An expert on authoritarian regimes and transitions to democracy, Jackson School professor Jennifer Gandhi is investigating what we understand about autocracies — how they manifest, how they gain support, and how they are being successfully overthrown.
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was a seminal moment in modern history, breaking down a Cold War barrier and hastening the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the aftermath, the groundwork was laid for the European Union and NATO, borders were redrawn, and new nations began the transition from authoritarianism to democratic forms of government.
For Jennifer Gandhi, it was a moment that changed the trajectory of her academic career. Initially interested in science, she instead studied political science and economics as an undergrad, then went on to complete graduate studies in comparative politics at New York University. Today, she is an expert on authoritarian regimes and transitions to and from democracy and the author of the book “Political Institutions under Dictatorship.”
“At the time, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union seemed like a really interesting laboratory for democratic transitions,” says Gandhi, a professor of political science and global affairs who arrived at Yale last fall. “I do not specialize in the region, but the events there really changed the course of my life. I realized that I could study politics from a social scientific perspective.”
“You have all these different trajectories with nations coming from an authoritarian past, but some of them managed to become democratic and others maintained a form of authoritarianism.”
Gandhi’s research has centered on this dichotomy, with particular focus on events that occurred prior to a country’s democratic transition and what is understood about authoritarianism as a form of government. Her current work examines traditional democratic institutions — such as elections, legislatures, and political parties — that have often been written off as “window dressing” in political science literature, simply giving the appearance of an emerging democracy.
“It wasn’t clear to me why would they bother dressing their windows, it all seemed too outward-facing,” says Gandhi. “I wanted to understand the domestic reasons for the presence of these kinds of institutions.”
To do this, Gandhi typically uses a more quantitative approach, using data collection and comparisons – both within countries and across countries – to allow her to study authoritarian regimes and regime transitions in novel ways.
In her most recent published study, “Shoring up power: Electoral reform and the consolidation of authoritarian rule,” Gandhi and her research partners focused on the reasons why autocrats adopt proportional representation — an electoral system that awards seats in a legislature in proportion to the votes cast for each party. According to the paper, data shows authoritarian regimes are three times more likely to institute these electoral reforms than democracies; conventional wisdom suggests autocrats do this to divide their opposition.
Using data collected from electoral autocracies around the globe between 1945 and 2012, the researchers examined the conditions where transitions to proportional representation are most likely. In the study, they argue that it occurs most often when autocrats seek to impose discipline among their allies, providing optimal conditions for their allies to be in power, which provides stability during the early stages of the autocrat’s rule.
The researchers then went on to focus on Russia’s electoral changes in 2005, which created new rules by which legislators were elected to the lower house, the Duma. With a proportional system, the regime party — United Russia — assumed control over the nomination process, recruiting strong candidates capable of winning elections. These actions not only maximized seats in the Duma that were filled by handpicked candidates, but it created cohesion and consolidated power within United Russia.
By assuming partisan control over electoral nominations, the Kremlin and United Russia were able to wield influence over candidates. It was a gambit that worked out well for the regime, which has subsequently remade its electoral rules multiple times to balance different goals — including managing its allies within United Russia while also marginalizing the opposition.
“We are interested in what helps autocracies survive, especially when they have institutions that mimic democratic ones, such as elections,” says Gandhi of Russia’s tactics.
Last spring, Gandhi taught the undergraduate course, “Repression and Control in Dictatorships,” which investigates why and how dictators employ repression and the impact of state repression on society and regime stability. Last fall, she taught “Comparative Politics for Global Affairs,” a core class required of Jackson MPP students.
Jackson grad student Isabel Linzer MPP ’24 took the fall course with Gandhi and they have begun conducting research together.
“As I’m interested in democratic backsliding and authoritarian practice, it has been rewarding to learn from a leading scholar,” says Linzer. “But aside from her expertise, it’s clear to me that she wants students to leave her class with useful skills and knowledge they can take forward professionally. She has created an environment where I can push myself academically and intellectually.”
Gandhi pushes herself and fellow scholars to do more to understand popular support for authoritarianism. As more scholars investigate why people support leaders who are elected democratically and then turn authoritarian, there is a natural connection to understand why popular support exists for autocratic governments more broadly.
“There’s a misconception that there’s always a fight between the state and society, where you have the leader and his cronies and everyone else is against them,” says Gandhi. “The truth is that there is often a significant segment of society that supports [the state] — and it is not just a matter of people being too afraid to say otherwise. There will always be some part of the population that gets benefits or buys into the government narrative… and is perfectly fine with the government repressing other segments of society.”
There are, of course, recent examples of authoritarian regimes being upended by popular support for the opposition. The 2018 elections in Malaysia saw a coalition of opposing parties work together to end more than a half-century of repression. In a 2019 paper “Committed or conditional democrats? Opposition dynamics in electoral autocracies,” Gandhi and a collaborator, Elvin Ong — a Fulbright Visiting Fellow at the Council on Southeast Asia Studies at Yale’s MacMillan Center this fall — used the Malaysian election to examine the conditions under which voters would support an opposition alliance.
“The key to the alliance’s victory was to persuade a small but critical segment of the voters that supporting the coalition would not require major sacrifices in terms of their policy demands,” says Gandhi. “The alliance’s messaging smartly encouraged voters from one party to support other members of the alliance — and the miracle is [the opposition] won.”
Strategies like this are adding another layer to her research — understanding the opposition to authoritarians. “I want to pursue what draws support from within a population, that helps them challenge these incumbents, and their incentive for doing so. That’s becoming more important to understand.”