Contestation, Governance, and the Production of Violence Against Civilians:
Coercive Political Order in Rural Colombia

(with Andrés Aponte González and Daniel Hirschel-Burns)
Forthcoming, Journal of Conflict Resolution

What explains civilian victimization during civil war? Existing scholarship claims that violence against civilians is driven primarily by competition between armed actors. We argue that this explanation neglects a crucial cause of civilian victimization: in communities they rule, armed groups employ systematic violence against civilians to establish and sustain social order. Drawing on original microlevel quantitative data from Colombia, we show that areas controlled by a sole armed actor experience high levels of victimization, while places where multiple actors jointly govern exhibit significantly less violence. To explain this pattern, we draw on evidence from original interviews, focus groups, and secondary sources. We show that armed groups employ violence to govern areas they control and enact social order. But this violence is checked when multiple groups rule jointly: the factors that sustain pacted rule disincentivize victimization. These results have implications for theories of political order, violence, and rebel governance. [Paper]

Coercion, Governance, and Political Behavior in Civil War

Forthcoming, Journal of Peace Research

How do armed actors affect the outcome of elections? Recent scholarship on electoral violence shows that armed groups use violence against voters to coerce them to abstain or vote for the group’s allies. Yet this strategy is risky: coercion can alienate civilians and trigger state repression. I argue that armed actors have another option. A wide range of armed groups create governance institutions to forge ties of political authority with civilian communities, incorporating local populations into armed groups’ political projects and increasing the credibility of their messaging. The popular support, political mobilization, and social control enabled by governance offer a means to sway voters’ political behavior without resorting to election violence. I assess this argument in the context of the Peruvian civil war, in which Shining Path insurgents leveraged wealth redistribution and political propaganda to influence voting behavior. Archival evidence, time series analysis of micro-level violent event data, and a synthetic control study provide support for these claims. These results have implications for theories of electoral violence, governance by non-state actors, and political behavior in war-torn societies. [Paper]

Televising Justice during War

(with Austin Wright and Stephen Stapleton)
Journal of Conflict Resolution, 66(3): 529-552

Television is an overlooked tool of state building. We estimate the impact of televising criminal proceedings on public use of government courts to resolve disputes. We draw on survey data from Afghanistan, where the government used television as a mechanism for enhancing the legitimacy of formal legal institutions during an ongoing conflict. We find consistent evidence of enhanced support for government courts among survey respondents who trust television following the nation’s first televised criminal trial. We find no evidence that public confidence in other government functions (e.g. economy, development, corruption) improved during this period. Our findings suggest that television may provide a means of building state legitimacy during war and other contexts of competition between political authorities. [Paper]

Presidential Rhetoric and Populism

(with Susan Stokes and Ipek Çinar)
Presidential Studies Quarterly, 50: 240-263

Scholars and the general public have been struck by the norm-shattering rhetoric of President Donald J. Trump. His “rhetorical signature” is heavy with Manichean good-versus-evil messages, vilification of his opponents, and disdain for institutions and for evidence. But many politicians vilify their opponents and style themselves as uniquely able to solve their society’s problems. In fact, Trump’s Manichean discourse is typical of populist leaders, in the United States and around the world. Using text-as-data analysis of campaign rhetoric, we study the content and mood of presidential campaign speeches by a range of U.S. politicians, which allows a broader perspective not only on the uniqueness of Trump’s rhetoric, but also its continuities with the rhetoric of others. This analysis allows us to define Trump as a right-wing populist. Right-wing populists, like left-leaning ones, are anti-elitist and Manichean in words and outlook. However, the two versions of populism differ in the nature of the anti-elitism, with right-wing populists targeting political elites and left-wing ones targeting economic elites. Right-wing populists also define the “other” as ethnic out-groups, who threaten the ethnically pure “people.” [Paper]

Working papers

Criminal Governance in Latin America: an Initial Assessment of its Extent and Correlates

(with Benjamin Lessing, Elayne Stecher, Noah Schouela, and Douglas Block)

In communities across Latin America, basic order is provided by local criminal organizations. Existing studies establish that criminal governance is widespread, persistent, and consequential, shaping not only the lives of those governed but macro-level political, social, and economic outcomes. Yet systematic assessments of its prevalence and characteristics are lacking. We leverage novel, representative survey data and a compendium of qualitative sources to provide country-level estimates of the extent of criminal governance. Across Latin America, 13% of respondents—representing 80 million people—report some form of criminal governance; this likely underestimates the true number, we argue. We also analyze the correlates of criminal governance. Counterintuitively, it is associated with positive perceptions of state governance and higher income relative to presence of non-governing gangs. These results persist when we employ objective measures of local state presence. Untangling the causal relationships behind these correlations is a central challenge for future research. Under review. [Working paper]

Governing the Shadows: Territorial Control and State Making in Civil War

(with Sebastian van Baalen)

Under what conditions do rebels succeed in establishing functional governance institutions in contested areas? Canonical theories of rebel governance and state formation insist that coercive control of territory is a necessary precondition for the development of insurgent institutions. Yet this claim is belied both by the empirical record and classical guerrilla warfare doctrines. We argue that a lack of consolidated territorial control need not preclude rebel governance, and develop a new theory that posits that low state governance responsiveness helps insurgents overcome the challenges associated with establishing institutions in contested areas. Low state responsiveness increases popular demand for insurgent institutions, decreases the costs associated with governing, and enables insurgents to collude with civilians in hiding their institutions. Process-tracing evidence from Ireland, South Africa, and Algeria illustrates our propositions, and further demonstrates that insurgents can actively undermine the state’s responsiveness to facilitate institutional infiltration. Our findings shed new light on the determinants of rebel governance and state formation trajectories, and suggest that scholars may need to do away with the assumption that territorial control is the only path towards statehood. Under review. [Paper available upon request]

Turbulence Foretold? Politicians’ Rhetoric and Attacks on Democratic Institutions

(with Susan Stokes and Ipek Çinar)

Do presidents and prime ministers who undermine their own democratic institutions signal their attacks in advance, with hostile rhetoric in the preceding campaign? Or are campaign messages uninformative about a candidate’s subsequent actions vis-a-vis democratic institutions? In the first empirical test of its kind, we coded hundreds of campaign speeches by candidates in democracies around the globe. We evaluate the sentiment of their rhetoric when they discuss a set of core democratic institutions: the media, courts, legislatures, bureaucracies, and elections. We also gathered information about these same politicians’ subsequent actions toward these institutions — whether, once in office, they undermined them or left them intact. Our key finding is that the level of political polarization conditions the relationship between words and actions. Only in polarized settings do rhetorical barbs against potential democratic targets predict attacks on those targets. Under review. [Paper available upon request]

Opportunistic Rebel Tactics in Civil War

(with Noah Schouela)

What explains the geography and timing of contestation in civil war? We propose a new theory of opportunistic rebel tactics. We argue that rebel violence is often driven by mid-level commanders, who react to opportunities in which the local balance of power tilts in their favor. These opportunities are defined by two factors: 1) local fluctuations in repressive state capacity and 2) whether insurgents expect that civilian communities will comply with or defy rebel incursions. We evaluate this argument on data from the Colombian civil war. Leveraging exogenous variation in local state capacity caused by landslide-induced road closures, we find that short-term negative shocks to repressive capacity increase the likelihood of insurgent-state clashes. However, this effect does not hold when local communities harbor strongly anti-insurgent attitudes, suggesting that state capacity and civilian preferences jointly shape rebel strategy and that popular opposition can substitute for state strength. Under review. [Paper available upon request]