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Northwestern University

Authoritarianism and Democracy

Political scientist Edward Gibson gains international renown for his research on authoritarianism within democratic states

By Daniel P. Smith

The coincidence was not lost on Edward Gibson.

At the same time that the Northwestern political scientist was in Veracruz, Mexico to receive an award for his research on authoritarianism in democracies, human rights groups discovered mass graves in the same Mexican state.

The finding served as a stark and sobering footnote to Gibson’s acceptance of the Medal of Merit from the National University of Veracruz. Gibson’s work includes Boundary Control: Subnational Authoritarianism in Federal Democracies, a prize-winning 2013 book that argues that local authoritarianism in states and provinces is a regular feature of political life in national democracies.

“Veracruz is a state that’s experienced violent and repressive government for some time, and it is a prime example of how local authoritarian regimes endure in democratic nations,” says Gibson, who joined Northwestern in 1994 and is now the College’s associate dean for faculty affairs.

Gibson, who has devoted much of his scholarly life to studying the problems of democracy, discusses the personal experiences that have fueled his research, the continued reign of authoritarian governments and what might be done to ensure that democracy prevails.

How did you get interested in authoritarianism?

I grew up in Latin America, and spent much of my early life under authoritarian governments. When I was getting my graduate degree in the 1980s, a wave of transitions to democratic government across Latin America led me to study the problems these emerging democracies face.

Most of us look at a country’s national government to determine whether it’s a democracy, but that doesn’t necessarily reflect what’s happening at the local level. When you head out into the provinces, where people really feel the force of politics, you often find a different universe in which authoritarianism governs the daily lives of people.  Thus, “subnational” authoritarianism has become a major topic of concern to scholars of democracy today.

How do you see subnational authoritarianism playing out in the years ahead?

It will continue to be the most resilient problem of democratic regimes, and a major source of contention for democracy moving forward.  A major problem is the collusion between national governments and the local autocrats who deliver votes. The question is: how can democratic activists break those links of convenience between democratically elected national leaders and local autocrats?

How else can this form of authoritarianism be minimized?

Local activists must nationalize local conflicts and enlist outside actors to their cause, be they political parties, media outlets or human rights groups, to change the local balance of power. These “boundary-opening” strategies by local oppositions are a key element driving change.

How might the United States’ experience with authoritarianism prove informative?

The United States is cited reflexively, especially by Americans, as a model of democracy for the rest of the world. But in Boundary Control I write about the “solid South,” a group of authoritarian state governments that dominated U.S. state politics in the South  for the better part of a century, to shed light on contemporary practice in other parts of the world. The United States’ “solid South” is the most spectacular and disturbing model of subnational authoritarianism in the history of modern democracy, and it’s important that people in other countries be aware of it for insights into the challenges they face today.

The variations in citizen rights across American states that federalism makes possible is another contemporary feature of U.S. politics that should inform the study of democracy in the rest of the world.

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