AJPS Early View: Coercive Leadership

By Dimitri Landa and Scott A. Tyson

In the following blog post, the authors summarize the forthcoming American Journal of Political Science article titled “Coercive Leadership”: AJPS Early View: Coercive Leadership

How does a leader’s coercive capacity – her ability to impose costs on followers – affect her style of leadership and how she influences her followers/agents? We develop a theory of leadership in contexts in which (1) agents value the information that, inter alia, allows them to coordinate better with each other, (2) the leader’s choice shapes the actions of individual agents, and (3) the leader values how agents coordinate.

The substantive implications of our theory are applicable across many different set- tings. One such setting is authoritarian regimes. Our theory provides a novel account of policy-making in such settings and suggests a distinctive perspective on the rationale for, and relationship between, repression and censorship. Another setting is organizational politics within democracies, for which our theory provides an account of what may be called the autocratic mode of leadership. A stark example is the “boss” style of governance of “party machines”: by Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall in late nineteenth century New York, or by Mayor Daley of the Chicago machine in 1950s-70s, or in present-day major parties in India, Argentina, Russia, among others. When adopting policies with implicit or explicit punishments for dissent and rewards for compliance, machine bosses provide information and coordinate party members – two channels of influence at the heart of our theory.

In the game-theoretic model we present, coordination among agents is frustrated by two factors: heterogeneous preferences and dispersed information. We isolate two channels by which the leader influences the effects of these factors. The first, the information channel, operates because the leader’s policy choice can be informative to agents by partially revealing what the leader knows about the state of the world. The second, the coercion channel, manifests the leader’s non-informational influence: her coercive power counters the obstacles to coordination among agents, regardless of the source of the co- ordination friction. In the presence of coercive policy enforcement, an agent weights her idiosyncratic aspects less, making her action easier to anticipate for other agents. Agents are thus pulled toward the leader’s policy, common to them all, as a “focal point” regard- less of whether that policy is actually informative about the state of the world.

While the information and the coercion channels are distinct, they interact in important ways. We show that the leader’s policy choice communicates more information about the state of the world (i.e., becomes a better signal of the state), the greater the leader’s coercive enforcement power. We also show that even with a minimal level of coercion, leaders’ policy choices (via coercive and informational effects) allow them to manipulate agents’ actions so as to achieve their own preferred average action. In so doing, leaders neutralize welfare distortions (highlighted, for example, by Morris and Shin 2002) resulting from previous public information in the presence of coordination incentives. Yet, even when ignoring the direct disutility to agents from the leaders coercion, leadership as an institution may not be a welfare-enhancing for agents if the policy bias of the leader is sufficiently hard to predict. Finally, we show that the leader strictly prefers increasing her coercive capacity/repression (because she prefers that agents coordinate on her preferred outcome), but does not want to censor previous public information (because she is able to control its effects through policy choice).

About the Authors: Dimitri Landa is an Associate Professor in the Department of Politics at New York University and Scott A. Tyson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at The University of Michigan. Their paper “Coercive Leadership” is now available for Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.


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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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