Airport workers seeking higher wages take part in a “worker pray-in” at Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Va. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

From Viktor Orban to Nigel Farage and Donald Trump, populist leaders around the world have redefined democratic politics. Some observers have asked whether the result will be the demise of democratic institutions. History can help us understand some of the factors that drive political change.

In a recent article, I argue that politicians opt for liberal representative institutions when labor is scarce — and move away from democracy when labor is plentiful, in times like our own.

My research uses a unique data set covering a period of relatively rapid change in representative institutions in the 13 British American colonies from their founding to the American Revolution. Analysis suggests that when autocratic regimes face more binding labor constraints, democracy will be more likely to take root and also reemerge.

Labor markets in the colonial American South and North

In the 13 colonies, colonial elites needed migrant labor to grow high-profit crops such as tobacco, rice and wheat, which were then exported to Europe. But attracting settlers to the colonies wasn’t easy. The journey across the Atlantic was long, dangerous and expensive, with its price exceeding half a year’s income for a typical English immigrant, and meant leaving behind family and friends.

Even the poorest British laborers had alternatives; they could travel to a different part of the British countryside, to London or to Ireland.

Different colonies used different strategies for populating the colonies. In the North, the temperate climate encouraged a steady flow of migrant families, attracted by offers of free land. Colonial elites distributed small plots, which migrant families used to cultivate wheat without needing additional labor. Attracting migrants to the hot and disease-ridden climate of the South was much more difficult, especially because it was cultivating labor-intensive crops such as tobacco and rice. Free land also was given away, but only large proprietors could afford to establish tobacco and rice plantations.

In the 17th century, the American colonies weren’t yet relying on slavery. A few Dutch privateers or former West Indian planters brought slaves with them to the continent. But the English government tightly regulated the slave trade, and directed most of its human cargo to Caribbean plantations, where demand was high.

Southern elites therefore recruited European labor mainly through indentured servitude. In this system migrants bound themselves to a landowner for several years in exchange for a loan covering transportation costs. Master-servant relations were regulated through contracts, which stipulated the length and conditions of the indenture, along with wages and anything else (such as land) that might be due once the servant was free.

The indenture system worked well for most of the 17th century. But then economic conditions in the mother country improved, and the supply of English servants plummeted. At the same time, as England took control of more of the slave trade, and as producing sugar in the West Indies proved to be not very profitable, Southerners were able to buy more enslaved Africans. Relatively quickly, instead of contracting with servants who would eventually go free, plantation owners bought slaves.

The link between labor markets and the vote

Using statistical analysis, I found that some colonies threw open the vote in part because their labor markets depended on white migrant workers. When white workers were hard to attract — as in the South before widespread slavery — colonial governments gave the vote to virtually all adult men (including indentured servants), to attract settlers.

By contrast, colonies that had an easier time attracting white labor — as in the North — had more requirements for men to vote, such as owning land or a house.

But in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, once the South relied on slave labor and no longer needed white indentured servants, those colonies restricted voting more than any others. To vote, you had to own land and property, pay taxes and prove that you resided in the colony for several months (and sometimes years) before the election.

Sometimes a colony made it easier for men to vote because it lacked other amenities — and women. In 1624, Virginia had nearly five times as many men as women, and its only voting requirement was that you be male and younger than 21. Meanwhile, in the 18th century, Connecticut had almost twice as many men as women — and adult male settlers had to satisfy four requirements in order to vote. Voters had to own a freehold and had to be taxpayers, in addition to being of good moral character and non-felons.

Colonies which found it difficult to attract both men and women were more democratic Figure: Elena Nikolova
Colonies that found it difficult to attract both men and women were more democratic. (Figure: Elena Nikolova)

So why was being able to vote so important for English migrants? Although all colonies were under English rule, representative legislatures had complete control over colonial laws and finances. If laborers were fairly represented, they could be confident that rules, regulations and policies that protected their efforts couldn’t be easily changed by those in power.

In the North, small family farms grew wheat. Being able to vote guaranteed not only that new settlers did indeed get the amount of land they’d been promised, but also that their land, property or profits could not be taken away once they arrived and began farming.

In the South, legislatures helped enforce the indentured labor contracts. To leave behind their homes and travel across the Atlantic, potential workers needed to be sure that landowners wouldn’t change the contracts or renege on wages. And of course that did happen: Masters often refused to deliver on the contracts’ terms. Colonial assemblies worked hard to write laws that regulated and enforced those contracts.

Representative institutions can change quickly, suggesting that authoritarianism in places such as Africa and Latin America cannot be attributed solely to long-run events such as colonialism. Instead, it is the strength of labor that matters. Countries in which workers have power are more likely to become and stay democratic.

Organized labor may be a secret weapon against the recent wave of populism engulfing advanced democracies.

Elena Nikolova is a research fellow at the Central European Labor Studies Institute in Slovakia and an associated researcher at the Institute for East and Southeast European Studies, in Regensburg, Germany.

The views expressed here are those of the author only and not of any organization.