It looks as if the Tunisian revolution might be spreading. Which raises the question: what are the micro foundations of such a domino effect?
That there are such effects is clear. They explain why the English ruling class was terrified by the French revolution; why the US was so desperate to resist Vietnamese communism; and why Georgia’s rose revolution inspired uprisings in the Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. But what exactly is the mechanism here?
This paper (pdf) sheds some light. Consider someone pondering whether to protest. The gain from doing so is the probability of achieving your objective. The cost is the risk of being arrested or beaten up. How you weigh up these costs and benefits depends upon your belief about the strength of the government. If you think it’s strong enough to resist the protests, you might not bother. But if you think it’s weak enough to either give in or not punish protestors, you will protest.
And here’s the thing. The reaction of neighbouring governments to similar protests affects your judgment of your own government’s strength or weakness. If it is weak, you figure: “Maybe protests will work here as well.” At the margin, this gets more people onto the streets. One government’s reaction to protests has “reputation externalities” for other governments.
As it stands, there are a couple of holes here. One is the problem of collective action. To the individual, the potential costs of protesting are high - possibly death - whilst the benefits are spread over millions. So why doesn’t he just free-ride on others’ protests? If everyone does this, there’ll be no protests.
The very fact that there are protests shows that there’s something wrong with this. The answer, I suspect, is that some people - “extremists”! - gain symbolic utility from protesting. If they are not beaten up and arrested, other, less fanatical, people join them. This is why the size of protests sometimes snowballs. (A further mechanism here is Timur Kuran's theory of availability cascades: seeing others protest makes us think that protesting is a reasonable thing to do).
The second hole is: what exactly is going on the mind of the marginal protestor who sees a successful revolution in a neighbouring country? The paper seems to suggest that he has been always conducting a rational cost-benefit analysis of whether to protest or not. But I suspect what might instead be happening is a form of attention effect. The thought of protesting simply doesn’t occur to him, until he sees others - people like him doing so. And when he sees this, he figures: “I can do that.”
I draw two conclusions here.
First, domino theory is very similar to peer effect and role model theories. Similar mechanisms are at work.
Secondly, state power operates in two different ways. On the one hand, its use or threat of force (or not) affects people’s incentives to protest. But on the other hand, power operates by keeping some thoughts out of people’s heads; one reason why folk don’t protest more is that the idea of doing so doesn’t occur to them. And this raises the question: what other thoughts that might threaten those in power never occur to us?