Political Objectives: Utilizing Repressive Strategies By Government Elites


The defining concept of the state is its monopoly on the legitimate use of coercion, but what particular factors contribute to the emergence and severity of state- sponsored terror? The purpose of this paper is to review the related literature to better understand why and in which circumstances government elites might utilize repressive strategies to pursue principal political and or military objectives. This consideration asserts itself in the literature insofar as it is rationalized by factors such as economic development, autocracy, overpopulation, political conflict, and expected utility theory. In the subsequent paragraphs I will examine these logics and later argue that this version does not accurately capture the depth of possible explanations of a regime’s willingness to engage in coercive approaches to minimize dissent. I begin with expected utility theory.

Expected Utility Theory

The general theoretical framework is best described as an informal, decision-theoretic approach, or an expected utility calculation, in which great emphasis is given to the circumstances that make repressive tactics costlier or more beneficial to political leaders. Expressed formally- it is the nature of the demand and the extent of the repression (Poe, 2004). This calculus assumes that the level of repression is conditioned upon a central decision-maker’s assessment of the available alternatives (Gartner and Regan 1996; Poe 2004). However, as some scholars have noted, the designated central authority need not be the one planning and prosecuting each specific repressive act but they must be able to exert control over the agencies or actors considered the most aggressive prosecutors (Gartner and Regan, 1996). In this context, repression is not estimated as a dichotomous strategic option but is conceptualized as a continuum, whereby a leader may choose to move incrementally along the coercive spectrum. This means at equilibrium, decision-makers choose the severity of violence that maximizes their expected payoffs (i.e., repression might serve to placate domestic coalitions and sufficiently threaten the political opposition, or similarly, the government might choose to decrease repressive behavior to heighten international or domestic support).

Put in another way, “dissent that is either non-violent (demonstrations and strikes) or relatively spontaneous (riots) are not perceived to be sufficiently threatening to warrant such an extreme and costly response” (Carey, 2010, pg. 182). The expected payoff structure for using repression when presented with revolution is low, so that alternative actions, including negotiating with the opposition, are more appealing to leaders than employing forms of state- authorized terror. However, if utterly miscalculated as a result of misinformation, idiosyncratic beliefs, or hubris, “their tenure is drastically curtailed” (Gandhi and Przeworski, 2007, pg. 1293). The larger process has also been endogenized, such as in the formal model presented by Ritter (2014). Her work clarifies “the setting of policy in a disputed policy space, the decision to enter conflict over the chosen policy, and how severely to repress in the effort to influence the final policy position and secure political power” (Ritter, 2014, pg.144). Moreover, by extending this framework broadly to civil conflict, it is argued that elites “will anticipate the incentive-altering effects of civil wars abroad and increase repression at home to preempt potential rebellion” (Danneman and Ritter, 2014, pg. 254).

Using a Bayesian hierarchical model and spatially weighted conflict measures, the authors conclude that as civil war becomes more geographically proximate, a state will increasingly violate human rights provisions. And yet- the expected utility calculation thesis, such as that promoted by Gartner and Regan (1996), still observes fundamental weaknesses. Davenport (2007) questions the appropriateness of the standard cost-benefit analysis that motivates much of the research in this knowledge tradition. The author asks: What are the “benefits” of repression? Why do authorities believe that repressive action will lead them to their objectives, and does repression actually produce intended benefits? What is a cost that is unacceptable to a political leader predisposed to repressive behavior? This has not been theoretically or empirically addressed. The strategic interaction between opposition groups and the ruling coalition is more complex, especially in relation to the strategies and tactics of the antagonists. By not characterizing these related associations with domestic unrest as a series of non-linear relationships, most models within this tradition are not able to correctly predict when repression may be employed. Additionally, this literature neglects the possibility of the political climate, sponsoring group, and specific claims, to fundamentally affect the causal pathways leading to acts of violence (Martin et al. 2009).

Overall, these studies are mired by contradictory findings and the limited inferences that can come from the assumption: “repression or dissent is either beneficial or detrimental to a leader’s political position” (Ritter, 2014, pg.144). I now look to the Murder in the Middle theory frequent in the related literature. More Murder in the MiddleFein (1995) identifies and investigates two alternate theories in an attempt to explain the deliberate employment of state sanctioned political repression. For the purpose of synthesizing the most relevant literature, I will only focus on the latter. The author hypothesizes that “states in the intermediate stages of democracy tend to produce more severe governmental violations of life-integrity than do nondemocratic states” (Fein, 1995, pg. 174). Life-integrity violations are categorized as markers of gross violation of human rights which are inversely related to democracy, political rights, and civil liberties. Thus, one would anticipate a higher level of violation of life-integrity in partly democratic or partly free states than in non-democratic or authoritarian states. This is subsequently referred to for brevity as the More Murder in the Middle (MMM) thesis.

