As the 21st century began, religion was spreading rapidly. The collapse of communism had left a psychological vacuum that was being filled with resurgent religion, fundamentalism was a rising political force in the United States, and the 9/11 attacks drew attention to the power of militant Islam. There were claims of a global resurgence of religion.
An analysis of religious trends from 1981 to 2007 in 49 countries containing 60% of the world’s population did not find a global resurgence of religion—most high-income countries were becoming less religious—however, it did show that in 33 of the 49 countries studied, people had become more religious (Norris and Inglehart, 2011). But since 2007, things have changed with surprising speed. From 2007 to 2020, an overwhelming majority (43 out of 49) of these same countries became less religious. This decline in belief is strongest in high-income countries but it is evident across most of the world (Inglehart, 2021).
A particularly dramatic shift away from religion took place among the American public. For years, the United States had been the key case demonstrating that economic modernization need not produce secularization. But recently, the American public has been moving away from religion along with virtually all other high-income countries—in fact, religiosity has been declining more rapidly in the US than in most other countries.
Several forces are driving this trend but the most powerful one is the waning grip of a set of beliefs closely linked with the imperative of maintaining high birth rates. For many centuries, most societies assigned women the role of producing as many children as possible and discouraged divorce, abortion, homosexuality, contraception, and any other sexual behavior not linked with reproduction. Virtually all major world religions encouraged high fertility because it was necessary, in the world of high infant mortality and low life expectancy that prevailed until recently, for the average woman to produce five to eight children in order to simply replace the population. Religions that didn‘t emphasize these norms gradually disappeared.
A growing number of countries have now attained high life expectancies and drastically reduced infant mortality rates, making these traditional cultural norms no longer necessary. This process didn’t happen overnight. The major world religions had presented pro-fertility norms as absolute moral rules and firmly resisted change. People only slowly give up the familiar beliefs and societal roles they have known since childhood, concerning gender and sexual behavior. But when a society reaches a sufficiently high level of economic and physical security, younger generations grow up taking that security for granted and the norms around fertility recede. Ideas, practices, and laws concerning gender equality, divorce, abortion, and homosexuality are now changing rapidly. Almost all high-income societies have recently reached a tipping point where the balance shifts from pro-fertility norms being dominant, to individual-choice norms being dominant.
Several other factors help explain the waning of religion. In the United States, politics explains part of the decline. Since the 1990s, the Republican Party has sought to win support by adopting conservative Christian positions on same sex marriage, abortion, and other cultural issues. But this appeal to religious voters has had the corollary effect of pushing other voters, especially young liberal ones, away from religion. The uncritical embrace of President Donald Trump by conservative evangelical leaders has accelerated this trend. And the Roman Catholic Church has lost adherents because of its own crises. A 2020 Pew Research Center survey found that an overwhelming majority US adults were aware of recent reports of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, and most of them believed that the abuses were “ongoing problems that are still happening.” Accordingly, many US Catholics said that they have scaled back attendance at mass in response to these reports.
Although some religious conservatives warn that the retreat from faith will lead to a collapse of social cohesion and public morality, the evidence doesn’t support this claim. Surprising as it may seem, countries that are less religious actually tend to be less corrupt and have lower murder rates than religious ones.
Each year, Transparency International published a Corruption Perception Index that ranks public-sector corruption in 180 countries and territories. Is corruption less widespread in religious countries than less religious ones? The answer is an unequivocal “No”—in fact, religious countries actually tend to be more corrupt than secular ones.
This pattern also applies to other crimes, such as murder. Surprising as it may seem, the murder rate is more than ten times as high in the most religious countries as it is in the least religious countries. Some relatively poor countries have low murder rates, but overall, prosperous countries that provide their residents with material and legal security are much safer than poor countries. It’s not that religiosity causes corruption and murder, but that both crime and religiosity tend to be high in poor countries.
In early agrarian societies, when most people lived just above the survival level, religion may have been the most effective way to maintain order and cohesion. But as traditional religiosity declines, an equally strong set of moral norms seems to be emerging to fill the void. Survey evidence from countries containing over 90%of the world’s population indicates that in highly secure and secular countries, people are giving increasingly high priority to self-expression and free choice, with a growing emphasis on human rights, tolerance of outsiders, environmental protection, gender equality, and freedom of speech.
