Political Attitudes and Behavior Under Autocracy
Summary and Keywords
Knowledge about mass political attitudes and behavior derives mainly from studies of established Western democracies. But do populations under autocracy engage in the political process and, if so, do they support or challenge the status quo? Much depends on the nature of political regimes. To the extent that spaces for political expression are closed under autocracy, citizens face an unpalatable choice between political acquiescence and violent protest, with all the risks that such options impose.
A key question for researchers is whether participants in authoritarian politics are active citizens or mobilized subjects. Survey evidence suggests that some people may be willing to grant legitimacy to strong leaders and to trust the institutions of a dominant state. Others nevertheless find ways to engage in conventional political behaviors such as discussing public affairs, taking collective action, and turning out to vote in elections, especially under hybrid competitive authoritarian regimes.
Under what conditions do citizens sometimes rebel against entrenched authority? Regime type again seems to matter, with popular protest more common under open than closed systems. With reference to prodemocracy social movements, like the Arab Spring of 2011, analysts debate whether people take to the streets principally for reasons of rational self-interest or propelled by emotions like anger. And scholars explore the effects of new information and communications technologies, finding mixed results for political mobilization. As emphasized in the literature on contentious politics, the displacement of autocratic regimes from below is likely only if social movements build strong and sustained political organizations.
Knowledge about mass political attitudes and behavior derives mainly from studies of established democratic regimes in the Western world. With reference to this context, political scientists broadly agree about the factors that explain how ordinary people think and act, especially how they vote in national elections. For example, few analysts dispute the importance of a voter’s age or education in driving electoral turnout or the significance of party identification or economic conditions in shaping vote choice. Instead, debates about these subjects in, say, American politics, now commonly boil down to the precise predictive power of rival forecasts of election outcomes (Campbell, 2016). At stake are fine methodological points about the appropriate mix of indicators—both objective fundamentals and public opinion—to include in explanatory models.
Scholarly understanding about political attitudes and behavior in the rest of the world, however, is much more tentative and incomplete. Analysts have yet to fully comprehend whether populations engage or renounce the political process in their own countries and, if they do get involved, whether they support or challenge the status quo. Shortfalls in knowledge are especially marked in the large group of regimes sometimes called nondemocracies. According to Freedom House, a majority of countries in the world—109 out of 195—were either “not free” or only “partly free” in 2015, a number that is rising and that accounts for 60% of the global population. The political regimes in some of these countries may feature elections, but in practice, opportunities for popular participation are not widely or equally shared. As a result, much research is still required to reveal what everyday citizens say and do about politics in places whose regimes fall short of democracy.
To fill existing knowledge gaps, answers are needed to the following sorts of question. What kinds of political regimes populate the nondemocratic world? Do the institutional features of these systems help or hinder popular participation in the political process? Do ordinary people become engaged in politics, and if so, how? Are they passive subjects or active citizens? Is their participation conventional (as in joining associations and voting in elections) or unconventional (as in protest, or even violence)? Does popular participation bolster or undermine the existing system of political rules—that is, the political regime? And what kinds of theory best capture political behavior under conditions of limited political space?
A first step is to clarify the nature of political regimes. The term nondemocracy is problematic in a number of respects. As a residual category, it defines regimes with reference to what they are not, rather than with reference to their intrinsic, substantive content. The term also carries normative overtones by implying incorrectly that nondemocracy always underperforms democracy, including in tasks like creating political order. Finally, the overly encompassing label of nondemocracy fails to accurately capture a diverse empirical reality that includes a wide variety of political regimes. On all counts, therefore, it is better to follow the current preferred practice in comparative politics by defining unfree political regimes as what they actually are, namely autocracies (Svolik, 2012).
Stated simply, autocracy is an oligarchic form of rule in which rulers draw political support from an elite coalition rather than a broad base of voters. The scope of leadership decision-making in autocracies is arbitrary, rarely limited by a constitutional rule of law or by independent checks and balances. While all types of political leader draw on a common inventory of resources for governing—such as coercion, material rewards, and persuasion—autocrats rely most heavily on the forceful end of this scale. They commonly deploy the punitive institutions of the state—such as the army, police, courts, and prisons—to disable political rivals. To bolster their power, autocratic rulers exert strict control over institutions of popular representation, mobilization, and communication such as elections, legislatures, political parties, voluntary associations, and the mass media. Absent clear rules for governing—especially during crises of leadership succession—autocratic rule is characteristically wracked by uncertainty and, when challenged, prone to turn repressive.
Given these circumstances, mass political behavior is bound to be restricted under autocracy. While, for example, citizens may have the opportunity to vote in elections, the range of voting choices and quality of electoral procedures are often constrained. Where spaces for political expression are closed, citizens face an unpalatable choice between political acquiescence and violent protest, with all the misgivings and risks that such options impose. Nor is it easy for political scientists to study popular attitudes in autocracies since the authorities commonly forbid social-scientific survey research at the individual level. Only in recent years have public opinion researchers, associated for instance with the World Values Survey and Global Barometer Surveys (GBS), begun to cautiously include less-than-democratic regimes in the coverage of cross-national projects. For this reason, we are just beginning to glimpse what ordinary people think and do in the political realm in a few autocratic parts of each world region, such as China, Cambodia, and Vietnam (in East Asia); Syria and Egypt (in the Middle East); Ethiopia, Uganda, and Zimbabwe (in sub-Saharan Africa); and Venezuela (in Latin America).
In an influential classification scheme, Barbara Geddes (2003) proposes three types of hegemonic (closed) autocracy—personalist, military, and single-party—based on who makes important political decisions. In personal dictatorships, one strong leader has a high degree of decision-making discretion; in military regimes, a group of officers from the armed forces decides who will rule; and in single-party regimes, a party oligarchy dominates access to office and controls policy. These regimes differ in the extent to which leaders seek to cling to power. Whereas personal dictators try to stay in office indefinitely, a military junta is often anxious to withdraw from the responsibilities of governing and return to barracks. Empirically, single-party systems tend to last longest, at least on average. In practice, real-world autocratic regimes often combine features from each of these types. In the former Zaire under Mobutu Sese Seko, for example, a leader who first acceded to office in a military coup subsequently built a dominant political party as a means to consolidate a personal hold on power.
Distinctions among autocratic regimes help to determine the amount of political space available for popular political participation. Because personal dictators concentrate power at the top and resist peaceful leadership turnover, citizens have little choice but to mount popular protest, which often involves or incurs violence. After a military coup, elections and legislatures are usually suspended, initially depriving citizens of access to institutions of political representation. But the willingness of military rulers to negotiate their way out of power restores to some civilian elites a voice in the process of regime transition. Finally, to survive in office over the long term, one-party regimes sometimes institutionalize a nominal measure of political competition within ruling parties. Controlled elections accompanied by top-down mass mobilization may even allow the refreshment of single-party party leadership, especially at local levels. Autocratic regimes thus display distinctive sets of political institutions that either block or encourage popular political participation, and in the process, shape the repertoires of political responses available to citizens.
Faced with international and internal pressures for democratization (as happened after the Cold War), closed authoritarian regimes sometimes make token political openings. One typical response is the emergence of competitive authoritarianism—a hybrid regime with some formal democratic features—in which rulers lift bans on opposition parties and even allow them to contest relatively free elections. According to Levitsky and Way (2010, p. 5), elections in this type of regime are “widely viewed as the primary means of gaining power, but … incumbents’ abuse of the state places them at a significant advantage vis-a vis their opponents.” In contrast to hegemonic one-party regimes, opposition organization is above ground in this institutional setting. Citizens therefore have opportunities to engage in conventional activities such as discussing policy issues, joining voluntary associations (including multiple parties), contacting political representatives, and voting. But elite manipulation of election rules and procedures means that political contestation is never fair. Competitive authoritarianism—increasingly the modal form of autocratic regime in the world—nonetheless offers the most fruitful venue for studying a full range of mass attitudes and political behavior under autocracy.
Popular Support for Autocracy
Rulers find it easier to govern when they can attract popular political support. Even autocrats prefer, if at all possible, to rely on voluntary compliance among the populace as an alternative to expending scarce coercive and material resources. When leaders rely on grassroots acclaim, however, they allow that ordinary people can sometimes play influential roles in the political process. As Max Weber (1946) famously noted, everyday citizens have the latent capacity to endow power holders with the valuable resource of political legitimacy. Under democracy, citizen compliance with the commands of the state effectively confirms that elected political leaders—and the political regime they represent—have a right to rule. Under autocracy, however, behavioral compliance may not be freely given and thus cannot be taken to represent attitudinal support.
This is not to imply that the general public is uniform in its willingness to extend or withhold political cooperation. Rather, citizens vary greatly in their orientations toward the game of politics and its key players. Ideally, under democratic regimes, well-informed and active citizens legitimize those leaders who have been elected by fair processes or who have performed well in office. But under any kind of political regime, some proportion of the populace will always be willing to surrender rights of political participation in favor of strong leaders. Almond and Verba (1963) describe these individuals as either “parochials,” who seek to withdraw from political life altogether, or “subjects,” who tend to defer readily to official authority. The proportions of these kinds of political actors can be expected to be larger in autocratic regimes than under democracy.