Fein (1995) is referring to hybrid political systems in which polities combine democratic rules with authoritarian governance, or what scholars have increasingly categorized as incomplete or transitional forms of democracy (Levitsky and Way, 2002). Competitive authoritarianism, a particular type of “hybrid regime” is defined by the following attributes: “formal democratic institutions are widely viewed as the principal means of obtaining and exercising political authority. Incumbents violate those rules so often and to such an extent, however, that the regime fails to meet conventional minimum standards for democracy” (Levitsky and Way, 2002, pg. 52). Due to the tenacity of meaningful democratic institutions in competitive authoritarian regimes, arenas of contestation exist through which opposition forces may periodically challenge, weaken, and occasionally even defeat autocratic incumbents. The authors observe four such arenas of importance: 1) the electoral arena; 2) the legislature; 3) the judiciary; and 4) the media.

This fundamental instability, outlined as innately present in regimes of this nature, thus assert the likely potential for regime crisis (Levitsky and Way, 2002). This observation is buttressed by Fein’s aforementioned hypothesis. Fein’s analysis equates increased conflict mobilization and incentives for repression- i.e., worse violations of life-integrity- as democracy is extended before it is fully institutionalized. It can be inferred, in accord with previous theory, that an increase in freedom among unfree states arouses a greater expression of opposition and provokes greater state repression, leading to more intense and wider-ranging violations-i.e., massacres, calculated murders, and torture. These regimes, by description, are “unstable, ineffective, or otherwise flawed” (Levitsky and Way, 2002, pg. 53). In transitioning regimes, there is higher uncertainty about the rules of the game, behavioral norms, and the capabilities of actors (Pierskalla 2010; Crescenzi 1999).

This typified inverted U relationship has frequently been empirically substantiated (Muller 1985). Particularly, the literature frequently suggests that threats intensify when the ruling coalition is unable to satisfy the demands of its citizens (Gerschewski, 2013). Demands in an exceedingly autocratic society will be muted by fear of retribution, whilst demands present in a democratic political system, will be channeled through appropriate dissident mechanisms. Semi-democracies are characterized by excessive demands yet severely inadequate or illegitimate apparatuses for addressing those demands, and therefore, repressive tendencies will be more a more probable strategy/approach (Gurr, 1993). Thus, nonlinear specifications imply that threats are the key influences in political repression. This conclusion is sustained in the statistical models developed to calculate the level of political repression using regime type and threat and development as factors and controlling for economic features widely assumed to be precipitants of repression (Gerschewski 2013; Henderson 1991; Wood 2008; Wright and Moorthy 2018).

Further, competitive authoritarian regimes with neo-patrimonial tendencies can heighten popular grievances, alienate regime supporters, and embolden the mobilization of broad opposition coalitions. These regimes, although less exclusive and despotic than sultanism, feature arbitrary rule, inclinations of familial and dynastic power, narrow social base, politicized, corrupt and stagnant economy, hedonist lifestyles among the ruling clique, extensive human rights violations, and cannot easily remove unpopular leaders and incorporate new factions into the polity (Vladisavljević 2016; Way 2005). “The extensive penetration of state institutions by the ruler’s clique prevents the emergence of regime soft-liners and significant concessions to the opposition,” and as such, provides the appropriate space for regime opponents to operate effectively” (Vladisavljević, 2016, pg. 45)Overall, the extant literature renders the assumption that in transitioning regimes, where characteristically there is higher uncertainty about the rules of the game, behavioral norms, and the capabilities of actors in addition to significant efforts of elites to consolidate and maintain power, dissident mobilization is viewed as highly threatening and compels an austere response (Koesel and Bunce 2013; Rivera, 2017).