As societies develop from agrarian to industrial to knowledge-based, growing existential security tends to reduce the importance of religion in people’s lives and people become less obedient to traditional religious leaders and institutions. That trend seems likely to continue, but pandemics such as the current one reduce peoples’ sense of existential security. If the pandemic were to endure for decades, or lead to an enduring Great Depression, the theory underlying this article implies that the cultural changes of recent decades would reverse themselves.
That’s conceivable but it would run counter to the trend toward growing prosperity and rising life expectancy that has been spreading throughout the world for the past 500 years. This trend rarely reverses itself for long because it is driven by technological innovation which, once it emerges, usually persists and spreads. If that happens, the long-term outlook is for public morality to be less determined by traditional religions, and increasingly shaped by the culture of growing acceptance of outgroups, gender equality, and environmentalism that has been emerging in recent decades.
Until recently, there has been little need to measure the electoral volatility, changes in vote shares between parties, in authoritarian regimes because most conventional authoritarian regimes were either one-party or no-party systems. In general, high levels of volatility are considered to be a sign of instability in the party system and show that the existing parties are unable to build connections with their constituencies.
New research by Wooseok Kim, Allen Hicken, and Michael Bernhard examines the ways that electoral volatility in democratic regimes may be useful for understanding competitive authoritarian regimes.
As a greater number of authoritarian regimes have permitted electoral competition and greater party autonomy, electoral volatility has become more salient. Multiparty elections in competitive authoritarian regimes are different from those in democracies, in that competition is more constrained and incumbents have the ability to manipulate the outcomes.
Electoral volatility can provide clues about the level institutionalization in the ruling and opposition parties, as well as the level of support for the authoritarian incumbent. Low volatility suggests a high level of stability and control in the ruling party institutionalization; high volatility as associated with weak party organizations, weak societal roots, and low levels of cohesion.
The authors tested the relationship between electoral volatility, which is the most commonly used measure of party system institutionalization, and the survival of competitive authoritarian regimes. To do this, they used a dataset that included authoritarian regimes in the post-WWII period that hold minimally competitive multiparty elections with basic suffrage, which are determined using indicators from the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem).
Specifically, the authors measure two types of electoral volatility in competitive authoritarian regimes: type-A volatility and type-B volatility. Type-A is volatility measures the exit and entries of parties from the system. Type-B volatility measures the reallocation of votes or seats from one party to a competitor.
Electoral authoritarian regimes are more stable when they tightly control the party system and the opposition is disorganized. The authors conclude that type-B volatility promotes authoritarian replacement, while type-A volatility is associated with a greater likelihood of a democratic transition. In addition to considering measures of party system institutionalization in authoritarian regimes, future case studies may shed more light on the link between electoral dynamics and outcomes.
“Not which ones, but how many” is a phrase used in list experiments instruction, where researchers instruct participants, “After I read all four (five) statements, just tell me how many of them upset you. I don’t want to know which ones, just how many.” In retrospect, I was surprised to see that this phrase encapsulates not only the key research idea, but also my fieldwork adventure: not which plans could go awry, but how many. The fieldwork experience could be frustrating at times, but it has led me to uncharted terrain and brought insights into the research contexts. The valuable exposure would not have been possible without support from the Roy Pierce Award and guidance from Professor Yuki Shiraito.
Research that I conducted with Yuki Shiraito explores the effect of behavior on political attitudes in authoritarian contexts to answer the question: does voting for autocracy reinforce individual regime support? To answer this question, two conditions need to be true. First, people need to honestly report their level of support before- and after- voting in authoritarian elections. Second, voting behavior needs to be random. Neither situation is probable in illiberal autocracies. Our project addresses these methodological challenges by conducting a field experiment that combines a list experiment and a randomized encouragement design in China.
In this study, list experiments are used instead of direct questions to measure the respondents’ attitudes towards the regime in the pre- and post-election surveys. The list experiment is a survey technique to mitigate preference falsification by respondents. Although the true preference of individual respondents will be hidden, the technique allows us to identify the average level of support for the regime within a group of respondents. In addition, we employ a randomized encouragement design where get-out-the-vote messages are randomly assigned, which help us estimate the average causal effect of a treatment. For effect moderated by prior support for the regime, we estimate the probability of the prior support using individual characteristics and then estimate the effect for the prior supporters via a latent variable model.
