Adam Scharpf and Christian Gläßel published their article “Why Underachievers Dominate Secret Police Organizations: Evidence from Autocratic Argentina” in the Amercian Journal of Political Science.
The article examines the composition of secret police organizations. Even though authoritarian regimes are dependent on a capable secret police, anecdotal evidence has often characterized the agents who serve in these units as surprisingly mediocre in skill and intellect. To explain why underachievers are likely to dominate secret police organizations, Adam and Christian develop a theory of careers within coercive institutions and systematically test each component of their suggested mechanism using original data on all 4,287 officers who served during Argentina’s last dictatorship (1975-83). They find that low-achieving officers were stuck within the regime hierarchy, threatened with discharge, and thus more likely to join the secret police in an attempt to salvage their careers. The Argentine regime, in turn, exploited individuals’ career pressures to forge loyalty within its key repressive unit. The study demonstrates how state bureaucracies breed mundane career concerns that produce willing enforcers and cement violent regimes. This has important implications for the understanding of autocratic consolidation and democratic breakdown.
The article is available here.