What’s Next for the Study of Nondemocracy?

Pictured: Not actually Gehlbach, Razo, and Sonin

I’m back from a stimulating workshop on autocracy at Indiana University. Regina Smyth, Armando Razo, and Michael Alexeev have some exciting plans to institutionalize the study of nondemocracy at IU, and as part of the planning process they asked Konstantin (Kostya) Sonin and me to provide some perspective on the field. Armando joined us for a freewheeling discussion at Indiana’s famous Ostrom Workshop, where we proceeded to violate Elinor Ostrom’s one inviolable principle of seminar protocol: we went over time.

Where does the literature on nondemocracy stand? What have we learned, and what are the open questions? What’s next?1 Here’s what I said…

Much of the literature on nondemocracy falls into one of two broad categories: the analysis of formal institutions and the study of information control.2 There is some obvious overlap between the two: one purpose of autocratic institutions, for example, is to manage the flow of information among elites. But it’s nonetheless a useful distinction.

Let’s look first at the study of institutions. Here, I see a largely successful and reasonably complete research program. A short list of accomplishments would include:

  • The identification and analysis of regime types characterized by particular clusters of institutions. The term “nondemocracy”—by definition, any regime that is not a democracy—is arguably too encompassing to be useful. Recognizing this, scholars have narrowed their focus to autocratic regimes with a common set of characteristics. Levitsky and Way’s study of competitive authoritarianism is the ideal type here.
  • The elucidation of the logic of important institutions. Models of autocratic elections illustrate elections’ value to the ruler in a) signaling strength, and b) gathering information about the regime’s popularity. Similarly, models of parties and legislatures show how these institutions enable credible commitments and serve to co-opt the opposition.3
  • A frequently useful dialogue between theory and empirics. Consider, for example, the theory that autocratic legislatures serve as a mechanism to co-opt the political opposition. This argument has its roots in the empirical observation that autocracies with legislatures live longer. Theoretical work suggests that legislatures play this role by co-opting potentially dangerous social groups or elites. That work, in turn, has prompted renewed empirical inquiry, as scholars examine the behavior of authoritarian legislators to validate, support, and refine the co-optation thesis.

That is a lot of progress, but I don’t think we’re done. Existing work helps us to understand why autocracies are frequently populated by superficially democratic institutions, but it doesn’t say enough about why we observe these institutions in some autocracies and those in others. There is a story in the literature to support nearly any institutional arrangement one might observe in a dictatorship; we need a better understanding of why autocrats choose one set of formal institutions over another.

Now to the study of information control: Models of autocratic elections fit here as well, as manipulating election outcomes is one way to confuse elites and citizens about the regime’s popularity. But there is also a booming theoretical and empirical literature on media in autocracies that largely abstracts from formal institutions.

I love this work. To my mind, some of the most innovative research in political science today examines the control of media—especially but not only social media—in nondemocracies. It takes chutzpah, creativity, and skill to set up your own social network for the sake of figuring out how censorship works. And yet, much of this research feels geographically bounded. Reading these papers, I don’t always have a good sense of where in the parameter space we are. Why state media here and co-opted private media there? Why Russian bots but a Great Firewall of China? Kostya and I took a crack at this with our model of government control of the media—the size of the advertising market and the “mobilizing character” of the government do the work in our theory—but we did not offer a full theory of the role of information control in autocratic survival.

One paper that ties this all together is Guriev and Treisman’s “How Modern Dictators Survive.” The basic idea is that “informational autocracies” survive by manipulating citizens’ beliefs about the competence of the ruler. In one equilibrium, the autocrat manipulates beliefs by investing in state media; in another, he censors private media. (Think of this as Maoist broadsheets vs. the Great Firewall of China.) Repression is off the equilibrium path—citizens believe the ruler to be competent, so they do not rebel.

This is a promising theoretical approach, with some complementary empirical work on the horizon. I suspect we’ll see more of the same as a second generation of research on information control attempts to integrate what we’ve learned from rich country studies (not a pejorative) in recent years.

