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Special Section: Politics, Collective Uncertainty, and the Renunciation of Power Howard Kimeldorf Social Science as If History Mattered Reflections on Ruling Oneself Out Ruling Oneself Out is an extremely impressive scholarly achievement at multiple levels. It offers a model of how to identify and pose an important research question; that is, a question worth asking and answering not only because it is intrinsically interesting but also because it is theoretically puz‑ zling and at the same time of great practical significance. Ruling Oneself Out is all this and more. Ivan Ermakoff (2008) begins by asking about the conditions that lead dominant actors to surrender their power in ways that are likely to under‑ mine their own interests. It is an intriguing question and all the more puz‑ zling because he examines this process in the context of two cases in which the decision to surrender power was reached after a long and public process of deliberation and discussion. Moreover, both cases—the German Reich‑ stag’s passage of the enabling act in March 1933 that gave Adolf Hitler the authority to circumvent the constitution and the transfer of state power to the proponents of an authoritarian and reactionary Vichy regime in the sum‑ Social Science History 34:1 (Spring 2010) DOI 10.1215/01455532-2009-017© 2010 by Social Science History Association 76 Social Science History mer of 1940—followed open and democratic decision-making procedures to realize an outcome that would ultimately undermine the commitment to democracy that made those outcomes possible.Why would an overwhelming majority of elected public officials in both cases vote against their own deeply held democratic commitments and against their own political interests and convictions so as to usher in nothing less than a revolutionary transformation of the state by legal means? Why indeed? Before offering his own answer, Ermakoff carefully and judiciously reviews the three standard explanations for political surrender or abdica‑ tion. His presentation and critique of each explanation is guided by gametheoretical reasoning in which challengers confront a target group of actors who have a clear interest in rejecting the challengers’ bid for power. What makes each of these explanations so compelling, at first blush, is that they resonate so clearly with our commonsense understandings of politics and decision making. The first explanation that Ermakoff critiques boils down to the propo‑ sition that target actors are at some level coerced into abdicating. There is certainly some truth to this in both cases. In Germany, Hitler’s electoral suc‑ cess in 1932, when the National Socialists captured a plurality of the popular vote, was set against a backdrop of rising political violence directed against anyone who opposed the Nazis. The following winter, with the burning of the Reichstag building, which Nazi leaders falsely blamed on the Communist Party, civil rights were curtailed, and thousands of leftists, along with more centrist democratic activists, were arrested, imprisoned, and persecuted. Many were forced to flee. Likewise, in France the surrender of democratic forces occurred in the context of a stunning military defeat that culminated with the German army marching on Paris. The threat of physical harm, even death, was real for those who stood in the path of the advancing Nazi military machine. Resisting politically involved considerable risk. Yet some did resist. In Germany the Social Democratic Party cast all of its 94 votes against the enabling act that empowered Hitler, while in France a minority of social‑ ist leaders and their allies voted against ceding power to Marshal Philippe Pétain, who promptly abolished the legislative power of Parliament, disem‑ powered and adjourned the national assembly, and declared himself head of state. The problem with a coercion-based explanation, as Ermakoff argues, is that it is asked to do too much, for if coercion can lead to abdication in some cases, it sparks resistance in others. In short, coercion fails not only to As If History Mattered 77 explain the sources of resistance to challengers but also to identify the condi‑ tions under which coercion produces in target actors not just fear but, more important, their capitulation. Ermakoff next critiques a second commonsense explanation for abdica‑ tion, the possibility of miscalculation. Here the argument...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-8034
Print ISSN
0145-5532
Pages
pp. 75-81
Launched on MUSE
2010-02-17
Open Access
No
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