New views of autocracy emerge from historic archives

“There’s a stereotype of dictatorship where one person decides everything, but that’s not always how politics works in an authoritarian regime,” says Emilia Simison, a sixth-year doctoral student in political science. Since 2015, Simison has been able to access and study documents that chronicle the lawmaking machinery of some of the past century’s most notorious dictatorships. Her analysis of these voluminous materials suggests that autocracies do not routinely follow a single “strongman” model, and that some even make room for opposition groups and legislatures.

“I want to understand what makes autocracies different from democracies, by looking closely at the policymaking process inside dictatorships and determining if and how those policies change when a regime becomes democratic,” says Simison.

Mining previously inaccessible, declassified archives as well as vast public databases, Simison is creating a new and perhaps controversial picture of how autocratic regimes functioned — ranging from Francisco Franco’s Spain to more recent dictatorships in Brazil and Argentina.

“We expect policies to be different under democracies because we have elections where people vote for those who offer the political economy they want,” says Simison. But Simison finds that when autocracy gives way to democracy, policy change does not automatically follow.

“There are real-life implications to my research,” she says. “If we know what things are going to be different, and what are not, we can build realistic expectations in our democratic governments, activating the right mechanisms to make policies we need, such as those that reduce inequality and improve the provision of public goods.”

Turbulent times in Argentina

A native Argentine, Simison grew up amidst political turmoil and witnessed the devastating consequences of both military rule and unstable democracies. One of her earliest memories is from 2001, when she was in grade school: “The country was experiencing a huge economic crisis, and in Buenos Aires there was panic and looting because store shelves were empty, and police were clubbing demonstrators in the streets,” she recalls. As a teenager, she participated in protests herself.

Compelled by her country’s traumatic history and ongoing struggles, Simison determined to study political science at the University of Buenos Aires. After helping one of her professors write a history book, Simison realized she had a gift and passion for research, and set out on a master’s program in political science at Torcuato Di Tella University directly after completing her bachelor’s degree.

Then a life-changing opportunity arrived: “My advisor told me that an insane number of documents from one of Argentina’s dictatorships had recently been discovered and he invited me to help study them,” says Simison. “We were among the very first to gain access to these records.”

Simison and this professor, Alejandro Bonvecchi, combed through detailed records documenting el Proceso, the military junta that ruled Argentina between 1976 and 1983, a cruel government infamous for torturing and murdering citizens. This regime had established a legislative body drawn from the different military branches, “but the history of this congress had been erased,” says Simison. “In school we learned only that the junta made all the decisions.” Yet the archives proved otherwise.

“The records showed that this congress was relevant in shaping public policy during the dictatorship, offering amendments to bills supported by the junta, and delivering some legislative defeats,” says Simison. A paper describing this legislative power-sharing was published in Comparative Politics in 2017.

Historical data could illuminate the political machinery of regimes that were shrouded in secrecy, Simison realized, and there was much more to investigate — in Argentina and elsewhere. She decided to deepen her scholarship in historical analysis, and headed to MIT, where she believed training in rigorous, quantitative methods would enable her “to ask really interesting questions.”

Despots and legislatures

Simison quickly found rich topics to tap as she began doctoral studies. She began examining media and other accounts of a Brazilian dictatorship that ruled from 1964 to 1985. “The military created a bipartisan system, with pro-government and opposition parties,” she says. Her research, which applied machine learning to classify bills into policy topics, revealed that the pro-government party confined itself to proposing legislation on local issues, and the “opposition party introduced bills on out-of-bound national topics that generally didn’t pass.”

Her dissertation emerged from a review of historical records of this Brazilian dictatorship, and those of the el Proceso Argentine autocracy. With guidance from thesis advisor Ben Ross Schneider, Ford International Professor of Political Science and a Latin America economics and politics expert, Simison is focusing on the evolution and impacts of policies produced during and after these two regimes.

One prominent policy area involves financing laws. Simison found that in both regimes, banking powers held the ears of junta leaders and legislators, influencing policies that stayed in place even after the regimes fell. There could sometimes be dissent: She found letters from Brazilian renters’ associations complaining about inequities in the banking system, for instance. Yet financial regulations remained untouched. “People representing banks are always there, whether in democracies or dictatorships,” she says.

In contrast, policies touching health care, education, and housing generated enormous interest after regime change — particularly in Argentina — and were subject to significant shifts. “In democracies where there is space for people to mobilize, where elections are competitive, people will demand improvements on issues they deeply care about, such as high rents, and receive better policies from their elected officials.”

As she completes her dissertation, Simison is collaborating with scholars from Argentina and other Latin American countries to uncover and detail the policymaking mechanisms of additional authoritarian governments, the fate of legislation they create, and whether these policies advance or frustrate the social and economic interests of their citizens.

It is work, Simison believes, that will continue to yield essential insights for those concerned with strengthening democracies. Perhaps a better understanding of how authoritarian governments permit small openings for policymaking through legislation might shed light on “what can be done in authoritarian regimes to push for democratization,” she says. By the same token, it’s important to identify what is required in post-authoritarian democracies to achieve meaningful policy change. “At a time when some democracies are backsliding,” Simison says, “we must know what to expect from democracy, and to learn the mechanisms by which we can make those things happen that we want to happen.”

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