Where else can the field go from here? I see at least three possible directions:

  • Informal institutions and norms of autocratic rule. My sense is that Putin was able to consolidate control so quickly, and so completely, because he triggered protective responses learned during decades of Soviet rule. Work in this area would help not only to understand the mechanisms of autocratic rule, but also to illuminate threats to democratic survival—a focus of John Carey, Gretchen Helmke, Brendan Nyhan, and Sue Stokes’ Bright Line Watch initiative.
  • The relationship between the polity and the economy. It’s not that this has gotten no attention—think of what we know about economic growth in Mexico, not to mention the numerous papers and books on the Chinese growth miracle—but theoretical models of autocracy too often ignore the economy entirely or consider only economy (polity) ==> polity (economy). We need general-equilibrium theories. Janos Kornai’s The Socialist System is the model here.
  • The experience of non-contemporary autocracies. I have in mind especially pre-WWII cases, which have received comparatively less attention in the literature. I can say from personal experience that working on history is fun. But the real reason to study earlier autocracies is because the range of empirical phenomena is so much greater. This creates opportunities to test key theoretical propositions, and it gives us a sense of the choices that contemporary autocrats could have made, but for various reasons have not. Kudos to those who have already taken the historical turn: you’ve been an inspiration to me. I hope we’ll see more.

There is a lot to do!


  1. Thanks to the many friends who joined a Facebook discussion of these questions earlier this week.
  2. Kostya’s interesting work with Daron Acemoglu and Georgy Egorov is situated in an essentially institution-free environment—an important benchmark. The large literatures on protest and regime change sit just adjacent.
  3. There isn’t room in a blog post to give proper credit to the vast literature discussed here. For a recent (and already slightly dated) review of formal models of nondemocratic politics, see my ARPS piece with Sonin and Svolik.

Is the Trump Presidency at a Tipping Point?

A friend posts the following observation on Facebook: With multiple stories breaking about Trump-Russia, we may have hit a tipping point, from which the meltdown of the 45th presidency accelerates.

Part of me wants to think it’s true—the sooner the presidency is transferred to competent hands, the better—and part of me is worried about the meltdown. But let’s step back for a second and ask a basic question: What is the game being played, and why might this game feature a tipping point?

From a game-theoretic perspective, a game with a tipping point has the feature that players are more likely to take one action over another, the more that other players do the same. This herd tendency might arise from safety in numbers (protesting a repressive regime is safer in a crowd) or the belief that others have information about the “right” course of action. A tipping point occurs when enough players take some action (e.g., because they have outlier preferences or information) that this behavior becomes mutually reinforcing: others take the same action, which encourages still others to do so.

If you’ve seen a few of these models, it’s easy enough to tell stories in which players have the sort of incentives that lead to tipping points. Just off the top of my head, I can think of four, each involving a group of actors on which the Trump presidency depends.

Disaffected insiders: This is a classic case of safety in numbers: it’s harder to get caught leaking if everybody around you is also talking to the media.

The media: No legitimate news organization wants to get scooped. The more news organizations are investigating a story with legs, the more that others want to jump in.

Republican policy experts: Well-connected Republicans smell scandal and failure, discouraging them from taking positions in the Trump administration. This in turn discourages other potential nominees from seeking out such positions.

Republican members of Congress: Trump is still quite popular among Republican voters, so cutting loose the White House—say, by calling for an independent investigation of Trump-Russia ties—poses a political risk. That risk, however, may be smaller if other Republican members take the same position.

See, that was easy. It’s even possible to rank the four stories by distance to the tipping point. My rough sense is that disaffected insiders have already tipped, that the media are in the process of tipping, and that Republican members of Congress have a ways to go; I’m not sure about the Republican policy experts. (It’s hard to tell from the outside how much the historically low rate of presidential appointments is driven by lack of interest among potential nominees, versus the fact that Trump is not of the Republican Party and therefore has little base on which to draw.)

We can take this one step further, noting that there are likely spillovers from one “game” to another: The more leaks there are, for example, the more incentive for the media to invest in the story, which in turn affects the incentives of Republican policy experts and members of Congress. Maybe we’re headed for the mother of all tipping points.

