States of Nature

Kevin Lewis

July 14, 2021

Understanding journalist killings
Sabine Carey & Anita Gohdes
Journal of Politics, forthcoming


Why do state authorities murder journalists? We show that the majority of journalists are killed in democracies and present an argument that focuses on institutional differences between democratic states. In democracies, journalists will most likely be targeted by local state authorities that have limited options to generally restrict press freedom. Where local governments are elected, negative reporting could mean that local politicians lose power and influence, especially if they are involved in corrupt practices. Analyzing new global data on journalist killings that identify the perpetrator and visibility of the journalist, we show that local-level elections carry an inherent risk, particularly for less visible journalists. Killings perpetrated by criminal groups follow a similar pattern to those by state authorities, pointing to possible connections between these groups. Our study shows that without effective monitoring and accountability, national democratic institutions alone are unable to effectively protect journalists from any perpetrator.

Are genetic traits associated with riots? The political legacy of prehistorically determined genetic diversity
Trung Vu
Kyklos, forthcoming


This paper establishes that the worldwide distribution of political instability has its deep historical roots in genetic diversity, predetermined over the prehistoric course of the exodus of Homo sapiens from East Africa tens of thousands of years ago. It proposes that the relationship between prehistorically determined genetic diversity and contemporary political instability follows a U-shaped pattern. More specifically, genetic diversity at first reduces the persistence of political instability by increasing the opportunity cost of engaging in riots and revolts. However, genetically fragmented societies tend to suffer from interpersonal mistrust and the under-provision of public goods, which plausibly undermine the establishment of politically stable regimes. Using an ancestry-adjusted index of predicted genetic diversity, this paper consistently finds precise estimates that genetic diversity imparts a U-shaped influence on different measures of political instability and the probability of observing the occurrence of riots and revolts across 141 countries. Furthermore, the contribution of genetic diversity to political instability is at least partially mediated through income/productivity levels, the provision of public goods, income inequality and social trust.

Non-Modernization: Power-Culture Trajectories and the Dynamics of Political Institutions
Daron Acemoglu & James Robinson
NBER Working Paper, July 2021


Modernization theory is a cornerstone of much of political science, despite the mounting evidence against its predictions. In this paper, we argue that the theory's failings are rooted in predictions that are not conditioned on history and cultural configurations. We outline a theory in which the interplay of the distribution of political power and cultural configurations lead to three distinct self-reinforcing paths of political development, with very different state-society relations, institutions, and economic structures. These are paths to Despotic, Absent and Shackled leviathans. The role of cultural configurations, made up of attributes in a society's culture set, is critical in legitimizing the social arrangements in each path. For example, a Despotic Leviathan, as in China, cannot be understood without appreciating how Confucian culture has been used to bolster a worldview in which rulers are supposed to be virtuous and regular people are discouraged from political participation. We argued that this interpretation is not inherent to Confucian thought, but has to be understood as an endogenous outcome along the trajectory to the Despotic Leviathan. None of the three different paths we highlight support modernization theory. Under the Absent Leviathan, there is no economic modernization. Under the Despotic Leviathan, economic growth bolsters the existing regime and its supporting cultural configuration, with no tendency towards democracy or associate political changes. Under the Shackled Leviathan, there are dynamics leading to economic growth and political changes with greater bottom-up participation. Nevertheless, the causation does not go from the former to the latter, and these changes are critically dependent on cultural and political entrepreneurship in order to formulate and popularize new cultural configurations and institutionalize political changes.

What Countries Select More Experienced Leaders? The PolEx Measure of Political Experience
Alexander Baturo & Johan Elkink
British Journal of Political Science, forthcoming


How can one assess which countries select more experienced leaders for the highest office? There is wide variation in prior career paths of national leaders within, and even more so between, regime types. It is therefore challenging to obtain a truly comparative measure of political experience; empirical studies have to rely on proxies instead. This article proposes PolEx, a measure of political experience that abstracts away from the details of career paths and generalizes based on the duration, quality and breadth of an individual's experience in politics. The analysis draws on a novel data set of around 2,000 leaders from 1950 to 2017 and uses a Bayesian latent variable model to estimate PolEx. The article illustrates how the new measure can be used comparatively to assess whether democracies select more experienced leaders. The authors find that while on average they do, the difference with non-democracies has declined dramatically since the early 2000s. Future research may leverage PolEx to investigate the role of prior political experience in, for example, policy making and crisis management.

Democracy and the Transnational Dimensions of Low-Level Conflict and State Repression
Martin Roessler, Patrick Zwerschke & Jonathan Old
International Studies Quarterly, forthcoming


This paper examines the transnational dimensions of low-level conflict and state repression. In this regard, special emphasis is placed on the role of political regimes. Drawing on a simple model, we argue that democracy has opposing effects on conflict intensity. On one hand, democracy satisfies demand for political participation and thus reduces conflict potential, while, on the other hand, we highlight that domestic democracy may spur dissatisfaction and conflict abroad, which, in turn, may induce conflict spillovers. As a result, the net effect of democracy on low-level conflict and state repression is ambiguous and depends on the level of democracy in the neighborhood: We predict that democracy is more pacifying in democratic environments and may spur conflict in autocratic environments. By the symmetry of the model, we also predict that democratic environments are more pacifying for democratic countries and may spur conflict in autocracies. Empirical evidence using panel data on different types of low-level conflict and state repression for 160 countries in the period from 1950 to 2011 supports these hypotheses. Additionally, two case studies illustrate the mechanisms of our model.