Popular Regime Conceptions
Much hinges on people’s own understandings (and misunderstandings) of the type of regime in which they live. Confusingly, the term democracy has gained global prestige, leading even dictators to cynically wrap themselves in its mantle. It is therefore unsurprising that, when ordinary folk are asked in sample surveys whether they support democracy in principle or live in a democracy in practice, they answer in the affirmative, even in countries with autocratic regimes. According to 2013 data from GBS, for example, people under strongman rule in Venezuela are more likely than people in pluralistic Costa Rica to cite democracy as their preferred form of government (87% vs. 53%). And there is no discernible difference between one-party China and multiparty Taiwan on this score: about half of all citizens in both places say they prefer democracy to any other governmental type (GBS, 2015). As a consequence, most scholars now agree that there is no necessary relationship between regime type and the overt expression of democratic preferences by citizens.
Table 1. Popular Preference for Democracy
This anomaly is readily explicable on the demand side—that is, with regard to the type of government that people say they want. Citizens suffering under despotic rule might plausibly express a longing for a more open political dispensation. But when pressed, many of these same citizens reveal only shallow, lip-service commitments to democracy, while at the same time retaining attachments to arbitrary forms of government. For instance, more than three-quarters of Venezuelans approve a system of one-man rule in which elections and parliament are abolished and the president decides everything. And among Vietnamese survey respondents—where almost two-thirds agree that democracy is always preferable—an almost identical proportion approves a single-party system in which only one political party is allowed to stand for election and hold office. It therefore seems that, under dictatorship, ordinary people lack the capacity either to meaningfully differentiate among regime types (Shin, 2016) or to speak out freely (see the section “Self-Censorship”). Instead, in many parts of the non-Western world, professed democratic beliefs are offset by widespread popular deference to authoritarian norms.
Moreover, on the supply side—when survey respondents assess the type of government that elites actually deliver—citizens regularly express permissive attitudes toward autocratic rule. For example, people in repressive Ethiopia are just as likely as those in self-governing Botswana (over 80% in each case) to consider that they live in a full or almost full democracy. And 6 out of 10 people in China and almost 9 out of 10 in Vietnam consider that, in practice, their country is a functioning democracy. These unexpectedly generous opinions are reinforced by similar proportions who express satisfaction with the way democracy works in these countries. Yet charitable popular judgments about regimes stand in stark contrast to critical assessments of their autocratic nature by international experts.
At issue is whether people with different political histories and in diverse institutional settings attach common meanings to abstract concepts like democracy and autocracy. On the one hand, cross-national comparative studies seem to point to a core liberal understanding, in which most people around the globe associate democracy with a range of personal and political freedoms—and autocracy with the denial of such liberties (Dalton, Shin, & Joo, 2007). On the other hand, in-depth country studies stress that ordinary folk often evince idiosyncratic local interpretations that blur clear-cut regime distinctions. For example, democracy can mean traditional community solidarity in Senegal, revolutionary mass mobilization in Ethiopia, or guardianship by a political class imbued with Confucian values in China. Thus, people who express commitment to democracy and satisfaction with its performance—at least insofar as they depart from universal understandings of these concepts—may in fact inadvertently endorse a nondemocratic regime and thereby extend legitimacy to autocrats.
False consciousness aside, however, there is no gainsaying that some citizens prefer strong government. Cross-national studies of institutional trust reveal regularities in public opinion that apply to democracies and autocracies alike. When asked how much they trust a list of key political institutions, citizens in all sorts of non-Western regimes regularly express confidence in the core executive agencies of the state: the presidency, the office of the prime minister, or the civil service. By contrast, they tend to be wary of legislative and representative institutions, including the national assembly and political parties, especially opposition parties. Compared to parliaments, public trust was higher for the armed forces around the globe in 2013, especially in autocratic regimes: for example, Ecuador (where 75% trust the army), Egypt (86%), Burundi (87%), Cambodia (89%), and Vietnam (94%) (GBS, 2015). In an extraordinary display of unanimity, fully 98% of Chinese respondents in a 2002 Asia Barometer survey expressed trust in four central-level political institutions: the national government, the National People’s Congress, the Chinese Communist Party, and the People’s Liberation Army (Chu, Diamond, Nathan, & Shin, 2013). These results stand in stark contrast with low and sometimes declining levels of public trust in national political institutions in most established democracies (van der Meer, 2016).
