Thursday, February 23, 2012

Varieties of Political Competition

(Part 1.5 of a series on the history ofpolitical regimes. This gets a bit technical in the second half, which contains a sort of blurry sketch of a theory of political regimes)

Our political vocabulary has a very long history. Terms like democracy, dictatorship, autocracy, tyranny, and even words of more recent vintage like authoritarianism or totalitarianism carry a great deal of descriptive and evaluative baggage, acquired in the course of political debate over a long time. They are rich, many-layered concepts, useful for simultaneously referring to and evaluating complex and vaguely-defined combinations of institutional, cultural, and other aspects of social systems. But by the same token, all that baggage makes it very difficult to use these terms to track the history of political institutions in anything but the roughest fashion. Or at least the history of the forms of political competition for power in states.

Consider an apparently simple question like how long the USA has been democratic. Since independence in the late 18th century? Since the 1820s? Since reconstruction? Since the introduction of women’s suffrage? Since the 1960s? Never? Since the 1960s but only until recently? Until the 1930s? Historically, the idea of democracy has provided support for all of these answers, and all of them have had advocates. And though the current usage of the word "democracy" makes some answers more plausible than others, the controversy is pretty much ineradicable. We may at best be able to agree that the USA today is likely to be more democratic in some ways than in the late 19th century (a more inclusive suffrage, more tolerance of certain forms of dissent), but perhaps less democratic in other ways than in the 1930s (a more entrenched and pervasive national security bureaucracy that is impervious to political control, greater structural barriers to entry into political competition, etc.). Moreover, even if we agreed that the USA has been democratic for some particular period, this would not necessarily tell us much about how competition for control of the state changed during that time: how norms of leadership selection evolved, how barriers to entry into political competition changed, how the ability to constrain the actions of the winners of the competition for power waxed or waned, etc.

Now consider instead the question of how long the USA has selected its top political leadership via competitive elections where candidates must enlist the support of a substantial fraction of a relatively large group (much greater than Dunbar’s number) to gain power, and where entry into political competition is normatively regulated (there are relatively well-enforced rules about who can be a candidate for power) but where such regulation does not impose large formal barriers to entry (the rules imply the existence of large pool of potential candidates representing a wide variety of interests and with a wide variety of life experiences and skills, even if structural barriers like access to money or racism considerably reduce this pool in fact). This question is in principle answerable (a: since the early 20th century, at least), but it is not identical to the question of whether the USA is or ever was a democracy, whether in the USA “the people” or “the rich” or “the well connected” rule or have ever ruled, or indeed the question of whether its political system is any good at all.

It seems plausible to say that this method of leadership selection (competitive election) must be a component of democracy in large states (i.e., that no state without some such method of leadership selection can be called a democracy), yet this implies a whole theory of democracy relating competitive elections to ideals of inclusion and autonomy that is itself contestable. Ancient Greeks, for example, thought elections were characteristic of “oligarchic” regimes (rule by the rich), for understandable reasons having to do with the typical barriers to entry into political competition they presuppose (when offices are open to election, only the rich are able to compete for them effectively, as the American primary season certainly suggests); in their view, sortition [selection by lottery], not election, was more appropriate to the ideals of citizen equality implicit in the notion of demokratia (the power of the demos) and isonomia (citizen equality before the law) as they understood it. (They were certainly right for their political context; and perhaps their ideas are worth taking seriously today as well). Even the idea that elections are an institution of accountability (and hence something that helps “the people” to rule) rather than a mechanism of selection (useful only as an efficient way to discover the most talented rulers for an already established hierarchy) is a relatively recent development. At any rate, even if we agreed that competitive leadership selection through vote-gathering in large electorates is part of any definition of democracy in modern states, this does not imply that we would agree on the relative importance for democracy of such elections relative to, say, the inclusiveness of the electorate, the existence of a culture of tolerance, the responsiveness of elected officials to public opinion, or the protection of various rights.

From the point of view of trying to write a history of political regimes, it may thus be best to proceed in a disaggregated way: to speak not of democracy but of regimes where leadership selection is conducted on the basis of competitive elections with large electorates and few formal barriers to entry, for example, as I tried to do in my previous post. Instead of saying “democracy” we say CE/LG/LBE regimes (competitive elections/large group support/low barriers to entry). We thus substitute collections of small and relatively unimportant ideas like political competition through elections for large but important ideas like democracy, and then check whether these individually small and unimportant institutions come together in particular ensembles that make a difference to the things we care about. (E.g., like whether some particular combination of large-group elections, low barriers to entry into political competition, etc. actually tends to evolve over time, and whether these combinations tend to make a difference to the realization of particular ideals of autonomy or freedom). This avoids the historical tangledness of existing regime concepts, though at the cost of bracketing, at least for a time, evaluations of actual institutions. But at least then the important questions become either empirical (which institutions lead to the realization of particular ideals?) or purely philosophical (how should we weigh the relative importance of political values like equality, participation, etc.?).

I am primarily interested here in the institutions that shape political competition for the control of states (so non-state spaces are out of consideration for the moment), as well as the institutions that constrain the winners of such competition: the “varieties of political competition” for short. What we want to know are the “parameters” that describe such competition. What distinctions are useful for thinking about these varieties? A sketch of a theory of political competition might look at the following questions, only some of which overlap with the traditional concerns of democratic theory:

  1.  As in the previous post, we might want to know whether the selection of those who control the state is regulated by more or less “self-enforcing” norms or not; periods where people attain power primarily by force (coups, revolutions, etc) seem to be substantially different than periods where people attain power in a normatively regulated way. Whether norms are self-enforcing depends on the commitments and resources of the actors subject to them, not on the norms themselves, since no third parties outside the regime exist to enforce them by definition (in other words, constitutions are mere pieces of parchment unless everyone can credibly commit not to defect). It would then be useful to know whether we can say anything general about the conditions that make some selection norms (hereditary, competitive, etc.) self-enforcing, not just competitive electoral selection norms.
  2. We might also want to know which form the norm of leadership selection takes: whether the norm is to select people who fit a certain definite description (as in monarchies, where the next ruler is the heir of the current ruler), or to select people whose names are produced by some random process (lottery), or who meet a certain explicit standard (“meritocracy”), or, more commonly, who can show sufficient evidence of support within a group of “selectors” (election, acclamation, negotiation within the Politburo, etc.). (Mixtures of all of these selection norms are possible, especially when the state contains more than one center of power; in which case we might want to know something about the relative “powers” of these centers of power). Which selection norm is in force seems to have some effect on how long a leader is in power; selection norms that require a leader to show “evidence of support” appear to make it harder for leaders to keep control of states than selection norms that do not. It might also have an impact on the quality of political leaders (ungated), or on their social background. 
  3. We might wish to know the size of the group whose support must be mustered when selection is regulated by “evidence of support” or "random" norms, as well as the kinds of barriers to entry into this group. This is in part because when contenders for power must show support from large groups (say, 4-5 times Dunbar’s number, or around 600 people, the size of the typical Central Committee of a communist party), elective institutions almost invariably develop; usually the only way to show that you have the support of 100,000 people is to count them. Moreover, small selector groups almost always indicate highly hierarchical social structures, require different sorts of “payment” by contenders hoping to secure support, and are easier to “cartelize” (preventing contenders from expanding the boundaries of the group by escalating political competition outwards).
  4. We might wish to know the sort of “industrial organization” prevalent in the political arena (by analogy with this). For example, in many countries where control of the state is allocated to those who can show support from large numbers of adult citizens via elections, the political arena is typically organized around a few large multipurpose “firms” (parties) who are the main competitors for control, along with a large number of small special purpose groups (think-tanks, civil society groups, PACs, etc). Though the formal barriers to entry into this arena are low, the structural barriers are large (creating a party capable of appealing to large numbers of people takes real economic and symbolic resources), so that political competition operates in practice in an “oligopolic” manner. In other countries, political competition is fully monopolized by a single multipurpose “firm;” in yet others there is a dominant political firm but many special-purpose groups that cannot directly compete for power. Moreover, competition between the main “firms” in the political arena can be more or less regulated by norms that limit the permissible methods of competition. I know there is a well-developed theory of party systems for democracies, but it is not integrated with a theory of politico-industrial organization in other political systems; and we might want to put all of this in a single framework if we are interested in the history of the varieties of political competition.

