College of LAS « Illinois

Political Science

At its Extreme, Political Rule Is an Elusive Concept

Political science professor uses game theory to understand how strategically-minded political leaders interact.


Dictatorship is a dirty word for pretty much everybody but dictators, but with roughly half the countries of the world under authoritarian rule, how much do we really understand it? Not enough, says a political science professor who studies one of the most complex models of power.

By comparison, democracies are relatively simple, with voters determining the balance of power. But dictatorships are secretive, deeply complicated, and each unique. Some hoard power; others rule by sharing enough power to make people reliant on the system.

By their nature, each dictatorship may be understood by only a handful of people.

“We know the dictator runs the show, but then who else are the key players?” asks Milan Svolik, at the University of Illinois. “Depending on the setting, maybe the ones who do the repressing should be the key players, like the military in Egypt, or maybe it should be the members of the party or the members of the ruling circle of the dictator.”

Svolik has compiled a mountain of raw data on post-World War II dictators and builds models of dictatorships by applying game theory, a method increasingly used in the social sciences, to understand how strategically-minded political leaders interact. For all that he’s learned about dictators, he warns against making blanket statements regarding authoritarianism.

For example, dictatorships in North Korea, Iraq, and Libya are among the most notorious authoritarian regimes, but they’re not typical. The median life expectancy of a dictatorship is merely a couple of years before the ruler is overthrown.

Patterns exist. Democracies in economically poor nations are more likely to revert to authoritarianism (India is a prominent exception), and ethnically homogenous countries are more stable whether they’re democracies or dictatorships.

Broadly speaking, dictators rule by either repression or by power-sharing and inclusion. Svolik details the Chinese Communist Party, where party membership is reserved for only the most highly educated and ambitious.

“The purpose was to say, ‘So you think there’s an alternative to this regime? Well, look, the smartest, most ambitious individuals are with us! So how could you even think that you could come up with an alternative that could outperform China today?’” Svolik says.

On the other hand, those who rule through repression share less power but risk being overthrown by the military. Rulers like Muammar Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein may have been able to rely on the military for so long because of ethnic ties, Svolik says.

With dictators so reliant on secrecy, Svolik’s task is complicated. Even researchers allowed to enter a dictatorship must be skeptical of what they’re told about the power structure—and maybe that’s true anywhere.

“If I interviewed President Obama, he would not really be telling me about how politics are made in the White House. He would be telling me the kinds of things he tells constituents because that’s what will get him re-elected,” Svolik says. “It’s even more pronounced in dictatorships because they have more incentive to keep things secret and not be sincere.”

Fall 2011