Research papers

Teaching Democratic Erosion to undergraduates at the University of Denver

During the 2017-18 academic year, faculty at roughly two dozen universities taught versions of the Democratic Erosion course that drew on a similar syllabus, and asked students to write brief blog posts about one specific case of their choosing. At the University of Denver, however, Professor Elizabeth Sperber taught a different version of the Democratic Erosion course. Specifically, she taught the course as a quarter-long Capstone Senior Thesis Seminar. The course included 21 political science majors, all in their senior year. Each student was required to complete a “Capstone Thesis,” i.e. an original research paper that used a mix of quantitative and qualitative data on democratic erosion. Students were provided with two broad prompts for their papers. The first prompted students to explain variation in democratic quality across purposefully selected pairs of U.S. states. The other focused students’ attention on purposefully selected pairs of states in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and sub-Saharan Africa, and asked students to compare and contrast the mechanisms that facilitate democratic erosion in these cases. For more information on the course and to read the paper prompts, please see here.

Below we feature student papers produced for the course.

Student research papers
Avery Hitchcock, Drawing the Boundaries of Liberal Democracy: Redistricting as a Stealth Authoritarian Practice

Over the past few years, North Carolina and Pennsylvania have received nationwide media attention because of their questionable tactics with redistricting. Redistricting is a required practice of adjusting congressional district boundaries every ten years in order to ensure constituents receive equal and fair representation. However, the power of redistricting lies, in most cases, solely in the hands of elected officials, whose rationality would lead officials to maximize gains for their party in any way they see fit. In an effort to thwart true representation and extend partisan political power, redistricting has become gerrymandering: a stealth authoritarian practice that erodes democracy right in front of citizen’s eyes. Because redistricting is legal and has historical precedent, it is difficult to know exactly when and where it has gone “off the rails,” contributing to democratic erosion rather than democratic maintenance. But recent attention has shown racial and partisan influences that indicate how our elected officials are more concerned with party gains than allowing citizens to elect leaders who can bring the change they desire.

Emily Barribal, In Defense of Redistricting: Rethinking “Gerrymandering” and Democratic Erosion in the United States

Partisan redistricting (“gerrymandering”), like democratic erosion, is typically frowned upon in democratic societies. But is gerrymandering really a sign of democratic erosion? According to current literature on the topic, my findings suggest that no, it is not a sign of erosion. This paper illustrates my point by comparing the cases of North Carolina and Pennsylvania—specifically, I analyze the recent partisan gerrymandering court cases both states have faced, and introduce voter registration data that indicates citizens in both states are increasingly registering as unaffiliated or other party voters. I conclude that this emerging voter grassroots movement, in light of a post-Bernie Sanders campaign and a current Trump presidency, could eventually render partisan redistricting as ineffective for warring partisan politicians.

Cristin Espinoza, Democratic Erosion in Arizona and New Mexico: A long-run comparative analysis of democratic divergence
Why do Arizona and New Mexico, two adjacent states along the US-Mexico border with similar histories of annexation to the U.S., experience divergent levels of democratic quality (or erosion)? Today, Arizona is ranked lowest in electoral integrity by scholars of democratic erosion, while New Mexico receives excellent ratings. Though not identical, these states share comparable geographic, demographic, and political histories: Both were annexed after the Mexican-American war and both experienced American Indian wars. And today, both states have immigrant populations greater than the national average. Why, then, is Arizona ranked last among U.S. states for electoral integrity and marked by major controversy over exclusionary anti-immigrant politics, while New Mexico’s democratic practice appears to be relatively robust and inclusive? I hypothesize that one major determinant of this divergence can be traced to a critical juncture early in the states’ histories, which set them down distinct and self-reinforcing paths. Specifically, I argue that because more settlers died in the American Indian Wars in present-day Arizona than New Mexico, Arizona developed a more exclusionary political culture than its neighbor. In turn, this led to policies such as low taxes that drew swaths of conservative white retirees to Arizona in the 1980s. This influx reinforced some of the antidemocratic political dynamics observed today, as in the case of Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Alex Hashimoto, How Democracies Fall: A Comparative Study of Poland and Hungary

