Review Essay

Paths to Power

The Rise and Fall of Dictators

In This Review

How Dictatorships Work
How Dictatorships Work
By Barbara Geddes, Joseph Wright, Erica Frantz
Cambridge University Press, 2018, 270 pp. Purchase

The world is in an illiberal phase. In recent years, dictators have strengthened their grip on many countries. Several democracies have witnessed the rise of authoritarian-minded leaders and movements. These trends make the task of understanding dictatorial rule all the more important. 

The research on autocracy is vast: the term “authoritarian” garners more than 800,000 citations on Google Scholar. But most analyses of the subject tend to either focus on the emergence and fall of dictatorships or examine their internal workings. Few examine both the rise of autocracies and how they rule. 

In How Dictatorships Work, the political scientists Barbara Geddes, Joseph Wright, and Erica Frantz offer a corrective, revealing not only how autocrats win and lose power but also how they wield it. They bring a wealth of new data to the table, following autocracies from cradle to grave and meticulously testing the received wisdom against hard numbers. How Dictatorships Work masterfully illustrates the paths autocrats take to power and the ways in which they keep it. Few dictators have a clear strategy, but the ones who seize control of a country’s security forces or build ruling political parties tend to stay on top.


Geddes, Wright, and Frantz define autocracies as regimes in which elections do not determine who leads or in which democratically elected leaders change the rules of the game to eliminate the competition. In their view, a regime either is or is not an autocracy. To compose their study, the authors drew on a database of 280 autocratic regimes that took power between 1945 and 2010. The data were first collected by Geddes and then greatly expanded by Wright and Frantz. 

Their first major finding is that 45 percent of authoritarian regimes in this period were the result of coups. (Dictatorships also tend to emerge when foreign powers prop up an unelected ruler or when elected parties change the rules to preclude further free elections—a move that Geddes, Wright, and Frantz term “authoritarianization.”) Militaries and political parties are the groups

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