The central substantive contribution of this volume is its demonstration that intense political polarization, capable of precipitating military coups, can develop in the absence of irreconcilable, deep-seated, and mutually exclusive interests or imperatives. Youssef Cohen shows that at the beginning of both Salvador Allende’s presidency in Chile and João Goulart’s in Brazil, little ideological distance separated the largest political blocs, moderate leftists and moderate rightists; and that structural conditions did not preclude cooperation between these blocs to achieve a set of moderate reforms. The intense and chaotic polarization that led to political catastrophe in both countries was caused not by the ineluctable forces of capitalism in late-developing, dependent countries, but by the strategic choices of politicians who thought they were driving bumper cars in the normal game of democratic politics, only to realize, too late, that the cars were real and were speeding toward a fatal collision.
Cohen is not the first to note the role of what hindsight can identify as foolish political decisions in bringing about military interventions. The novelty of his approach lies in using game theory to bare the logical bones of the situation that leads politicians to make these disastrous decisions. He thus suggests a more systematic explanation for how politicians interested in remaining in office nevertheless make choices that bring about their long-term unemployment. According to Cohen, moderate leftists and moderate rightists are caught in a game of prisoners dilemma, in which both would be better off if they could agree on a set of moderate reforms. Having no way to make binding commitments, however, they opt for confrontation instead, and confrontation leads step by step to radicalization and democratic breakdown.
This argument is quite persuasive regarding the important role it attributes to political moderates and its careful discussion of their motives and interests. Equally persuasive is the evidence of grounds for and serious efforts at compromise. Least so is the interpretation of the situation as a prisoners dilemma game. A prisoners dilemma requires that the payoff for noncooperation, military rule, be preferred to the “sucker’s” payoff, the triumph of policies preferred by extremists on the other side. Such preferences are implausible for moderates, especially those on the left. One can object that the actors failed to foresee the consequences of confrontation, and this may be true; but as long as they did not, many of the actors seem to have expected confrontation to serve their immediate medium-term interests better than compromise. In other words, the game they played was not prisoners dilemma but deadlock. The pareto optimal equilibrium of deadlock is noncooperation, and that is the strategy that moderates in Chile and Brazil chose. In the last few months before military intervention, the game changed from deadlock to chicken, but an insufficient number of players understood the change quickly enough to avert disaster.
In either this or the prisoner’s dilemma interpretation, game theory usefully clears away irrelevant detail and focuses attention on the logic of the situation, but it does not “explain” the outcome, because the outcome depends on misperception, which is outside the model.
Succinct and highly readable, this book offers both a primer on different approaches to theorizing and a new interpretation of the breakdown of democracy in Latin America. It could usefully be assigned in graduate classes comparing analytical approaches and methodologies, as well as classes on Latin American politics. The author’s outspoken defense of his own perspective should stir up lively discussions.