The relationship that if semi-democratic states respond with repression, they are likely to employ more severe coercive tactics than democracies is anticipated. And the use of protracted repression against a minority is likely to be self-reinforcing given two rationales: “Firstly, elites who rely on repression become habituated to its use. Secondly, any shift to more conciliatory policies after repression risks the intensification of resistance” (Harff and Gurr, 1989, pg. 33). Likewise, the argument of path dependency addresses the reproduction of power asymmetries between the ruler and the opposition as the means to uphold a functioning repression apparatus (Gerschewski 2013; Gurr and Moore 1997; Light, Prado, and Wang 2015). Self-reinforcement processes are regularly observed in recurring episodes of violent conflict where: institutions specialized in the exercise of coercion are developed and maintained; and elite political cultures favor more aggressive behavior for responding to challenges and perceived threats (Wright, 2014).

Effects of Repression

Lastly, scholars have tried to assess the effects of state-authorizes employment of repression. Gupta et al. (1993) estimates the net effect of state-sponsored coercion on two types of dissident activities: protest demonstrations and deaths from domestic violence, and reveal that in democracies, government sanctions provoke increased occurrences of protest demonstrations. Additionally, in non-democratic states, at the extreme, austere sanctions can levy an unbearable cost, resulting in an inverse relationship between sanctions and political deaths. The imposition of these excessive costs is possible in non-democracies by disregarding fundamental human rights of the challengers (Davenport 1996; Hafner-Burton, Tsutsui, and Meyer 2008). Regime- specific characteristics not only influences the dynamics of coercion and dissident activities but alters the nature of the opposition’s response. “Repression can be used to shape dissident behavior, but not to ‘eliminate’ it: states can entice dissidents to abandon violent behavior for nonviolent behavior and vice versa” (Moore, 1998, pg. 870). Likewise, repression creates the commencement of micro-mobilization processes (corroborated in the Iranian Revolution of 1978-1979) that serve to expand opposition and inconsistent government policies of concessions and repression intensify dissent. State despotism will have a short-term negative effect and a long-term positive effect on overall levels of protest per the influence on spatial diffusion (Rasler, 1996).

Lichbach (1987) accuses aggregate data studies of domestic political conflict of exhausting an Action-Reaction (AR) model that has produced inconsistent findings about the repression/ dissent nexus (i.e. repression by regimes may either increase or decrease dissent by opposition groups). To seek clarification, the author proposes an alternative model which demonstrates a balance of effects. That is, “whether an increase in the regime's repression increases or decreases the opposition group's total dissident activities, depends upon the government's accommodative policy to the group” (Lichbach, 1987, pg. 266).

Finally, by reconnoitering relationships between collective violence, economic inequality, and repression (Ortiz, 2007), two substantiated hypotheses emerge from the theoretical perspectives regarding political violence: “one that stresses the backlash effects of dissident repression, and one that accentuates the formation of rebellious movements is encouraged by regimes that are military weak and perceived as vulnerable” (Ortiz, 2007, pg. 232). Highly repressive regimes can effectively hinder violent movements, but extreme repression will sometimes backlash as people resort to violence when they are given no other alternatives (Francisco 1995; Lee 2005; Ortiz, 2007; Young 2013).


The literature has primarily sought to identify the particular political, economic, and social conditions that are regularly associated with government violations of human rights. And yet- much of these concepts are conceptually and operationally identical, and as a result, have necessarily hindered the predictive capacity of the statistical models that are introduced. Moreover, the literature on this topic has only considered repression in the aggregate which is problematic, as it proposes that states are centralized decision-makers and state use of repression represents a single, countrywide phenomenon. This takes for granted the variation in the motives for the abuse, the actors perpetrating abuses, targets of the abuse, and the severity of abuse, and should be the main subject of future research. [1: Francisco (1995) estimates models on three separate time series representing rebellion against repressive regimes and engages two measures of protest and coercion: demonstrations and their coercive countermeasures (including preemption) and other forms of protest, incorporating strikes, petitions, church-based rallies, and their associated coercion.] Ancillary research should aim at: 1) distinguishing the particular factors that initiate and those that maintain widespread repression (especially because repression and dissent can mutually reinforce each other); 2 focusing on covert forms of repression and channeling (Earl, 2010) or the potential trade-offs or synergistic relationships among different types of repression; and 3) trying to disaggregate the macro impact of repression on mobilization which is found to be empirically unsettling (Earl, 2010). Overall, these questions must be met with scholarly consideration and intervention, to comprehend, in a more intimate manner, the realities of those who suffer from state violence and to prevent the outbreak of such severe forms of violations.

03 December 2019
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