Symbolic Politics or Rational Choice? Testing Theories of Extreme Ethnic Violence

Rational choice theories claim that extreme ethnic violence (war and genocide) can be explained either as the result of information failures and commitment problems or as the utility-maximizing strategy of predatory elites. Symbolic politics theory asserts that such violence is driven by hostile ethnic myths and an emotionally driven symbolic politics based on those myths that popularizes predatory policies. Tests of these models in the cases of Sudan's civil war and Rwanda's genocide show that the rationalist models are incorrect: neither case can be understood as resulting from information failures, commitment problems, or rational power-conserving elite strategies. Rather, in both cases ethnic mythologies and fears made predatory policies so popular that leaders had little choice but to embrace them by playing up associated ethnic symbols, even though these policies led to the leaders' downfalls. Ethnic security dilemmas in such cases are driven not by uncertainty but by predatory leaders engaged in symbolic politics.