Simplifying a bit, you might end up with a typology of varieties of political competition like this:

The table could be extended further; but it might get a bit too technical, and I’m not sure how illuminating it would be (more in part 2 with actual graphs and less theory, assuming part 2 ever arrives). The interesting questions would then be about which forms of politico-industrial organization can stably coexist with particular selection norms, and which of them actually produce good consequences, if any; but it might take me a while to get there, if ever.

Monday, February 20, 2012

A Very Short Quantitative History of Democracy, Dictatorship, and Other Political Regimes, Part I

(Part I of probably two).

Readers will have to forgive me, but I find dataset blogging addictive. One can use historical datasets to tell stories, not just to test models, yet outside economic history one hardly finds much quantitative history, much less quantitative political history, out there. Nevertheless, the Polity IV dataset I described in the previous post, with its long-run coverage and wealth of information about patterns of political authority at a global level, lends itself to the sort of quantitative history of political regimes I have in mind.  Though this sort of history is not always advisable, it provides a powerful antidote to the most common failings of what passes now for the history of democracy and other political regimes: excessive Eurocentrism, and annoying tendencies towards either Whig triumphalism or Hegelian determinism. (An exception here is Adam Przeworski’s excellent book Democracy and the Limits of Self-Government, whose self-consciously global perspective and use of long-run quantitative data makes it one of the most eye-opening books I’ve read on democracy and its history). My hope is that a little bit of quantitative history can mitigate some of the nonsense people seem to believe about democracy; and since I’ll soon start teaching my “Dictatorships and Revolutions” course again (more on this in a different post), I thought I’d try to use the Polity data to graphically chart the evolution of different patterns of political authority over the last couple of centuries for the benefit of students and perhaps others.

A couple of methodological points before starting. First, though the Polity IV data is pretty substantial, going back to 1800 in some cases, it does not track every single polity within that period. The focus is on nation-states, and indeed nation-states that have survived up to the present; lots of states that did not survive to the present time (because they were annexed by other states or disappeared through other processes) are not included, though some historical polities are (Prussia, Bavaria, Wuerttemburg, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, Sardinia, the Papal States, Modena, Parma, Tuscany, a few others). Colonial dependencies of these independent states are not coded; the dataset codes only the regime at the imperial center (though we can correct for this bias to some extent, as we shall see). Moreover, some of the polities that are included in the dataset from 1800 onwards (Austria and Turkey, for example) have experienced so much change (from Austro-Hungarian empire to Austria, and from Ottoman empire to modern Turkey) that one doubts the wisdom of having a single time series for them (rather than, for example, a time-series for the Austro-Hungarian empire and another for Austria). And Polity does not collect information about “micronations” (less than 500,000 inhabitants), which means that its coverage of Oceania (Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia) is spotty at best. Finally, it is also worth noting that in the long span of time covered by the dataset many areas of the world, some of them incorporating substantial populations, were effectively stateless: James C. Scott’s “Zomia” in Southeast Asia is one of these regions, but every continent has had (and sometimes continues to have) large non-state spaces. Statelessness does not mean that people live without political authority, but authority is far more fluid (and often has different implications) when exit is relatively easy, as it has historically been in stateless areas, than when exit is more difficult, as it has often been in state zones.

Second, as I was saying in the previous post, the dataset does not track every feature of political regimes that might be of interest. It purports to measure only three general concepts: the mechanisms of executive recruitment in states (how leaders come to hold power over a central state apparatus), the forms of political competition (how groups contend for control over a central state apparatus), and the degree of executive restraint (how much the power of the political leaders at the centre is limited: political discipline). Though all three measures are very highly correlated (above .99), I strongly suspect that while executive recruitment and political competition do measure fundamental if related aspects of the political regime, executive restraint is best understood as a function of the other two, plus temporary changes in the configuration of political forces that are not part of the political regime properly speaking. In other words, to the extent that “executive restraint” is not simply picking up paper constraints (whether the constitution says this or that about a political leader), it must be picking up the ways in which the groups that play a role in political competition and selection are able to sanction the main government leaders in the state. So in what follows I will mostly ignore the measure of executive restraint and focus on executive recruitment (this post) and political competition (in part II).

