Authoritarianism in a Global Context
Chair: Martin K. Dimitrov
Despite the impressive gains made by democracy in the last several decades, more than half of the world’s population still lives in autocracies today. A few years ago, Freedom House called attention to an important trend: the global retreat of democracy, which was expressed as a net decline in the number of polities classified as “free.” More than a year after the Arab Spring, democracy has yet to take root in the Middle East: the events of 2011 resulted only in Tunisia’s elevation from “not free” to “partly free,” a category that also includes autocracies like Kuwait, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine. What explains this persistence of authoritarianism? Why is it that momentous changes, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Arab Spring have resulted in the emergence of democracy only in some countries and the persistence of autocracy in others? And, finally, why has a cluster of countries, key among them being China, survived the fall of communism in Europe, the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Color Revolutions in the post-Soviet republics, and the Arab Spring without experiencing regime collapse?
Despite their theoretical importance and clear relevance to policy makers, these questions have not been answered by the existing social science literature. There are three reasons for this gap in our knowledge. The first is that because of disciplinary boundaries, scholars work on authoritarianism in isolation; this prevents, for example, political scientists from engaging with the work of historians and vice versa. Second, the world of autocracies is regionally divided: scholars work on authoritarianism in the Middle East, East Asia, or the post-Soviet space, but they do not engage in cross-regional research that can identify the commonalities and differences across these regions and provide a more comprehensive and theoretically rigorous answer to the question of the global persistence of authoritarianism. And third, there are linguistic and geographical divisions that prevent American scholars from learning about the exciting new research on authoritarianism that is taking place in Europe.