How Should We Now Conceptualize Protest, Diffusion, and Regime Change?

July 15, 2019

Brancati and Lucardi’s findings on the absence of “democracy protest” diffusion across borders raise important questions for the future of protest studies. I argue that this subfield would benefit from a stronger engagement with theory (in general) and from a “patronal politics” perspective (in particular) when it comes to researching protest in non-democratic regimes. This means curtailing a widespread practice of linking the study of protest with the study of democratization, questioning the dominant “contentious politics” framework as commonly conceptualized, and instead focusing more on the central role of patronal network coordination dynamics (especially elite splits) in driving both protest and the potential for regime change. This perspective emphasizes the role of domestically generated succession expectations and public opinion in generating the most meaningful elite splits, and reveals how protests can be important instruments in the resulting power struggles among rival networks. It accounts not only for why democracy protests do not diffuse from neighbor state to neighbor state as per Brancati and Lucardi, but also for the timing and distribution of protests related to the 1989 downfall of communist systems in Europe, the post-Soviet Color Revolutions of 2003-05, the collapse of regimes in the 2011 Arab Spring, and the apparent failure of many other protest attempts to force far-reaching regime change.

The impressive research reported by Dawn Brancati and Adrian Lucardi in this issue of the Journal of Conflict Resolution significantly advances our understanding of mass protest in nondemocratic regimes. Armed with daily records of pro-democracy protest activity across the world for more than two decades, the authors lay to rest a persistent argument that democracy protest tends to spread like wildfire from neighbor state to neighbor state and that this dynamic underlies important protest waves involved in the 1989 collapse of communism, the postcommunist Color Revolutions, and the 2011 Arab Spring. While not ruling out that certain features of protests such as mobilizational technologies might diffuse in this way, their findings put the focus squarely on domestic politics as the primary source of democracy protest dynamics.

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