From Institutional Tipping Points to Affective and Direct Tips: Nonlinear Political Dynamics in East Germany, 1989–1990
31 Pages Posted: 16 Sep 2021
Date Written: June 13, 2021
Studies concerning nonlinear political dynamics, such as regime change, focus on macro-level structural factors and political agency. Tipping points are pitched mainly at these levels, and scholars therefore devote less attention to meso-level factors. To bridge this gap, the current paper develops a verbal model that focuses on the collapse of mechanisms sustaining mythical institutions as drivers of such dynamics. A mythical institution enjoys a reputation for power and influence among the public based on widespread and persistent stereotypical beliefs that embody a collectivity’s sense of origin and tradition, high performance and stability, and/or vision and mission. The argument advanced here is that nonlinear political dynamics may occur when the collapse of such mechanisms reflects on the unquestioned legitimacy that the mythical institution enjoys, creating massive embarrassment for the regime that its mythical status needs tight restrictions to prevent believers from “fleeing.” This, in turn, undermines or debunks these institutions’ myths, thereby generating high levels of anxiety, fear, anger, or other (mixes of) emotions. Which emotional process dominates depends on which reaction is stronger at the moment in question. When the level reaches an affective tipping point, citizens begin to update their evaluations and consider new information. This leads to behavioral convergence (e.g, mass emigration, mass violence), which is in turn accelerated by public perceptions concerning the lack of an adequate response by the relevant mythical institutions, thus highlighting the irreversibility of this process. This argument is illustrated herein by examining the 1989 collapse of East Germany’s emigration restrictions system.
Keywords: Affective tipping points, mythical institutions, cascades, nonlinear political dynamics
JEL Classification: P3, N44
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation