How authoritarian leaders maintain support
Study finds public anticorruption campaigns bolster leaders, even when such measures lack tangible results.
"The findings help explain how authoritarian governments endure, not merely based on domination and fear, but as regimes generating positive public support over time."
How do authoritarian regimes sustain their popularity? A novel study in China led by MIT scholars shows that anticorruption punishments meted out by government authorities receive significant support among citizens — who believe such actions demonstrate both competence and morally righteous leadership.
The findings help explain how authoritarian governments endure, not merely based on domination and fear, but as regimes generating positive public support over time.
“What we find is that not only does the punishment of corrupt officials increase the perception among citizens that there is a capable and competent government, but it also increases the belief that government authorities have moral commitments citizens care about,” says Lily Tsai, an MIT political scientist and co-author of a newly published paper detailing the study’s findings.
In the case of China, these anticorruption actions tend to consist of public punishments of lower-level local officials who have violated the law. It is not clear that such measures actually reduce corruption overall, but people are still influenced by public gestures involving crackdowns on malfeasance.
“It signals that there is someone in authority who is willing to create order and stability for the public,” Tsai notes.