The Twin Uncertainty of Authoritarian Regimes

Between summer trips with my family and work for which I actually get paid, I haven’t had room to blog much of late, so I thought this would be a good time to call out one of my favorite recent pieces of writing on comparative politics.

In a paper for Mexico’s CIDE that will apparently form the introduction to a forthcoming book, the always-excellent Andreas Schedler writes about the “twin uncertainties” of authoritarian regimes, one institutional and the other informational. As Schedler notes, it’s not just that the institutions on which an autocrat’s political survival depends are often shaky; it’s also that it’s hard for the autocrat and his rivals to get reliable information about just how shaky they are.

These twin uncertainties lead autocrats and their oppositions to fight simultaneously on two fronts—not just over the management and production of political threats (“realities”), but also over the management or production of expectations and appearances of threats (perceptions). And, of course, the two are intertwined; or, as Schedler puts it (p. 25), “The management of threats involves the management of threat perceptions.” As a result (p. 28),

Everybody is playing theater and everybody is watching theater and trying to make sense of it…The party who gains acceptance for its preferred interpretation is is the one who wins the contest over public perceptions. In the last instance, it is the competitive struggle over interpretations that determines the strength of regimes.

To skeptical readers who might complain that social-scientific theories should avoid unreadable expectations and stick to observable realities, Schedler (p. 3) says:

One might contend that social expectations are too soft a ground to base our theoretical expectations on. Too soft and volatile and subjective. Ethereal matter. What sociologists tell us that “all social structures are structures of expectation” (Niklas Luhmann) we can accept that as symptomatic of their disciplinary blindness. Sociologists know nothing about the hard structures of political power, right? And yet, if we look closer, we can see that the comparative study of political regimes is built on cognitive foundations. In manifold ways, our theories of regime change and stability are anchored in the seabed of social expectations. Actor expectations about the future form the core of our core concepts. Uncertainty is embedded within concepts such as democracy and authoritarianism, regime transitions and consolidation, regime threats, trust and credibility.

You can find a PDF of the paper/chapter here. I’m looking forward to reading the book.

Leave a comment


  1. Grant

     /  July 22, 2013

    Could taxes be a crude way to infer ‘shakiness’? If people are eager to pay taxes, isn’t there a good chance that they feel threatened and see a need to rally around the flag, whereas if tax evasion and corruption among tax officials is common it means that the government is probably held in low regard and might be living on borrowed time?

    Obviously it isn’t perfect, after all India and Pakistan appear to both have maybe 2% pay taxes but few people think India is likely to have the same coups as Pakistan. But I think that it’s at least one useful tool to use and I was surprised not to see it in the chapter you linked to.

    • Absolutely. In fact, the importance of this particular exchange is the core idea in Margaret Levi’s classic Of Rule and Revenue, and I’ve seen it suggested as a proxy for state capacity in some research on civil wars. Unfortunately, the cross-national data are pretty lousy, and the things that cause gaps in those data are endogenous to the thing they’re supposed to measure. Still, I think it’s a great piece of information where available.

  1. The Twin Uncertainty of Authoritarian Regimes | House stuff

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