Table 2. Public Trust in Institutions, Selected Autocratic Regimes
But public trust may be blind. People in autocracies seem to have greater confidence in political institutions that are far removed from their daily lives (and about which they may know little) than in those with which they have regular contact (and about which they are better informed). For example, among the executive agents of the state, the national armed forces, which are typically confined to barracks, are consistently considered more trustworthy than the police, who operate daily on the front lines of local communities. And among representative institutions, local government councils are routinely regarded as less trustworthy than the more remote national assembly. It is telling that citizens tend to regard police and local government councilors as among the most corrupt public officials, which illustrates a well-known connection between popular perceptions of corruption and popular sentiments of distrust.
Why, then, does institutional trust tend to remain high under autocracy? Official control of information, which shapes the range of permissible discussion and limits criticism of government, undoubtedly plays a part. In addition, Shi (2013) suggests for China that popular attachment to cultural norms of hierarchy and collectivism induce people to defer reflexively to bureaucratic authority. And Mattes and Mulu (2016) point to low levels of education in Ethiopia that inhibit rural populations from conceiving independent roles for themselves in a national state. Taken together, these factors suggest that autocracies possess a cushion of public acquiescence on which leaders can fall back in times of stress, such as when they are threatened with regime change. To be sure, authoritarian regimes often rely for survival on the charismatic legitimacy of strongmen and the performance legitimacy of directive government. To an important extent, autocrats are able to convert these assets into a reservoir of loyalty—David Easton (1965) calls it “diffuse support”—that helps to explain regime resilience and longevity.
But a further possible consideration is that citizens censor their political attitudes out of a fearful sense of self-preservation. In 2012, Afrobarometer surveys in Zimbabwe, Burundi, and Cameroon, more than 80% of citizens said that, often or always, people have to be careful of what they say about politics. In seeking to explain why Zimbabweans have not rebelled against the long-standing dictatorship of Robert Mugabe, Masunungure (2006) suggests that the evident willingness of authorities to unleash intimidation and violence has bred an instinctive aversion to risk. The psychology of political fear not only paralyzes an individual’s own behavior but reduces optimism that others will join them in taking risks, thus increasing social isolation. With reference to posttotalitarian Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel argues that when people regulate themselves (and each other) to uphold the norms prescribed by rulers, they become complicit in reproducing the controls of an authoritarian system. This system “relies on, and is defined by, passive compliance … (which) runs de facto through each person, for everyone in his or her own way is both a victim and a supporter of the system” (Havel, 1989, p. 37).
But a population that is averse to risk and passively compliant cannot meaningfully endow a political regime with political legitimacy. If a terrorized public dissimulates in its attitudes toward rulers, then all political actors are, in Havel’s memorable words, “living a lie.” With reference to Syria under Hafez al-Assad, Lisa Wedeen (2015, p. 6) describes this situation as “the politics of ‘as if,’” in which citizens take part in transparently phony rituals of obeisance “as if” they revere their leader. Similarly, James Scott (1992, p. xii) notes the coexistence of “hegemonic public conduct and a backstage discourse consisting of what cannot be spoken in the face of power … Short of actual rebellion, powerless groups have … a self-interest in conspiring to reinforce hegemonic appearances.”
Under these circumstances, it is difficult to know whether people are emotionally committed to supporting the regime or whether political fear induces expressions of devotion even when people do not feel loyal. For the record, it is worth noting that autocratic rulers may care little about whether they are able to attract genuine popular legitimacy, sincerely felt. Instead, the regime’s ability to compel people to comply with its commands—and to obey even while professing spurious beliefs and chanting tired slogans—is manifestation enough of its domination.
Conventional Political Behavior
Whether citizens support or challenge the political status quo, and how they do so, depend in important part on the available structure of political opportunities. These opportunities vary systematically between closed and competitive autocracies. People are likely to participate in the political process if the rules of the political game include a modicum of civil liberties and a meaningful degree of electoral choice. By contrast, and even if people initially acquiesce to domination, they are ultimately liable to take matters into their own hands—first peacefully, but violently if thwarted—if avenues of institutional access to political life remain closed. Before considering protest action, it is necessary to review conventional modes of participation under autocracy, including the extent to which individuals discuss public affairs, associate in civic groups, contact elected and other leaders, and vote in elections. At issue throughout is whether popular participation is autonomous (meaning independent and voluntary) or mobilized (meaning managed and controlled).
