From Birth to Death: The Life Cycle of Dictatorships

A Review on “How Dictatorships Work: Power, Personalization, and Collapse” by Barbara Geddes, Joseph Wright and Erica Frantz

On “how governments work”, there is a concentration of scholarship on functioning of democracies, and thus the operation of dictatorships is relatively less known. This may be construed as the purpose of authors to start this research. Although the book is titled as “How Dictatorship Works”, what it delineates is not limited to how dictatorship regime operates and functions, but expands to how the regimes are established as well as how they end. Therefore, more accurately, this study, following a chronological order of challenges by dictatorial regimes, covers the entire life cycle of dictatorships from cradle to grave that includes the regime initiation, consolidation, implementation, and disintegration.

In the stage of regime establishment, the authors use descriptive language to present how dictatorships start, who leads the power seizure, what factors contribute the successful regime change and how the post-seizure ruling organization is arranged. The authors classify the dictatorship initiation methods into six types: coups, insurgencies, uprisings, foreign imposition, elite rule changing and authoritarianization, provide distribution of these power seizure methods for post-WWII dictatorships and a breakdown of dictatorships in terms of different seizure groups (military, party-based, neither, and both), and describe the immediate situations after the establishment of dictatorship through each kind of power seizure approach.

Subsequently, the scholars single out military coup for further study and as “coups initiate the largest proportion of dictatorships” with the highest success rate. Building on previous researches, the authors discuss various purposes of coups (regime-changing coups, leader-shuffling coups), expect different coup methods are related to “different officer motivations, political contexts and social forces” (P. 45), and compare conditions for regime-changing coups which is further divided into coups that terminated democracies and coups that replaced dictatorship with another dictatorship. Pointing out that Milan Svolik’s argument that relates income inequality to coup likelihood failed to distinguish regime-changing from leader-shuffling coups, they retest the income inequality theory by treating different coup types differently and reach the conclusion that inequality level is only with leader-changing coups in existing dictatorships, suggesting that regime-changing coups are not motivated by fears of popular demand for income redistribution among elites. Alternatively, based on empirical evidence, the authors also contend that ethnic disparity in military is associated with more coups that replaced the regime as “ethnic heterogeneity predisposes military to factionalism” (P. 57).

Proceeding into regime consolidation, the authors shift focus to the effect of ruling elite unity or factionalism on power concentration of dictators. They start with description of the dilemma within the inner circle characterized by two kinds of interactions: cooperative interaction where all members and factions of the ruling elite work together to ensure stability of the regime, and non-cooperative interaction featuring infighting among different members and factions over distribution of more power and resources that might destabilize the regime (P. 67). The authors then apply this conflicting unity-factionalism dichotomy to explain the power bargaining process between the dictator (the selected leader by ruling group) and the dictatorial elites (other members of the ruling group). Despite that the ruling group expects the selected leader to represent their interest, implement the collectively-made policies, as opposed to unilaterally implement policies disliked by the groups or exclude and purge any individual elite member and allies, there’s no binding rules or institutional checks on the chosen leader. Therefore, the only deterrent that prevents the dictatorial leader from abusing his power is to ouster him. On the other hand, for the dictator, the only way to counter the credible threat to ouster him is to concentrate power for personalism which is measured by eight innovatively outlined indicators: personal control of security apparatus, creation of loyalist forces, control of composition in party executive committee, rubber-stamp role of party executive committee, personal control of appointments, creation of new party to support the regime, control of military promotions, and purges of opponents (P. 79-80). The empirical evidence enables the authors to argue that the dictator’s personalization efforts is associated with the extent of factionalism. Specifically, when the ruling inner circle members show unity and solidarity in bargaining power with the chosen leader, they are more likely forestall the personalization efforts of the dictator or have the capability to ouster him and thus force him to share powers; on the contrary, when the ruling group is divided and factionalized, it’s less likely to deter the dictator from concentrating power in his own hand.

In addition, the authors further the research into the dictator’s incentives to bring in new political actors (such as civilian supportive groups and new party) as alternative survival strategy in the scenario where ruling elites remain unitary and command sufficient resources like armed forces to pose credible threat to ouster the dictator so that he has to share power to form a collegial leadership. The authors maintain that introducing civilian supporters increases diversity of interests and reduces the unity of inner circle and the bargaining power of the ruling elites, and thus contributing to personalization of dictatorial power (P. 124). Based on the premise that the dictatorship is established via military coup, the authors examine creation of party by dictator after power seizure as the means of building up civilian support network, and empirically demonstrate that the post-seizure party creation is effective in extending dictator’s tenure and reducing the coup likelihood.

As for how dictatorships operate and implement policies, the authors highlight two types of dilemmas that nearly all of such regimes may face: How does dictatorial leader gather accurate information from grassroot levels for decision making? How does coercive institution serve as double-edged sword for the dictator? The dictatorial leadership needs information on the difficulties, grievances or discontent of the population across the country, but the dictatorship regime itself “distorts and disrupts” information gathering because power-abusing local officials have the tendency to not to report accurate information and even honest local officials is neither willing to reveal local issues accurately for fear of being blamed or punished (P. 129-130). The authors discuss arguments for some forms of institutional arrangements (party network and legislature) in dictatorial regimes to address the information dilemma, but propose a fresh argument for the role of election in dictatorships: local and legislative elections serve as barometer for performance of local officials and thus “partially compensate for regime leaders’ limited ability to monitor local agents” (P. 151), in addition to the argument that elections demonstrate dictator’s ability to control and mobilize resources, show the popular support and thus deter his opponents and defectors. To win elections, local officials have to distribute resources and benefits to develop grassroot network, which is validated by empirical evidence that elections are accompanied by rising budgetary spending, which prompted the authors to interpret that “elections incentivize local deputies and officials to deliver benefits to grassroots” (P. 152).

