Democracy Is the Antidote to State Repression
In the latest Talking Policy episode, Christian Davenport, one of the world’s leading scholars of state repression and a professor at the University of Michigan, and Ben Appel, an associate professor at the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy, discuss their new book, The Death and Life of State Repression. This interview was conducted by IGCC associate director Lindsay Morgan, and recorded on November 30. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
When we think about political violence, our minds, or at least my mind, often turn to things like terrorism or insurgencies or civil wars. But as Christian Davenport and Ben Appel write in their new book, The Death and Life of State Repression, the greatest amount of damage done to humankind has been done to people by their own governments.
Christian and Ben, your new book is a deep and wide academic study that aims to fundamentally change the way we think about state repression and how to stop it. The book looks at 250 examples of state repression between 1976 and 2006, and focuses on large-scale severe repression—the worst, most savage violent kinds of repression. And you don’t just look at one kind of policy that’s thought to stop repression. You look at everything.
You start the book by telling the story of the government-backed campaign of violence in the Darfur region of Sudan, which started in 2003, and led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. The atrocities in Darfur drew significant international attention. Celebrities organized fundraisers around it. The U.N. sent in peacekeepers. The ICC opened investigations into charges of genocide and war crimes. Reading that bit of your book, a lot of memories flooded in for me because I was part of that tide—I was one of the people who cared a lot about Darfur, and I went to events and I read books. But that huge swell of support and political attention to try to stop the violence didn’t stop it. And this is part of what your book is all about.
Christian, you’re a veteran, obviously in the academic space on state repression. You’ve focused on this for a long time. And Ben, post-conflict justice and how to stop violence against civilians is also central for focus in your career. So, why did you decide to write this book now?
Christian Davenport: My immediate response would be, it’s not for now. It was for then, now, and later. The book emerged from this kind of coevolution of Ben and myself, of the field of political repression, state repression, human rights violation, which has been stuck now for a couple of decades.
It’s very much a sociology of knowledge issue. First, we were working on conceptualization, then we were working on, okay, what might work and how are we thinking about it? And then things exploded. Everyone has their variable or policy du jour. It’s the thing that they believe in, the thing that they advocate for, and they kind of give short shrift to others.
One of the reasons that Ben and I partnered was because we believed the different variables/policies might matter and that it would be better to cover all of them together as opposed to individually. And so in many respects, the book emerged out of our awareness of the state of knowledge. We were led to comprehensiveness because we realized how fragmented and siloed these different folks were, and that the way to overcome that was to try to address it as comprehensively and as thoroughly as possible.
In many respects, we went back to the ground. We were just like, okay, what’s worth doing? And I think what’s worth doing is: how does one stop this phenomenon?
Ben Appel: I largely agree with that. We are kind of boxed off in our different silos and our different concepts. I typically have focused on international law, the International Criminal Court. I wanted to take a more holistic approach to really compare and contrast the different policies that have been put out there by different scholars and activists.
We were also focusing on rethinking state repression. Everyone did state repression the same way, using the same data, with the same thinking behind it. But we were like, wait a second. State repression varies across a continuum. Maybe we want to focus on the worst cases because that’s what people really often care about—the atrocities, right? North Korea, China, Russia, Iran. The worst-case scenarios. That’s one thing. And two, we wanted to rethink it conceptually as a life cycle of repression. And we wanted to focus on: how do we end these terrible situations?
I was surprised, reading the introduction, given that state repression is such a huge force of violence in the world, that it seems to have received comparatively less attention from social scientists than things like terrorism or revolutions. Is this an understudied area—and why?
Christian Davenport: So first off, governments fund scholarship, and governments facilitate access to information. Governments would like you to help them resolve their problems. And that’s why Minerva [a U.S. Department of Defense funding mechanism for social science research] will never give out grants to help understand why states engage in violent behavior. Why would they want to study themselves? That’s not what they do. So we end up having more information, more resources, and more understanding of these other types of phenomena.
And this is the big thing that folks don’t wish to talk about. You mentioned civil war, which does involve governments, but even in that literature, the problem is the insurgents. It’s like if they just understood their place, there would be no problem.
So, relatively speaking, we know much less about repression because there’s been historically less attention given to it. Now, what we know now in 2022 compared to like the late 1980s—there are hundreds of people doing repression and human rights stuff now. There was a handful of us at that particular time period. So the field has grown, but relative to, I mean, post-9/11, the field of terrorism went from a dozen people to many dozens. Civil war literature over the 1990s also exploded.
But most of that literature is focused on the insurgent problem. These habits of thought return in many ways to reveal exactly what we do or do not know.
Ben Appel: It kind of hits too close to home, right? We’re studying ourselves and the bad things that we do at times. It’s difficult for governments. They’re not going to support or fund that. I also think that state repression is hard to study. Governments are incentivized to hide their repression.