At root, regime characteristics help shape whether people engage with the political realm. Comparisons of democracies and autocracies within various world regions provide supportive evidence. Take popular interest in public affairs. In East Asia, more people are primed to participate in politics in democratic Japan than authoritarian China; whereas 70% of Japanese say that they are interested, just 47% claim so in China. Or take engagement in political discussions. Some 80% of Japanese report doing so when they get together with friends or family, compared to 63% of Chinese (GBS, 2015). In North Africa, the civilian political regime that emerged in Tunisia after free and fair elections in 2014 was more open and flexible than the brittle military regime restored in the same year by tightly controlled elections in Egypt. Perhaps as a result, Tunisians evince somewhat higher level of popular interest in public affairs in 2015 than do Egyptians (77% vs. 64%), as well as higher levels of discussions with family and friends (75% vs. 65%, with twice as many reporting “frequent” discussions) (Afrobarometer, 2016).
Table 3. Civic Engagement
Perhaps people feel less politically efficacious under autocracy than democracy. According to GBS, at least three out of four people interviewed in the closed regimes of Egypt, Cambodia, Uganda, Burundi, and Pakistan agree that “politics and government seem so complicated that a person like me can’t understand what is going on.” But citizens in some newer democracies, like Taiwan, Thailand, Benin, Mali, and Namibia, feel equally disempowered. In this regard, civic disengagement is a universal phenomenon that is most pronounced in poor countries. When it comes to collective action in civil society, however, the likelihood of people “getting together with others to raise an issue or resolve a problem” is generally greater in democracies than autocracies, especially where cultural traditions of voluntary association are strong. Yet even in a few tightly organized regimes led by mass mobilizing parties—like Uganda, Venezuela, and Vietnam—citizens report relatively high levels of contact with local-level officials, though these ties are usually initiated from the top down rather than from the bottom up (GBS, 2015).
The political behavior of ordinary people appears in boldest relief during elections. Among autocracies, mass voting behavior is most meaningful (and hence most ripe for study) in those regimes where a ruling party must intermittently face a multiparty contest. For that reason, analysts of voting behavior—who initially focused on Western liberal democracies and only recently ventured into new electoral democracies in developing countries—have now begun to explore competitive authoritarian regimes. As indicated earlier, however, the factors underlying voter turnout, vote choice, and popular responses to electoral irregularities may well be distinctive under autocracy.
Take voter turnout, a subject that starts with a fundamental puzzle. If elections are controlled and winners are known in advance, why would voters bother to cast a ballot? On one hand, as in Egypt under Mubarak, many individuals voted in response to official pressure to display loyalty or as a means of staking a claim on anticipated patronage rewards (Blaydes, 2013). Indeed, across the non-Western world, poorer and illiterate sections of the population tend to vote in larger numbers than educated or wealthier classes, a pattern that contrasts starkly with models of turnout in established democracies (Krishna, 2008). And while it has long been thought that an individual’s education is a reliable predictor of her likelihood of voting, research now suggests that exposure to the mass media may serve as a partial substitute for formal schooling in priming people to participate (Bratton, Mattes, & Gyimah-Boadi, 2005).
Much depends on how effectively a central government exerts control over the content of political news that appears in the print media or on radio and television. On one hand, people who are fed a steady diet of official propaganda may repeatedly turn out to endorse the ruling party at the polls, either to express an imbued sense of civic duty or to avoid punitive retaliation. As a result, electoral officials in Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Rwanda, Bolivia, four Eurasian republics (Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan), and Singapore, can—with a straight face—report turnout rates among registered voters that exceed 90%.
After China introduced limited-choice local elections in the 1980s, however, up to one-third of voters chose to boycott the electoral process, apparently finding the costs of voting to outweigh the expected benefits. Even under mandatory voting laws in the former Soviet Union or during military rule in Brazil, some individuals chose to abstain from the polls, perhaps because of lack of choice among candidates. Even where turnout is high, blank or spoiled ballots can serve as a silent protest against the limits of autocracy. In contemporary Russia, where multiple parties now compete and electoral participation rates vary across subnational regions, initial evidence suggests that the more dominant the incumbent United Russia party is, the lower the level of voter turnout (Robbins & Rybalko, 2015). In this regard, one-party and dominant-party regimes may be durable but, absent genuine competition, encounter difficulty in sustaining enthusiastic popular support over the long run.
