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War and Revenge: Explaining Conflict Initiation by Democracies

  • RACHEL M. STEIN (a1)

While we know much about what differentiates the conflict behavior of democracies from autocracies, we know relatively little about why some democracies are more belligerent than others. In contrast to existing studies, I argue that it is public opinion and not institutions that drives these differences. All democratic leaders have an incentive to take public opinion into account, but public opinion is not the same everywhere. Individuals’ attitudes towards war are shaped by core beliefs about revenge, which vary across countries. Leaders with more vengeful populations will be more likely to initiate conflicts because they generate popular support for war more effectively. Using retention of capital punishment as a proxy for broad endorsement of revenge, I find that democracies that have retained the death penalty for longer periods of time are significantly more likely to initiate conflicts. This research has important implications for existing theories of democracy and war.

Corresponding author
Rachel M. Stein is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, George Washington University, 2115 G St. NW, Monroe Hall 440, Washington, D.C. 20052 (
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