Christian Davenport: I rarely make some of these connections, but I don’t think it’s bizarre to have some African Americans and some Jewish people and some Palestinians—folks that have suffered from state repression—studying this particular topic. I felt more than comfortable accepting that, yes, the U.S. government engaged in violent behavior, being an African American. I felt very comfortable going, okay, yeah, they can engage in human rights violations too. And then that kind of feeds you into thinking about other people who are suffering as well.
So what is state repression and why do governments do it?
Christian Davenport: We don’t use this language in the book, but I’m feeling more in line with moving in this direction. I view it as a weapon of the weakest. I mean, we’re told, “use your words,” and that it’s bullies who use coercion and force. And this gets us back to the power debate. I view state repression as a power attempt directed by political authorities against the body politic—literally human bodies—in an attempt to alter their behavior or ideas. But it’s because they have nothing else that they’re able to do effectively.
State repression is associated with the political left or people coming out of Central and Latin America who were suffering all types of atrocities from state-sponsored behavior, many U.S. backed, by the way. The human rights violation language emerges as something a little bit more neutral. But I think that’s somewhat problematic in the sense that it gets you away from this political domination aspect of it. And I think the ideology of the phrase state repression, political repression, government repression emerges from this distinct literature that was trying to look at people in power. The human rights violation literature was more legalistic—these are the things that government should avoid. I’m like, according to what?
There are so many labels out there for it. And I kind of like state repression. Ben was cool with using it, but he does have a kind of human rights violation take sometimes, not to speak for my coauthor and good friend. But clearly there’s some signaling going on with regard to some of the language that folks use, including us.
Ben Appel: A quick definition is: large-scale violent activity by the government directed at its own people. It’s got to be by the government or its agents directed at its own people, typically understood as within its own territorial jurisdiction. It could be torture, it could be disappearances, it could be political imprisonment or excessive use of force against protesters. It’s fairly common. It’s happening all over the world, despite the fact that very few people talk about it. If you actually look at the basic trends, the majority of countries engage in some level of state repression, even today. It’s a foreign policy area that doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
Christian Davenport: What’s fascinating is that this is kind of a ubiquitous, commonplace thing. Everyone knows what the concept is, right? It’s civilians getting pulled out of their houses for some political reason to then be tortured and disappeared in Guatemala or Gitmo. We know what this is. It’s protesters getting beat up on the street for BLM [Black Lives Matter]. It’s the late, great John Lewis and company on Pettus Bridge getting their asses handed to them. Everyone has an idea of what it is. Now, what drives it, how it’s related to other forms of violence, they don’t know this. It’s like the thing that people are most aware of but don’t understand. And so this is one of the frustrating elements of studying the topic. Everyone’s kind of familiar with it and not many people like it, but they’re kind of like: I don’t know what to do about it. And so they stop at that point.
People who study other kinds of political violence often think about it in a way that’s similar to what you do in the book, which is to think about it as a cycle and a process. Why is state repression or how is state repression distinct from something like civil war? How is it unique as a form of political violence?
Ben Appel: At the most basic level, civil wars are two-sided, whereas state repression is typically more one-sided. The government is repressing its own people. Civil war has to have non-state actors involved. Like a rebel group or soon-to-be rebel group that’s fighting the government. The two sides verse one side is to me the biggest difference.
Christian Davenport: I would highlight that civil wars are rare. Whereas repression has happened most of the time. That’s why it’s interesting, why folks end up paying attention to this isolated thing and miss this other thing. It’s not as if the government’s one-sided version is less lethal. There’s no one who would be like, yeah, the Holocaust wasn’t that violent.
That’s one of the sad things about being in this particular area. I mean, I lost friends on 9/11. The terrorist activities were horrible. But then a bunch of people started studying terrorism. Well, what happens to all the governments? Suddenly the people who would normally intervene for some humanitarian reason are now concerned with terrorists and other types of challengers. Other questions get obscured by these distinct foci.
Going back to the case of Sudan and Darfur, many of the “go to” interventions that the international community has for stopping state repression were tried in that case—economic sanctions, military intervention, naming and shaming, and human rights treaties—but they didn’t work and don’t tend to work across all of the cases you studied. This was counterintuitive to me, especially sanctions. We’ve all been thinking about sanctions this year with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and they kind of make sense: why would a government continue to do something if it’s threatening their economic livelihood? And yet you’re showing that these things don’t work. Can you talk about why they don’t work?
Christian Davenport: The quick answer is: they’re too weak to impact what actually matters. Even thinking of the Russian case, is Putin’s individual wealth impacted by these sanctions? I mean,
GDP per capita, trade, these things are rather large scale and multi-dimensional, whereas what you really need to get at is how much does a particular elite or part of the elite have access to and is their wealth impacted?
