Researcher Andrea Kendall-Taylor on the Evolution of Autocracy

By Samuel Rogers, MALD 2021 Candidate, The Fletcher School

On January 28, 2020, the Fletcher Russia and Eurasia Program hosted Andrea Kendall-Taylor for a seminar discussing the evolution of autocracy and democratic decline in Europe and Eurasia. Kendall-Taylor, a Senior Fellow and Director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, lent her expertise in a stimulating presentation and a subsequent question and answer period. The presentation, entitled “The Evolution of Autocracy,” focused on several key talking points relevant to scholarship surrounding authoritarian regimes, including how autocrats come to and maintain power. Kendall-Taylor also shared some of her personal experiences with research and analysis methodology and best practice.

In discussing ways in which autocrats come to power, Kendall-Taylor went into detail about democratic decay, showing the changes in historical trends and the particular challenges and opportunities engendered by the digital age. One salient point in this section was that authoritarian leadership around the world is adapting to new realities in the international system. Armed coups today are less practical because of the diplomatic and economic costs associated with sanctioning. This means that leaders are forced to employ more creative and subtle means of building authoritarian control, including attacking media sources, undermining judicial independence, and gradually implementing restrictions on civil and political liberties in the name of counterterrorism and domestic security.

Kendall-Taylor elaborated on the ways in which the advent of the internet and different digital technologies have brought significant changes to the ways in which autocrats maintain their power. She addressed the questions of whether digital tools of repression, such as Internetcensorshipandthe manipulation of social media, contribute to the durability of authoritarian regimes and whether they could replace certain methods of hard repression. She detailed findings of research that suggest digital repression is primarily used as a complement to hard repression in respect to its ability to “fine-tune” existing means of enforcing authority. Research also suggests that the employment of digital technologies does, in fact, contribute to the durability of regimes. Digital technology proves to be more accessible to authoritarian leadership in that it can be purchased from firms and implemented at a much lower cost than creating networks of hard repression

At the conclusion of the presentation, Kendall-Taylor fielded a number of questions from students and staff of the Russia and Eurasia Program. She responded to questions about the future of Putin-lead Russia, digital repression and the success of protest movements, public relations campaigns by authoritarian regimes, and the ethics surrounding technology companies’ selling of various platforms to governments around the world. She also went into detail about different research teams that she has been a part of and the strategies they have employed. There are particular challenges posed by the tension between a comparative approach and a country-specific one with regard to investigations of democratic decay, political instability, and authoritarian regimes. It is important, she said, to allow models to feature the broad findings of comparative research alongside the specific input of country experts who highlight specific factors of interest. This allows for a more holistic and inclusive approach to findings and modeling.

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