Political settlements: An American polisci perspective

What is a “political settlement”? Or rather: what is political settlements “thinking”? And is there such a thing as political settlements “hypothesis”? After many private conversations on this question, I have decided to take the central term of much of the politics of development in the DFID ecosystem (including ESID) and I try to match it against the fundamental building blocks of political science as I learned it in a mainstream American polisci department. In turn, I examine political settlements as variable, hypothesis, mechanism, or paradigm.

Variable: Independent (A) or Dependent (B)

First, “political settlement” could be understood as a variable, an observable thing which we are either trying to explain or using to explain some other things. In comparative politics, we would find the rule of law or levels of corruption; in international relations, we could find state power or an international norm; in the political economy of development, we would find natural resource endowment or industrial policy.

A political settlement variable could be independent (cause) or dependent (outcome): the distribution of power among competing groups could be used to explain another factor (e.g. those above – rule of law, corruption, norms, industrial policy…), or it could be the object of explanation for a host of competing factors (e.g. the result of resource endowment, dominant norms, mobilization strategies, institutional path dependence…). Even if we think that the political settlement could be both cause and outcome given the circumstances, a research design should focus in one or the other, not both at the same time.

Hypothesis: If A then B

Second, “political settlements theory” could be a hypothesis or set of hypotheses about causal relations between observable things. In comparative politics, we would find Duverger’s law (first-past-the-post electoral rules lead to two-party systems); in internationals security, we would have democratic peace theory (democracies do not go to war with each other); in international political economy, we would have the relationship between types of capital and exchange rate policy (mobile assets tends to favor liberalization, sunk or static assets tends to favor fixed rates).

A political settlements hypothesis could be as follows: institutions result from the preferences of power groups. The point of political settlements would then be to test this hypothesis against competing ones: institutions result from path dependence; institutions result from dominant ideas during critical junctures; institutions result from norms about what’s fair or just; institutions result from competing social mobilization attempts… As a hypothesis, political settlements thinking would be a statement about probabilistic/deterministic causal relations, without constituting either a cause or an outcome.

Mechanism: How to get from A to B

Third, “political settlements” could be a model for determining how and why a causal relationship functions. This is a bit more abstract, as mechanisms are often shared across sub-disciplines. For instance, we have collective action mechanisms, which can be applied to international relations (e.g. treaty enforcement) or comparative politics (e.g. union strength); we also have cascading mechanisms, which again can be applied to democratization (CP) as much as international law diffusion (IR).

“Political settlements” may be too broad an empirical idea to constitute a single mechanism, in the sense that it could be expressed through more basic causal models like bargaining, principal-agent, framing or collective action. If it is indeed its own mechanism, it needs to be constrained and explicit enough in order to distinguish it – and allow us to evaluate it – with regards to other common social science mechanisms. Moreover, if it is a mechanism then the political settlement can never actually be cause or outcome: it is an unobservable process whereby the two are linked, and it would have to be tied to the study of specific hypotheses.

Paradigm: What’s most important about A and B

Fourth, “political settlements” could be a generalized approach to what factors are most relevant in political research. In comparative politics there are three conventional paradigms, all based on institutions: rational institutionalism (actors’ strategic interactions are the issue), historical institutionalism (path dependence and critical junctures are the issue), and cultural/sociological institutionalism (actors’ ideas and beliefs are the issue). In international relations the three dominant paradigms seem to be rationalism (both neoliberal and neorealist), liberalism (aggregation of social preferences), and constructivism (also called originally sociological institutionalism).

In this case, “political settlements” may be too specific to constitute a broad paradigm, in the sense that it can be contained within existing ones: for instance, Khan-style political settlements theory probably belongs within rational institutionalism. It could in principle be understood as an attempt to reconcile different paradigms (e.g. rational and cultural, as in ESID’s PS+): in that case the language of “political settlements” should be used to encompass a range of specified variables, hypotheses and mechanisms, and could not be used by itself to designate or make claims about any one of those lower-level elements.

Choosing a side

The term “political settlement” can be used to designate a variable, a hypothesis, a mechanism, or a paradigm, but not more than one of those at the same time! Lack of clarity in this regard leads to confusion in applicability and testing, with some studies using it as an independent variable and others as a mechanism. It also leads to confounding engagements with the literature, picking the wrong fights and generating an undue sense of novelty.

American political science is highly disciplinary (and punishing!) and has little interest in policy or – for the most part – normative implications. But its standards of conceptual, analytical and methodological rigor can serve as an interesting and demanding foil for new – and seemingly innovative – approaches to understanding the politics of development, as political settlements aspires to be.

The question is not if political settlements should engage American political science: the question is what will happen when it eventually does. And when it does, we’d better have a plan!