Rejoinder to “A Tyranny of the Half? Protests, Democracy, and the Ethos of Pluralism in Turkey”

When people read analyses, they typically interpret them in terms of popular narrative frameworks which are currently in circulation. This heuristic is usually reliable—most analyses explicitly draw from these competing interpretations; accordingly, reading things in this fashion allows one to much more quickly understand what is being said in the analysis and why it matters. However, as with any heuristic,  this method also imparts various biases and blindspots, which can at times be problematic. For instance, if one is dealing with an analysis which avoids reliance on these frameworks because they are ill-formed, or one that explicitly sets out to undermine them, or a work that shifts between various interpretive strategies—in all of these cases, it is common for the intent of the analysis to be totally overlooked, and for the work to be misconstrued as arguing in favor of the very thing it is trying to work against.  Often, audiences will read things into a work which the article itself does not mandate. Such has been the case with reactions to my recent essay, “How to Avoid Being a Turkey: Taking a Closer Look at the Taksim Protests.”

This piece motivated two excellent response articles—however, neither of them were very successful at undermining what the author was actually trying to argue. In both cases, my interlocutors seemed to believe that I was taking a position against the protests and/or in favor Prime Minister Erdogan—neither of these are true. Instead, I set out to complicate a number of problematic narratives which were taking hold in the popular discourse—the point of this analysis was to get the reader to step back and reflect upon what was happening more carefully, undercutting “black & white” dichotomies that polarize the discourse and result in ham-fisted policies.

Dr. Gramling’s article can and should be read in complete harmony with mine—we make many of the same points, and the differences between us are entirely matters of emphasis. A careful reading will reveal that there is actually no outright contradiction anywhere between Dr. Gramling’s work and my own.

There are substantive differences between my article and that of Dr. Silverstein—however, even his analysis begins by conceding agreement on a number of key points, and many of the outstanding differences are not as drastic as my interlocutor seems to believe. And in the places our views authentically diverge, my critic has generally failed to undermine my position or substantiate his own.

On the Popularity of the Protests (and Erdogan)

In the initial article, I said that we cannot take for granted, as the international media has taken it, that the protests enjoy wide popularity or support in Turkey.  This is a somewhat humble claim, which should not be read as, “Most Turks oppose the protests.” I provided a litany of evidence that Prime Minister Erdogan and the AKP enjoy broad support and challenged my interlocutors to provide some kind of positive evidence that the protests enjoyed anywhere near a comparable level of support.  This challenge was not met.

Instead, Dr. Silverstein attempted to deflect from my concern; rather than addressing my claims with any hard contravening data, he instead argued that while the AKP did win a majority in the last three elections, majorities which have grown each time, garnering twice as many votes in the last election as their closest competitor—these electoral majorities may represent only a plurality of the total populations’ will, when one considers the numbers who did not vote, the way elections are set up, etc.

As it relates to the uncast ballots, my interlocutor is simply begging the question. Sure, one can assume that a substantial sum of them may not support the AKP, or that they may like the AKP but not Erdogan, or they may not like the AKP but do not support the opposition parties either, or a host of other reasons. One can conjecture ad infinitum. For instance: it could also be the case that most of these non-voters support both AKP and Erdogan, but considering how strong their ballot performance has been, they did not see the need to vote in order to ensure the outcome they wanted—a common trend in elections which are not predicted to be particularly close. The point is, one cannot really infer anything from the uncast ballots, precisely because they were not cast—so bringing them up in this context was more of a red-herring than any kind of legitimate evidence of popular support for the protests.  What we do know from the ballots is that, among people who turned out to vote, they overwhelmingly chose the AKP over any of the competitor parties.

Similarly, as it relates to Turkey’s electoral system and its 10% threshold for representation—this is part of Turkey’s social contract, as outlined in their constitution. If sufficient numbers of citizens are sufficiently displeased with this, it can be changed through a constitutional referendum;  Turkey is a democratic state, these things are imminently possible given popular support. As I mentioned, a referendum is currently underway to change the balance of powers vis a vis the executive branch.

 

II.

