Preference cascades and the fall of the Ceaucescu regime

The protests in Iran seem to be getting bigger. I can’t help being reminded (though this may be wishful thinking) of the 1989 protests in Rumania and the subsequent downfall of its dictator Nicolae CarpathiaCeaucescu.

The regime was deeply unpopular following an austerity program that had Rumanians scrambling for the most basic necessities, while the Inner Party, of course, enjoyed everything imaginable. Yet the Securitate (the Romanian secret police) maintained the most repressive police state of all the Eastern European regimes, and its grip on the people was supposed to be unassailable.

Then protests broke out in the Transylvanian town of Timisoara, in support of a Protestant pastor named László Tökés who belonged to the Hungarian minority of Transylvania. At the time, I did not think this would be a cause for the Rumanian majority — but it triggered a “preference cascade“. Suddenly, all sorts of people who loathed the regime and their circumstances, but feared to speak up realized they were not alone — and that the others around them had just been keeping their heads down. Thus one regional protest, not immediately suppressed, lit off a firestorm.

It’s unclear when exactly the tipping point occurred, but apparently, the defense minister was fired by Ceaucescu for not having issued live ammunition to the troops sent to suppress the Timisoara protests. His successor either did not care to sully his hands with mass slaughter to contain what had meanwhile grown to national protests, or he realized that the troops had changed allegiance and would disobey orders to fire on protesters — or perhaps both.

At any rate, second-tier elements of the regime then realized Ceaucescu was doomed, had no desire to share his fate, and made a deal with one of the protest leaders (a hydro-engineer and former head of a technical publishing house named Ion Iliescu). Within days, the grotesque dictator and his even more grotesque wife ignominiously escaped in a helicopter, then in a commandeered private vehicle, then ultimately handed over for arrest. Following a brief kangaroo court session, they were executed by firing squad on Christmas Day. Earlier, propaganda slogans had been aimed at the protesters to go home and enjoy the Christmas repast — whether these admonitions were more cynical or pathetic is hard to decide. At any rate, the Rumanian people did thus get their Christmas gift.

The transition to democracy (at first under Iliescu) was messy, but eventually, Romania left the nightmarish regime behind and has recently achieved a modest measure of prosperity, though much remains to be done.

Incidentally, what became of László Tökés? As it turns out, he had a political career later, and eventually became deputy chair of the European Parliament.

Will elements in Iran at some point similarly realize the mullahcracy is unsustainable, and engineer its downfall? Will this pit the army against the Revolutionary Guard? The mind wonders…

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Has a ‘preference cascade’ away from 0bama started in the MSM?

[While I primarily tweet nowdays due to acute time shortage, this phenomenon is interesting enough to, at least just once, awaken this blog from hibernation.]

Following 0bama’s disastrous performance at the 1st presidential debate with Mitt Romney, he has not just (expectedly and deservedly) been dogpiled on by conservatives, but all of a sudden one sees biting criticism from what until recently were basically unpaid 0bama campaign operatives in the MSM. Nothing illustrates this better than the New Yorker cover:

More examples:

It is blatantly obvious, at least to me, that the DeMSM have been running interference for President Empty Chair not just because of leftist conviction, but because they see him as one “of our own kind, dear”, namely a fellow member of the New Class. I have also predicted repeatedly on Twitter (and can’t believe I’m the only one) that the DeMSM would keep trumpeting this feckless amateur until he became plainly indefensible even to partisans — at which point they would drop him like a stone.

Insty and others, however, bring up two phenomena in mass psychology known as “preference falsification” and “preference cascades”. These terms were popularized by Turkish-born economist Timur Kuran in his book “Private truths, public lies“.