What, then, about vote choice? To what extent do voters in authoritarian regimes cast their electoral lot—sincerely or strategically—with incumbents? In closed, military-led autocracies (where elections are rarely held) and hegemonic one-party autocracies (where elections are held but the incumbent always wins), voting is a largely empty ritual. But even in competitive autocracies, more incumbents survive an electoral test than succumb to ejection from office; of the 35 cases studied by Levitsky and Way (2010) in the period 1990–2008, for example, a majority of 19 endured intact.
Voters contribute to these outcomes for complex combinations of motives (Geddes & Zaller, 1989; Magaloni, 2006; Kitschelt & Wilkinson, 2007; Bratton, Bhavnani, & Chen, 2012). Where governments control communications, citizens who are not sophisticated enough to see through official disinformation tend to vote for the status quo. Moreover, in divided societies, people regularly vote according to cultural identity: they support power holders who share their ethnic or religious heritage. Party identification is also important, especially where ruling parties have deep historical roots; even here, however, some individuals vote strategically, supporting ruling parties mainly because incumbents are usually assured of winning. Especially in patrimonial societies, it pays for ordinary people to associate with those who can dispense or withhold patronage after the election.
But what inclines voters to support opposition parties, assuming that these entities are allowed to exist under autocracy? Often, the determinants of voting behavior are the same as under democracy—namely, that younger, educated, urban segments of the electorate tend to vote against entrenched incumbents. Importantly, citizens also vote on economic grounds by retrospectively weighing policy performance, rewarding or (especially) punishing incumbents according to how well governments have handled issues like unemployment, inflation, and income inequality. To the limited extent that policy thereby trumps patronage, political behavior under autocracy bears a general resemblance to political behavior under established democracy and can thus be understood using orthodox voting models (Lewis-Beck & Stegmaier, 2000).
Autocrats who demonstrate a measure of competence at economic management can therefore earn political legitimacy on the basis of performance in office. They have little need to manipulate elections in order to win. Nevertheless, incumbents often resort to fraud by using public resources for partisan campaigns, keeping opposition voters away from the polls, or influencing the vote count. Such irregularities serve both as insurance against unexpected loss and as a demonstration to rivals of the futility of attempting to displace a dominant regime (Simpser, 2013).
In fraudulent elections, would-be voters encounter both the carrots of vote buying and the sticks of electoral intimidation. How do they react? Vote buying, by which candidates or their agents offer a personal consideration (in cash or kind) in return for a promise of electoral support, is common in both competitive autocracies and new electoral democracies. Analysts estimate that, in these settings, up to one-third of the electorate (especially the poor) may participate in such transactions. While most people recognize vote buying as morally and legally wrong, they are more likely to participate if they think that others are already doing so. Nonetheless, citizens retain a degree of behavioral discretion; they can refuse a vote-buying offer, renege on the deal, or comply in full (including by voting the “right” way). Vote buying rarely works well, however: While it may boost voter turnout, it cannot guarantee that incumbents will be returned to office; absent close monitoring, too many recipients take the money and run, including by voting as they please.
Elections are also a focal point for political violence, which can occur before, on, or after voting day. In election processes in maturing democracies, vote buying may gradually displace threats and force (van Ham & Lindberg, 2015). But violent intimidation remains a characteristic tactic of political elites in autocratic regimes. Marginal populations, who may be disenfranchised or even displaced from their homes, are the most vulnerable targets of state-sponsored forms of electoral violence. While strategies to intimidate the electorate may reduce turnout by challengers in the short run, they can backfire over the longer term. Fraudulent elections often precipitate opposition protest rallies, some of which may lead—as in the Eurasian “color revolutions” at the turn of the 20th century—to a cycle of mass mobilization that persists beyond any given election cycle. Moreover, in postconflict situations, victims of violence do not abandon commitments to democracy; instead, they tend to increase political participation and expand commitments to new causes like transitional justice (Uvin, 2009).
Popular Challenges to Autocracy
Further research is required, however, to resolve a remaining dilemma. When do ordinary people act as submissive subjects, and when as energetic citizens? In particular, why do citizens sometimes rebel against autocracy?
These questions motivate efforts by political scientists to explain outbreaks of low-intensity, everyday protest against economic hardship in Russia, official land grabs in China, or violations of indigenous rights in Mexico (Robertson, 2011, Chen, 2012, Trejo, 2012). Analysts are especially concerned about understanding extraordinary waves of large-scale revolutionary ferment like the so-called Arab Spring, which swept Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, and other parts of North Africa and the Middle East in 2011. Whatever the scale, mass protest taps into “a reservoir of preexisting dissatisfaction with official corruption, authoritarian caprice and the government’s inattentiveness to suffering … (and formed) a locus for new political intensities in which acts of collective citizenship coalesced around resistance to tyranny” (Wedeen, 2015, pp. vii–viii). In short, the political experiences of life under autocracy produce not only popular acquiescence, but also outbursts of defiance.