Dr. Silverstein’s counterfactual, “what if in America on party won 50% of the vote and…” is ill-formed on several levels. Despite the 10% bar which my interlocutor portrays as unreasonably exclusionary, Turkey actually has more political parties than America, and these minority parties wield considerably greater influence than they would in America. In America, for all intents and purposes there are only two political parties.

Accordingly, to Dr. Silverstein’s point, in the much less democratic American system, if one party garnered only 50% of the vote, this would imply that the next-closest party scored nearly as many (49% or so).  That is, while one party could technically claim a majority, it would be obvious that nearly as many people came down in support of the opposition. This is not the case in Turkey, the next-closest party scored only 25%, or half the number of votes as the AKP. In a real multiparty system, winning 50% of the electorate is a huge deal—in fact, the AKP’s victories were unprecedented in the history of Turkish democracy.

The reason the AKP has can afford to avoid compromise is not just because they have so many more votes than their competitors–but also because some among their rivals also vote with them on a host of issues. It isn’t that the AKP is instituting their agenda in defiance of everyone else–but instead, the coalition lead by the AKP, a coalition which collectively dominates the Turkish parliament, is in a position to avoid compromising on the issues for which there is internal agreement within the alliance.

So my interlocutor’s attempted comparison is ill-formed on several levels.  A more-proper  analogy (albeit still problematic given that Turkey has a parliamentary rather than presidential system) would be if one party gained a supermajority in the House, the Senate and controlled the White House. In America, or in any democracy, should one party attain this sort of dominance, they would likely act just like the AKP, as we often see here in America also. This is the nature of democracy:  the winner calls the shots. If they don’t have enough votes to realize their plans on their own, they compromise or build coalitions; if they have enough votes, they don’t have to.  Again, if sufficient numbers of people are sufficiently displeased with how anyone wields their power, they can vote someone else into office in the next election.  Rather than seeing this happen, the AKP’s share of votes has increased every time for the last three elections.

But ultimately, even if we sidestep all of the problems with my interlocutor’s claims, the central question remains: are the protests popular? As Dr. Silverstein concedes, this is a critical question to ask of an ostensibly “democratic” movement.  Granted, it is also an important question to ask how popular the AKP really is, and how much clout their popularity mandates—as Dr. Silverstein suggested. However, these questions do not in any way negate the first one—they should be asked in addition. So it was disappointing to see my interlocutor attempt this sleight of hand.

That said, Dr. Silverstein’s concern that Erdogan and the AKP may be overstepping their mandate—I agree that this is a valid concern (although not a “fact” which can be taken for granted); nothing in my article would suggest otherwise.  Far from it: I argue that Erdogan would be well-advised to learn from President al-Asad and avoid escalating the conflict and feeding into the narratives of his opponents. This implies that he ought to instead reach out with an olive branch to the opposition, and avoid the crackdown—in the end, as I argued in the article, his overly-forceful actions only make him seem vulnerable while emboldening and fortifying the opposition. So we are not really in disagreement on this important point—it is a difference of emphasis.

III.

I argued that the media had been overlooking the large counter-protests in support of the Prime Minister;  my interlocutor argued that they had been covered extensively in Turkish media. Sure, but there was virtually no international coverage of these counter-rallies. And this absence is significant—especially as it relates to policies by outside powers and international institutions in response to these developments. So while the “pro” rallies were covered in local media, it remains significant to note their absence in the international coverage and the global conversation. This is all the more important as it relates to these articles, as both myself and my interlocutors are writing for an international audience, most of whom cannot speak Turkish and know little about Turkish media. Instead, consuming primarily international news coverage, they may be largely unaware of the large support base Erdogan continues to enjoy.  Talking about how things are covered in Turkish media is completely irrelevant to answering my concern.

It remains to be demonstrated that the protests are popular. In fact, considering most articles describe the protestors as “tens of thousands,” and by Dr. Silverstein’s own estimates, the pro-Erdogan rallies reached hundreds of thousands–his own data seems to support my skepticism.

