When authoritarian-era elites return to positions of power under democracy, what are the implications for the quality of democracy? We investigate this question using an original dataset that tracks former authoritarian elites’ capture of high-level posts under democracy across Latin America from 1900 to 2015. We find that when authoritarian-era elites capture a wide range of posts across disparate government branches – spanning the executive, legislature, judiciary, military, and local elected office – such “elite dispersion” undercuts the quality of democracy. It also harms specific dimensions of democracy such as accountability, openness of competition, breadth of inclusion, and egalitarianism. These results are robust to prominent alternative explanations of the quality of democracy, and in particular, explanations that underscore the importance of formal organizations and institutions such as autonomous militaries, dominant political parties, and holdover autocratic constitutions. Elite dispersion matters for the quality of democracy even after controlling for these more visible channels of former authoritarian elite influence.
Michael Albertus is an associate professor of political science at the University of Chicago. His research interests include political regimes, inequality and redistribution, clientelism, and civil conflict. He has published two books, Autocracy and Redistribution: The Politics of Land Reform (2015, Cambridge University Press) and Authoritarianism and the Elite Origins of Democracy (2018, Cambridge University Press), and a host of articles in outlets such as the American Journal of Political Science, World Politics, Journal of Conflict Resolution, and Comparative Political Studies. He also writes regularly for public audiences in outlets like the New York Times, Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Foreign Affairs.