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

15 Jul 2019

(Journal of Conflict Resolution) Abstract: 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.

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