While the theoretical part of the project went smoothly and the simulation results were promising, the complication of fieldwork exceeded my expectation. For the list experiment survey, the usually reticent respondents started asking questions about the list questions immediately after the questionnaires were distributed. Their queries took the form of “I am upset by option 1, 2, and 4, so what number should I write down here?” This was not supposed to happen. List experiments are developed to conceal individual respondents’ answers from researchers. By replacing the questions of “which ones” with the question of “how many,” respondents’ true preference is not directly observable, which makes it easier for them to answer sensitive questions honestly. Respondents’ eagerness to tell me their options directly defeats the purpose of this design. Later I learned from other researchers that the problem I encountered was common in list experiment implementation regardless of research contexts and types of respondents.
The rationale behind respondents’ desire to share their individual options despite being given a chance to hide them is thought-provoking. Is it because of the cognitive burden of answering a list question, which is not a familiar type of questions to respondents? Or is it because the sensitive items, despite careful construction, raise the alarm? Respondents are eager to specify their stance on each option and identify themselves as regime supporters: they do not leave any room for misinterpretation. To ease the potential cognitive burden, we will try a new way to implement the list experiment in a similar project on preference falsification in Japan. We are looking forward to seeing if it improves respondents’ comprehension of the list question setup. The second explanation is more concerning, however. It suggests the scope condition of list experiments as a valid tool to elicit truthful answers from respondents. Other more implicit tools, such as endorsement experiments, may be appropriate in those contexts to gauge respondent’s preference.
Besides the intricacies of the list experiment, carrying out encouragement design on the ground is challenging. We had to modify the behavioral intervention to adapt needs from our local collaborators, and the realized sample size was only a fraction of the negotiated size initially. Despite the compromises, the implementation is imbued with uncertainty: meetings were postponed or rescheduled last minutes, instructions from local partners are sometimes inconsistent and conflictual. The frustration was certainly real. But the pain makes me cognizant of judgment calls researchers have to make in the backstage. The amount of effort required to produce reliable data is admirable. And as a consumer of data, I should always interpret data with great caution.
While the pilot study does not lead to a significant finding directly, the research experience and the methods we developed have informed the design of a larger project that we are currently doing in Japan.
I always thought of doing research as establishing a series of logical steps between a question and an answer. Before I departed for the pilot study, I made a detailed timeline for the project with color-coded tasks, flourish-shaped arrows pointing at milestones of the upcoming fieldwork. When I presented this plan to Professor Shiraito, he smiled and told me that “when doing research, it is generally helpful to think of the world in two ways: the ideal world and the real world. You should be prepared for both.” Wise words. Because of this, I am grateful for the Roy Pierce Award for offering the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the real world. And I am indebted to Professor Shiraito for helping me see the potential of attaining the ideal world with intelligence and appropriate tools.
Post developed by Katherine Pearson and Mai Hassan.
States can exert powerful social control over citizens. In her newly-published book, Regime Threats and State Solutions, Mai Hassan demonstrates how leaders use their authority to manage bureaucrats to advance their policy and political goals.
By controlling which bureaucrats are hired, where they’re posted, how long they stay in a post, and who gets fired or promoted, leaders can induce the bureaucratic behaviors that will help keep them in power.
Focusing on Kenya since independence, Hassan uses qualitative and quantitative data gleaned from archival records and interviews to show how the country’s different leaders have strategically managed the public sector. The data show that the strategic management of bureaucrats existed under the one-party authoritarian regime beginning with Kenya’s independence in 1963, and continued after Kenya’s transition to an electoral regime in 1991. Under both regime types, leaders were able to co-opt societal groups that are needed for support and coerce the groups most likely to challenge the regime.
Haasan examines how leaders rely on bureaucrats to manage popular threats against the leader such as protests and strikes. First, she argues that leaders assign bureaucrats with deep social bonds to those areas where the leader needs to co-opt the local population. These deep social bonds compel bureaucrats to work on behalf of the area. But in areas that need more coercion, the leader tends to prevent the posting of bureaucrats with deep local roots because those who have deep roots will be unwilling to coerce locals.
Second, she finds that the parts of the country that are most strategically important for the leader — and thus, the areas of the country where bureaucratic compliance is needed most — are staffed by the most loyal bureaucrats, those who are most willing to help keep the leader in office. Leaders can also neutralize the risks of disloyal bureaucrats by carefully managing where potentially disloyal officers are posted and how long they stay in their posts.
