Mass of people wearing masks march with red and white umbrellas.

Revolutions and lasting change: Part II

This week, Critical State takes a deep dive into a new article that locates the source of durable autocratic regimes not in the safety of the regimes’ early years — but in the chaos of that time.

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People attend an opposition rally to reject the Belarusian presidential election results in Minsk, Belarus, Oct. 26, 2020. 


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Last week, Critical State took a deep dive into a paper that investigated the source of institutional strength in revolutionary democracies. The authors found that democratic institutions grew stronger in the Reconstruction-era American South in the areas where federal soldiers were deployed. Black communities were better able to build institutions to access power in a democratic system that could withstand eventual violent white backlash when they were protected in the early years by a strong-armed force.

Related: Revolutions and lasting change: Part I

This week’s paper tracks a different evolutionary pattern. Revolutionary democracies are fragile, but the opposite is true of revolutionary autocracies. Non-revolutionary authoritarian governments last just 15 years on average, while revolutionary authoritarian governments average nearly 40 years in power. The question is, why does the revolutionary origin of an authoritarian government matter so much in determining its durability? In a new article in the journal World Politics, political scientists Jean Lachapelle, Steven Levitsky, Lucan Way, and Adam Casey locate the source of durable autocratic regimes not in the safety of the regimes’ early years but in the chaos of that time.

Related: Putting the 'scare' in scarcity conflicts: Part I 

The existing theories of why governments last for long periods have little to say about regime origin, Lachapelle et al. write. Regime origin doesn’t determine a country’s economic growth or natural resource allocations, both of which tend to help authoritarians stay in power. Strong ruling party institutions — another indicator of authoritarian longevity — are more likely the result of a revolution than the cause of one. There is, then, something particular about revolutions that produce long-lasting autocratic rule.

Related: Putting the 'scare' in scarcity conflicts: Part II 

For Lachapelle et al., that particular thing is the disorder of the revolution itself. The period of upheaval brought on by the revolution, they argue, creates a situation in which budding revolutionaries have to achieve supremacy quickly in order to ever take control of the state in the first place. When creating order from chaos, there are powerful incentives to create institutions that lend themselves to autocracy. If the institutions created are powerful enough to take control of the revolution, then it stands to reason that they’ll be powerful enough to remain in place for a long time.

To test their theory, Lachapelle et al. looked at all the autocratic regimes since 1900 and measured their likelihood to fall for each additional year they stayed in power. By controlling for economic growth, prosperity, population and oil and gas production, they set aside all the popular explanations of authoritarian longevity that do not relate to revolutionary origins. Holding those variables equal, growing out of a revolution indicates that an authoritarian government is 74% less likely to fall in any given year than a non-revolutionary authoritarian government.

With the effect of revolutions established, the authors then dug into the question of whether revolutionaries actually produced more effective authoritarian institutions early on in their rule than non-revolutionaries. By measuring civil society strength, military size and party control over the military and government, they checked how quick and effective autocrats were at seizing control. Under revolutionary autocracies, civil society was weaker, militaries larger, and parties stronger, in control of both the military and the government than under non-revolutionary autocracies.

To say that the state makes war and war makes the state is hardly a new observation in political science. Yet, Lachapelle et al. detail how particular forms of ambitious, ideological struggle incentivize particular forms of statehood. An autocracy that brought its form of order from chaos will likely outlast one that simply transitioned from another form of state order.

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