Voting Against Autocracy. 2023. World Politics 75(4): 647-691.

When and how do voters punish politicians for subverting democracy? To investigate the role of the public in democratic backsliding, I develop a conceptual framework that differentiates among three mechanisms: vote switching, backlash, and disengagement. The first mechanism entails defection by voters from a candidate who undermines democracy to one who does not; the latter two mechanisms entail transitions between voting and abstention. I estimate the magnitude of each mechanism by combining evidence from a series of original survey experiments, traditional surveys, and a quasi-experiment afforded by the rerun of the 2019 Istanbul mayoral election, in which the governing party, AKP, attempted to overturn the result of an election that it had lost. I find that although vote switching and backlash contributed to the AKP’s eventual defeat the most, each of the three mechanisms served as a democratic check in some subset of the Istanbul electorate. Persuasion, mobilization, and even demobilization are all viable tools for curbing the authoritarian tendencies of elected politicians.

In Europe, Democracy Erodes from the Right​ co-authored with Elena Avramovska, Johanna Lutz, and Filip Milačić. 2023. Journal of Democracy 34(1): 5-20.

In order to diagnose Europe’s democratic vulnerabilities, we conducted experiments that probe Europeans’ ability to recognize and punish politicians who undermine democracy. Across seven countries, we systematically detect two reservoirs of tolerance for authoritarianism: the illiberal right and the disengaged. Citizens in the first group support parties on the extreme, populist, radical, or nationalist right. Citizens in the second group do not vote, but, in several countries, they are dormant supporters of the illiberal right and exhibit just as much lenience toward transgressions against democracy. The root cause of the illiberal right’s tolerance for authoritarianism appears to be not in how much it cares about its signature issues, like immigration or traditional values, but in how little it cares about democracy. Europe’s authoritarian potential, both overt and hidden, is located on its electorates’ far-right flanks.

Democracy in America? Partisanship, Polarization, and the Robustness of Support for Democracy in the United States co-authored with Matthew Graham. 2020. American Political Science Review 114(2): 392-409.

Is support for democracy in the United States robust enough to serve as a check against undemocratic behavior by elected politicians? In order to answer this question, we develop a model of the public as a democratic check and evaluate it using experimental as well as a natural experimental data. We conducted a series of original, nationally representative candidate-choice experiments in which some candidates adopt positions that violate key democratic principles. Respondents’ choices allow us to infer their willingness to trade-off democratic principles for other valid but potentially conflicting considerations such as political ideology, partisan loyalty, or policy preferences. We find that the viability of the U.S. public as a democratic check is strikingly limited: only a small fraction of Americans are willing to prioritize democratic principles in their electoral choices and their tendency to do so is decreasing in the strength of their partisanship, policy extremism, and candidate platform polarization. Our findings echo classic arguments about the importance of political moderation and cross-cutting cleavages for democratic stability and highlight the dangers that political polarization represents for democracy in America.

Legislatures and Legislative Politics Without Democracy co-authored with Jennifer Gandhi and Ben Noble. 2020. Comparative Political Studies 53(9): 1359-1379.

What do authoritarian legislatures and legislators do? Would outcomes in dictatorships be different if they were absent? Why do dictatorships have legislatures in the first place? These questions represent central puzzles in the study of authoritarian politics and institutions. The introductory article to this special issue on legislatures in nondemocracies discusses what we now know about these assemblies; what the issue’s articles contribute to this body of knowledge; and what future work might fruitfully look at. The special issue as a whole aims to advance the research agendas of both authoritarian institutions and legislative studies.

When Polarization Trumps Civic Virtue: Partisan Conflict and the Subversion of Democracy by Incumbents. 2020. Quarterly Journal of Political Science 15(1): 3-31.

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?

Polarization versus Democracy. 2019. Journal of Democracy 30(3): 20-32.

When can we realistically expect ordinary people to check the authoritarian ambitions of elected politicians? An answer to this question, I argue, is key to understanding the most prominent development in the dynamic of democratic survival since the end of the Cold War: the subversion of democracy by elected incumbents and its emergence as the most common form of democratic breakdown. I propose an explanation according to which political polarization undermines the public’s ability to serve as a democratic check: In polarized electorates, voters are willing to trade off democratic principles for partisan interests. I present evidence that supports this claim, raise questions about the real-world relevance of conventional measures of support for democracy, and highlight the importance of understanding the role that ordinary people play in democratic backsliding.

Democracy as an Equilibrium: Rational Choice and Formal Political Theory in Democratization Research. 2018. Democratization 26(1): 40-60.

Over the past quarter century, some of the most influential propositions about democratization have been developed with the tools of rational choice and formal political theory. In this article, I assess the contribution of this research paradigm to the study of democratization. Substantively, formal theorists have examined two sets of underlying mechanisms. The first conceives of elections as a solution to and a source of commitment problems; the second emphasizes the conflict-reducing properties of democratic institutions. A distinguishing feature of both mechanisms is that democracy does not emerge as an end in itself, but rather because democracy reduces political and economic transaction costs, major sources of which are asymmetries of information, commitment problems, and violence. Methodologically, formal-theoretic research contributes to the development of analytically transparent, reproducible theoretical arguments and facilitates the communication and accumulation of knowledge, both within political science and across disciplines. Finally, by demanding an explicit statement of microfoundations and by focusing on the consequences of strategic interactions, formal-theoretical research helps democratization scholars to assess external validity limitations, anticipate general equilibrium critiques, and curb the temptation to fish for statistical significance.

