New views of autocracy emerge from historic archives

Political science PhD student Emilia Simison has found that despotic regimes vary, and the move to democracy doesn’t necessarily guarantee policy change.

Emilia Simison, Political Science PhD doctoral student; photo by Bryce Vickmark

“I want to understand what makes autocracies different from democracies, by looking closely at the policymaking process inside dictatorships and determining if and how those policies change when a regime becomes democratic.”

—  Emilia Simison, doctoral student in political science

“There’s a stereotype of dictatorship where one person decides everything, but that’s not always how politics works in an authoritarian regime,” says Emilia Simison, a sixth-year doctoral student in political science. Since 2015, Simison has been able to access and study documents that chronicle the lawmaking machinery of some of the past century’s most notorious dictatorships. Her analysis of these voluminous materials suggests that autocracies do not routinely follow a single “strongman” model, and that some even make room for opposition groups and legislatures.

Mining previously inaccessible, declassified archives as well as vast public databases, Simison is creating a new and perhaps controversial picture of how autocratic regimes functioned — ranging from Francisco Franco’s Spain to more recent dictatorships in Brazil and Argentina.

“We expect policies to be different under democracies because we have elections where people vote for those who offer the political economy they want,” says Simison. But Simison finds that when autocracy gives way to democracy, policy change does not automatically follow.

Full story at MIT News


Suggested links

MIT Political Science

Emilia Simison's MIT webpage