The process of escalating popular resistance is analyzed in a literature on contentious politics, or “what happens when collective actors join forces in confrontation with elites” (Tarrow, 2011, p. 4). Social movements arise when popular networks, drawing on shared values and interests, adopt a degree of formal organization. Leading examples include the Solidarity labor movement in communist Poland and the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, Sudan, Syria, and Egypt. Social movements employ an innovative political repertoire—petitions, marches, strikes, demonstrations, and riots—that feature dramatic performances that disrupt official routine. Violence and nonviolent contention often reside side by side within the same movement. But the scope and frequency of political violence depends in good part on the regime context: “In mainly democratic regimes, the repertoire of contention leans toward peaceful forms … that intersect with representative institutions and produce social movement campaigns; in mainly authoritarian regimes, the repertoire leans toward lethal conflicts and tends to produce religious and ethnic strife, civil wars and revolutions” (Tilly & Tarrow, 2007, p. 67).
Citizen involvement in contentious politics is hard to measure with standard tools because nervous survey respondents may wish to dissemble about the sensitive subject of protest participation, especially in autocracies. With this caveat in mind, it is nonetheless noteworthy that, according to GBS (2015), people report protest activity more frequently in democratic than authoritarian regimes. Compare democratic South Africa, where in 2013, 11% of respondents claimed to have attended a demonstration or protest march within the past year, with autocratic Zimbabwe, where barely half that number (5%) said they had recently participated in protest. Or compare Brazil (40%) with Venezuela (25%) where, in 2013, economic conditions were worse but political restrictions tighter in the latter country. What remains to be explained, perhaps in terms of country-specific historical legacies of class division and social mobilization, is why levels of protest activity are seemingly far higher in Latin America than in Southern Africa. And attention must be paid to the content of protest: in Sweden, for example, demonstrations focus on policy issues, whereas in Venezuela, protests include anti-system, regime-change elements.
Some survey respondents are even willing to associate with having used force or violence for a political end. This form of collective action is commonly found in competitive autocratic regimes like Uganda (11%) and Sudan, Venezuela, and Nicaragua (each 5%) (GBS, 2015). Fierce dissent may well be a reaction to, and a reflection of, an inculcated culture of political violence that dates back to times when incumbent rulers first came to power as guerrilla fighters or military coup makers.
Popular rebellion against autocracy poses a classic collective action problem: Is it rational for individual actors to openly challenge an entrenched and well-armed authority? The activists who make the first move in a rebellion face the prisoner’s dilemma of lacking reliable information on whether others will ever join in. For theorists of rebellion, a conundrum also remains about the timing of protest. If autocrats successfully suppress dissent over long periods of time, what explains sudden eruptions of contentious politics, as in Eastern Europe (1989–1991), sub-Saharan Africa (1989–1994), Central Europe and Eurasia (1998–2005), or the Arab world (2011–2013)? After all, the underlying pattern of popular grievances—unemployment, deprivation, corruption, denial of basic liberties—hardly changes over decades. So, as Kuran (1991) asks: Why now?
Political scientists have tendered various explanations. Rational choice theorists propose that self-interested political actors perceive a changing balance between the known costs and expected benefits of protest; mass actors are especially sensitive to tipping points, such as when autocratic rulers reveal weakness by making tentative political reforms. Theorists of political culture make reference to the activation of new forms of collective consciousness, such as shared religious identities or victimization by human rights violations. Diffusion theorists add the element of political information, a limited resource that may circulate among citizens or spread from neighboring countries. Weyland (2012) argues that the Arab Spring did not lead to democracy anywhere in the region except Tunisia because activists in Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere drew faulty inferences about the applicability of the Tunisian case to their own circumstances. Critically, cross-national efforts at emulation overlooked the necessity of united opposition leadership and strong grassroots organization.
All these insights capture part of the complex processes by which citizens decide whether to challenge autocratic governments. An especially interesting line of further inquiry draws attention less to political rationality and more to political emotions (Pearlman, 2013). An individual’s feelings—whether shameful emotions like fear and humiliation, or motivating emotions like anger and pride—tend to drive political attitudes and behavior. As people interpret information, arrive at judgments, and decide on courses of action, emotions compete with rationality, often overpowering it. Whereas negative sentiments make people averse to risk and thereby inhibit action, positive passions lead them to discount the costs of action and thereby accept a measure of danger. In Pearlman’s interpretation, the Arab Spring was a revolutionary cascade in which first-mover activists successfully induced passive nonactivists to conquer fear and find the righteous courage to dissent. In her words, “what uprisings across the Arab world held in common, and what distinguished them from the past, was the dramatic transformation from dispiriting to emboldening emotions evidenced by large portions of the population, especially those who had never before participated in public resistance” (Pearlman, 2013, p. 401).
