Absorbs The Shape


How do we meaningfully compare regime change?

In last week’s newsletter, we spotlighted work by Elliott Ash, Daniel Chen, and Suresh Naidu that provided quantitative analysis of the judicial effects of the law and economics movement. More generally, the paper examined how small-scale intellectual projects—like a series of economic seminars by the Manne Economics Institute—carry significant judicial and ideological outcomes. This week, we examine ideological diffusion on the macroscale and explore the role of external and international influences on democratic uprisings throughout history.

Democratic uprisings (beginning with the American Revolution and culminating in the Arab Spring) mark the last two hundred years of global democratization. The specific regional, historical, and economic circumstances surrounding these turbulent and diverse democratic revolutions make meaningful and effective comparisons hard to achieve.

In a recent paper, SEVA GUNITSKY offers a conceptual framework for better comparing democratic regime shifts over time and identifies the recurring mechanisms that catalyze and shape democratic uprisings. The work approaches regime changes as clusterings or cascades and so organizes thirteen democratic ‘waves’ into four typologies along two central dimensions: the origins of external influences (horizontal or vertical) and the role of those influences in timing the democratic wave (contagion or emulation). With this framework, Gunitsky claims that global interactions spark democratic changes:

“The looming presence of waves suggests that studies of democratization cannot focus only on the local drivers of revolts from below or elite concessions from above. Episodes of mass political contention were often embedded in broader transnational processes that involved regional cross-border ties and global hegemonic rivalries. More generally, examining the causes of democratic waves is a reminder that global democratization is more than the sum of its parts. The spread of democracy embodies multiple facets of a systemic phenomenon, driven by cross-border linkages that cannot be reduced to their individual components. Examining how democracy spreads can offer fundamental insight into the nature of democracy itself.”

Gunitsky delves further into democratic regime changes—and those that resulted in fascism and communism—offering prescient insight into the election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil:

“Sudden shifts in the structure of hegemonic power have produced some of the most consequential regime cascades in modern history. In some ways, the twentieth century can be imagined as a series of hegemonic shocks and institutional waves. Yet the links between systemic shifts and institutional waves were not limited to democracy: German economic recovery in the 1930s led to the diffusion of fascist ideas and institutions, and the Soviet victory in World War II prompted a global communist wave that spread through both force and admiration. Future hegemonic transitions, including the decline of American dominance, are likely to produce similar anti-democratic cascades, particularly in case of a sudden U.S. decline.”

Link to the paper, and link to Gunitsky’s book on the same topic.

  • In a 2013 paper, Nathan Nunn and Paola Giuliano examine the importance of local-level democracy—a tradition of electing a local leader through consensus rather than appointment—and its relationship to state and national level democratic institutions. Link.
  • James Kloppenberg’s Toward Democracy probes the Atlantic Democratic Wave and provides a major synthesis of Western intellectual thought. Link.


  • The Turing Institute’s new review on the future of work. Link.
  • “The major natural resource and environmental statutes, from the acts creating national forests and parks to the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, have emerged from precisely the activity that discussions of climate change neglect: democratic argument over the value of the natural world and its role in competing ideas of citizenship, national purpose, and the role and scale of government.” The excellent Jedediah Purdy on the political history of “nature” in the United States, and what it tells us about the present climate emergency. Link.
  • Regression to the mean: fixing an error with clinical trials. Link. ht Jay
  • Brad Stetser on foreign currency debt and the Taiwanese life insurance market. Link.
  • A post at TechnoLlama on ownership and copyright questions after Sotheby’s auctioned an AI-generated painting last week for $432,500. Link. (And hyperlinked within, a comparative paper on the problem of machine-created works for copyright. Link.)
  • “What does incorporating group affiliation (religions and castes) into a neoclassical female labor-supply model teach us about effective policy design?” New paper by Ardina Hasanbasri looks at the female employment gap across caste and religion in India. Link.
  • An article from the core organizing team of this week’s Google Walkout explains the action and demands. Link.
  • Ken Opalo on legislative independence and executive rule-making in Kenya from 1963-2013: “Do institutions constrain presidential power in Africa? Conventional wisdom holds that personalist rule grants Africa presidents unchecked powers… Very little research exists on African institutions and their impact on executive authority.” Link.
  • A new study in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics examines the extent and content of manipulative advertising in digital apps targeted at young children. Link.
  • “Amartya Sen argued that most historical famines were not caused by an overall decline of food availability but by (disastrous) declines in the legal rights to food enjoyed by particular groups in society. A similar decline in entitlement must be taken into account when studying the late medieval Age of Storms. Using examples from Flanders, Southern England, Holland and Northern Germany, an attempt will be made to prove that the massive increase in storm flooding in the later Middle Ages was not only the result of an overall decline in flood protection availability—caused by long-term environmental problems or insufficient technology—but to an important extent also of declining entitlement to flood protection by specific groups preceding the disaster.” Link.

Each week we highlight research from a graduate student, postdoc, or early-career professor. Send us recommendations: editorial@jainfamilyinstitute.org

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