Let’s start with the mechanisms of executive recruitment. In the Polity classificatory scheme, leaders can come to power in two basic ways: through unregulated political activity (your classic coup d’etat, for example) or through some norm-regulated process (like hereditary succession, competitive election, etc.). Norm-regulated processes can in turn be divided into those where political leadership is allocated, at least in principle, on the basis of “ascriptive” characteristics (like what family you were born into), and those where political leadership is allocated by explicit selection within a particular group. (No modern polity allocates political leadership by lottery, unlike many ancient ones; this may be a modern mistake). Finally, selection can occur through relatively open competition within a relatively large group (election, though not necessarily universal suffrage election), or through informal processes within small groups ("designation;" e.g., like the process of selecting the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union). These three dimensions of political competition lead to a seven-fold set of categories: pure ascriptive (absolute hereditary monarchies without powerful prime ministers); ascriptive plus small-elite selection (absolute monarchies with powerful prime ministers, for example); ascriptive plus large-elite selection (powerful monarchs confronting powerful elected prime ministers, for example); pure small-elite selection (single party regimes, for example); pure large-group selection (competitive electoral regimes); small group plus large-group selection (what polity calls “transitional” or “restricted” election regimes, though they are often not very transitional at all but merely regimes where small elites cannot select the leadership without some form of large-scale electoral competition, even if unfair); and self-selection regimes (unregulated selection). Polity also has a confusing “executive-guided transition” category that I don’t much like, but basically indicates a period of transition from a self-selection regime to a norm-regulated selection regime. (In fact, for most purposes it can be replaced by the self-selection category, since it does not actually indicate a change in executive selection mechanisms and relies on uncertain analyses of leadership intentions). So what do we see when we look at the evolution of political authority through this lens?
Fig. 1

Vertical lines and shaded areas indicate, from left to right, the First World War, the beginning of the great depression, the Second World War, the beginning of African decolonization, and the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet empire. Black/grey areas at the bottom of the graph indicate the number of countries falling into Polity’s three “transitional” categories: regime transition, anarchy, and foreign occupation. You must also imagine much of the white space in the graph – representing lots of colonial possessions – to be colored dark red and green, since rule over colonial possessions was exercised through limited elite and ascriptive selection regimes, even if regimes at the imperial center were different.

A few things are worth noting. First, there is a slow but steady trend towards more large-group selection regimes – relatively competitive elections of all types, even if mixed with small-elite selection (as in competitive autocracies). These elections are not always fair [update: and suffrage is not always universal or even close to universal], but by my count nearly 70% of all regimes in 2010 involved some form of meaningful competition for executive power within large electorates, while only 30% or so did in 1900:
Fig. 2

Large-group competitive selection is now the norm, not the exception, a change that happened over the course of a century but begins in the 19th century. But though the overall trend is clear, the proportion of large-group competitive selection regimes fluctuates quite a bit, apparently in response to major political events: the two world wars (one can identify them just by looking at the spikes in regime collapses), the beginning of decolonization, the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Interestingly, the great depression barely rates a blip – it hardly affects the trends in executive recruitment patterns. And the current trend towards more large-group selection regimes starts in the mid 1970s (the oil shocks? The exhaustion of the appeal of single-party regimes?), though it appears to accelerate by 1989. Oddly, the 70s are also the great age of coups (“self-selection” regimes – lots of these emerged with decolonization) as well as the apogee of limited-elite selection regimes (single-party regimes, especially). The data thus seem to point to a future where most regimes recruit their leaders through electoral competition (not necessarily fair!) appealing to large groups, but there is still a substantial minority of ascriptive recruitment regimes (monarchies, basically) and limited-elite selection regimes; it’s as if the only long-term stable equilibria are either competitive elections or full-blown monarchies.

