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Brendan McElroy

Brendan McElroy is a WCED Postdoctoral Fellow for 2020-22. His core research interests include state formation, political economy of development, and the genesis of representative institutions, with a regional emphasis on Central and Eastern Europe.

He is currently working on a book manuscript, provisionally titled Peasants and Parliaments: Agrarian Reform in Eighteenth Century Europe, which studies the politics of agrarian reform—here meaning state intervention in the relationship between manorial lords and their subject farmers—in Central and Eastern Europe during the later eighteenth century. Brendan seeks to explain why some early modern states were so much more successful than others in “enlisting the cooperation” (Marc Raeff) of established corporate communities, such as guilds, towns, and estates, in the service of agrarian modernization and other development goals. In the realm of agrarian policy, he argues, real change in lord-peasant relations presupposed cooperation between throne and nobility, and the prospects for such cooperation were shaped by the social structure of noble elites and the design of their representative institutions. The book’s findings, which are based on research carried out in the Latvian and Russian State Historical Archives, challenge prevailing theories of state formation and the relationship of “inclusive” political institutions to development.

As a fellow, Brendan will continue work on the manuscript and related papers. He will also begin a project on the contribution of old regime representative institutions to subsequent democratization. The historical turn in democratization studies, and recent doubts about the resilience of democracy even in regimes long thought to be consolidated, have revived interest in possible long-run prerequisites of “settled” democratization. Some researchers posit a more or less direct link between the presence or absence of a robust representative tradition before 1789 and the incidence of democracy latterly. Brendan’s research, informed by the latest developments in the historiography of early modern “absolutism” and representation, calls this link into question. To be sure, the practice of obtaining the “consent of the governed” was universal in medieval and early modern Europe, but consent could be operationalized not only in ways that prefigured parliamentary democracy but also in ways that were inimical to the same. In many representative bodies, for instance, decisions were made by consensus or unanimity rather than majority vote, resolutions were effectively non-binding on those who disagreed, and delegates were outfitted with a limited mandate. Researchers who claim to divine the origins of democracy in pre-industrial Europe should problematize the emergence of specific procedural rules, especially majority voting, and not merely of the generic practice whereby rulers obtained the consent of their elites by convening a diet or parliament.

Education

  • Ph.D., Government, Harvard University, 2020
  • M.A., Russian and East European Studies, Georgetown University, 2013
  • B.A., Government/Russian Studies, Georgetown University, 2011

Awards and Honors

  • Krupp Foundation Dissertation Research Fellowship (2018-19)
  • Doctoral Fellowship, Multidisciplinary Program in Social Policy and Inequality, Harvard Kennedy School (2014-17)
  • Foreign Language and Area Studies Summer and Academic Year Fellowships (2012-13)