But part of the traditional setup is that there’s a political leader out there and that political leader is sensitive to a variety of forms of information and they’re trying to assess what’s happening. And they’re going to respond to things that negatively seem like they’re going to impact their position. But most leaders stay in power most of the time, and they’re not changing things daily. They’re pretty insulated in many respects. Our argument is, there’s probably some evaluation [by elites] in the beginning [when repression starts]. And then after that, folks lock down. They dismiss information that counters their beliefs. They’re paying attention to the people that are in the room and they’re ignoring everybody else. And so it’s this much more insular decision process as opposed to the traditional argument, which is that political leaders are open to what’s going on in their environment. We’re like, no, they’re not. They’re the complete opposite. They’re just focused on: can we survive this? So you need something that is going to perturb that particular kind of insularity. And unless you can get inside that room and perturb those folks, you’re not going to have much of an impact.
Ben Appel: First off, it was pretty depressing when you know that very few international factors actually make a difference. Christian and I used to joke about this. My background is in the ICC, International Criminal Court, international human rights treaties, and economic sanctions. I believed in these institutions and thought they would actually make a difference, at least at the margins. But it turns out that in these cases, they’re irrelevant.
How are communities [who support international interventions] responding to your book?
Christian Davenport: Well, first off, most folks can function pretty well in political science without engaging with other communities. And so this is probably going to be part of the difficulty. Which is why we’re willing to talk to anybody. But the issue is less that some of these folks were wrong. It’s more an issue of lumping all repression together, repression that’s taking place in the context of de-escalation or escalation or onset or recurrence. Lumping all those different dimensions together was never going to allow you to assess any type of causal impact anyway. And so our compartmentalization allows us to better ascertain whether there is an effect or not.
I’m more committed to humanitarianism and reducing violence than I am to my variable, right? But this is the complete opposite of how academia functions. You get benefits if your particular explanation or policy or variable is right. You’re not getting points professionally for showing that somebody else’s explanations don’t work. That might be one of the reasons why it took us a while to finish this because different people were responding to it. If some people committed to naming and shaming read this, they’d be like, no, this can’t be right. It’s like, I’m sorry: It is. We weren’t getting much support because people were viewing it this way [he gestures narrowly] as opposed to more broadly [he gestures broadly].
You call it the juggernaut theory, the idea that there’s a relatively small, insular group of political and security actors who are responsible for deciding to initiate repression. As you said, they might do some kind of cost-benefit analysis at the beginning. But once they decide on a path of violent repression, it gains momentum and it is very hard to change. So how then do you make it less desirable from the beginning, given how hard it is to change it once it starts?
Ben Appel: I think that’s key. One of the big implications of the book is that it’s really difficult to end large-scale severe repressive spells. So therefore you really focus on preventing them.
One thing we do find an important effect for in terms of decreasing the onset of these spells is preferential trade agreements. So economic factors, economic globalization matters little once the spells begin. But they do have some impact in preventing a spell from starting. So incorporating these states into the global community might be helpful. We find democratization important throughout the book and electoral democracy specifically in preventing it. Strong domestic rule of law systems are really important in reducing the onset of civil war because a lot of repression happens in the context of a civil war. So those are some of the big things we can do to act early on to prevent these things from starting in the first place because it really is difficult to stop once it starts.
Christian Davenport: I would add, and this is somewhat beyond the scope of where we went in the literature, but the role of economic inequality. One of the primary reasons why you might have a forceful and coercive government or the idea that repression might be a way of resolving problems is the perceived need to protect the goodies effectively. It might be the case that you’re less likely to see that in other situations. And as Americans, we’re immediately caught. It’s like, okay, well, who’s teaching folks that the bullying way of governance is the way to proceed? There is a handful of nations who go around the world training other folks on what to do in terms of governance, in terms of coercion and force. And the United States is one of them. The difficulty of getting to non-coercive, enforceable governments has to be influencing these folks that are coming in and training others. The U.S., China, Russia. We need to address exactly how we’re instructing others, how we’re preparing them to deal with their citizenry, and unfortunately, coercion and force, if you take regime change and redistribution of resources as an indicator, is pretty damn effective at keeping people subjugated.
We need to shed light on this process and then ask that big question, which is: How do we show or demonstrate or get political leaders to not move in this direction, of coercion and forceful behavior against those under their jurisdiction? We’re asking the same question about the police, right? How do we get the police to not engage in coercion and forceful behavior against ordinary citizens within their population? This is just a larger version of it.
