Date of Award

May 2020

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Political Science

First Advisor

David A Armstrong

Second Advisor

Ora John Reuter

Committee Members

Natasha Borges Sugiyama, Shale Horowitz, Patrick W Kraft


authoritarianism, diffusion, machine learning


How does diffusion lead to authoritarian regime persistence? Political decisions, regardless of what the actors involved might believe or espouse, do not happen in isolation. Policy changes, institutional alterations, regime transitions-- these political phenomena are all in some part a product of diffusion processes as much as they are derived from internal determinants. As such, political regimes do not exist in a vacuum, nor do they ignore the outside world. When making decisions about policy and practice, we should expect competent political actors to take a look at the wider external world. This dissertation project presents a theory of regime learning and authoritarian persistence to augment the extant literature on diffusion and democratization. While this literature provides important links between the outcomes across borders, it also falls short in explaining if and how diffusion can explain the absence of change-- authoritarian persistence. The new theoretical approach is rooted in concepts drawn from the democratization literature as well as the psychology of learning, and distinguishes simplistic learning (emulation)-- based on the availability heuristic-- and a more sophisticated learning process rooted in the representativeness heuristic. To test the implications of this theory, I develop a pair of new measures of change: liberalization (making concessions) and deliberalization (increasing repression). Using a combination of human and machine coding of yearly Freedom House country reports, I determine whether authoritarian regimes made liberalizing or deliberalizing moves which fall short of the significant regime changes that aggregate measures such as POLITY, Freedom House, and similar capture. An empirical examination employing these new measures reveals that diffusion does exist among authoritarian regimes at the regional level, among contiguous neighborhoods, and within more carefully confined groups of peers. These results add to our understanding of persistent authoritarianism and establish that emulation can be identified. Although authoritarian regimes seem to be be copying the liberalization and deliberalization strategies of their peers, there is not clear support for more sophisticated learning processes at this time.