The problem, as Paul Krugman observes, is that this sort of storytelling is “too easy and too much fun.” Once you start thinking about tipping points, you see them everywhere. But for each of the four cases above, I could just as easily tell a story in which the relevant actions are strategic substitutes rather than strategic complements. Perhaps leaking is a volunteer’s dilemma, for example, whereby each potential leaker hopes that somebody else will do the job (though, if so, there is some serious miscoordination, as the White House has sprung a thousand leaks).

Moreover, some of those around Trump may be playing a game in which it doesn’t really matter what anybody else does. Consider a last key group of actors: Trump associates under investigation. Here, the best metaphor may be the prisoner’s dilemma, whereby cooperating with investigators is the best action, regardless of what the accused expect their collaborators to do. Assuming that those under investigation have something to hide, this may be the game that poses the greatest threat to Trump’s presidency.


Hannah Chapman (Ph.D. student at UW) observes that Trump’s news conferences look a lot like Putin’s:

Under Trump and press secretary Sean Spicer, the near-daily White House news briefings have changed from routine interactions with a professional press corps to a high-profile media spectacle. The briefings frequently beat soap operas in daytime TV ratings and have been immortalized on “Saturday Night Live.” While that’s a shift away from normal U.S. politics, it resembles Russian President Vladimir Putin’s media strategy.

How does Putin’s strategy work?

The Kremlin keeps the appearance of a free press while actually reducing transparency. It does this by oversaturating the arena with pro-government reporters, keeping the focus on showmanship instead of content, and limiting opportunities for challenge and dissent. All this makes it harder for the press to hold the government accountable.

I’d give my eye teeth to know if Putin’s press conferences are an explicit model for Trump’s or if this is simply an example of convergent evolution.

Donald Trump as Lightning McQueen

Watching Donald Trump struggle to make good on his extravagant campaign promises, I am reminded of the opening scene in Pixar’s Cars. Hot rod Lightning McQueen attempts to win the Dinoco 400 by ignoring the advice of his “expert” pit crew, who demand that McQueen change his tires. Announcers Darrel Cartrip and Bob Cutlass describe the situation as McQueen pulls out of yet another pit stop with only a fill-up:

Darrel: Looks like it’s all gas-and-go for McQueen today.

Bob: That’s right. No tires again.

Darrel: Normally I’d say that’s a short-term gain, long-term loss, but it sure is working for him. He obviously knows something we don’t know.

But he doesn’t. McQueen blows first one tire, then another, and bounces to the finish line on his rims. He finishes in a three-way tie, which sets up the rest of the film. But for the rookie mistake, McQueen might have driven away with the Piston Cup.

Not changing your tires in an auto race is like not hedging your campaign promises in an electoral contest. You can say you are going to build a beautiful wall and have Mexico pay for it, impose a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” replace Obamacare with “something terrific,” or whatever you think the people at your rallies want to hear. Doing so may give you a lead, and even win you the race. But unlike the Dinoco 400, the contest doesn’t end when you cross the finish line. Voters expect you to actually deliver on your campaign promises.

Seasoned politicians understand this and try not to make high-profile promises they can’t keep. But Trump’s a rookie, and either because of his ignorance of how government works, or because he didn’t do the backward induction, he created expectations among his supporters that will be very difficult to meet. It may have looked like he knew what he was doing, but we’re now three weeks into the Trump presidency, and the wheels are already coming off.


Postscript: There is a moral for political economists in this story. The typical model in the Downsian tradition assumes that the “platform space” and the “policy space” are identical—candidates can (indeed, are assumed to) implement any promise they make. To me, that seems like equilibrium behavior masquerading as an assumption. On the equilibrium path, politicians don’t make promises they can’t keep, presumably because voters punish politicians who don’t keep their promises. Anticipating that, it is reasonable for voters to infer that any promise a candidate makes is one that he can keep. Donald Trump is way off the equilibrium path.