In “How Democracies Fall: A Comparative Study of Poland and Hungary,” I conduct an empirical analysis of the processes through which democratic erosion has occurred in these cases. This analysis frames contemporary Polish and Hungarian political history within Muller’s (2016) scholarship on Populism and employs Streeck and Thelen’s (2005) typology of mechanisms of gradual institutional change to shed new light on processes undergirding change in the cases I study. The analysis reveals that the Law and Justice Party (PiS) in Poland and Hungarian Civic Alliance (Fidesz) in Hungary rose to power on similar themes, exploiting stagnancy and unpopularity in the existing establishment political parties. Then, once in power both parties have taken extensive measures to consolidate their power which can be understood through three of Streeck and Thelen’s processes of gradual institutional change: Layering, drift and conversion. Finally, I explore the role of institutional learning as a partial explanation for why Poland’s democracy has grown illiberal at a much quicker rate than it has in Hungary. 

Danielle Trujillo, Land of the Free? Evaluating the Erosive Effects of Felon Disenfranchisement and Voter ID Laws on Democracy in America

This research study enlists literature on democratic erosion and stealth authoritarianism (also referenced as democratic backsliding) presented by Ozan Varol (2015) and Nancy Bermeo (2016) in a state-by-state comparison of democratic institutions in the U.S. Specifically, I focus on historical and contemporary mechanisms of voter suppression in the enactment of felon disenfranchisement and strict voter identification policies. I argue that the surge of tribal partisanship (often termed polarization) in the 21st century effectively allowed for the introduction of stealth authoritarianism in particular U.S. states, such as Mississippi and Louisiana. These states enforce felon disenfranchisement and voter identification policies that I show constitute major threats to democracy as it is often conceived in the literature. Additionally, this paper advances the literature by challenging the validity of data presented by the Electoral Integrity Project (EIP). This data measured expert opinions of state-level electoral integrity in the U.S., focusing on the 2016 elections. I show that although experts gave Mississippi and Louisiana drastically different rankings on electoral integrity (including potential for voter participation), these states’  felon disenfranchisement and voter identification policies vary only minutely. Presenting this information indicates that experts may not be considering felon disenfranchisement in their ratings, or may not give it equal weight. In turn, this paper illustrates a need for further research in the field of U.S. democratic erosion, particularly in further state-by-state comparisons of laws that affect chances for free and fair elections.

Peter Steckler, Risky Rhetoric: Populist Language and Democratic Erosion in Arizona and New Mexico 

Literature concerning the global rise of populism has become increasingly common, but populisms influence has yet to be studied in smaller political theatres. Through a comparative analysis across New Mexico and Arizona, a politolinguistic analysis reveals dramatically different rhetoric across states with similar conditions. The populist rhetoric scores found through the analysis correlate with the states profoundly different electoral integrity scores, which I link to democratic erosion. Arizona holds one of the poorest electoral integrity indexes in the US while also containing a number of political actors who utilize populist rhetoric in political discourse. New Mexico, on the other hand, notably lacks populist rhetoric in everyday political discourse and holds one of the finest electoral indexes in the US. Establishing this relationship guides further research in identifying the causes and effects of democratic erosion across states.

Troy Fangmeier, State-by-State: The Demise of U.S. Democracy? Erosion of Norms and Change by Conversion

This paper explores the proliferation of antidemocratic practices at the state level in order to contribute to the broader literature on democratic erosion, which, to date, has focused largely on erosion at the federal and international levels. Specifically, this paper examines the antidemocratic practice of gerrymandering in two of the least democratic states in the U.S., namely Pennsylvania and North Carolina. Using a form of theory-building process tracing, I analyze diagnostic evidence such as court rulings and statements by political officials to determine the specific mechanisms of change in North Carolina and Pennsylvania (Collier, 2011, p.824). My research finds that, rather than eroding democratic norms (Levitsky & Ziblatt, 2017), heretofore distinct research on gradual institutional change (Streeck & Thelen, 2005) more adequately explains the rise of antidemocratic practices at the state level. Additionally, this paper argues that contemporary social conditions, such as the increasing prevalence of modern redistricting technology, for instance, plays a noteworthy role in erosion at the state level.

