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Life after Co-optation
Book manuscript in progress

Co-optation is a process we think we already understand. The conventional story is straightforward: regimes offer benefits to lure opposition parties into the system, and opposition parties “sell out,” setting aside their anti-system goals to cooperate with their new benefactors. The empirical record, however, tells a different tale. Not all co-opted opposition becomes quiescent, and even seemingly domesticated opponents can turn on their co-optors. Co-optation does weaken opposition, but it is not so simple, reliable, or transactional as dominant theories claim. 

Life after Co-optation offers an alternative framework to explain how co-optation changes opposition groups. Through a historical and interpretive analysis of two co-opted parties in North Africa (the Wafd in Egypt and the Istiqlal in Morocco), I argue that co-optation is less a transactional exchange than a discursive contest. Party members, regime officials, pundits, and ordinary citizens struggle to make sense of what seems like a contradiction: why would parties that claim to reject authoritarianism participate in an authoritarian system? It is among the competing answers to this question that the politics of co-optation truly lie. 

Co-opted parties tend to evaluate their co-optation from the standpoint of an imagined future in which their democratic goals will have been realized. This perspective erases any contradiction: when democracy finally comes, the choice to incorporate will be recognized as having been necessary to the desired outcome. What I call parties’ Romances of incorporation, however, must compete with other, more presentist interpretations – including the transactional narrative so often presented as social scientific fact – and, for systematic reasons, the Romances usually lose. Co-opted parties come to look like hypocrites because they refuse to admit that what looks like a contradiction is, in fact, a contradiction. Their credibility sapped, they become unappealing allies and, eventually, political afterthoughts. 

Though co-opted parties do decline, they do not necessarily disappear. Both the Wafd and the Istiqlal have survived decades of incorporation. While they are much the worse for wear, they still periodically reassert their relevance, inserting themselves into national politics in consequential ways. I trace these parties’ survival and their latent oppositionality back to an unexpected source: the dense networks of family ties and norms that suffuse both organizations. Though such structures are often criticized as dysfunctional and undemocratic, I find that embedding party structures in familial ones can protect co-opted parties and open up new space for pluralism and contestation.