Imagining Trump’s End

I’m teaching Socialism and Transitions to the Market this semester, and we’re reading Francis Spufford’s excellent Red Plenty. Here he is on Khrushchev’s end:

[H]e was starting to frighten them…He had made alarmingly specific, alarmingly verifiable economic promises…He had tried to stick his thumb in the scales of the strategic balance by putting the missiles in Cuba; and the world had nearly burned. He was getting angrier and angrier, more and more impatient, more and more puzzled. “You’d think as first secretary I could change anything in this country,” he told Fidel Castro. “The hell I can! No matter what changes I propose and carry out, everything stays the same. Russia’s like a tub of dough…” The yeasty mass kept pushing back, and all he knew how to do was to keep trying the same methods, more and more frantically, more and more frenziedly, announcing new policies, rejigging the organisation chart, tinkering and revising…Meanwhile, he listened less. He mocked his colleagues to their faces. He sent Mikoyan to Cuba while his wife was dying, then failed to turn up to her funeral. He absent-mindedly alienated supporter after supporter, till by October 1964 there was a solid majority around the Presidium table for replacing him.

Which left the question of what to do about his promises.

Ah, yes. We’re going to have to worry about the promises.

The Parable of Vladimir Meciar

I received a message this morning from a friend unable to start the day, so in despair was she over recent events. My response was curt: “Get out of bed and write a check to the ACLU. Then find a protest to join or a refugee center where you can volunteer. This is no time to be defeatist. This is a fight we can win.”

That’s how I feel, but I owe my friend a justification for my optimism (and an apology for my curtness). As others have noted, what we have seen over the past eighteen months fits the pattern of creeping authoritarianism. The systematic violation of basic democratic norms—this is how democracies die. Those who do not yet see this as an existential threat (I’m looking at you, Paul Ryan) do not know their history.

But there is an important point missing from this discussion: Not every would-be authoritarian is successful. Consider the story of Vladimir Meciar: three-time nationalist prime minister of Slovakia, a populist with authoritarian tendencies…in short, the Slovak Trump. I lived in Prague for two years in the mid-1990s, when the papers were full of horrifying stories from neighboring Slovakia. There seemed to be little hope that Slovakia would soon join the community of Western democracies and every reason to suspect that Slovakia was sliding into tinpot dictatorship.

It didn’t happen. Vladimir Meciar is today the former leader of the former ruling party of a democratic Slovakia fully integrated into the EU and NATO. Meciar failed because of democratic institutions that proved surprisingly capable of accommodating opposition to his rule. He retained a base of support well into the new millenium, but by 1998 he had been cast out of polite political company; he could no longer build a ruling coalition.

If the Slovak public, less than a decade removed from communism, could defend their young democracy, then should not we be able to do the same? For all the problems with American democracy, the opposition to Trump possesses structural advantages of which dissidents in other countries can only dream: subnational governments firmly in control of the opposition party, media outlets that are privately owned and thus harder to fully capture, a dense organizational life to support collective action…It’s going to be a fight, but it’s a fight that America can win.

Sean Spicer is no Joseph Goebbels

Donald Trump’s first full day in office was marked by an all-out assault on the press. Standing in front of the CIA’s memorial wall, the president called journalists “the most dishonest human beings on earth” and made false claims about the size of…um, the crowds at his inauguration. White House press secretary Sean Spicer continued the theme, telling reporters that Trump’s inauguration crowd was the largest ever (not true) while supporting this statement with easily refutable lies about floor coverings and magnetometers on the Mall.

This is all profoundly discouraging, though not especially surprising, given Trump’s behavior at his press conference on January 11 and talk among Trumpists about “closing down the elite press.” But it is also encouraging. Effective propaganda requires mixing enough fact with fiction to keep viewers guessing. Sean Spicer did nothing today but peddle fiction. If this is the best that Trump’s propagandists can do, they will not be persuasive.

It is worth putting this into context. Trump needs to discredit the elite press, as he cannot easily shut them down or replace their management. This is a critical difference between Trump’s America and Putin’s Russia. When Putin took power, the broadcast media were already substantially state-owned, if not fully under state control. Trump does not have this luxury. Instead, he and his minions need to convince Americans that the press is lying while he is telling the truth. Saying that the sky is green when photos show it to be blue won’t do the trick.

(H/t to Lucan Way, who got this ball rolling on Facebook.)

Update: Saturday Night Live nails it. In last night’s cold open, Beck Bennett as Vladimir Putin chides Trump: “Today you went to the C.I.A. and said one million people came to see you in Washington D.C.? If you’re going to lie, don’t make it so obvious. Say you are friends with LeBron James, not that you are LeBron James.”

