Why Social Revolutions Produce Durable Authoritarianism

Durable Authoritarianism

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Revolutions and Durable Authoritarianism

Revolutionary governments capture the imagination. Their origins have mythic qualities. Those involved become heroes and villains of epic proportions. Moreover, the regimes they establish frequently survive for generations. Indeed, most of the revolutionary regimes of the twentieth century exist to this day. Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way refer to this phenomenon as durable authoritarianism. They find, “Authoritarian regimes that emerged out of violent social revolution survived, on average, nearly three times as long as their nonrevolutionary counterparts. Revolutionary regimes broke down at an annual rate that was barely a fifth that of nonrevolutionary regimes.” Some of their examples of lasting authoritarian regimes include China, Iran, and Cuba.

Most authoritarian regimes are highly unstable. They struggle to build institutions and fail to establish cohesive political elites. The depend on fragile coalitions that may last decades, but rarely generations. In contrast, “revolutionary regimes are among the world’s most durable autocracies,” write Levitsky and Way. “They are also the most reckless. This is no coincidence.” Mao and Stalin brought about famines on their people. Iran held Americans hostage in 1979. Most revolutionary governments engage in violent wars. Levitsky and Way argue the durability of revolutionary regimes is not despite this recklessness but a direct cause of it.

The durability of revolutionary regimes has three foundations. It must establish a cohesive elite, loyal army, and eliminate alternative sources of power. Violent conflict creates the need for a loyal army. It also establishes a cohesive elite as a necessity for regime survival. Finally, they eliminate alternative sources of power. It is a brutal combination that is difficult to replicate. Moreover, the consequences almost always lead to tragedy for countless people.

Levitsky and Way are possibly the most important political scholars of their generation. This is the book to read for 2022. It’s absolutely essential reading.

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2 thoughts on “Why Social Revolutions Produce Durable Authoritarianism

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  1. Perhaps the reason new Democracies fail is because they’re envisioning an insufficient form of Democracy, either a Presidential, (& inevitably two party) one, or a (virtually) two party parliamentary one. What is rather needed is Win-Win, Top Dead Center, Ranked Ballot, (RB), voters ranking candidates in order of preference to find the most perfect compromise. This results in taking the majority from the middle, not the extremes & always giving the minority a say in which member of the majority gets chosen, allows for more than just two choices, & makes many centrist proposals way more possible, like random committee assignments, weak chairs, chosen by secret RB of the committee members, bills brought up in number of cosponsors order, consensus chamber leaderships, chosen by secret RB, heads of controversial agencies approved by supermajorities, and Women’s Equal Representation, one of each district’s TWO reps of each gender.
    Easiest to explain Additive RB is counting the first choices, and then, if noone has,50%, adding in the next, and so on, till someone, most exactly in the middle, finally does.
    By their fruits you shall know them.

    1. Zoe, thanks for your comments. I think there’s a misunderstanding that the revolutions begin as democratic. Levitsky and Way refer to social revolutions that never intend to democratize. Check out the podcast tomorrow to hear how they define social revolutions. You can also listen to my conversation with Mark Beissinger to discuss urban civic revolutions that have produced some successful democracies.

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