Topic 4: Democracy and Dictatorship

Topic 4: Democracy and Dictatorship


Coram (D’Amore)


You will have noticed in our consideration of types of regimes that there was a particular concern with democracy and its antithesis.  One explanation is that research designs seek to maximize the differences between categories in order to seek causal explanations. Why is this be good practice?

We might also ascribe the concern with authoritarianism to the experiences of researchers of the twentieth century.  Born in war and depression in the first half of the century, and at university in the Cold War, many of those writing in Britain, America, and the West from the 1950s to the end of the century saw an existential struggle between freedom and its antithesis.  Between 1950 and 1984, 97 countries joined the United Nations General Assembly, most as a result of decolonization.  In the atmosphere of tension between East and West, each new state was a potential new team member on one side or the other, and both Washington and Moscow made extravagant claims about the benefits of their system and the failings of the opposition. In the same period, the global economy was changing. The Bretton Woods institutions which maintained currency stability and open trading arrangements in the Western World since the Second World War began to unravel in 1971 when Richard Nixon took the US off the gold standard. Decolonization and the development problems of new states tempted many to adopt state-driven development, and the Third World emerged as an area of political and economic competition between the capitalist First World and the communist Second World.

The question of how states become stable democracies has been addressed as a problem of time-series historical comparative politics, looking back into the formative stages of both democratic and non-democratic states to see how their institutions have evolved.  In this introduction, I’ll present three such studies, focusing on social, military, and economic factors in the emergence of democratic regimes over time.

Barrington Moore (1966) wrote the classic study of he social origins of dictatorship and democracy. He argues that the experience of violent revolution leads to evolutionary democratic mechanisms as an antidote.  Part one of his book considers the revolutionary origins of capitalist democracy in three cases: England’s violence contributed to gradualism; and France’s revolution contributed to evolutionary mechanisms; then the American civil war was the last capitalist revolution. Moore then goes on to consider various routes to modernity in Asia: the decay of imperial china and its rebirth in communism of a peculiar Chinese variant; revolution from above (the Meiji restoration) and the consequent rise of Japanese fascism; and the Indian model of peaceful change and relative economic torpor as the price (he was writing in the 1960s). Moore concludes that there are three patterns of social development evident:  bourgeois revolution under conditions of rivalry for power, which forces elites to make concessions and develop power-sharing, hence resulting in democracy;  revolution from above (the advantage of backwardness) in which elites drive modernization without significant concessions to masses; and  peasant revolution, in which revolutionary cadres use masses to overthrow elites, and then become a new elite themselves.  India’s peaceful change is ascribed to a combination of rural dispersion and Anglo-Indian institutions.

Brian Downing (1993) describes the military origins of dictatorship and democracy.  He argues that states which do not have to spend a lot on military resources have the luxury of developing more democratic mechanisms for controlling the state. If external resources from colonies or alliances helped to pay for their security, then evolving democratic constitutionalism at home was easier.


Economists Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson find economic origins of dictatorship and democracy: states develop democracy when the costs of repression outweigh the benefits. They argue that different social groups prefer different political institutions because of the way they allocate political power and resources.  Democracy is preferred by the majority of citizens but opposed by elites.  Dictatorship, nevertheless, is not stable when citizens can threaten social disorder and revolution. In response, when the costs of repression are sufficiently high, and promises of concessions are not credible, elites may be forced to create democracy. By democratizing, elites credibly transfer political power to the citizens, ensuring social stability. Democracy consolidates when elites do not have a strong incentive to overthrow it. These processes depend on:

  1. the strength of civil society,
  2. the structure of political institutions,
  3. the nature of political and economic crises,
  4. the level of economic inequality,
  5. the structure of the economy, and
  6. the form and extent of globalization


All three of these explanations involve relatively high levels of abstraction, albeit based on quite detailed examination of the historical record of selected country cases and institutions. Consider Bunce (2000) on the distinction between big generalizations in general theories like the ones listed, and more constrained explanations of specific cases and narrower circumstances.

Having looked at the historical emergence of democracies, we now turn our attention to the scholarship on authoritarian regimes, with some examples of comparative authoritarianism.

Learning objectives

  • Understand principles of case selection to test causality
  • Understand principles for developing taxonomies and categories
  • Explain the use of historical institutional comparison to test causal explanations
  • Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of alternative political systems
  • Assess the diversity of states and systems with similar labels
  • Analyze the institutional foundations of different regime types


Bunce, V. (2000). Comparative democratization: Big and bounded generalizations. Comparative Political Studies, 33(6-7), 703-734.

Lai, B., & Slater, D. (2006). Institutions of the offensive: Domestic sources of dispute initiation in authoritarian regimes, 1950–1992. American Journal of Political Science, 50(1), 113-126.

Von Soest, C. (2015). Democracy prevention: The international collaboration of authoritarian regimes. European Journal of Political Research, 54(4), 623-638.

Activities before class

Consider the following questions

  • How do democratic and non-democratic regimes differ?
  • How do institutions define regimes? Consider roles and characteristics of executive, legislative, administrative, and judicial functions, civil society, political parties, security and intelligence forces, public space, and political infrastructure.
  • What factors have historically contributed to or prevented the evolution of democracies, and how do we think we know?
  • What explains increases and decreases in degrees of freedom and democracy within states?
  • What is constitutionalism?
  • What are the institutions that support and preserve democratic societies?
  • What are the institutions that permit the consolidation of control?
  • What internal and external shocks can cause a transition between regimes?

Activities during class

Class coordinators can focus on the questions for discussion, or conduct an alternate exercise. One form an exercise might take is a table-top simulation of offensive and defensive tactics to preserve and to undermine democratic and authoritarian regimes.

Activities after class

  • Review learning objectives.
  • Post questions and notes to Moodle.
  • Suggest exam questions
  • Complete Quiz 2 on Moodle
  • Submit draft annotated bibliography on Moodle. All bibliographies and comments will be shared with the class for teaching points. You can earn points by commenting on or making suggestions for other students.

Additional Resources

Acemoglu, Daron and James A. Robinson. 2006. The economic origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press. (Moodle)

Bunce, V. (2000). Comparative democratization: Big and bounded generalizations. Comparative Political Studies, 33(6-7), 703-734.

Downing, Brian. 1993. The Military Revolution and Political Change: Origins of Democracy and Autocracy in Early Modern Europe. Ewing, NJ: Princeton University

Bretton Woods Project,

Lai, B., & Slater, D. (2006). Institutions of the offensive: Domestic sources of dispute initiation in authoritarian regimes, 1950–1992. American Journal of Political Science, 50(1), 113-126.

Moore, Barrington, Jr. 1966. Social origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World. Boston: Beacon Press. (Moodle)

Von Soest, C. (2015). Democracy prevention: The international collaboration of authoritarian regimes. European Journal of Political Research, 54(4), 623-638.

Svolik, Milan W. 2012. The Politics of Authoritarian Rule. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press (Moodle)

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