Basically , preference falsification occurs as follows (quoting from Wikipedia): “in articulating preferences, individuals frequently tailor their choices to what appears socially acceptable. In other words, they convey preferences that differ from what they genuinely want.” This is a very strong mechanism for ‘keeping people in line’ with an outright dictatorship or for creating an artificial consensus about an issue. For example, after the Vietnam war, people in certain neighborhoods of a liberal bent might still wish to display American flags, but would refrain from doing so (or hang out the death rune that somehow became a ‘peace’ symbol) since ‘everybody thinks the US flag now stands for patriotism or militarism or for support of  the Vietnam war’. Once such a choice has been made, people start trying to rationalize it by selective facts, half-truth, and believing convenient propaganda lies. In truth, only a small minority of very loudmouthed people may genuinely consider a flag display offensive, but they manage to, essentially, emotionally bully the whole community into going along with them.

The way many dictatorships and autocracies stay in power is precisely this: creating an illusion that ‘everybody is with the program [except, of course, for a few despicable Goldsteins/poltroons of capitalism/Volksfeinde/…]’. Media censorship (or coerced self-censorship), flooding the media landscape with pro-regime propaganda [perhaps with a few cartoonishly lunatic strawman opponents to create an illusion of freedom of expression], and brutal repression of any genuine opposition groups are essential to this tactic. A softer version of the same tactic is the demonization of any fundamental deviation from the liberal-left (manufactured) consensus as ‘racist’, ‘sexist’, ‘homophobic’, either by wild extrapolation, through guilt by association, or bare assertion.

Now what happens if Joe Q. Public goes along with the program ‘because everybody else does except for a couple of nutcases’ — and then discovers that people in his own circle have the guts to speak up against it? If Joe is one of the small minority of ‘true believers’, then nothing much (if anything, he may harden); otherwise, he may feel heartened to speak up too. And other people who know Joe suddenly realize ‘hey, it’s OK to have a different opinion’, who in turn,… and voila, you have a ‘preference cascade‘ . The fable of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes‘ essentially describes a ‘preference cascade’ started by one boy who, defying social convention, dared say that the emperor was buck-naked.

‘Preference cascades’ explain, for example, why seemingly stable dictatorial regimes may collapse very suddenly, taking even seasoned observers by surprise. And often such cascades are started over what, compared to the other flaws of the regime, are comparatively trivial issues — but that, for whatever reason, get enough people to speak out that they start a firestorm of criticism.

A more mundane example of preference cascades may be the sudden decline of certain popular fads.

Now coming back to the 2012 election: In this case, there is no preference cascade among small-government conservatives, national security hawks, and the like, because they were never on board to begin with. (The few who voted 0bama more out of disgust with McCain’s candidacy than anything else, quickly developed buyer’s remorse.) Likewise, the True Believers are not going to be swayed. But many liberals or centrists must have seen that, well, their messiah figure just didn’t deliver — but were afraid to express such criticism for fear of being called ‘racists’ (specious accusations of which are the last refuge of the intellectually and morally bankrupt), for being accused of giving aid and comfort to the ‘enemy’ (defined in a partisan sense), or simply for failing to live up to what the media incessantly tell you ‘the smart people’ believe. 0bama’s critics from the LEFT, on the other hand, felt freer to lambast him for not closing Club Gitmo, for continuing and in fact stepping up the drone strikes program, etc. — and in the process acted as ‘beards’ for 0bama when the latter found himself accused of radicalism.

Now, it appears, for a fairly trivial reason — a shabby debate performance — the house of cards is finally buckling. (The fact that so much of the 0bama media myth rests on his supposed oratorical qualities of course doesn’t help him.) To me — compared to the fiscal black hole, the collapse of foreign policy, the Chicago-style crony-gangster government, the abuse of executive power by Holder, Sibelius, and 0bama himself, an economy that seems headed for Euro-style long-term recession, and the creeping encroachment on our lives by unelected healthcare and ‘environmental’ bureaucrats — 0bama’s dismal performance in one debate is a trivial event. But. perhaps, it is one that is finally  causing longtime stalwart defenders of an indefensible president to ask difficult questions — and in the process making it clear that people who have misgivings are not alone.