In the 21st century, any explanation of the willingness of citizens to collectively confront autocratic governments must take into account the effects of new information and communications technology (ICT). The combined advent of mobile telephony and the Internet has spawned unprecedented popular opportunities to create, retrieve, and disperse politically relevant information. Whereas it was once easy for state elites to dominate the traditional mass media, ICT has flipped the script, making it relatively cheap and efficient for citizens to communicate independently with one another. In particular, social media platforms—like Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, YouTube, Instagram, and Skype—have created a virtual universe of connectivity that falls largely beyond the ambit of official control.
Journalistic accounts of popular social movements tend to celebrate, and thereby overestimate, the political impacts of ICT. True, users’ reports on the Internet about the devastating extent of a major earthquake in Sichuan province, China, in 2008—and corruption in the relief effort—may well have helped to hold the Chinese government accountable. And the rapid circulation of mobile-phone videos of police and army brutality in Egypt clearly amplified discontent, thus helping to mobilize vast crowds in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and bring down the Mubarak presidency. But, over the longer term, a repressive regime survived in China and was restored (with a vengeance) in Egypt. And, learning from experience, both governments subsequently enhanced their own ICT capacities, building sharper surveillance skills and stronger technical firewalls against the free flow of political criticism.
Scholars, therefore, arrive at nuanced conclusions about ICT’s political importance. For example, Anduiza, Jensen, and Jorba (2012) argue that context matters: In open societies, digital communication is increasingly baked into relations between citizen and state, but a digital divide continues to pervade closed autocracies, with Internet usage confined to small, privileged, cosmopolitan segments of the population. Bailard (2014) uses mixed methods—aggregate statistics, individual-level surveys, and field experiments—to confirm that Internet usage increases a citizen’s satisfaction with government performance in democracies but decreases it under autocracy. And a recent Afrobarometer study identifies two causal mechanisms that plausibly link mobile-phone usage to mass mobilization: an information effect, which makes individuals more responsive to economic downturns; and a coordination effect, which enhances individuals’ awareness of their neighbors’ participation in politics, including in mass protest (Manacorda & Tesei, 2016).
Even so, ICT is not automatically a liberation technology. Preliminary cross-national evidence suggests that new means of communication may have larger effects on unconventional and violent forms of mass protest—including by extremist groups—than on peaceful and conventional political activities like voting. And, given the abusive tenor of much social media discourse—including hate speech—ICT usage may contribute to political polarization and undermine interpersonal trust and political toleration. Most important, technology addresses only part of the collective action dilemma: While it may improve the flow of information among citizens, or even encourage them to take to the streets, it does not necessarily lead to the construction of viable popular organizations that can sustain resistance to authoritarian regimes. Because of these deficits, analysts should not assume that popular adoption of new ICTs represents an easy or quick fix for the persistent problem of resilient autocracy.
Lessons and Questions
Mass political behavior is shaped, to an important extent, by the nature of political regimes. Generally speaking, autocracies—whether dictatorial, military, or one-party—impose institutional limits on the space available for active citizen participation. In contrast to democratic settings, people under repressive rule tend to express distinctive attitudes: an inhibited sense of political efficacy, an uncritical willingness to trust existing institutions, an aversion to political risk, and sometimes even a pervasive fear of political authority. As for political behavior, subjects of autocratic regimes have few opportunities to enter voluntary associations or engage in conventional forms of collective action. Although these individuals may turn out at high rates for voting in elections or other state-managed political events, their behavior is more often mobilized from above than initiated autonomously from below.
Due also to official constraints on free inquiry, the study of political behavior under autocracy remains relatively underdeveloped. To advance the future state of the art, scholars will have to address a range of unanswered research questions: Under competitive authoritarianism, to what extent is voting for incumbents sincere or strategic? Apart from voting, how can citizens exploit other opportunities for conventional forms of political participation? Under what conditions does popular anger overwhelm both fear and rationality and induce large numbers to protest against closed and hegemonic regimes? What are the costs and benefits of violent popular resistance against state-sponsored repression? And how can social movements use new ICT to help build effective and durable mass-based opposition organizations?
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