Latent territorial threat and democratic regime reversals
Johannes Karreth, Jaroslav Tir & Douglas Gibler
Journal of Peace Research, forthcoming


Why do some democracies revert to non-democratic forms of governance? We develop an explanation of democratic reversals that emphasizes the influence of states' external border relations on domestic politics. Latent threats to a state's territory encourage political centralization of authority in the executive to defend against danger to the homeland. Latent territorial threat also facilitates the construction and maintenance of large land armies to fight threatening neighbors. Combined, latent territorial threat increases leaders' domestic power, weakens democratic institutions, encourages other conditions threatening democratic survival, and, ultimately, leads to democratic reversals. Synthesizing prior research on territorial conflict, we generate a quantitative, continuous measure of latent territorial threat against all democracies with contiguous neighbors from 1946 to 2016, using Bayesian estimation. Empirical tests accounting for measurement uncertainty and other common determinants of reversals as well as brief reviews of individual cases of reversal provide robust evidence that democracy failed at higher rates in countries facing high levels of threats to their territory from neighbors. Our study implies that a complete account of the development of democratic institutions should emphasize that domestic factors alone fall short of explaining why democracies fail.

Pronoun Usage as a Measure of Power Personalization: A General Theory with Evidence from the Chinese-Speaking World
Amy Liu
British Journal of Political Science, forthcoming


How can the growing personalization of power be identified and measured ex ante? Extant measures in the authoritarian literature have traditionally focused on institutional constraints and more recently on individual behaviour - such as purging opposition members from (and packing allies into) government bodies. This article offers a different strategy that examines leaders' individual rhetoric. It focuses on patterns of pronoun usage for the first person. The author argues that as leaders personalize power, they are less likely to use 'I' (a pronoun linked to credit claiming and blame minimizing) and more likely to use 'we' (the leader speaks for - or with - the populace). To test this argument, the study focuses on all major, scheduled speeches by all chief executives in the entire Chinese-speaking world - that is, China, Singapore and Taiwan - since independence. It finds a robust pattern between first-person pronouns and political constraints. To ensure the results are not driven by the Chinese sample, the rhetoric of four other political leaders is considered: Albania's Hoxha, North Korea's Kim Il Sung, Hungary's Orbán and Ecuador's Correa. The implications of this project suggest that how leaders talk can provide insights into how they perceive their rule.

Electoral Responsiveness in Closed Autocracies: Evidence from Petitions in the former German Democratic Republic
Hans Lueders
Stanford Working Paper, May 2021


Contested elections are usually seen as preconditions for constituent responsiveness. This paper shows that even uncontested elections can create incentives for dictators to respond to and address citizen demands. I argue that autocratic governments engage in cycles of responsiveness to assure citizens of their competence before uncontested elections and ensure that high popular support mitigates the short-term destabilizing effects that elections can have. Using a unique dataset of petitions to the government of the former German Democratic Republic, I show that response times to petitions were up to 31 percent shorter before elections, and that success rates were up to 63.6 percent higher. While extant research on responsiveness in autocracies usually highlights the incentives of local officials, my results are driven by the central government. The paper furthers our understanding of electoral mobilization in closed regimes and contributes to an emerging research agenda on responsiveness and accountability in autocracies.

Concealing Conflict Markets: How Rebels and Firms Use State Institutions to Launder Wartime Trade
Rachel Sweet
International Organization, forthcoming


Although rebel groups are players on the international stage, little is known about their financial strategies at this scale. Existing research suggests that rebels succeed in cross-border trade by using informal networks that evade state authority. Yet rebels face a critical challenge: they operate in a normative environment that values state recognition and penalizes their illegitimate status. New evidence reveals that rebels can overcome this barrier and better connect to global economies not by evading the state but by infiltrating its institutions. Drawing on unprecedented data - the internal records of armed groups and their trading partners - I examine how rebels use state agencies in conflict zones to manufacture a legal cover for wartime trade. By using state agencies to provide false certification, rebels can place the stamp of state on their trade deals. This strategy of legal appropriation is a fundamentally different model of how conflict markets skirt sanctions and connect to global buyers. I develop a framework for how this strategy works that traces how international sovereignty norms and sanctions regimes create incentives for rebels, firms, and bureaucrats to coordinate around this legal veneer across the supply chain. The framework and evidence contribute theoretical and policy understandings for rebel governance, state building and fragmentation, and illicit global markets.

Reexamining the Effect of Refugees on Civil Conflict: A Global Subnational Analysis
Yang-Yang Zhou & Andrew Shaver
American Political Science Review, forthcoming


A large literature suggests that the presence of refugees is associated with greater risk of conflict. We argue that the positive effects of hosting refugees on local conditions have been overlooked. Using global data from 1990 to 2018 on locations of refugee communities and civil conflict at the subnational level, we find no evidence that hosting refugees increases the likelihood of new conflict, prolongs existing conflict, or raises the number of violent events or casualties. Furthermore, we explore conditions where provinces are likely to experience substantively large decreases in conflict risk due to increased development. Analysis examining nighttime lights as a measure of development, coupled with expert interviews, support our claim. To address the possibility of selection bias, we use placebo tests and matching. Our research challenges assertions that refugees are security risks. Instead, we show that in many cases, hosting refugees can encourage local development and even conflict reduction.


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