 

On Violence and Culpability

In the article, I said the protestors began violent instigation and the government responded with force.  This conclusion was drawn from a number of news articles from prominent outlets, one of which was hyperlinked. In that depiction, the protestors began throwing Molotov cocktails and launching fireworks at the police—the police responded with tear gas, etc. Of course, there are alternate accounts. In the fog of conflict, it can often be unclear as to who started what—the record starts with the first recording…really it begins with the earliest recording that attains wide circulation. By this standard,  let us simply concede that the violence may have been initiated by the government—does this really negate my point?

I argued that while most of the protestors were peaceful, there were contingents from among them who intentionally goaded the authorities into escalating the violence, often by means of committing violence and other crimes themselves.  If my interlocutor would deny that these are persistent elements of most protest movements which also instantiated themselves in Taksim… well, he would be living in some alternate reality.  Similarly, regardless of who initiated the violence, there is a certain point after which the police have an authentic duty to neutralize nihilistic behaviors for the sake of public safety and the public good. Unfortunately, as I indicated, this game of chicken between the provacateurs and the authorities often ends with mostly peaceful protestors being caught in the crossfire through no fault of their own.  Again, my article stated explicitly and repeatedly that the authorities were too easily goaded by the rioters, and their general approach to these protests was ill-conceived.

That said, most citizens of Istanbul do not seem to support the protests (“tens of thousands” out of 14 million residents took to the streets), and many are likely anxious to see the demonstrations contained and/or dispersed, albeit by peaceful means.  That is, the authorities have a legitimate role to play here, even if their methods were radically inappropriate.

My interlocutor argued that the bulk of the attention should be focused on the crimes of the state, not the protestors. Well, he has his way: this is and always has been the case in international coverage of the Taksim protests. His vitriolic response to one of the only English-language exceptions to this trend suggests that he believes virtually all, not “most,” coverage must focus on the government as the “bad guy.”

But might it be alright, or even desirable, if occasionally people step back and evaluate how the opposition is responding to the situation, to criticize them too? To bear in mind the legitimate right of protest and the authorities’ legitimate duty to protect the public and maintain order? To acknowledge the diversely-constituted nature of the movement without conflating this with a popular movement? To challenge media biases even if we understand their sympathies?

 

On Analyzing the Movement’s Drivers

In the conclusion of my article, I suggested that before endorsing any social movement, people should ask themselves which parties are involved, how, why, etc. My interlocutors response was twofold:

  1. The list of all of the external and internal actors for a social movement may be indefinite
  2. My interlocutor was not familiar with other analyses which do this

The second objection is merely an “is implies ought” fallacy (mistaking a descriptive claim for a normative one). My interlocutor is not familiar with analyses of this sort…so what? In what way does that suggest or entail that these analyses should not be done? Even if there was literally no analysis of this sort which had ever been performed in the history of mankind, why would this suggest that it should not be done?

In fact, there are analyses of social movements which explore who is involved, what they stand to gain, etc. even if my interlocutor is somehow not familiar with the concept. And it is important work to do, for the reasons I indicated. Fortunately, modern tools can make it easier to pursue these questions.  A method should not be avoided simply because it is new or unconventional. In fact, not looking into these sorts of questions is a great way to have a movement hijacked.

Similarly, just because one may not be able to exhaustively identify the players, their agendas, incentives and interrelations—this does not mean one cannot or should not explore any of them (which seems to be Dr. Silverstein’s conclusion). Even if one restricted oneself to the players that seem to exert the most influence,  it can be an extremely useful enterprise. So even if we concede Dr. Silverstein’s first point, it doesn’t really undermine my claim.

 

II.

Scrutinizing the protests does not mean the government responded properly to them—it didn’t, as I repeatedly underscored.  Underlying most of Dr. Silverstein’s criticisms is the insinuation that people can only focus on one thing: we must either unquestioningly support the protests while relentlessly criticizing the AKP (his position) or its converse (what he mistakenly holds my position to be). This reductive view is just false. In fact, if one wants to understand what is happening, why, or what may come next–it is actually necessary to ask who the actors are, what is motivating them, and what means they are deploying.  Often the answers to these questions are not self-evident and will diverge sharply from the popular narrative. If my interlocutor sincerely believes that it is inappropriate to make these inquiries, that seems to speak worse of him than me.

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