Lin-Manuel Mayakovsky

Blogging took a back seat over the holidays, but I’m back and ready to talk…Hamilton. I’ve been hooked since hearing the soundtrack for the first time last summer, and earlier this week we saw the show in Chicago. Seeing Hamilton on the stage definitely brought out a few elements not obvious from the cast recording (and man oh man, did Alexander Gemignani as King George steal the show), but there is a reason that kids everywhere are memorizing the lyrics—the songs are the essence of the work.

My wife is a particular fan. Having been raised on Russian poetry, she has never quite understood English-language free verse. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrics are oddly more familiar. Hip-hop is street verse with a beat, not unlike the work of Russian Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. Compare this couplet from one of Mayakovsky’s better-known poems:

Svetit’ vsegda, svetit’ vezde, do dnei poslednikh dontsa,
svetit’—i nikakikh gvozdei! Vot lozung moi—i solntsa!

with this rap from “My Shot”:

Scratch that, this is not the moment, it’s the movement
where all the hungriest brothers with something to prove went.

You can snap your fingers in 4/4 time to Mayakovsky as easily as you can to Miranda. In each case, you have a surprising, almost outrageous, street rhyme: “svetit’ vezde” (everywhere) and “nikakikh gvozdei” (no nails, i.e., no questions), “movement” and “prove went.” Not least, there is the attitude: Mayakovsky raps that his slogan is “shine to the last days,” just like the sun; Hamilton will not throw away his shot.

Want to learn more? Get the fabulous book Hamilton: The Revolution by Miranda and Jeremy McCarter, which among other gems notes that the “general” / “men are all (lining up)” rhyme in “Right Hand Man” is an improvement on “general” / “mineral” in The Pirates of Penzance. Hamilton is a revolution—but as revolutionary poetry, it echoes an earlier master.

How Propaganda Works, U.S. edition

The New York Times reports that Rush Limbaugh and company have decided to turn the label “fake news” against the mainstream media:

Until now, that term had been widely understood to refer to fabricated news accounts that are meant to spread virally online. But conservative cable and radio personalities, top Republicans and even Mr. Trump himself, incredulous about suggestions that fake stories may have helped swing the election, have appropriated the term and turned it against any news they see as hostile to their agenda.

This may be effective, but it’s not particularly clever. It’s just an old Soviet trick—still used in contemporary Russia, as Konstantin Sonin and I recently described. When Russian media say that U.S. elections are “rigged,” the goal is to debase the term so that allegations of (real) election rigging in Russia seem unexceptional. Similarly, when professional propagandists in the U.S. claim that mainstream media are peddling “fake news,” the aim is not to discredit CNN and the New York Times—that was done years ago—but to convince listeners that any claim of “fake news” is partisan.

Is there a how-to manual that all propagandists read, or does any reasonably competent practitioner just figure out what works through trial and error?

The Illegitimate President

Russian intervention in the 2016 presidential election is the stain on Donald Trump’s presidency that will not go away. Trump will emerge from January’s inauguration viewed as an “illegitimate” president by large segments of the American population. But what does it mean to lack legitimacy? And does it matter?

Any discussion of legitimacy begins with Max Weber, of course, and his ideal types of legitimate rule: legal, traditional, and charismatic authority. Legal authority underpins the right to rule in the American system. The perception that the electoral process may have been hijacked by a foreign actor undermines this authority.

So what? Birtherism led many to view Obama’s election as illegitimate, but he was nonetheless able to implement much of an ambitious agenda during two terms in office. The key, it seems to me, is that the “administrative staff” (i.e., the executive branch of government) never viewed Obama as an illegitimate president: they knew that Obama was a natural-born citizen.

The situation with Trump is different. As with any president, Trump needs at least some cooperation by the bureaucracy to get things done. But the bureaucracy will be at least as inclined as the general public to believe that Trump was illegitimately elected. This is especially true of the foreign-intelligence community, through which any evidence of Russian meddling will pass.

Now, the combination of professional socialization and career concerns will ensure that civil servants show up to work and do a good job. For some, however, “good job” may come to be defined as resistance to the agenda of what they view as an illegitimately elected president. Trump will push back, but civil-service protections will limit the coercion that he can apply. He may find that he is pushing on a string.