ASTK18406U Autocratic Politics

Volume 2022/2023

MSc in Political Science

MSc in Social Science

MSc in Security Risk Management

Bachelor in Political Science


Around the world, autocracies and dictatorships are again on the rise. More than two-thirds of the world’s population currently live under some form of authoritarian rule, and non-democratic regimes govern about 70 percent of the world’s countries. At the same time, autocrats and dictators go great lengths to hide the power politics that underlie their rule and shield their regimes from scrutiny. Given these global trends, understanding how authoritarian regimes work is important. This course paves the ways for such an understanding.


The course sheds light on the core features of autocratic politics. It offers an in-depth look onto the institutions and actors of autocratic politics, thereby guiding students through today’s authoritarian wave. The course pays special attention to the techniques that autocrats and dictators use to take power, the strategies they employ to survive, and the reasons why they fall.


The course introduces students to research on historic and modern autocracies from around the world to uncover the logics of authoritarian power politics. Through the critical discussion and application of theories and empirical findings from different subfields of political science, the course offers key insights into the causes and consequences of a variety of authoritarian phenomena such as coups, purges, repression, censorship, or propaganda.


The course is structured around six thematic blocks. It will cover I) how to conceptualize and measure different types of autocracies; II) how autocracies emerge, and democracies die; III) which threats and adversaries autocrats face; IV) which instruments and strategies autocrats use protect their rule; V) how this shapes policies; VI) and how autocratic regimes break down and democracies emerge.



  1. The importance of understanding autocracies
  2. The classification of autocracies
  3. The entry of autocrats and the breakdown of democracy
  4. Coups and autocratic power takeovers
  5. Threats and autocratic strategies of control
  6. Elites, protesters, and terrorists
  7. The autocrat’s use of elections, parties, and parliaments
  8. The autocrat’s security apparatus
  9. The autocrat’s bureaucracy
  10. Purges and autocratic punishment
  11. The autocrat’s control of information
  12. The domestic policies of autocrats
  13. The foreign policies of autocrats
  14. The exit of autocrats and the chances for democratization
Learning Outcome


After having completed the course, students will:

  • be familiar with core theories and empirical studies on autocratic politics,
  • have in-depth knowledge about authoritarian regimes and non-democratic politics,
  • understand processes and outcomes in historic and contemporary autocracies and dictatorships,
  • know of different ways to define, categorize, and measure various types of autocracies and authoritarian institutions,
  • know about the complexity and dilemmas in devising policy responses to authoritarian politics and regimes,
  • grasp different practical challenges and constraints to doing research in autocratic contexts,
  • understand ethical considerations and dilemmas in doing research in autocratic contexts.



Having completed the course, students will:

  • have practical skills in reviewing and synthesizing scientific studies,
  • be able to analytically evaluate theoretical arguments and different types of scientific evidence,
  • be able to evaluate different research conclusions, data sources and measurements, research designs, and other methodological choices,
  • have practical skills in conducting systematic searches for literature and data,
  • have practice in scientific writing.



The students will be able to:

  • apply different theoretical perspectives to real-world problems,
  • analyze and critically evaluate scientific arguments and empirical evidence,
  • develop and communicate own scientific arguments,
  • conduct independent analytical thinking,
  • evaluate policies.

Core reading list:

Aksoy, Deniz, David B. Carter, and Joseph Wright. 2015. “Terrorism and the Fate of Dictators.” World Politics, 67(3): 423-468.


Brancati, Dawn. 2014. “Democratic Authoritarianism: Origins and Effects.” Annual Review of Political Science 17: 313-326.


Casey, Adam E. 2020. “The Durability of Client Regimes: Foreign Sponsorship and Military Loyalty, 1946–2010.” World Politics, 72(3), 411-447.


Esberg, Jane. 2020. “Censorship as Reward: Evidence from Pop Culture Censorship in Chile.” American Political Science Review, 114(3): 821-836.


Frantz, Erica. 2018. Authoritarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Gandhi, Jennifer, and Adam Przeworski. 2007. “Authoritarian Institutions and the Survival of Autocrats.” Comparative Political Studies, 40(11): 1279-1301.


Geddes, Barbara, Joseph Wright, and Erica Frantz. 2018. How Dictatorships Work. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Gerschewski, Johannes. 2013. “The Three Pillars of Stability: Legitimation, Repression, and Co-Optation in Autocratic Regimes.” Democratization, 20(1): 13-38.


Gläßel, Christian, and Katrin Paula. 2020. “Sometimes Less is More: Censorship, News Falsification, and Disapproval in 1989 East Germany.” American Journal of Political Science, 64(3): 682-698.


Gohdes, Anita R. 2020. “Repression Technology: Internet Accessibility and State Violence.” American Journal of Political Science, 64(3): 488-503.


Greitens, Sheena C. 2016. Dictators and their Secret Police: Coercive Institutions and State Violence. New York: Cambridge University Press.


Hassan, Mai. 2020. Regime Threats and State Solutions: Bureaucratic Loyalty and Embeddedness in Kenya. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Lueders, Hans. 2021. “Electoral Responsiveness in Closed Autocracies: Evidence from Petitions in the former German Democratic Republic.” American Political Science Review, 1-16


McMahon, R. Blake, and Branislav L. Slantchev. 2015. “The Guardianship Dilemma: Regime Security through and from the Armed Forces.” American Political Science Review, 109(2): 297–313.


Naidu, Suresh, James A. Robinson, and Lauren E. Young. 2021. “Social Origins of Dictatorships: Elite Networks and Political Transitions in Haiti.” American Political Science Review, 115(3): 900-916.


Scharpf, Adam, and Gläßel, Christian. 2020. “Why Underachievers Dominate Secret Police Organizations: Evidence from Autocratic Argentina.” American Journal of Political Science, 64(4): 791-806.


Singh, Naunihal. 2014. Seizing Power: The Strategic Logic of Military Coups. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.


Sudduth, Jun K. 2017. “Strategic Logic of Elite Purges in Dictatorships.” Comparative Political Studies 50 (13): 1768-1801.


Svolik, Milan W. 2012. The Politics of Authoritarian Rule. New York: Cambridge University Press.


Weeks, Jessica. 2012. “Strongmen and Straw Men: Authoritarian Regimes and the Initiation of International Conflict.” American Political Science Review, 106(2): 326-347.


Woldense, Josef. 2022. “What Happens When Coups Fail? The Problem of Identifying and Weakening the Enemy Within.” Comparative Political Studies. Forthcoming: 1-30.

BA in social science with successful attendance of an introductory course in comparative politics. A solid understanding of quantitative methods is desirable.
Lectures, in-class discussions, and group work with student presentations.
  • Category
  • Hours
  • Class Instruction
  • 28
  • Total
  • 28
Continuous feedback during the course


There will be the opportunity for “opt-in” written feedback on student papers.

7,5 ECTS
Type of assessment
Type of assessment details
Portfolio exam
Marking scale
7-point grading scale
Censorship form
No external censorship

- In the semester where the course takes place: Free written assignment

- In subsequent semesters: Free written assignment

Criteria for exam assesment
  • Grade 12 is given for an outstanding performance: the student lives up to the course's goal description in an independent and convincing manner with no or few and minor shortcomings
  • Grade 7 is given for a good performance: the student is confidently able to live up to the goal description, albeit with several shortcomings
  • Grade 02 is given for an adequate performance: the minimum acceptable performance in which the student is only able to live up to the goal description in an insecure and incomplete manner