Working on North Korea full time is not good for the soul. As a result, both Marc Noland and I keep what we call our “day jobs.” Marc works on topics from sports and gender to international trade; I also write on international and comparative politics, recently with an emphasis on regime change.
Robert Kaufman and I have recently published a new book with Princeton University Press on inequality and regime change titled Dictators and Democrats: Masses, Elites and Regime Change. The book takes on powerful theoretical work by Carles Boix (here and in a new book here) and Jim Robinson and Daron Acemoglu (here) that suggests a link between inequality and regime change: that democratization is unlikely in highly unequal authoritarian regimes and reversion to authoritarian rule more likely when inequality is high as well. Their work has gained salience because of growing interest in inequality, including in Asia.
We argue that despite the deductive merits of the theory—both Boix and Acemoglu and Robinson do some impressive formal modeling—there is scant empirical support for their claims, at least during the Third Wave of democratization that we date from 1980 through 2008 (with the end date reflecting in part data constraints).
The interesting question is why. One reason is that mass mobilization is only one route through which regime changes occur, and mass mobilization around distributive grievances is but a subset of those transitions. Some transitions to democratic rule are more purely elite affairs, driven by international pressures and calculations about how both political and material interests of elites can be safeguarded even under more open politics; as we know, democracy has hardly prevented the increasing inequality visible in the Anglo-Saxon democracies in particular. And transitions from democratic rule are more and more driven by a phenomenon we call “backsliding,” in which incumbents accrete power at the expense of open political competition, political and civil liberties; think the competitive-authoritarian regimes such as Putin’s. Inequality does not appear to play a central role in these reversions either.
A methodological contribution of the book is to consider these propositions both through a variety of standard cross-national panel designs, but also through a qualitative dataset providing narrative accounts of all of the transitions in two widely-used datasets; we think hard about how inference can be supported by the use of mixed methods and case analysis.
At one level, this work has few implications for countries like North Korea that do not enter into the analysis since they have never transitioned from authoritarian rule; what makes such systems resilient is ultimately beyond the scope of our inquiry. However, it is quite possible that certain cases such as North Korea in fact do conform with class-conflict theories. As inequalities widen, the stakes of political liberalization become greater.
But we ultimately put more weight on institutions and the role of civil society. One finding of the book: that transitions to democratic rule are more likely where authoritarian regimes already allow a modicum of competition and where there are independent sources of social power—such as unions or churches—in civil society. That North Korea does not meet these conditions hardly needs stating. Never rule out sources of authoritarian resilience.
Other Academic Sources Posts.
This series is designed to showcase academic social science work broadly relevant to the Korean peninsula even if not directly on it. Nominations are always welcome.
Faisal Z. Ahmed on the effect of remittances on the longevity of autocracies.
Jessica Weeks on types of autocracy and propensity for conflict.
Levitsky and Way on the durability of authoritarian regimes
Emilie Hafner-Burton on the international human rights regime
Kathryn Sikkink's Justice Cascade
Aleman and Woods on Travel Restrictions
Hendrix and Haggard on food prices and protest
Guriev and Treisman on information and authoritarian rule
Victor Shih et. al. on Chinese elites
Gartzke and Kroenig on Quantitative Research on Nuclear Weapons