There is tremendous variation in governments across the globe. Democracies like Australia and Sweden share little in common with autocracies such as Belarus or Egypt. Likewise, there are often just as many differences between autocracies as there are between a democracy and an autocracy. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strongman system, for example, is organized and operates very differently from Iran’s theocracy or Vietnam’s one-party state, which has been dominated by the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) for decades. The objective of Part I of this book is to help readers to organize and understand this extraordinary diversity across political systems.
Before we begin, it is important to outline the approaches that political scientists have used to organize and measure political systems. Broadly speaking, there are two approaches that scholars use to disaggregate political systems: categorical and continuous measures of regime type. These two approaches to organizing political systems provide the framework for Part I of this book.
Categorical measures start from the premise that all political systems can be classified as either democracy or dictatorship. To distinguish between a democracy and a dictatorship, scholars apply a minimalist definition of democracy that is based on the quality of elections (see Chapter 2). Once systems are separated into democracies and dictatorships, these categories are further subdivided based on a country’s institutional and organizational structure. Categorical measures do not take into account how authoritarian or democratic a given country is. Instead, they focus on how the system is organized and the groups that governments draw on for support.
In contrast, continuous measures disaggregate political systems based on how ‘authoritarian’ or ‘democratic’ they are. In essence, these typologies line up political systems on a spectrum with fully democratic systems at one end and fully authoritarian systems on the other. Researchers make decisions about where a system falls along this continuum based on the extent of electoral competition, including the freedom, fairness, inclusiveness, and meaningfulness of elections (Schedler, 2002).
Scholars have criticized continuous typologies on several grounds. The most common critique is that the continuous approach lacks conceptual clarity. The boundaries between categories of countries—especially those that sit in the middle of this autocracy–democracy spectrum—are blurry and often require difficult and disputable judgements (Diamond, 2002). p. 12↵There has also been such a proliferation of categories based on the continuous approach that it is difficult to compare across studies using different categories. Furthermore, some scholars argue that continuous measures oversimplify differences in regime type. Political systems are not necessarily distributed in a linear fashion along a single continuum (Wigell, 2008). Reducing all differences between governments into a matter of the degree of ‘democraticness’ hinders our understanding of important political dynamics at play. For example, some continuous measures of democracy assign the same score to Argentina’s populist regime under President Juan Perón as they do to the military regime that took power in the country in 1976. Because continuous measures emphasize the degree of democracy or authoritarianism, they do not convey how systems may be differently democratic, or differently authoritarian.
Similarly, continuous typologies prohibit researchers from accurately understanding or forecasting authoritarian regime change (Frantz, 2018). Continuous measures do not allow scholars to identify cases in which one authoritarian regime succeeds another, but where both are equally authoritarian (e.g. the change from the Mobutu regime to the Kabila regime in 1997 in the Democratic Republic of Congo). This is problematic because scholars and policymakers alike have an interest in understanding the transition from one autocracy to another. These transitions have real policy implications, and in some cases can be accompanied by violence and/or instability that Western policymakers must navigate. By using continuous measures, scholars are unable to test and understand the factors that increase the risk of these types of events.
Nonetheless, the continuous approach to disaggregating regimes plays an important role in comparative politics. The recognition that many regimes have in fact become stuck in between the extremes of full dictatorship and full democracy has greatly enhanced our understanding of post-Cold War politics. Importantly, the continuous perspective allows researchers to recognize that regimes can move away from authoritarianism (i.e. liberalize) without actually becoming a full democracy (Conroy-Krutz and Frantz, 2017). Moreover, all major democracy indices such as POLITY, Freedom House, the Economic Intelligence Unit, and Bertelsmann, use the continuous approach to disaggregating regimes. These measures are widely used and have enabled scholars to study a number of political dynamics, including the causes of liberalization and the effect of regime type on a host of outcomes, including prospects for instability.
We emphasize that there is no right or wrong approach to disaggregating political systems. Instead, the decision about which approach to use should be based on the question at hand. If researchers seek to understand the factors that make political liberalization more likely, for example, then continuous measures are the most appropriate tool. Categorical measures, in contrast, are better suited for answering questions about authoritarian durability and collapse, the focus of Part II of this book. Because the tool you use depends on the question you seek to answer, it is important to understand the theoretical ideas and arguments behind each approach, including their limitations and advantages.
To this end, Part I of this book delves into both the categorical and continuous approaches to disaggregating regimes. Chapter 2 and Chapter 3 are based on a categorical conception of regime type. In these two chapters our discussion of democracy and dictatorship is binary—we discuss the criteria and definitions that scholars use to separate political systems into two discrete categories. In Chapter 3 we open up the black box of autocracy and examine the differences in these regimes, based on a categorical conception of regime type. p. 13↵We discuss the most widely accepted types of authoritarian regimes—namely personalist dictatorships, military regimes, single-party regimes, and monarchies—to emphasize that authoritarian regimes are not one and the same.
We also recognize that political systems have evolved in the post-Cold War era. There are now a large number of countries that do not fit neatly into the democracy or autocracy camp. Instead, a growing number of countries today mix democratic characteristics with authoritarian tendencies. In Chapter 4 we discuss these hybrid regimes, and based on the continuous approach, map the messy middle between democracy and authoritarianism.
Finally, Chapter 5 focuses on the implications of these different types of political systems. We show how regime type affects a number of outcomes of interest, such as inter-state war, civil war, economic growth and development, and terrorism. This chapter lays out both foundational and cutting-edge research that helps us understand why we should care if a country is democratic, authoritarian, or somewhere in between.p. 14↵