Moreover, the phenomenon is pretty much global: competitive regimes with elections that appeal to large electorates are now found in every continent:
Fig. 3
(Includes both competitive electoral regimes and competitive autocracies [mixed large group/small group selection]; the picture is not substantially different with only full competitive electoral regimes included). But it was never just a European phenomenon: competitive regimes (even if not always very stable and electorally fair) are first of all an American phenomenon (and I don’t mean North American). Most large-group electoral selection regimes in the 19th century were in the Americas (the USA, Canada, Peru, Colombia, Chile, Costa Rica, Honduras, Bolivia, Argentina, Guatemala), though we even find some in Africa (Liberia for a time, which of course was in part an American import). Genuine electoral competition for power with an appeal to large electorates is a New World invention, but not a specifically North American one, even if the North American version of the experiment proved relatively more stable than many of the South and Central American versions. To be sure, the fact that a regime is competitive insofar as executive recruitment requires an appeal to a large electorate does not mean that it is a democracy in the full sense of the term (however you want to define it); many of these competitive regimes included important restrictions on suffrage (slaves and women needed not apply), and elections were not always fair or fully free. But all of the regimes in figure 3 are fundamentally different in kind, at least with respect to the mechanism of executive selection, from regimes where leaders are selected either by ascription or by informal competition within a small elite.

Here’s a more fine-grained picture of the distribution of such regimes since 1950:
Fig. 4. Competitive regimes per region.
(As I mentioned earlier, coverage of Oceania is pretty sparse in the dataset, so you might as well ignore the Melanesia, Polynesia, and Micronesia cells). As we can see, these regimes are now common basically everywhere; the only laggards are Central and Western Asia, where large-group selection competitive regimes (let's not speak of democracies, however) are still less than 50% of the total.

Non-electoral regimes – monarchies, single-party regimes, etc. are now almost exclusively found in Asia and Africa, though they used to be pretty evenly distributed throughout the world:
Fig. 5
Interestingly, the only real shocks to the distribution of these regimes seem to have been decolonization in the 1960s and the end of the Cold War in 1989. It is as if new countries generally end up with limited selection or unregulated recruitment regimes, and it takes a while for them to move either toward large-group selection or full monarchy. 

We can also look at this history in combination with the history of economic development. Using data from the Penn World Tables (caveat: some countries have no income data, and what data exists only goes back to 1950 for most countries), we can see that the rise in competitive selection regimes is visible in every income quantile except the highest:

Fig. 6
The proportion of competitive regimes in the richest quantile seems to be declining over time (and stabilizing in the third quantile) at about 80% of all regimes, as stable oil monarchies and other limited-elite selection groups rise to the top of the income distribution. As Przeworski has argued, there seem to be diminishing returns to conflict over executive selection mechanisms in rich countries, so all regimes should be relatively stable at high levels of income per capita. To be sure, full electorally competitive regimes (with “free and fair” elections) are less common in poorer countries, but even if we restrict ourselves to these regimes, we get basically the same picture:
Fig. 7
We can actually investigate this further by looking at the “transition matrix” of regimes over this period of time per income quantile. We basically look at what the regime is like at time t, and then what it is like at time t+1, and make a matrix, where each cell represents the percentage (number) of cases over the period in question where a mechanism of political selection in the rows changed to one in the columns (so the diagonal represents stability):

(Click here for a full spreadsheet version). Here we see that mechanisms of executive recruitment in countries in the poorest quantile remained stable about 90% of the years in question (i.e., on average they switched to another selection mechanism about once every ten years); by contrast, at the richest quantile, only self-selection regimes were stable less than 95% of the time. Competitive electoral regimes in the richest quantile were stable basically 100% of the time; but all other regime categories were also stable, and hereditary monarchy was basically just as stable as democracy at this level of income (more than 99% of the time). Even state breakdown appears stable in the richest quantile; those puzzling 13 years of stable state breakdown in the second table represent Lebanon, which appears to have maintained a relatively large income per capita during the years of civil war (though note economic data is likely to have been spotty and unreliable during that time, so take that factoid with a large scoop of salt).

Moreover, rich countries were likely to transition to competitive regimes if they transitioned at all; and the regimes most likely to transition where the self-selection regimes, whereas in the poorest quantile we find transitions to a wider variety of other regimes.