Coercion is another dilemma and also a distinctive characteristic of dictatorships. Insufficient coercion and repression embolden prospective opposition that may threaten the regime survival, whereas heavy-handed coercive measures not only alienate allies and moderates within the regime, but also “drive elite and mass opposition underground” and thus worsen its information dilemma (P. 155). The authors discuss different kinds of security apparatuses, such as internal security agency, paramilitary forces and military, before they focus on the dictator’s personalized coercive institutions. It’s argued that the dictator’s personalization of internal security forces symbolizes a major step towards gaining advantage over other inner circle members (P. 174), but also, based on empirical data, extends the survival of the regime (P. 162). Military is the last defense against rebellion or popular uprising, but also the most frequent means to overthrow the dictator. Therefore, for fear of military coup, the dictator has to establish paramilitary forces as personal guard or interfere in military affairs through recruitment and promotion of loyal officers and purges of potential opponents or challengers (P. 174).

The authors eventually came to discuss how dictatorship dies and survives and explain why some die and why some survive. The empirical data between 1946 and 2010 show the distribution of events that led to the dictatorship breakdown, which include coup, election, uprising, insurgency, insider rule-changing, foreign imposition, and state dissolution. Then the authors go on to discuss rational choices of individuals to support or oppose the dictatorship regime. While regime insiders take a bunch of factors into consideration including probability (of current regime survival, of achieving position in current or new regime), benefits (of holding office in current regime and new regime), and cost (of opposing the current regime) (P. 182), ordinary citizens’ decision to join opposition subject to their perceived probability of continuously receiving benefits from the regime as well as cost of opposition (P. 184). These considerations, combined with extensive and expensive patron-clientele networks in dictatorship, reveal an intrinsic paradoxical fragility of the dictatorships. The authors believe that events like economic crisis or natural disaster that may negatively affect or disrupt continuous expectation of benefits to ruling elite and citizens and reduce their perceived probability of regime survival are likely to destabilize the dictatorship and cause its downfall. Likewise, despite that empirical data shows some measures taken by the dictator towards personalization are associated with extended survival of dictatorship, the authors also demonstrate empirically that it’s more difficult for personalized dictatorship to survive power transition after the natural death of dictator in comparison to dictatorship with collegial leadership (P. 203-204), which constitute another paradox in dictatorship. Looking into what follows the dictatorship breakdown, the authors explain that it depends how dictator and other ruling elites perceive the cost of losing power, how they are willing to negotiate an exit, type of leadership (personalized or collegial), and the background of dictatorial elites (coming from military or ruling party) (P. 211).

This research may contribute to academia in three strands. First, while existing studies focus on any specific stage in development of dictatorship or any aspect in operation of dictatorships, the book is ambitious and comprehensive in its coverage of an entire lifespan of dictatorship, from how it begins, how it consolidates, how it works and how it dies. Second, the authors propose fascinating typology to classify power-seizure methods (coups, insurgency, uprising, foreign imposition, authorizationization, elite rule-changing), seizure leading groups (military officers, parties), seizure functions (regime-changing and leader-changing), dictatorship breakdown triggers (coups, election, insurgency, uprising, insider rule-changing, foreign imposition, state dissolution) and employ detailed and sophisticated coding schemes that set limits and conditions to identify what types of events mark the starts and ends of dictatorships, which, together with creation of personalism index, offers viable path and guidance for prospective junior researchers to approach dictatorship studies.

Meanwhile, this research is not without limitation, though not fatal. First and foremost, in this book, the authors have mentioned “autocracy”, “authoritarian”, and “dictatorship”, but failed to address differences among these terms. From the fact that “authoritarianization” is identified as one of the methods to initiate dictatorship, it can. be guessed that the authors may consider authoritarianism is a sub-type of dictatorship. However, throughout the text, these terms are used in an exchangeable way, which may create a misconception that these dictatorship equals authoritarianism and autocracy. Thus, in avoidance of a conceptual chaos, it might be imperative that the authors provide clear definitions on “autocracy”, “authoritarian” and “dictatorship”. In addition, it’s understandable that the authors select “military coup” for further research since it’s the most frequent method to start as well as to end dictatorships, but doing this may render this apparently “complete” dictatorship research with a sense of “incompleteness” because the other methods are largely left unaddressed. What’s more problematic is that the arguments about the later stages of dictatorship are largely built on the premise that the regime is initiated through military coups. Given that researches on dictatorships started via other means might produce claims different from or even conflicting with some of the arguments in this book, some arguments drawn only from research on dictatorship established via coups might not be applicable across the board.

However, it’s these limitations that will inspire and encourage junior scholars to further expand the scope of this research into dictatorships established via other methods. Take the argument that “party creation” is a way of mobilizing mass citizens to counterbalance military elite group and support the dictator for example. Obviously, this is only applicable to military dictatorships initiated via coups that has yet to create mass parties. In some civilian dictatorships established via party-led insurgency, the dictators, when blamed or embattled for any policy failure, also look to bringing in the mass to struggle against his political opponents or peer civilian elite members, but via different approaches other than party creation that include ideology-based division, anti-corruption campaign and inflaming hostility towards foreign powers. This phenomenon deserves equal attention from future scholars.