Coercion, Governance, and Political Behavior in Civil War

Journal of Peace Research, 2024

[Abstract] [Paper]

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.

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

(with Andrés Aponte González and Daniel Hirschel-Burns)
Journal of Conflict Resolution, 68(4): 616-641

[Abstract] [Paper]

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.

Televising Justice during War

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

[Abstract] [Paper]

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.

Presidential Rhetoric and Populism

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

[Abstract] [Paper]

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.”

Working papers

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

(with Sebastian van Baalen, revise and resubmit, Comparative Political Studies )


Under what conditions do insurgents succeed in establishing functional governance institutions in contested areas? Canonical theories of state formation and rebel governance insist that coercive control of territory is a necessary precondition for the development of governing 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. Rather, we posit that low state governance responsiveness enables insurgents to establish 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. Our findings shed new light on the determinants of rebel governance and state formation, and cast doubt on the assumption that territorial control is the only path toward statehood.

Opportunistic Rebel Tactics in Civil War

(with Noah Schouela, revise and resubmit, Political Science Research and Methods )


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.

Building Tolerance for Backsliding by Trash-Talking Democracy: Theory and Evidence from Mexico

(with Susan Stokes, Ipek Çinar, and Lautaro Cella, under review )


When aspiring autocrats erode their democracies, why do voters not necessarily turn against them? A prominent answer focuses on the advantages to these leaders of electorates that are polarized along partisan lines. We offer another answer. Aspiring autocrats can also maintain popular support by degrading their democracies in the eyes of their citizens. If voters can be induced to believe that their democracy is already broken, then the leader’s attacks matter less. This is the logic behind the backslider’s strategy of trash-talking democracy. Using text-as-data methods, we distinguish polarizing statements from democracy-denigrating ones in the rhetoric of one contemporary leader who has challenged democratic institutions, Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador. We report on a survey experiment, being piloted in Mexico, that will allow us to assess the effectiveness of democracy-denigrating speech on the public’s tolerance of democratic erosion.

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

(with Benjamin Lessing, Noah Schouela, and Elayne Stecher, under review )

[Abstract] [Working paper]

In communities throughout Latin America, criminal organizations provide basic order, as much or more than the state. Although rich, multidisciplinary research on criminal governance has illuminated its dynamics in hundreds of specific settings, a systematic assessment of its prevalence and correlates is lacking. We leverage novel, nationally representative survey data, validated against a compendium of qualitative sources, to estimate country-level prevalence of criminal governance and explore its correlates. Across 18 countries, 14% of respondents reported that local criminal groups provide order and/or reduce crime. Based on this, we conservatively estimate that between 77 and 101 million Latin Americans experience criminal governance today. Counterintuitively, criminal governance is positively correlated with both perceptions of state governance quality and objective measures of local state presence. These descriptive results, demonstrating the pervasiveness of “duopolies of violence”, are consistent with case-specific findings that state presence — rather than absence — drives criminal governance.

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.