Discovering why autocrats may not be in total control

Table of contents

Table of Contents

Chapter One    Understanding Authoritarianism
Chapter Two    Taking Some Parts of Authoritarian States Seriously, Sometimes
Chapter Three    Constitutional Courts
Chapter Four    Parliaments
Chapter Five    Religious Establishments
Chapter Six    Does Authoritarianism Make a Difference? No, But Democracy Does


Authoritarianism seems to be everywhere in the political world—even the definition of authoritarianism as any form of non-democratic governance has grown very broad. Attempts to explain authoritarian rule as a function of the interests or needs of the ruler or regime can be misleading. Autocrats Can’t Always Get What They Want argues that to understand how authoritarian systems work we need to look not only at the interests and intentions of those at the top, but also at the inner workings of the various parts of the state. Courts, elections, security force structure, and intelligence gathering are seen as structured and geared toward helping maintain the regime. Yet authoritarian regimes do not all operate the same way in the day-to-day and year-to-year tumble of politics.

In Autocrats Can’t Always Get What They Want, the authors find that when state bodies form strong institutional patterns and forge links with key allies both inside the state and outside of it, they can define interests and missions that are different from those at the top of the regime. By focusing on three such structures (parliaments, constitutional courts, and official religious institutions), the book shows that the degree of autonomy realized by a particular part of the state rests on how thoroughly it is institutionalized and how strong its links are with constituencies. Instead of viewing authoritarian governance as something that reduces politics to rulers’ whims and opposition movements, the authors show how it operates—and how much what we call “authoritarianism” varies.

Nathan J. Brown is Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University.
Steven D. Schaaf is Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Mississippi.
Samer Anabtawi is Assistant Professor of Comparative Politics at University College London.
Julian G. Waller is Research Analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses and Professorial Lecturer in Political Science at George Washington University.

Autocrats Can’t Always Get What They Want fills important and woefully insufficient theoretical and empirical gaps of how political interests of elites and institutional inner workings of authoritarian regimes operate and what can be generalizable to advancing our understanding of them today. The authors’ approach of investigating these institutions from the inside out provides excellent analytical flexibility to understand and appreciate what it means to live in and live with authoritarian states.”

- Aim Sinpeng, University of Sydney

Autocrats Can’t Always Get What They Want is a welcome and significant contribution, pushing the study of authoritarian regimes in productive new directions. Very well-written and logically organized, it makes a persuasive case for not just why but how we can move beyond the current saturation point in authoritarianism studies to a more conceptually sound and meaningful research agenda.”

- Mona El-Ghobashy, New York University

“Revisiting classic works in comparative politics, the authors move beyond functionalist approaches to political institutions in dictatorships to explain when and how a broad range of these institutions develop a life of their own. Sharply written, this critical take demonstrates how the institutions that govern everyday interactions in dictatorships can become sources of frustration for the dictators themselves.”

- Joe Wright, Pennsylvania State University