American Political Science Review

Research Article

Inequality and Regime Change: Democratic Transitions and the Stability of Democratic Rule


a1 University of California at San Diego

a2 Rutgers University


Recent work by Carles Boix and Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson has focused on the role of inequality and distributive conflict in transitions to and from democratic rule. We assess these claims through causal process observation, using an original qualitative dataset on democratic transitions and reversions during the “third wave” from 1980 to 2000. We show that distributive conflict, a key causal mechanism in these theories, is present in just over half of all transition cases. Against theoretical expectations, a substantial number of these transitions occur in countries with high levels of inequality. Less than a third of all reversions are driven by distributive conflicts between elites and masses. We suggest a variety of alternative causal pathways to both transitions and reversions.


The authors thank Carles Boix, Michael Bratton, T.J. Cheng, Ruth Collier, Javier Corrales, Ellen Commisso, Sharon Crasnow, Anna Grzymala-Busse, Allan Hicken, Jan Kubik, James Long, Irfan Noorudin, Grigore Pop-Eleches, Celeste Raymond, Andrew Schrank, and Nic VanDewalle for comments on earlier drafts, including on the construction of the dataset. We received useful feedback from a presentation at the Watson Institute, Brown University, and comments from Ronald Rogowski and anonymous reviewers of the APSR. Particular thanks as well to Christian Houle for making his dataset available. We also thank Vincent Greco, Terence Teo, and Steve Weymouth for research assistance.