The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.

Learning from Turkey?


Robert Wright beat me a point I’ve been meaning to make for some time: Turkey’s AK Party parallels the U.S. GOP in a number of interesting ways:

My friend is no cheerleader for AKP, and he has his complaints, but while listening to his surprising tolerant view of Erdogan it hit me: Turkey’s current government, like the Republican party, rests on two seemingly paradoxical pillars: the affluent commercial class and lower-income, religiously conservative voters.

There are even parallels between the specific social issues that AKP champions and the issues Republicans champion. Erdogan wants to ban abortion, and he thinks the educational system should be more amenable to expressions of religiosity in the classroom. In his case, the big issue is head scarves, which had long been banned in Turkish universities but in the AKP years have started showing up there.

Many of Wright’s other observations in the post are off-base, e.g.:

There are differences, to be sure, between AKP and the Republicans. Republicans align with many lower income religious voters on social issues, but they haven’t delivered much in the way of economic goods to that part of their base. (Hence the famous question, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”) The AKP, in contrast, has brought material benefits to lower income voters, including energy subsidies and, as a local lawyer explained to me over lunch on Thursday, improved access to health care.

As Larry Bartels has patiently explained, the GOP is not in fact the party of lower income religious voters, a group that consists of many people who are marginally attached to the labor force.

In an earlier version of this review I interpreted those passages as suggesting that the people Frank had in mind were people with low incomes. Thus, I proposed to “follow Frank’s lead” (and the earlier statistical work of Stonecash 2000) by categorizing voters on the basis of economic status, using the terms “low-income” and “working-class” interchangeably to refer to people with incomes in the bottom third of the income distribution in each election year. (In 2004, those were people with family incomes below $35,000.) I showed that, contrary to Frank’s assertions, white voters in this group had not become less Democratic in their voting behavior or less conservative in their views about economic or social issues. Nor could I find any evidence that they cared more about social and cultural issues than about bread-and-butter economic issues.

Rather, the GOP represents large numbers of working class white voters, a group that is increasingly defined by educational attainment. 

The AKP has indeed brought extraordinary material benefits to its voters, and indeed to Turkey more broadly. Yet this partly reflects the dismal state of the Turkish economy before the AKP came to power. Turkey is, as Wright understands, a very poor country relative to the U.S. (it is the poorest country in the OECD), and the opening of the Turkish economy has enabled “conditional convergence.” It is, as a general rule, easier for less-advanced economies to grow faster than the most advanced economies for the simple reason that productivity gains in the most advanced countries derive from a trial-and-error process while less-advanced economies can, to oversimplify, rely on embracing managerial practices that have proven their worth in the most advanced countries. It is hard to imagine that any political party in any of the world’s most advanced economies could mimic the performance of Turkey under Erdogan.

To Wright’s credit, he acknowledges the limitations of his analysis:

The above sketch may oversimplify things. For example, I’m using “lower income” in a relative sense; many of the AKP’s devoutly religious supporters are viewed here as part of Turkey’s growing middle class, and some are extremely affluent. That’s a very important fact that I will expand on later this week.

The funny thing about this passage is that, per Bartels, much the same could be said of the GOP’s religious supporters. 

Ruchir Sharma’s Breakout Nations offers an intelligent, rich examination of the AKP’s role in fostering economic development and in facilitating a cultural transition in which the country’s religious Anatolian majority has taken on a more prominent role in Turkey’s leading institutions. Indeed, he makes a comparison similar to Wright’s:

Observers in the West often wonder whether this new Anatolian political and business elite represents the kind of fundamentalist threat that has emerged in recent years from many Middle Eastern countries. That threat arises when powerful forces believe that Islamic law is universal law, governing all facets of life from private choices to politics. There is almost no support for this worldview in Turkey where—even under the AKP—the state enforces a single, moderate interpretation of Islam in schools and through the Religious Affairs Directorate. The vast majority of Turks, some 60 percent, see religion as a strictly personal matter, and another 30 percent think religion should have a moral influence on politics, but in a way that is compatible with modern democracy and economic development. This group has been compared to mainstream political Christianity in the United States, which also doesn’t try to impose biblical law on society. Today 90 percent of Turks would fall in the mainstream in the United States in terms of how they view the role of religion in politics. Only 10 percent would feel comfortable in Iran or Saudi Arabia, where religious police enforce public morality and Sharia law is the order of the day. There is certainly no talk of imposing Sharia law in Turkey.

There are many other fascinating aspects of Sharma’s analysis, which I enthusiastically recommend. His take on Turkey’s unusual, dysfunctional tax system is quite interesting, as well as his implicit take on the ironies of Turkey’s left-right divide. The country’s secular elite is, for example, fiercely opposed to tax reform designed to reduce reliance on regressive and inefficient “sin taxes.”

Sharma’s book led me to think that the U.S. center-right could learn a great deal from pro-market populist movements in the emerging economies. His suggestion that Thailand learn from the Turkish experience distilled some of the potential lessons: 

What Thailand needs is a transformation similar to the one that has unfolded in Turkey under the AK Party. Founded a decade ago, the AK Party led its own red shirt–style movement of relatively low-income and rural voters to election victories over an entrenched elite, but with one big difference: while Thaksin alienated the urban elite with heavy-handed policies, the AK Party avoided a confrontation. It began by providing the macroeconomic stability needed to help revive investment. As the economy picked up speed, the AK Party was able to satisfy its rural base by steering some of the new investment to previously neglected provinces, thereby rebalancing an economy once dominated by Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir. And it was able to start winning over some of the urban elite as well. 

This is one reason I considered the conservative turn against SOPA a potentially transformative moment. Though the conventional wisdom is that America’s hegemonic power is in decline, I’m more persuaded by Michael Beckley’s take: in international trade negotiations, and in many other domains, the U.S. has proved both capable and coercive — arguably more so than in the Cold War era. Yet we are using coercion to, for example, secure benefits for the entertainment industry and firms that rely heavily on software patents. The interests of these industries aren’t necessarily well aligned with the interests of American consumers. But these industries have proven extremely effective at making their voices heard in the corridors of power.

The AK offers one way of articulating the alternative: let’s cultivate rising sectors and not declining sectors. It doesn’t follow that the U.S. center-right should mimic AKP in all respects. If anything, the GOP’s unwillingness to reduce defense expenditures and its traditional reluctance, which seems to be waning, to reform entitlements that might prove painful for legacy medical providers in rural areas suggests that the party has been too wedded to satisfying its rural base and using defense industrial policy and tax expenditures to steer investment to the Sunbelt. It is perfectly natural for a political party — which is, after all, a conspiracy to control the levers of power — to steer investment towards its constituents. But there are more and less constructive ways of doing this, and there is a decent case that Republicans, like Democrats, haven’t always been particularly far-sighted about how to go about this process. I tend to think that the best approach is to work towards a broader shift from what Michael Greve calls “cartel federalism” to “competitive federalism,” which would tend to benefit states in which incumbent providers of public services aren’t so powerful as to be able to stymie efficiency-enhancing innovation.  

I should note that there are many people who take a far less benign view of the AK Party, including the prominent social democratic economist Dani Rodrik. Rodrik, perhaps best known as a champion of industrial policy and a critic of the Washington Consensus, is one of the most prominent proponents of the Erdogan-as-Putin critique, in part due to his family’s own experiences. Sharma is critical of this view, but you’ll have to decide for yourself as to whether embrace his analysis or Rodrik’s.


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