Shelby Harold, Laboratory of Authoritarianism: Analyzing Voter I.D. Laws in Arizona and Colorado

Currently, the United States is experiencing democratic erosion on both the federal and state-level. In my paper, I examine how Voter I.D. laws are a stealth authoritarian practice that produce anti-democratic outcomes. I use the existing literature to explain why the equal opportunity to vote is essential to democracy. I purposefully selected Arizona and Colorado as my cases. Although they are geographical neighbors and have experienced similar immigration patterns, they have extremely different Voter I.D. laws. My analytical goal is to identify why Arizona is exhibiting this behavior. Through quantitative analysis and scholarly research, I found evidence that is consistent with the view that the deployment of false narratives about immigration and an unwavering Republican majority have pushed Arizona to adopt laws that suppress voters and lead to anti-democratic outcomes. Since these factors are not as prevalent in Colorado, there has not been a similar drive for such legislation.

Michael Thorn, Beijing Authoritarianism: Incorporating Liberal and Democratic Practices into an Authoritarian Regime

The purpose of this paper is exploring how an authoritarian regime type, the People’s Republic of China, strategically and successfully incorporated liberal and democratic practices to bolster legitimacy for itself both domestically and internationally in this 21st century that is dominated by liberal democracies. In the paper, I use definitions and frameworks from the classic democratization literature and the newer literature of democratic erosion to explore a new way of thinking about governmental structure. I specifically use two theories from the democratic erosion literature. The first being that liberalism and democracy are two separate practices, and the second is that the academic community needs to focus more on looking and analyzing regimes practices instead of just regime typing. I specifically analyze two practices, responsiveness and separation of powers, and how they were traditionally defined as being liberal or democratic, but the Chinese government was able to incorporate them into its authoritarian regime type altering the nature of these practices.

Jeremy Walls, How Democracies Erode Right Before Our Eyes: Examining Poland and Hungary’s Recent Slip Toward Illiberalism 

The purpose of this paper is to explore democratic erosion/backsliding in Poland and Hungary, examining what occurred in the countries that led them to where they are now. The paper uses a conceptual framework laid out by political economists Streeck and Thelen, along with frameworks and theories made by scholars Varol, Lust and Waldner, and Bermeo, to better refine the field’s understanding of formal, antidemocratic institutional change. By utilizing these frameworks, this paper gets a better understanding of what is occurring in Poland and Hungary with democratic erosion. This paper explores four paths that both countries experienced to cause this change – censorship, judiciary review, party polarization, and populism. It also compares and contrasts the two countries, argued to be similar but still unique. Finally, it argues that looking at these countries can not only help the field get a larger grasp on the understanding of this form of change, but also the understanding can be used to help keep other countries from experiencing the same problem.

Olivia Hayes, Stealth Segregation: Gerrymandering and Democratic Erosion in North Carolina and Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania and North Carolina have policies and institutions rooted in their respective histories that have worsened and hastened democratic erosion. The Republican use of gerrymandering in both states exacerbates the racial segregation and political division. This paper uses empirical evidence from the Homeowner’s Loan Corporation New Deal redlining policies to argue that minorities in Pennsylvania are being disenfranchised. This case study highlights democratic institutions that have been converted into anti-democratic ones by using Streeck & Thelen’s (2005) framework of institutional change. The case study of North Carolina offers empirical evidence of strong racial ties to party and examines how Republican legislators manipulate the system to their advantage. In both cases, this paper highlights how new software used for redistricting has assisted in the creation of stealth authoritarianism as defined by Varol (2015). This stealth authoritarianism appears as the Republican party abuses systems of democracy to maintain and gain political power. When a party or individual does this, democracy is at stake. The paper calls for judiciary action to define guidelines for how redistricting should be handled to protect American democracy in a highly polarized political system.