Formal Models of Nondemocratic Politics (co-authored with Scott Gehlbach and Konstantin Sonin). 2016. Annual Review of Political Science 19: 565-84.

The last decade has witnessed growing interest among political scientists and economists in nondemocratic politics. This trend has been reflected in increasingly rigorous game-theoretic modeling of its various aspects: regime persistence and breakdown, ruling-coalition formation and leadership change, protests and repression, formal institutions and elections, and censorship and media control. We review this research agenda, focusing on the foundational assumptions and political intuition behind key models. Our survey reveals a field populated by disparate models of particular mechanisms that nonetheless share two major analytical themes: asymmetries of information and commitment problems. We propose that future models move toward a genuinely comparative study of authoritarian institutions.

Deliver the Vote! Micromotives and Macrobehavior in Electoral Fraud, co-authored with Ashlea Rundlett, 2016. American Political Science Review 110(1): 180-197.

Most election fraud is not conducted centrally by incumbents but rather locally by a machinery consisting of a multitide of political operatives. How does an incumbent ensure that his agents deliver fraud when needed and as much as is needed? We address this and related puzzles in the political organization of election fraud by studying the perverse consequences of two distinct incentive conflicts: the principal-agent problem between an incumbent and his local agents, and the collective action problem among the agents. Using the global game methodology, we show that these incentive conflicts result in a herd dynamic among the agents that tends to either oversupply or undersupply fraud, rarely delivering the amount of fraud that would be optimal from the incumbent’s point of view. This equilibrium dynamic explains when and why electoral fraud fails to deliver incumbent victories, why incumbents who enjoy genuine popularity often engage in seemingly unnecessary fraud, and it predicts that the extent of fraud should be increasing in both the incumbent’s genuine support and reported results across precincts. A statistical analysis of anomalies in precinct-level results from the 2011-12 Russian legislative and presidential elections supports our key claims.

Which Democracies Will Last? Coups, Incumbent Takeovers, and the Dynamic of Democratic Consolidation. 2015. British Journal of Political Science 45(4): 715-738.

This paper develops a new, change-point model of democratic consolidation that conceives of consolidation as a latent quality to be inferred rather than measured directly. Rather than assuming that consolidation occurs, the present model estimates both whether and when consolidation occurs. Consolidation is hypothesized to occur when a decline in the risk of a democratic breakdown is i) significant and ii) durable. This approach is applied to new data on democratic survival that distinguish between two processes by which an overwhelming majority of authoritarian breakdowns occur: coups d’etat and incumbent takeovers. I find that the risk of authoritarian reversals by each of the two processes differs both in its dynamic and determinants. Crucially, new democracies appear to consolidate against the risk of coups but not the risk of incumbent takeovers. These empirical findings suggest that separate theoretical mechanisms account for the vulnerability of new democracies to these alternative modes of breakdown.

Equilibrium Analysis of Political Institutions. 2015. Routledge Handbook of Comparative Political Institutions. Edited by Jennifer Gandhi and Rubén Ruiz-Rufino.

Third-Party Actors and the Success of Democracy: How Electoral Commissions, Courts, and Observers Shape Incentives for Election Manipulation and Post-Election Protest, co-authored with Svitlana Chernykh, 2015, Journal of Politics. 77(2): 407-420.

When and how do third-party actors — most prominently electoral commissions, courts, and observers — contribute to the integrity of the electoral process? We approach these questions by studying how third-party actors shape politicians’ incentives to comply with the outcomes of elections. Third-parties are most beneficial in close elections, when the threat of a post-election confrontation alone fails to ensure self-enforcing compliance with election outcomes. Our analysis highlights that third-parties do not need to be impartial to be politically consequential, that it is third-parties with a moderate pro-incumbent bias that will be in the interest of not only the opposition but also the incumbent, and that incumbents adopt politically consequential third-party institutions when they fear that their narrow victory might not be recognized and result in a costly post-election confrontation. Extensions of our model discuss the role of repression, examine the differences between commissions, courts, and observers, and clarify not only the potential but also the limits to institutional solutions to the problem of electoral compliance in new and transitioning democracies.

Contracting on Violence: Moral Hazard in Authoritarian Repression and Military Intervention in Politics, 2013, Journal of Conflict Resolution. 57(5): 765-794.

Why does the military intervene in the politics of some countries but remain under firm civilian control in others? I argue that the origins of military intervention in politics lie in a fundamental moral hazard problem associated with authoritarian repression. Dictators must deter those who are excluded from power from challenging them. When underlying, polity-wide conflict results in threats to the regime that take the particular form of mass, organized, and potentially violent opposition, the military is the only force capable of defeating them. The military exploits this pivotal position by demanding greater institutional autonomy as well as a say in policy, and it threatens to intervene if the civilian leadership departs from a subsequent compromise on these issues. I develop a theoretical model of such contracting on violence and show that the likelihood of military intervention in politics is greatest at intermediate levels of mass threats. Original, large-N data on military intervention support these claims.

