How Tyrannies Implode
This week marks the 30th anniversary of People's Power Revolution in the Philippines that historians now regard as marking the start of the Color Revolutions that cumulatively crumbled the Soviet Union. The most astonishing aspect of the entire Color Revolution cycle was that it came largely as a surprise to pundits. As Leon Aron wrote in Foreign Policy, how and why they happened remains an enduring historical mystery. "In the years leading up to 1991, virtually no Western expert, scholar, official, or politician foresaw the impending collapse of the Soviet Union, and with it one-party dictatorship, the state-owned economy, and the Kremlin’s control over its domestic and Eastern European empires."
Consider: the USSR's vital signs gave no warning of failure. The Soviet Union in 1986 was as as big and populous as it had ever been. It had thousands of nuclear warheads. Its economy was bad it's true but no worse than at many points in its past. There was no significant opposition to the Politburo. "After 20 years of relentless suppression of political opposition, virtually all the prominent dissidents had been imprisoned, exiled ... forced to emigrate, or had died in camps and jails. There did not seem to be any other signs of a pre-revolutionary crisis."
How could such a giant system, which withstood the onslaught of Nazi Germany itself, fail?
Flash back to 1986 before we knew what was then the future. The same things might have been said of Ferdinand Marcos and Nikolae Ceaușescu (about more later) in 1989. They were outwardly strong yet both were doomed. Their regimes would collapse like a house of cards in ways we are still struggling to understand. One of the theories (hat tip commenter Edie_VA) put forward to explain the implosions was preference falsification.
In his book Private Truth, Public Lies, social scientist Timur Kuran argued that people, under pressure to conform by culture leaders, often told public lies to get the pollsters and thought police off their backs, even as they nurtured largely undetected private resentments inside them. Over time, two divergent perceptions would emerge: the public lie would determine how the regime thought about itself while the private truth contained the real, but hidden data.