Economic Threats or Societal Turmoil? Understanding Preferences for Authoritarian Political Systems

Steven V. Miller, Department of Political Science, Clemson University,

Twitter: @stevenvmiller.


Why do some individuals want to be governed by autocrats? This has been an important question for those interested in the emergence and success of authoritarian governments in regions like Latin America and Eastern Europe. Prominent state leaders like Hugo Chávez, Alberto Fujimori, and Vladimir Putin engaged in power grabs and consolidation of authority in their office that their typical citizen wanted. This is even a timely question now in the United States. Donald Trump’s primary success, his vow that “I alone can fix“America’s political problems, and the questionable constitutionality of his policy proposals have all revealed a dark undercurrent to American politics noted in The Guardian and The Washington Post. There is a large subset of Americans with a fickle attachment to democracy and a preference for authoritarian governments. Why do we observe these political attitudes here and across the globe?

Our most accessible explanations for these political attitudes in support of authoritarian governments draw attention to worsening economic conditions or societal turmoil. Worsening economic conditions, like the notorious case of hyperinflation in Weimar Germany or the severe economic contractions in Peru prior to Fujimori’s electoral victory, lead citizens to want to “escape from freedom”, empowering autocrats to provide for their economic well-being. Societal turmoil entails the threat of violence that leads individuals to seek the Hobbesian leviathan to “overawe” citizens in the name of order. Both are intuitive explanations but both occur simultaneously in small samples and conspicuous cases. We typically observe the phenomenon we want to explain and then analyze backward to understand the conditions that led to these outcomes.

My forthcoming article in Political Behavior helps us understand whether worsening economic conditions or societal conflict drive political attitudes in favor of authoritarian governments. I model a variety of economic indicators and societal duress indicators into two separate indices. I then estimate the partial effects of each on attitudes in favor of strong leaders unencumbered by elections or legislatures, rule of government by the military, technocracy, and opposition to democracy using three waves of World Values Survey data. I find that economic indicators have the most robust effect on political attitudes in favor of authoritarian governments. Worsening economic indicators at the country-level lead to a greater likelihood of an individual-level preference for strong leaders, military rule, and opposition to democracy. Societal threat indicators only lead to a greater preference for army rule. Concerned citizens and scholars that want to understand why citizens want autocratic governments to rule them can better understand these phenomena as functions of economic turmoil and not necessarily societal conflict.

My analyses help citizens and academics better understand the macroeconomic and societal foundations of support for autocratic governments. In particular, I report that income inequality has a unique effect on support for all forms of autocratic governments with just the exception for technocracy. Often cited indicators like national unemployment rates, inflation, and GDP contraction only foster opposition to democracy and not a preference for a particular autocratic alternative. The results also fit within Fromm’s seminal argument about the behavioral roots of totalitarianism (i.e. Nazism, in his case). I connect these findings to his argument about the emergence of the modern economy and how citizens will forgo “positive freedom” (i.e. “freedom to”) to limit the negative effects of normal economic cycles.





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