popular democratization and
elite driven backsliding:
Support for democracy and
The democratic attitudes of economic elites—rather than regular people—are a far stronger predictor of future regime changes. This article finds that as economic elites turn against key democratic principles then democratic decline becomes increasingly likely and public attitudes—whether more democratic or authoritarian—have little bearing on the process. On the other hand, future democratization is much more likely when elites and the public are both committed to democracy. The evidence shows that whereas democratic decline is most often an elite driven process, cross-class coalitions do indeed appear to guarantee a stronger democracy. Distributional conflict helps explain these two diverging paths away from and toward democracy. In states with worsening economic inequality, wealthy elites are more likely to hold authoritarian attitudes and their preferences have a stronger relationship with regime changes. This argument is borne out by time series analyses of 84 countries over 25 years, from 1995 to 2020.
The President’s Men:
Authoritarian Coalition Building via Executive Appointments
If democratic backsliding occurs due to the gradual undermining of democratic institutions by incumbent presidents and prime ministers (Bermeo 2016; Svolik 2015), then which institutions are most vulnerable to manipulation by these self-aggrandizing executives? Inferring from the literature on authoritarian stability, the usual suspects are political parties (Brownlee 2007; Magaloni 2008), legislatures (Gandhi 2008), elections (Blaydes 2010), cabinet appointments (Arriola 2009), and advisory councils (Boix and Svolik 2013). I argue that cabinet positions and top-level advisor appointments provide would-be autocrats the quickest and most effective means to coopt elites and build a stable authoritarian coalition. Such appointments represent a mechanism for making promises of patronage that are more credible and more directly under the executive’s control than patronage facilitated by their party. In other words, a leader with expressly authoritarian ambitions would prefer to use the executive to build their coalition, rather than their party, because parties are accountable to a wider assortment of actors and are more likely to be governed internally by democratic norms (Mainwaring 2018; Kaufman 2011). Elites who join the executive’s coalition via such appointments have incentives to maintain their privileged access and therefore are more likely to support institutional changes that entrench the position of the current executive.