Why would a leader hire or promote disloyal bureaucrats in the first place? Hassan addresses this question by showing that most state bureaucracies are not actually packed with the leader’s in-group members, who tend to be the most loyal. Elite threats, such as coups, tend to be more pressing than popular ones. Leaders can appease rival elites by hiring and promoting bureaucrats who are loyal to elites other than the leader. Strategically posting and shuffling bureaucrats allows the leader to recruit potentially disloyal bureaucrats in order to temper elite threats, while still relying on loyal bureaucrats to prevent popular threats where they are most likely to emerge.
Overall, Hassan’s analysis shows how even states categorized as weak have proven capable of helping their leader stay in power. Her work demonstrates how the strategic management of bureaucrats solves both elite and popular threats, and in doing so, highlights why bureaucrats must be taken seriously. States may assert power, but states do not act: bureaucrats do.
The rise in populism around the world has received much attention, but not all populists are the same. In a new paper, Pauline Jones and Anil Menon present an original typology of populists that goes beyond typical left-wing versus right-wing classifications.
To better understand the different types of populists and how they operate, Jones and Menon examine two key dimensions: position within the political landscape (outsider versus insider), and level of ideological commitment (true believer versus opportunist).
Populists tend to frame their criticism of political elites differently depending on whether they are political outsiders or government insiders. While outsiders are free to criticize those in power broadly, populists who hold political power are more likely to tailor their criticisms to their political opponents. Insiders are also more careful not to attack members of the elite with whom they will need to build political coalitions.
Many populists evoke the past, but outsiders and insiders tend to do so differently. Whereas outsiders focus on the near past as a critique of a corrupt elite, political insiders instead focus on the distant past to evoke better days of shared national values.
Jones and Menon also draw distinctions between true believers in populism and those who embrace populism for purely strategic reasons. True believers will remain strongly committed to enacting their populist agenda once in office; opportunists will use populist rhetoric to gain power, but won’t support their platform strongly if elected.
The intersection of these two dimensions leads to the classification of populists into four types, illustrated in the table below: Oppositional, Classical, Strategic, and Pivot.
The most common variety of populist is the oppositional populist, who are outsiders and true believers. Oppositional populists put their agenda before all else and distance themselves from the mainstream elite.
Classical populists sometimes start out as outsiders who become insiders once they are elected to office. Like oppositional populists, they are strongly committed to enacting their agenda; unlike oppositional populists, classical populists can enact their agenda from a position of power. Because they are insiders, classical populists are more selective about criticizing elites.
Pivot populists are a rare group of political insiders who adopt populist rhetoric with little or no commitment to the populist ideology. Jones and Menon point to Russia’s Vladimir Putin as an example of a pivot populist who has adopted populism to bolster support for his regime while deflecting blame for the country’s problems.
The final category is strategic populists. Like Donald Trump in the United States, strategic populists are outsiders with a weak commitment to the populist agenda. Strategic populists are broadly anti-elite, and also use their rhetoric to create divisions among the people. Once in power, they are unlikely to alienate elites by pursuing populist policy goals.
Classifying systems of government is a challenge for political scientists comparing regimes over time and across countries. A new historical dataset developed by Fabricio Vasselai, Samuel Baltz, and Allen Hicken addresses this challenge with a simplified classification scheme that presents data on four broad variables: whether there is an elected prime minister, whether there is an elected president, whether there is a non-elected prime minister, and whether there is a non-elected president. The dataset includes a yearly assessment for almost all sovereign countries since 1789, which amounts to 16,910 country-years.
The simplicity of this classification system allows researchers to examine other characteristics separately, including the level of democracy or the powers of elected leaders. While the majority of country-years fit a neat definition, this dataset allows a clearer analysis of complex cases.
The authors present France as an interesting test case. In the years included in this dataset, France had (1) only an unelected prime minister, (2) no elected or unelected prime minister or president, (3) only an elected prime minister, (4) an elected prime minister and an elected president, or (5) an elected prime minister and unelected president, with several of these states repeating multiple times throughout France’s history. The dataset presents this complicated historical narrative in the simplified manner below.
This classification system also allows researchers to explore the evolution of different systems of government over longer periods of time. The authors show that an explosion of elections took place in the 19th century. Beginning in the 20th century, the share of countries electing only a prime minister takes a slight lead; by 1945 almost twice as many countries elected only a prime minister compared to those electing only a president. The share of countries electing either leader climbs through the second half of the 20th century, with only about 10 percent of country-years lacking an elected leader by 2017.
By developing a simple, comprehensive dataset, Vasselai, Baltz, and Hicken have given researchers a resource that allows them to analyze regimes consistently and layer on additional information as needed.