Democratization in the Age of Elections (book manuscript in progress)

When Polarization Trumps Civic Virtue: Partisan Conflict and the Subversion of Democracy by Incumbents

We propose a novel explanation for the most prevalent form of democratic breakdown after the end of the Cold War: the subversion of democracy by incumbents. In the classics of democratization research as well as in mainstream democracy promotion practice, the public’s disapproval is assumed to serve as a check on incumbents’ temptations to subvert democracy. We explain why this check fails in polarized societies. In the latter, voters have a strong preference for their favorite candidate, which makes it costly for them to punish an incumbent by voting for a challenger. Incumbents exploit this lack of credible punishment by manipulating the democratic process in their favor. By contrast, a mass of centrist voters provides precisely the kind of credible deterrent against manipulation that polarized societies lack. Our analysis of an original survey experiment conducted in Venezuela demonstrates that voters in polarized societies are indeed willing to trade off democratic principles for partisan interests and that their willingness to do so increases in the intensity of their partisanship. These findings suggest the need to re-evaluate conventional measures of public support for democracy and provide a new answer to a fundamental question about its survival: When can we reasonably expect the public to serve as a check on the authoritarian temptations of elected politicians?

Don’t Back No Losers! The Supply of Political Labor and the Political Organization of Clientelism (Current draft: April 2014)

The tacit promise of employment or some other office-based favor in return for electioneering activities is a key element of the relationship between candidates and their political operatives in many developing democracies. Yet the implications of the politically conditional nature of this exchange — the fact that the operatives involved in these activities obtain the promised rewards only if their candidate wins an election — have not yet been explored. We show that the politically conditional nature of this exchange has far-reaching implications for the political organization of clientelism, patronage politics, and election campaigns. We present a unified framework that explains i) which parties adopt clientelistic as opposed to programmatic campaign platforms; ii) how patronage politics amplifies the advantages typically attributed to incumbency; iii) why there is usually only one clientelistic party per party system;  and iv) why a system-level transition from clientelism to programmatic politics is more likely to arise out of technological change than candidate initiative. We support these claims by developing a new measure of clientelistic effort, which we apply to a newly collected dataset of precinct-level election results from the city of Chicago throughout the period 1907-1983.

Electoral Competition with Campaigns (Current draft: April 2015)

We develop a model of electoral competition in which a candidate’s ability to reach voters depends on the number of campaign activists willing to work on his behalf. There are two types of activists: opportunists, who only want to work for a winner, and idealists, who only want to work for a candidate whose platform is close to their ideal point. In equilibrium, campaigns amplify pre-existing differences in electability between candidates, generate an incumbency advantage, and result in platform divergence. In the last case, less electable candidates adopt more extreme platforms because they are deserted by opportunistic activists and must court idealistic ones in order to run a campaign. We thus identify a new rationale for platform divergence in electoral competition: the constraints on candidates’ platforms implied by the need to attract campaign labor.

Democracy and Dictatorship in the Age of Elections: Inferring Regime Type and Change from the Intensity of Electoral Competition (Current draft: April 2014)

The defining feature of democracy, according to most political scientists, are free and competitive elections. Yet the most frequently employed measures of regime type incorporate only a very limited amount of information about electoral competitiveness: these measures take the form of either binary indicators or index-based scales, neither of which explicitly measures how competitive elections are. This approach fails to reliably differentiate democracies from dictatorships when almost every country in the world holds multiparty elections. In this paper, I develop a new approach to the measurement of regime type by using data on the margins of victory in executive and legislative elections throughout the world. This approach has a number of advantages over existing metrics: i) it explicitly incorporates information about the degree of political competitiveness implied by electoral margins of victory; ii) the number of regimes and points of transitions between them are both inferred from the data rather than assumed at the outset; and iii) it comes with an explicit statement about the degree of uncertainty in each regime type estimate. I illustrate the value of this approach by estimating the number and changes in regime type around the world throughout the period 1815-2012.

Do Minority Rights Make a Difference? Democracy, Citizenship, and Conflict in Multi-ethnic Societies (co-authored with Bonnie Weir, current draft: April 2015)

We conduct the first empirical analysis of the consequences of linguistic minority rights for those affected by them. We take advantage of unusual provisions for linguistic minority rights in Slovakia and Romania, where a number of such rights are provided only when the minority meets a municipal-level minority population threshold. Threshold-based minority right provisions are exceptionally well-suited to the investigation of their causal effects and allow us to administer an original, regression discontinuity-based survey. Our findings help us assess the validity of a range of widely-presumed consequences of linguistic minority rights, including attitudes toward national citizenship and local community, ethnic identification, inter-ethnic levels of trust, civic life, and political engagement. We highlight the implications of our findings for foundational questions about the political role of nationality, ethnicity, and language in democratic participation, modern citizenship, and civil conflict.

Equilibrium Party Hegemony (Current draft: November 2014)

The electoral dominance of a single party is a puzzle for democratic theory. Frequent alternation in office is the direct consequence of a key promise of free elections: voters hold politicians to the highest standard of performance. In this paper, I propose a novel mechanism by which conditions frequently encountered in new democracies contribute to the emergence and persistence of dominant parties and thus undermine electoral accountability. I show that even a minor and temporary electoral advantage for the incumbent party may give rise to a self-perpetuating cycle in which the highest-quality politicians join the incumbent party, and voters correctly anticipate a quality disadvantage for the opposition party – which in turn limits their ability to credibly threaten to replace the incumbent by the opposition. The perverse consequence is a quality-based incumbency advantage that persists in spite of a suboptimal performance by the incumbent. This analysis clarifies why dominant parties are most vulnerable to defectors from within their own ranks and why their demise typically requires a period of a prolonged economic downturn. Key moments in the political development of Mexico, Singapore, and several U.S. cities illustrate key theoretical points.

The Paradox of Absolute Power: The Reputational Foundations of Personal Leadership and Political Order (Current draft: July 2012)

Even the most despotic leaders must rely on a large number of individuals in order to govern. How do leaders overcome such dependence and exercise seemingly unlimited authority? We develop a model in which a leader successfully deters challenges to his position by cultivating a reputation for invincibility. Such reputation prevents an otherwise indispensable ally from establishing a political base of his own. The process of maintaining such a reputation has several appealing features: a reputation deteriorates if not repeatedly cultivated, it is optimally exploited when needed, and it is established by seemingly arbitrary costly actions. These features match puzzling historical accounts according to which many despots periodically but unexpectedly humiliated, dismissed, but also resurrected their closest allies. These actions have been typically attributed to cultural factors or individual pathologies. Our analysis clarifies their political micro-foundations and yields insights beyond the study of authoritarian politics by highlighting the reputational foundations of personal authority.