So where does that leave us? More in part II (looking at the forms of political competition over this period), but basically I think what we see is the political manifestation of the long process of global economic change since 1800 (the industrial era). We start with ascriptive selection and limited elite selection regimes everywhere in the world (or at least in zones of state power), but economic change slowly alters the basis of political power in them (more so in certain kinds of economies than others). These changes render norms of political selection unstable, and more particularly they make it possible for elites (new and old) to “defect” from previous norms of selection by appealing to larger groups in the selection process (this, generally, means elections). And global political shocks (the world wars, the breakdown of empires) can push the process in particular directions at least for a time – e.g., towards single party regimes in the wake of WWII and decolonization, or towards electorally competitive regimes after 1989. But after countries reach a certain level of income, political competition over executive recruitment is less useful; so all regimes eventually stabilize. 

Code necessary for replicating the graphs in this post, plus further graphs and ideas for analysis, in my repository here. (Still pretty rough, though). You will need to download the Polity IV and Penn World Table datasets directly.

[Update 21/2/2010: added a few small clarificatory remarks about how comeptitive elctoral regimes are not necessarily democratic in the full sense of the term]

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

The Half-life of Leaders and the Half-life of Regimes

Thinking back on the last couple of posts, a couple of questions arise naturally. First, there is the question of the survival of regimes in general, not just democracy: if most democracies die within 15 years or so, what is the median duration (the “half-life,” if you will: the time it takes for half of them to be gone) of other regimes? And second, there is the question of the relationship between the half-life of regimes and the half-life of leaders: do regimes whose leaders tend to have longer half-lives also have longer half-lives? My interest in these questions stems from my current research on the question of legitimacy: my sense is that legitimacy matters much less than people usually think to the survival of large-scale patterns of political power and authority, so I’m interested in trying to figure out if there are systematic differences in survival between more and less “legitimate” regimes and other political structures. So this is another exploratory post, with lots of graphs.

How do we measure the duration of non-democratic regimes relative to democratic regimes? Though democratic regimes are not always straightforward to identify, non-democratic regimes come in a much wider variety of forms – from hereditary, absolute monarchies to single party regimes and multiparty hybrids, and some of these forms shade gradually into one another over the course of many years. (For a sense of this variety, consider the differences between Mexico before the 1990s under the PRI, whose presidents succeeded each other with clockwork regularity every six years and a lively opposition existed but could never win the presidency, North Korea today, where opposition is non-existent and succession is controlled by a tiny clique, and Mubarak’s Egypt.) To get a handle on this question, I’m going to use the Polity IV dataset, which codes “authority characteristics” in all independent countries (with population greater than 500,000 people) from 1800 to 2010. (I’ve been convinced by Jay Ulfelder’s work that the DD dataset I used in my earlier post is not appropriate to study comparative regime survival due to the way it codes certain democracies where alternation in power has not occurred as dictatorships, which systematically biases the survival estimates of democracies upwards).

The Polity dataset is fairly rich. Most researchers seem to use only the composite indexes of democracy and dictatorship it offers, but these indexes, while useful, do not have a strong theoretical motivation, as Cheibub, Gandhi, and Vreeland argue here. For my purposes, it is best to use the dataset to extract those authority characteristics of political regimes it purports to measure: the mechanisms of executive recruitment, the type of political competition, and the degree of executive constraint. Mechanisms of executive recruitment include hereditary selection, hybrid forms combining hereditary and electoral mechanisms, selection by small elites, rigged elections, irregular forms of seizing power, and competitive elections; types of political competition range from the repressed (all opposition banned, as in North Korea) to the open (typical of thriving democracies); and executive constraints range from unlimited to “parity” with the legislature. (See the Polity IV codebook for a full discussion). In theory, the dataset distinguishes eight kinds of executive recruitment mechanisms, ten types of political competition, and seven degrees of executive constraint, plus three different kinds of “interruption” (including breakdowns of state authority, loss of independence, and foreign invasion and occupation), leading to a possible 563 possible patterns of political authority, but these dimensions are all highly correlated (over .99); indeed, only 212 combinations of executive recruitment, political competition, and executive constraint actually appear in the date, most of them only once and for short periods of time, and it is obvious that some combinations do not even make sense. (And those that do make sense do not always capture all the information we would normally want about a political regime: Polity has no good measure for the extent of suffrage in competitive regimes, for example). But the dataset helpfully indicates how long each of these patterns last, so we can attempt a first cut at the question of the half life of regimes using a Kaplan-Meier graph:

The half-life of an “authority pattern” – a combination of an executive recruitment mechanism, a type of political competition, and a specific form of executive constraint – is 6.6 years, though the tail of the distribution is very long: some of them have lasted for upwards of a century. Switzerland, for example, has had the same authority pattern for 162 years, and Afghanistan retained the same authority pattern from 1800 to 1935 (a hereditary monarchy). As it happens, social and political life comes to be mostly structured in most places by the long-lasting patterns, but most patterns of authority do not last that long. Incidentally, at this level of abstraction there are no great regional differences in the half-lives of authority patterns, though it does seem as if authority patterns last slightly longer in Europe and the Americas than in Africa and Asia:

Yet an “authority pattern” is too amorphous a unit of analysis. We might get a better handle on the question of comparative regime survival by looking specifically at the mechanism of executive selection, since the manner in which the chief power in the state is selected is normally thought to be quite important and to have far-reaching consequences: whether supreme power is achievable by hereditary succession only or through designation within a closed elite or via competitive elections or some other means seems to have important consequences.

Of all the mechanisms of executive selection identified in the Polity IV dataset, only one, “Competitive Elections,” is unambiguously democratic by most people’s lights. Though within the dataset the fact that a regime has competitive elections is no guarantee that it will also have universal suffrage, for the most part “competitive elections” identifies most countries that most people think are democratic. We can thus calculate the duration of all periods of “competitive elections” and compare them to the duration of all “non-democratic” periods – those periods where executive selection happened through some other means. The details are somewhat tricky (see the code), but here are the results:

Some notes. As we might have expected from the discussion in the previous post, full hereditary monarchies (Russia under the Tsars, Saudi Arabia, Iran under the Shah, Portugal and Romania in the 19th century, Nepal in the 19th century, among others; there are 65 episodes in 40 countries in the dataset) have the longest half-lives (nearly 32 years; this increases if we collapse the two hereditary monarchy categories. Note these are not “constitutional” monarchies like the British one). But competitive electoral regimes are no slouches, with a half-life of about 17 years (in keeping with Jay’s numbers in this post, though he uses a different dataset), and as time goes on their survival rates seem to converge with those of monarchies. Similarly, “limited elite selection regimes” (e.g., single party-communist regimes, where a narrow clique selects the leader without open competition) have a half-life comparable to that of democracies, but as time goes on they tend to break down more; their survival rates seem to diverge from those of competitive electoral and monarchical regimes. Low survival rates are found especially among political forms that appear to have internal tensions, such as competitive authoritarian regimes, where elections exist and are contested by an opposition, but it is very hard for the opposition to attain real power (e.g., Zimbabwe today). I confess I don’t really understand Polity’s “Executive-guided transition” category, but it’s obviously a regime that is turning into something else (the Pinochet regime in Chile after the 1980 referendum but before the return of competitive elections counts, for example), and “ascription plus election” includes regimes where the monarch retains some real power but the legislature and other executive offices are no longer under its thumb  (only a few are recorded in the data, including Belgium in the late 19th century and Nepal in the 1980s and 90s); it makes sense that such regimes, halfway between “real” monarchies and purely constitutional monarchies like the British, should have short half-lives as the conflict plays out and either turn into competitive electoral regimes or into more absolute monarchies.

It is also interesting to compare the relative survival rates of competitive electoral patterns of authority vis a vis periods where selection happens by non-competitive electoral means (regardless of whether the selection means stay the same):

Though the difference seems to narrow as time passes, the half-life of non-democracy since the 19th century has been a bit longer than the half-life of competitive electoral regimes (23 vs. 17 years). In sum, political regimes do not last much more than a generation.

(For those still following, the regional breakdown indicates that competitive electoral periods have had the longest half-lives in Europe and the Americas, whereas non-democracy has had the longest half-lives in Africa and Asia; no special surprises there, though I am not sure about the reason).  

