My job market paper – “The Lock, Stock, and Barrel: Redistributive Threats and Democratic Breakdown in Latin America” – draws on, and extends in new directions, work from my book project. My book project argues that party systems are at the root of broader patterns of social reform, redistribution, and levels of inequality in democracies across space and time. Democracies with more stable multi-party systems are more likely to redistribute income and possess lower levels of inequality than those with inchoate, two-party, or hegemonic counterparts. However, a cautionary corollary is that the development of strong parties – and especially those with interests that run counter to elites’ – can be a double-edged sword that undermine the very foundation of democracy itself.
Existing literature has long argued that strong political parties are instrumental for a well-functioning democracy. Furthermore, classic redistributivist theories have long claimed that democracy is most likely to break down in environments of high inequality, as elites are most likely to pull the rug out from democracy when they fear the ability for the lower and working classes to democratically coalesce together and soak the rich. However, Latin American elites have long ‘locked in’ institutions that curb the rise of redistributive threats, and credible threats from the vote rich, but economically poor, lower classes have been rare and revolution with primarily redistribuvist goals nearly non-existent. for a well-functioning democracy. I argue that, in highly unequal societies, parties – particularly those that threaten to redistribute income or wealth – may also constitute democracy’s most dangerous threat. This is because political parties are the most likely form of political organization that crosses into the threshold into a credible threat for elites, and that when parties with strong ties to popular sectors have overcome institutional barriers to threaten elites, or traditional parties are captured by redistributive-seeking politicians, democracy is unlikely to survive.
To develop my alternative causal hypothesis, I draw on the deviant case of Brazil. Embedded within this qualitative and historical case study, I also conduct a survey experiment on contemporary economic elites, showing that elites have strong perceptions of certain parties being detrimental to their economic interests, and their rise in power has weakening effects on their individual democratic values. Finally, I quantitatively test the theory on 19 Latin American countries covering the period of 1900-2020, finding strong empirical support that when redistributive threats emerge, military coups are more likely to occur, and democracies more likely to breakdown.
Working paper is available upon request.