Theories of Democratic Change Research Initiative

(November 2013 – December 2018)

The purpose of this research initiative is to improve the capacity of the DRG Center to conduct strategic planning by strengthening the link between sector analysis and program design. This project responds to an expressed need from USAID’s DRG field officers to have a tool that allows them quickly and confidently to ground DRG programming and programmatic assumptions in extant academic theory that provides justification for the implied causal linkages behind how a program intervention will affect both intermediate outcomes and high-level development results. A team led by Yale University and the University of Virginia conducted the research for Phase I: Theories of Democratic Backsliding. Phase II, conducted by a team from Michigan State University, covered theories that explain paths away from authoritarianism. George Mason University will conduct the research for Phase III: Transitions from Conflict from April 2018 - December 2018.

Yale University - Theories of Democratic Change Phase I: Democratic Backsliding
Michigan State University - Theories of Democratic Change Phase II: Paths Away from Authoritarianism
George Mason University - Theories of Democratic Change Phase III: Transitions from Conflict

Yale University

Grant Title: Theories of Democratic Change, Phase I: Theories of Democratic Backsliding
Grant Period: May 2014 – April 2015
Principal Investigators:

  • Ellen Lust, Political Science, University of Gothenburg, Yale University, Project on Middle East Democracy
  • David Waldner, Political Science, University of Virginia

Democratic backsliding is a challenge USAID faces worldwide, in many contexts. Degradation in the quality, functioning, and experience of democracy and democratic rights negatively affects international development goals, in all sectors. The continued decline in democratic governance around the world raises new questions about how DRG practitioners and scholars understand and confront backsliding. Is backsliding simply democratization in reverse? What makes countries vulnerable to backsliding? Which democratic practices and institutions are most at risk? How can DRG programs respond to or mitigate closing political space?

Through a research grant funded by USAID’s Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance (the DRG Center), under the Democracy Fellows and Grants Program, a research team from Yale University and the University of Virginia worked with the DRG Center to organize and evaluate the body of current academic theory that can contribute to understanding how and why a governance system that had been democratizing would shift instead toward greater authoritarianism. The publication was further informed and vetted in two peer review workshops by a group of democratization scholars from Cornell University, Duke University, Georgetown University, Northwestern University, Oxford University, Princeton University, and the University of Illinois.

The document introduces the concept of democratic backsliding, and presents a theory matrix that gives a snapshot of the academic theories relevant to backsliding, organized into six theory families. The publication then presents a deeper background on each of the theories and the theory families, and guides the reader through the process of selecting and organizing the theories. It concludes with four appendices—the first two focused on definitions, the third on the criteria used to evaluate the theories, and the fourth on three case studies in which the theories are applied.

Overall, this research concludes that although democratic backsliding is a common experience faced by USAID, it is not clearly defined in academic literature. In summarizing, evaluating, and deriving lessons for practitioners from academic theories of democratic backsliding, the researchers often inferred insights from broader theories of democratic transition, consolidation, and breakdown. In doing so, the team determined that backsliding is best conceived as a change in a combination of competitive electoral procedures, civil and political liberties, and accountability, and that backsliding occurs through a series of discrete changes in the rules and informal procedures that shape those elections, rights, and accountability. These discrete changes take place over time, separated by months or even years, and the end result is not pre-determined: backsliding may result in democratic breakdown, or it may not, and can occur within both democratic and authoritarian regimes. Regardless of whether these changes ultimately, or eventually, lead to regime change, they do degrade citizens’ rights and their engagement with the state, and both have widespread repercussions for USAID’s work.

Research Report: Theories of Democratic Change, Phase I: Theories of Democratic Backsliding


Michigan State University

Grant Title: Theories of Democratic Change, Phase II: Paths Away from Authoritarianism
Grant Period: July 2016 - July 2017
Principal Investigators:

Dr. Conroy-Krutz and Dr. Frantz will summarize and critically evaluate extant research on what causes, influences, or deters paths away from authoritarianism, examining a variety of regime types, country characteristics, and change processes that result in countries taking small and large steps away from authoritarian practices and structures. From this comprehensive analysis, the MSU team will produce a reference guide that will allow USAID staff to draw upon academic theory and better understand how these paths materialize, evolve, and even regress in their countries or regions of concern. The literature review will supplement the guide, allowing USAID staff to explore an individual theory in more depth and to position all theories presented within the body of relevant academic research. Both products will be vetted in peer review workshops, attended by leading democratization scholars and USAID.

Research Report: Theories of Democratic Change, Phase II: Paths Away from Authoritarianism


George Mason University

George Mason University logo 

Grant Title: Theories of Democratic Change, Phase III: Transitions from Conflict
Grant Period: April 2018 - December 2018
Principal Investigators:

In the third phase of Theories of Democratic Change, Dr. Flores and Dr. Nooruddin will review, synthesize, and evaluate research on the complex interconnections between conflict and democratization. Like previous Theories of Democratic Change grantees, this team will produce (1) a white paper that presents the team’s overall findings and conclusions and (2) a theory matrix that summarizes and organizes the theories relevant to transitions from conflict.

The white paper and theory matrix will draw from political science and other academic disciplines. It will be bolstered by historical analyses of specific cases. The white paper will answer three main questions:

  • How does the risk and experience of violent conflict undermine democratic practice?
  • Under what circumstances do democratic practices or movements towards democracy quell (or exacerbate) the risk of different types of violent conflict?
  • How can external interventions mitigate risks and capitalize on opportunities inherent in transitions to democracy and peace?

Research Report: Theories of Democratic Change, Phase III: Transitions from Conflict