Democracy by Mistake

58 Pages Posted: 23 Oct 2017 Last revised: 4 Dec 2020

See all articles by Daniel Treisman

Daniel Treisman

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - Department of Political Science

Date Written: October 2017


How does democracy emerge from authoritarian rule? Influential theories contend that incumbents deliberately choose to share or surrender power. They do so to prevent revolution, motivate citizens to fight wars, incentivize governments to provide public goods, outbid elite rivals, or limit factional violence. Examining the history of all democratizations since 1800, I show that such deliberate choice arguments may help explain up to one third of cases. In about two thirds, democratization occurred not because incumbent elites chose it but because, in trying to prevent it, they made mistakes that weakened their hold on power. Common mistakes include: calling elections or starting military conflicts, only to lose them; ignoring popular unrest and being overthrown; initiating limited reforms that get out of hand; and selecting a covert democrat as leader. These mistakes reflect well-known cognitive biases such as overconfidence and the illusion of control.

Suggested Citation

Treisman, Daniel, Democracy by Mistake (October 2017). NBER Working Paper No. w23944, Available at SSRN:

Daniel Treisman (Contact Author)

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - Department of Political Science ( email )

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