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Deliberate Disengagement: How Education Can Decrease Political Participation in Electoral Authoritarian Regimes


A large literature examining advanced and consolidating democracies suggests that education increases political participation. However, in electoral authoritarian regimes, educated voters may instead deliberately disengage. If education increases critical capacities, political awareness, and support for democracy, educated citizens may believe that participation is futile or legitimizes autocrats. We test this argument in Zimbabwe—a paradigmatic electoral authoritarian regime—by exploiting cross-cohort variation in access to education following a major educational reform. We find that education decreases political participation, substantially reducing the likelihood that better-educated citizens vote, contact politicians, or attend community meetings. Consistent with deliberate disengagement, education’s negative effect on participation dissipated following 2008’s more competitive election, which (temporarily) initiated unprecedented power sharing. Supporting the mechanisms underpinning our hypothesis, educated citizens experience better economic outcomes, are more interested in politics, and are more supportive of democracy, but are also more likely to criticize the government and support opposition parties.

Corresponding author
Kevin Croke is Researcher in the Development Research Group at the World Bank, Washington, DC (
Guy Grossman is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA (
Horacio A. Larreguy is Assistant Professor, Department of Government, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA (
John Marshall is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Columbia University, New York, NY (
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This article benefited from helpful conversations with, and suggestions from, Karen Grépin, Patrick O’Halloran, Marc Meredith, and participants at the Boston Working Group in African Political Economy and at seminars at John Hopkins University, London School of Economics, New York University, UC Berkeley, Universidade Nova de Lisboa, and the World Bank.

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