Cities and Legitimacy

Why don’t citizens revolt against governments that fail them and lose their legitimacy? Governments care about their popular support, even in nondemocracies (Geddes & Zaller 1989). Jay Ulfelder, of the Dart Throwing Chimp empire, takes a skeptical view of legitimacy as used in political science in general. He includes a nice paragraph from Peter Hessler’s ruminations on Egypt and China:

For the past two years, many Cairenes had done their best to ignore the effects of the revolution. Otherwise, life could be exhausting in the capital, where time had a way of lurching from crisis to crisis, Friday to Friday. Every couple of months, an incident would flare up, and protests went on for weeks, with violence spiking on the first day of each weekend. Any significant crisis was bound to include a Day of Rage; there had been so many that organizers searched for new ways to brand a Friday. But, even on the worst days, the unrest tended to be localized, and life went on as usual in most parts of the capital. That was one lesson of the revolution: it could almost always be ignored.

Ulfelder sees this as evidence of general indifference to politics and the legitimacy of a regime, which it surely is. But given that this turbulence decimated political coalitions and ousted leaders as it had two years before, it is also evidence that small subsets of the population that can mobilize can affect change. I point this out because cities, being huge congregations of individuals, contain multitudes–people of different attitudes, opinions, lifestyles, beliefs, and willingness to revolt. In a huge city like Cairo, having “enough” people to go out on the streets and demand change effectively can mean having less than 1% of the people in the city protesting. Observers domestic and foreign view protests by their size, not by their share of the population. Cities also are illegible for regimes. The far off periphery might be illegible too, but cities have the advantage of being at the center of the economic and political core of regimes. The state not seeing (a la Scott) threats that are real and proximate can lead regimes to fall. Cities and protests oust authoritarian regimes as my recent paper in the Journal of Politics showed and my forthcoming book, Cities and Stability: Urbanization, Redistribution, and Regime Survival in China, expands on substantially. Broad support and legitimacy is certainly better than the opposite for a dictator, but it isn’t always enough.


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