How does this relate to the half-life of leaders? For that, we turn to the ARCHIGOS dataset by Goemans, Gleditsch, and Chiozza, which contains information about the entry and exit date of almost all political leaders of independent countries in the period 1840-2010. It’s a fantastic resource – more than 3000 leader episodes, and information on their manner of exit and entry. And the conclusion one must draw from examining it is that power is extremely hard to hold on to; a ruler’s hold on power seems to decay in an exponential manner (note I haven’t checked that the decay really is exponential in the technical sense, though I'm thinking of doing that). Over this vast span of time, covering all kinds of political regimes, the half-life of leaders is only about 2 years, or a third of the median authority pattern, as we might have expected from the previous post (though the half-life of leaders is even smaller here):

Yet of course it is the people who beat the odds – those who last much longer than the average leader – the ones who shape social and political life. (There’s an endless parade of mediocrities in the dataset, two-bit prime ministers gone after a few months of ineffectual dabbling and the like).

(But don’t some leaders come back to power after losing it? In fact, the vast majority of leaders only attain power once, and never return to power, though about 100 did manage the feat three or more times. In fact, practice does not help; survival in power only appears to decrease the more previous times the leader had been in power, though note that the uncertainty of the estimates also increases, and one might expect that age would take its toll too).

We are now in a position to extend the analysis in the post below by merging the Archigos and the Polity dataset to calculate the survival curves for leaders conditional on the pattern of executive recruitment. Though I would take these curves with a grain of salt, here are the results:

As expected from the previous post, it’s good to be king – the half-life of absolute kings is about 12 years (and it’s almost always king: there are only 41 female leaders in a 3000 case dataset). Interestingly, a similar result for the half-lives of Chinese emperors is reported here (10 years: Khmaladze,  Brownrigg, and Haywood 2010, ungated) as well as for the half-lives of Roman emperors (11 years: Khmaladze,  Brownrigg, and Haywood 2007, ungated). There is something about the deep structure of monarchies in many different periods and societies, it seems, that points to a half-life in power of about 10-13 years for monarchs. 

More generally, authoritarianism pays in terms of leader tenure, despite the fact that non-competitive regimes do not always last longer than competitive ones. The highest half-lives of leaders beyond monarchs are found in limited elite selection regimes, executive-guided transitions (where non-democratic leaders are changing the rules), and competitive authoritarian regimes; but democracies are more lasting than most of these regimes (except for monarchies; see above).

Another way of looking at this is to calculate what we might call the “personalization quotient” of a regime: divide the half-life of the leader (for a given regime) by the half-life of the regime to get an idea of the percentage of the regime half-life that a leader is expected to last. So a monarch is expected to last about 37% of the half-life his regime (31.86 / 12); this is the most intensely personalized of regimes, as one might have expected given that it is devoted to the maintenance of a family line. The next most personalized regimes are competitive authoritarian regimes (28%), “self-selection” regimes (15%), limited elite selection regimes (16%), and “executive-guided transitions” (40%; this is pretty much by definition, however, so I don't make much of them). A competitive electoral regime has a personalization quotient of 8% - an expected leader half-life of about 2, divided by an expected regime duration of about 17 years. From the point of view of such a leader, it pays to try to move towards a competitive authoritarian regime, and it pays for the leader of a limited elite selection regime to move towards a formal hereditary monarchy (as is happening, in a sense, in North Korea right now, and almost happened in Egypt and Libya). 

But are authoritarian regimes more risky, so that leaders will try to hang on to power more? We can also look at that using the archigos dataset. Though leaders in non-democratic regimes have a slightly higher risk of leaving office with their heads on pitchforks or hanging from lampposts, the vast majority leave by "regular" procedures.  

More, perhaps, could be said. I’ve been wondering, for example, about whether there is a relationship between the breakdown of particular regimes and the tenure of leaders, though I’m not sure how to go about tackling that question. From the point of view of the study of legitimacy, however, what strikes me is the general fragility of patterns of authority and rule: few patterns of authority are expected have half-lives that exceed a single generation, and most don’t last nearly as long, regardless of their “legitimation formula” – heredity, competitive elections, ideology, whatever. Of course, some beat the odds, especially some competitive regimes and some monarchies, and these shape history. But the historical evidence suggests that they are in a sense the exception rather than the rule.

Code necessary for replicating the graphs in this post, plus further ideas for analysis, here and here. You will need to download the Polity IV and ARCHIGOS datasets directly, and this file of codes from my repository.

[Update: fixed some typos,  9 Feb 2012]