Image Credit: Christopher Carothers

Image Credit: Christopher Carothers


Academic Articles

"The Surprising Instability of Competitive Authoritarianism" (Journal of Democracy, Oct. 2018)

After many countries that had embarked upon transitions in the 1980s and 1990s failed to become consolidated democracies, political scientists highlighted the widespread emergence of hybrid regimes, which combine authoritarian and democratic features. Scholars argued such regimes were stable, with some positing that quasi-democratic institutions actually strengthened authoritarianism. But an examination of competitive authoritarianism (CA)—the most prominent of these hybrid types—suggests instability is the norm. Of 35 regimes identified as having been CA between 1990 and 1995, most have either democratized or been replaced by new autocracies. Furthermore, quasi-democratic institutions often contributed to CA’s breakdown. In short, hybrid regimes have not become a new form of stable nondemocratic rule.

Working Papers

"When Do Dictators Go It Alone? Personalism in Authoritarian Regimes" (revise and resubmit, Perspectives on Politics)

Why are some autocrats able to personalize power within their regimes while others are not? While past studies have focused on the relationship between the autocrat and their supporting coalition of peer or subordinate elites, we find that, often, the crucial relationship is between the autocrat and retired leaders, party elders, and other elites of the outgoing generation. We argue that authoritarian regimes are more likely to resist a personalist takeover when members of this “old guard” retain oversight capacity over their successor, restraining them from overturning norms of collective rule and maximizing individual power. When oversight breaks down, a new leader has more opportunity to personalize power. We illustrate this argument in three least-likely case studies of personalization in regimes where collective rule was already established or attempted: China under President Xi Jinping, Saudi Arabia under Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, and Russia under President Vladimir Putin. In addition, we use an original dataset of authoritarian leadership transitions to demonstrate the generalizability of this relationship across three regions, and to rule out potential confounders. This study introduces oversight capacity as a new concept that deepens our understanding of elite politics and inter-generational conflict in authoritarian regimes.

"Democratic Institutions, Corruption, and Authoritarian Durability" (revise and resubmit, Democratization)

A growing literature in the study of authoritarianism argues that institutions commonly associated with democratic politics often serve to strengthen nondemocratic regimes. One key mechanism proposed by the literature is that democratic institutions, such as elections, facilitate patronage distribution, buying the autocrat support. I argue, however, that the political uncertainty democratic institutions bring incentivizes autocrats to rely heavily on corruption to stay in power, and that this corruption tends to undermine durability. Corruption can weaken state capacity and bureaucratic responsiveness, undercut economic growth and stability, and reduce regime legitimacy by inciting public anger. This essay examines four cases: “high-performing” authoritarian regimes in Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan. The magnitude of the problem of corruption for autocrats, along with other risks underappreciated by this literature, leads me to conclude that democratic institutions generally create major problems for authoritarian regimes.

“Taking Authoritarian Anti-Corruption Reform Seriously” (under review)

Scholars generally assume that authoritarian regimes will not curb corruption because autocrats benefit from it politically, use anti-corruption campaigns as excuses to purge rivals, and reject democratic institutions widely thought to reduce corruption, such as judicial independence and the rule of law. However, I argue that authoritarian anti-corruption success is more common than is widely acknowledged. Using a novel scoring system for anti-corruption efforts, I find that there have been at least nine authoritarian success cases in recent decades. Despite the association between democracy and corruption control, these successes have been by fully authoritarian regimes, rather than hybrid regimes, and employed a decidedly authoritarian approach, rather than the conventional approach emphasizing democratic institutions. This authoritarian approach to corruption control commonly includes four methods: power centralization, institutional disruption, top-down control and enforcement, and regime propaganda. This essay illustrates these points with a “least-likely” case study of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s controversial anti-corruption campaign. At the theoretical level, this essay suggests that authoritarian regimes succeed in overcoming challenges—corruption being an especially hard challenge—through their own particular institutional strengths, rather than by mimicking democracies. This points to the need to reconsider certain influential views in the study of authoritarianism.

“The Politics of Corruption and Anti-Corruption in North Korea: From Kim Il Sung to Kim Jong Un” (under review)

This article examines the North Korean government’s anti-corruption efforts from the 1950s through today. It uses archival evidence to show that Kim Il Sung was deeply concerned with the problem of government corruption and launched anti-corruption campaigns during the Korean War and afterwards to assist economic development. However, economic and political crises in the 1990s led to an explosion of corruption, which the regime came to accept and rely on as a means of ensuring its political survival. Today, Kim Jong Un’s anti-corruption is mostly empty gestures, and the government is seen as one of the most, if not the most, corrupt in the world. This article challenges theories that suggest that authoritarian regimes uniformly benefit from corruption. It does this by explaining the difference between Kim Il Sung’s development-oriented administration, which saw corruption as a weakness, and Kim Jong Un’s survival-oriented administration, which depends on corruption politically and economically.

Media Publications

"The One Thing Modern Voters Hate Most" with Thomas Carothers (Foreign Policy, 2018)

Seeking Political Stability Abroad? Fight Corruption.” with Thomas Carothers (The National Interest, 2018)

 “Is the Saudi Purge Really About Corruption?” with Andrew Leber (Foreign Affairs, 2017)

 “Trump is Undercutting America’s Allies and Strengthening China’s Hand” (The Diplomat, 2017)

 “The Turning Point for South Korean Democracy” (The Diplomat, 2017)

 “Conversations With North Koreans” (NK News, 2015)

“A New Outlet For China’s Consumerism” (The Wall Street Journal Asia, 2012)

“The Wrong Way to Fix Wenzhou” (The Wall Street Journal Asia, 2011)

“Brush Up On Your Mandarin, Mr. Bond” (The Wall Street Journal Asia, 2011)