The Deep Impact of Economic Collapse on Mass Regime Preferences


Location: Hesburgh Center, Room C103

Robert Person, Department of Political Science, Yale University; Kellogg Institute Visiting Fellow, University of Notre Dame

Abstract: Given that people living under authoritarian regimes often struggle for democratization, why do we often continue to see high levels of support for authoritarianism among the citizens of new democracies? Person argues that simultaneous economic collapse and political transition can leave a deep and lasting scar on people’s preferences for democracy and authoritarianism. The present research has uncovered a surprising paradox: among countries that have undergone regime transition, support for democracy is lowest in the most democratic states, while support for democracy is highest in authoritarian states. How do we explain this puzzling outcome? Political and economic upheaval in the post-transition period can drastically reshape people’s regime preferences: when democratization occurs simultaneously with economic collapse, citizens become much more critical of democracy and authoritarianism becomes an attractive alternative. Once set, these beliefs about democracy and authoritarianism became remarkably durable and resistant to change. What is surprising is the fact that citizens who experience this traumatic shock do not subsequently update their beliefs and preferences: their first (negative) impressions of democracy influence their regime preferences long after the economy improves. Furthermore, when these post-collapse skeptics of democracy gain additional experience with democratic rule, they become increasingly critical of democracy. The paradoxical outcome is that support for authoritarianism is highest in the most democratic post-transition states, while support for democracy is higher in authoritarian states. I test this argument using original nationally- representative surveys in four post-Soviet states: Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Latvia. The argument is also supported by qualitative evidence from field interviews in the region from 2007 to 2008.