Published: July 1, 2021

Latent territorial threat and democratic regime reversals

By: Johannes Karreth, Jarroslav Tir, Douglas M. Gibler


Why do some democracies revert to non-democratic forms of governance? We develop an explanation of democratic reversals that emphasizes the influence of states’ external border relations on domestic politics. Latent threats to a state’s territory encourage political centralization of authority in the executive to defend against danger to the homeland. Latent territorial threat also facilitates the construction and maintenance of large land armies to fight threatening neighbors. Combined, latent territorial threat increases leaders’ domestic power, weakens democratic institutions, encourages other conditions threatening democratic survival, and, ultimately, leads to democratic reversals. Synthesizing prior research on territorial conflict, we generate a quantitative, continuous measure of latent territorial threat against all democracies with contiguous neighbors from 1946 to 2016, using Bayesian estimation. Empirical tests accounting for measurement uncertainty and other common determinants of reversals as well as brief reviews of individual cases of reversal provide robust evidence that democracy failed at higher rates in countries facing high levels of threats to their territory from neighbors. Our study implies that a complete account of the development of democratic institutions should emphasize that domestic factors alone fall short of explaining why democracies fail.