Brandon Arnold, Causal connections? Violence and Democratic Erosion in Mexico & Venezuela

This paper explores violence as a causal mechanism for democratic backsliding in Mexico and democratic breakdown in Venezuela using a mix of comparative historical analysis and descriptive statistical analysis, demonstrating a clear distinction between gradual forms of institutional change and dramatic political changes. Violence is an elusive and complex phenomenon with major political consequences for democratic development. This phenomenon has entirely excluded the democratic effect of institutions in contemporary Venezuela and is challenging the theoretical triad of democracy in Mexico that is operative in this paper. This review contributes to scholarship that violence is a significant causal factor for political change.

Evan Chavez, Is State-Level Democratic Erosion Inevitable Along the Southern U.S. Border? Comparing Immigration and Voter Identification Laws in Arizona and New Mexico

In this paper, I compare the cases of Arizona and New Mexico through the lens of democratic erosion. I demonstrate that democratic erosion is occurring in Arizona through the legal avenues of voter ID laws and immigration policies. These legal mechanisms are used to disenfranchise and electorally limit the Hispanic population residing in the state. New Mexico, on the other hand, does not experience the same democratic erosion, despite their close geographical proximity and similar demographic issues through large amounts of immigration from Mexico. The comparison that I present shows that the democratic erosion occurring in Arizona is the product of state-led initiatives, and not occurring on a wider scale throughout the US. This paper furthers the literature conducted on democratic erosion in the US by Levitsky and Ziblatt and utilizes the conceptual frameworks of stealth authoritarianism and democratic backsliding first posited by Varol and Bermeo respectively.

Riley Jon Blackwell, Democratic Backsliding and Stealth Authoritarianism: A Case Study Between Kenya and Tanzania

A wave of attempted democratization spread throughout parts of sub-Saharan Africa at the end of the twentieth century, including in the East African nations of Kenya and Tanzania. However, this paper asserts that a rise of both stealth and transparent authoritarianism practices amounts to dangerous democratic backsliding, which reflects trends seen more broadly throughout the region.  I study the cases of Kenya and Tanzania in this paper to study how democratic backsliding, also referred to as erosion, has unfolded. I pay special attention to the role of late-twentieth century history in each case, and seek to place backsliding events in this broader historical context.

Mark Noah, Shelby County v. Holder and Its Impact on Democratic Erosion

In this paper, I argue that laws and statutes that have to do with voting rights and voter ID laws have sped up democratic erosion, specifically in the Republican states of North Carolina and Arizona—both of which are losing Republican votes—after Shelby County v. Holder. With preclearance, states had to prove new laws would not negatively affect a group of voters, but without preclearance, it is up to individuals suing the state in order to prove laws are not productive. To this end, I use recent literature about democratic erosion to further my analysis and offer key examples of laws that were passed on the state-level to disenfranchise voters for the Democratic Party.

Other student papers (available upon request)

Andrew Smalley Broken Norms and Fractured Politics: The Slow Death of American Democracy at the State-level

Jonah Williams, Democratic Erosion How?

Madeleine White, Polarization and the State of American Democracy

Cheyenne Hunt,  Arizona and New Mexico: An Example of US States as laboratories of Authoritarianism

Bryce Williams, Democratic Erosion and the Decline of American Labor Unions: Wisconsin as a Case Study

Jack Murphy, Democratic Erosion in the United States: State Politics’ Impact on Subverting Constitutional Authority

*Photo features students in the DU Capstone seminar on the final day of class. Professor Sperber appears in the first row, third from left. Also featured is DU Professor and Reference Technology Integration Librarian, Christopher C. Brown, who collaborated with Prof. Sperber to enhance information literacy pedagogy in the course. Funding for this collaboration was generously provided by the Joseph I. Moreland Fund for Information Literacy Programs.