Learning to Love Democracy: Electoral Accountability, Government Performance, and the Consolidation of Democracy,  2013. American Journal of Political Science. 57(3): 685-702.

This paper examines the distinct challenges to electoral accountability faced by new democracies. I explain why dissatisfaction with the performance of individual politicians often turns into disillusionment with democracy as a political system, thereby precipitating its breakdown. After a transition to democracy, politicians have yet to form reputations, a condition that facilitates the entry into politics of those who see this period as their “one-time opportunity to get rich.” After repeatedly disappointing government performance, voters may come to believe that “all politicians are crooks,” stop discriminating among them based on their performance, to which politicians rationally respond by “acting like crooks.” I call such an expectation-driven failure of electoral accountability the “trap of pessimistic expectations.” Once politicians establish reputations for good performance however, they act as barriers to the entry to politics of low-quality politicians and strengthen voters’ belief that elections can deliver accountability, thus facilitating the consolidation of democracy. These arguments generate new insights into the relationship between government performance in new democracies, public attitudes toward democracy, and democratic stability; and they suggest theoretical microfoundations for several prominent empirical associations in the literature on democratic transitions.

Incentives, Institutions, and the Challenges to Research on Authoritarian Politics. 2013. APSA Comparative Democratization Newsletter (June 2013).

The Foundations of Limited Authoritarian Government: Institutions and Power-sharing in Dictatorships, co-authored with Carles Boix, 2013, Journal of Politics 75(2): 300-316.

Why do some dictatorships establish institutions that may constrain their leaders? We argue that institutions promote the survival of dictatorships by facilitating authoritarian power-sharing. Specifically, institutions such as parties, legislatures, and advisory councils alleviate commitment and monitoring problems between the dictator and his allies caused by the secrecy in authoritarian governance. However, because authoritarian power-sharing succeeds only when it is backed by a credible threat of a rebellion by the dictator’s allies, institutions will be ineffective or break down when an imbalance of power within the ruling coalition undermines this threat’s credibility. Our arguments clarify the complex interaction between collective action, commitment, and monitoring problems in authoritarian governance. We use both historical and large-N data to assess new empirical predictions about the relationship between political institutions, leader survival, and the concentration of power in dictatorships.

Moral Hazard in Authoritarian Repression and the Fate of Dictators, 2011, Political Economist (Winter 2011): 7-9.

Power-sharing and Leadership Dynamics in Authoritarian Regimes, 2009, American Journal of Political Science, 53(2): 477-494.

I examine a fundamental problem of politics in authoritarian regimes: the dictator and the ruling coalition must share power and govern in an environment where political influence must be backed by a credible threat of violence. I develop a model of authoritarian politics in which power-sharing is complicated by this conflict of interest: by exploiting his position, the dictator may acquire more power at the expense of the ruling coalition, which may attempt to deter such opportunism by threatening to stage a coup. Two power-sharing regimes, contested and established dictatorships, may emerge as a result of strategic behavior by the dictator and the ruling coalition. This theory accounts for the large variation in the duration of dictators’ tenures and the concentration of power in dictatorships over time and it contributes to our understanding of the dynamics of power-sharing and accountability in authoritarian regimes.

Authoritarian Reversals and Democratic Consolidation2008, American Political Science Review, 102(2): 153-168.

I examine a new empirical approach to the study of democratic consolidation. I distinguish between democracies that survive because they are consolidated and those democracies that are not consolidated but survive because of some favorable circumstances. As a result, I am able to identify the determinants of two distinct processes: the likelihood that a democracy consolidates, and the timing of authoritarian reversals in democracies that are not consolidated. Importantly, whether a democracy is consolidated is not directly observable but must be inferred from the data. I find that the level of economic development, type of executive, and authoritarian past determine whether a democracy consolidates, but have no effect on the timing of reversals in democracies that are not consolidated. That risk is only associated with economic recessions. I also find that the existing studies greatly underestimate the risk of early reversals while they simultaneously overestimate the risk of late reversals, and that a large number of existing democracies are in fact consolidated.

Lies, Defection, and the Pattern of  International Cooperation, 2006, American Journal of Political Science, 50(4): 909-925.

  • a note with a numerical example.

I characterize how incentives to lie affect international cooperation and the design of cooperation agreements. I study the optimal structure of cooperation agreements in an environment where the costs of cooperation fluctuate over time. Cooperation is complicated by the fact that the costs of cooperation are private information and participants can benefit from lying about them. When the extent of asymmetries of information between the cooperating governments can be measured in terms of the transparency of the political process, democracies face greater contracting opportunities than authoritarian regimes. However, I show how even under asymmetries of information, a limited extent of cooperation can be achieved when the design of cooperation agreements recognizes incentives to lie.