The Dictator's Dilemma: Mass organizations and Information Extraction in Authoritarian Regimes

Ren, Shiran, Foreign Affairs - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Waldner, David, University of Virginia
Mershon, Carol, AS-Politics (POLI), University of Virginia
Meng, Anne, University of Virginia
Mclaren, John, AS-Economics (ECON), University of Virginia

This dissertation investigates how authoritarian regimes maintain mass compliance when facing a unique information dilemma. Unlike their democratic counterparts, autocratic leaders need to muffle voices that can challenge their legitimacy publicly while simultaneously gathering accurate information about the citizens' preferences, attitudes, and behaviors to respond to potential threats. The overarching puzzle in my project is why some authoritarian regimes can overcome their informational disadvantage while others have to resort to indiscriminate repression and co-optation to maintain mass obedience. What explains the variation in authoritarian regimes' ability to extract genuine information from the masses? The collection of three essays in this dissertation examines whether mass organizations at the local level help solve autocrats' information dilemma. The first paper examines whether mass organizations facilitate stronger authoritarian control and increase the likelihood of authoritarian survival. The second paper further tests the relationship between mass organization and information access. It shows that well-informed regimes with mass organizations are less likely to use indiscriminate repression against the public. The last paper explores the origins of mass organizations and demonstrates that prior programmatic mobilization can leave an important institutional legacy for authoritarian regimes. Together, the three essays find that institutionalization at the local level can increase autocrats' information extraction ability, reduce the use of indiscriminate repression, and lengthen their grip on power. Overall, this dissertation makes contribution to our understanding of how authoritarian regimes maintain control over their citizens. By examining the role of mass organizations in solving the information dilemma, it sheds light on the institutional mechanisms that underpin authoritarian rule.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Authoritarianism; Political parties
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