provide feedback to government in between elections.

The political voice of citizens is central to the functioning of democracy, and it is naturally a major topic for political scientists and anyone concerned with democratic government. How can we provide opportunities and motivation for citizens to participate? How can we enhance the political voice among groups that are typically less inclined to participate?

Through a randomized field experiment, we examine the involvement of citizens in the production of public services and its effect on political voice. Involvement of citizens in the production of public services is captured by the concept of coproduction, i.e., a public service is produced by a mix of input from public employees and citizens receiving the service. In practice, many goods and services are produced this way. A prime example is education. Teachers provide valuable input to students’ education, but students only benefit if they and their parents also contribute to the learning process.

Involving citizens in the joint production of public services may not only improve service outcomes but also motivate citizens to voice their opinion by increasing their knowledge about the government and inducing a sense of obligation to participate. Moreover, they may start seeing themselves as capable and valuable contributors to society. These are all factors that usually affect citizens’ political participation. This gives rise to the idea that involvement in service production enhances political participation.

We study a coproduction program that increased immigrant parents’ involvement in their children’s language learning in preschool. Immigrant parents are normally underrepresented in political processes. A prior study shows that the program benefited the children’s language development. In this new study, we show that involvement also benefits the parents’ political voice as measured by their provision of feedback to government through citizen surveys. Since the parents were randomly assigned to the coproduction treatment group, we are relatively certain that the measured effects are indeed caused by involving parents in cooperating with the preschools.

About the Authors: The three authors hail from Aarhus University; Morten Hjortskov is Assistant Professor of Political Science, Simon Calmar Andersen is Professor in the Department of Political Science, and Morten Jakobsen is Associate Professor in the Department of Management. Their article titled, “Encouraging Political Voices of Underrepresented Citizens through Coproduction: Evidence from a Randomized Field Trial” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

AJPS Author Summary: Issue Voting as a Constrained Choice Problem

Author Summary by Mert Moral and Andrei Zhirnov

Issue Voting as a Constrained Choice ProblemDo all voters consider same parties when they make their vote choices? And if not, how does such variation in their “choice sets” matter for the electoral process?

Although these questions are of crucial importance for our understanding of voting behavior, spatial competition, and democratic representation, previous research on issue voting –the empirical investigation of how voters respond to party policies in distinct issue domains– rarely tackles with them and, instead, assumes a common and fixed choice set composition.

We suggest that voters’ effective choice sets vary widely, and many of them are different from the ones imposed by researchers. Some voters may disregard certain parties. Others may take into consideration larger numbers of party alternatives when making their vote decision. If this is the case, conventional empirical models of issue voting might produce biased estimates of the effects of voters’ policy considerations on their vote choice.

To address this problem, we present the so-called “Constrained Choice Conditional Logistic Regression” (CCCL) — a random utility model that builds on the conditional logistic regression and the constrained multinomial logistic regression. CCCL treats the observed vote choice as a product of two interrelated but distinct processes –the formation of individuals’ choice sets and the choice among the parties in such choice sets. We assume that party identification, and parties’ electoral viability and policy extremity determine choice set formation. Along with the prominent spatial theories of issue voting, we inform our theoretical expectations from the literatures on strategic voting and party identification.

The main text presents an application of the CCCL, as well as competing models, to the data from the 1989 parliamentary election in Norway (in online appendices we present several additional cases). The CCCL has a better fit to the data than the conditional logistic regressions even when the latter includes the same set of non-spatial covariates (CCCL corrects 20 to 25% of its wrong predictions).

The examination of parameter estimates confirms that voters do consider different sets of parties in their choice sets. It also shows that non-spatial factors do not simply compete for influence with policy considerations. Rather, they shape individuals’ choice sets, and thus condition the effects of their policy considerations on vote choice. Under certain conditions, these factors may render the policy positions of political parties irrelevant for the vote choice of particular voters and political outcomes in general. This result also suggests that, as parties choose their policies, they do not always need to pay attention to all voters’ policy preferences but only to those whose choice sets include them.

Our results offer a number of methodological and theoretical takeaways. First, one should not simply ignore the variation in voters’ choice set compositions. Second, arbitrary exclusion of parties from empirical analyses of voting, as often done in previous literature, may harm the validity of our inferences regarding the weights of particular policies in individuals’ voting calculus and parties’ position-taking incentives. Finally, the use of the CCCL model is not limited to the literature on voting behavior. Along with its flexibility to employ chooser-, choice-, and chooser-choice dyad-level variables, this constrained decision-making model, which we present in our forthcoming article in the American Journal of Political Science, can be of use to researchers who seek to separate the process of choice set-formation from the choice process.

About the Authors:  Mert Moral is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Sabancı University and Andrei Zhirnov is a Ph.D. candidate at Binghamton University. Their article, “Issue Voting as a Constrained Choice Problem” is now available in Volume 62, Issue 2 of the Amerian Journal of Political Science.  

AJPS Author Summary: Credible Commitment in Covert Affairs

Author Summary By William Spaniel and Michael Poznansky

AJPS - FB Posts (5)Is it possible to prevent political leaders from undertaking questionable covert actions? At first blush, the prospects don’t look good. Convincing actors to behave contrary to their narrow self-interest is difficult even in domains characterized by relative transparency. Covert operations are notable for their opacity. Such actions are by their very nature hidden from public scrutiny.

And yet, actors often consent to regulations of secret activities anyway. In the 1970s, for example, Gerald Ford outlawed political assassinations and created an Intelligence Oversight Board to ease whistleblowing. More generally, states routinely sign treaties proscribing activities that are often carried out behind closed doors (e.g., torture). What remains unclear is whether these prohibitions matter given that detection is a prerequisite for punishment.

Our article, “Credible Commitment in Covert Affairs,” provides an answer. We develop a model that captures the incentives executives, whistleblowers, and watchdogs face in the covert sphere. We show that even when executives would otherwise like to pursue covert action, they may, under certain conditions, endogenously adopt institutional reforms to increase the costs of getting caught and promote whistleblowing.

To understand why, consider the following auditing problem. If watchdogs believe that an executive may have undertaken a questionable covert action, they may invest effort to investigate. This taxes the executive’s resources and erodes their political capital—regardless of whether the executive actually did anything. Additionally, the optimal level of watchdog effort implies a risk of revelation. Combined, these two factors may mean the executive is better off committing to inaction than sometimes taking covert action and getting away with it.

But how can the executive make such a commitment credible? This is where the whistleblower comes into play. Even if the watchdog doesn’t exert effort, high costs of punishment for getting caught and a reduction in the barriers to whistleblowing are sufficient to deter the executive from pursuing questionable covert actions. In turn, the executive may prefer circumstances with these high costs and low whistleblowing barriers to cases where he or she would otherwise be tempted to take covert action. We therefore expect the executive to promote institutional reform under these circumstances.

The article illustrates the mechanism by exploring the road to Gerald Ford’s intelligence community reforms in the mid-1970s. From 1947 to roughly 1974, executives enjoyed wide latitude in the covert sphere. There were few penalties stemming from Congress, the media, or the public for getting caught pursuing questionable covert operations. As such, executives displayed no desire to pursue reform. The Watergate scandal, combined with allegations of political assassinations and domestic spying, ended the era of deference. In response, Ford championed reforms to the intelligence community to credibly commit to refraining from engaging in questionable secret activities in the future.

About the Authors: William Spaniel is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science and Michael Poznansky is an Assistant Professor of International Affairs and Intelligence Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. Their article titled, “Credible Commitment in Covert Affairs “ is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.