You can economically pay people off. You can culturally work up some mechanism of why people would listen without having to go coercive. Or you could do coercion and force. And unfortunately, as a global population we have moved in the direction of coercive and forceful government behavior as the go to solution for how to how to establish and maintain a society. We need to re-challenge that understanding.
One of the headlines of your book is that domestic factors, not international factors, play the biggest role in ending or preventing state repression. And democracy is really the thing that stands out. Electoral democracy, independent judiciaries. How does democracy help to prevent repression?
Christian Davenport: In our article, we highlight this little bit more directly than we do in the book, because the literature would lead you to believe that political leaders, once democratized, fear the population moving against them, and thus they do the thing that they think the population would most like to experience, which is not to have repression.
Alternatively, democracy provides an alternative mechanism to social political control so that governments don’t need to engage in coercive and forceful behavior because they can get citizens to believe in the system. And that would preclude their activity, for example, and this will sound strange for a second, but roll with me, like most activists that I knew upon Obama’s election, were kind of like: we won. And I was like: maybe not. We might need to do some stuff. But they were like: let’s give the brother a shot. So that diffused people engaging in dissent, challenging activity, because they will give them a shot not just for four years, but for eight. And so that cohort, that youthful cohort that was ready to engage in protests and stuff at the beginning of that time period, is now aged out of their mobilization. We’re like, well, that’s for the next generation because now I’ve got a mortgage to pay.
What you just raised is a big question that emerges out of the book: what is it about democracy that has this impact? It could be that democratic nations have purged the most radical individuals, so you don’t need to engage in any more coercive, forceful behavior above a particular threshold, because now you’ve basically eliminated the problem. That’s the next thing we need to unpack.
Ben Appel: There are different reasons why [democracy prevents repression] and probably one of the more conventional ones is giving people a voice so they think they’re part of the process. They can vote, they can elect leaders at different levels. They’ll be less inclined to threaten people when they’re part of that process. You’re not going to undermine your own institutions, essentially. I think that’s the case when you’re first starting out, because you’re going to give the benefit of the doubt to new democratically elected leaders. Let’s go along with it and see where this can take us. I would view that as probably the biggest explanation for it.
Is there an emblematic example of democracy having an impact on state repression—a country whose story you can summarize that tells the story really well?
Christian Davenport: It’s strange. The example that occurs to me and we did not cover in the book, is the American South. You have a nonviolent direct action which begins in the thirties, moves through the forties and up into the sixties. You then get democratization of the South and a reduction of the most overt, the largest-scale forms of violence. And then you have black electoral participation, registration and so forth. It’s not like the violence ends in the South but the large-scale thing does. So as listeners are trying to struggle with how to think about this, I want to just bring it home and say: look at your own nation. The southern states were authoritarian. They were repressive in the twenties and thirties. And then there was a nonviolent direct action. We got political democratization and then subsequently the large-scale violence goes away.
Ben Appel: One thing I want to emphasize is the important indirect role that civil resistance plays. So, yeah, democratization is our key finding, but we kind of take a step back throughout the book and look at what causes that. Because democratization is very hard in itself. It doesn’t just happen out of thin air. It’s a very hard institutionally to accomplish. So I think one of the takeaways is that we get to democratization through domestic-based movements. We had the civil resistance movements in the South, which fostered the political democratization that helped reduce repression.
We see that in other countries as well. A couple of cases we talk about in the book, like Madagascar, for example. Authoritarian regime, high levels of repression, major protests erupted. What often happens at first, unfortunately, is that dissent leads to more widespread repression, which is what happened there. You had an escalation of repression, unfortunately. But the protesters stay committed. They kept pushing. And within a couple of years, you had elections in that country which ultimately led to a termination of high repression. Zambia was a similar story.
Are there current life cycles of state repression that we can understand in a new way because of your book? Christian, in a post that you wrote for Political Violence At A Glance shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, you characterized that as state repression—or suggested that that was one way of looking at it. China is another big question mark, with the protests going on there over the past week, and Iran is another.
Christian Davenport: It’s a great question. The Ukrainian invasion as an instance of state repression piece actually speaks to the dynamic of a spell, in the context of the Russian political elite viewing Ukraine as being part of their nation. This is not an invasion for them [Russia]. It’s a vanquishing of some domestic opponent within this territorial unit that officially dissolved, but that they believe still exists. So rather than that being a unique instance of international invasion, it’s part of a continued escalation of a long, enduring spell of subjugation for this particular part of the world.
Post-9/11, we shouldn’t be evaluating repressive behavior in 2022 or 2021, as if it’s got no connection with the significant global ramp up in repressive behavior within each nation as they’re trying to deal with their domestic terrorism or counterterrorism efforts. We speak of a war on terror. Okay, what does that actually come down to in individual nations around the globe? Repression spells and spell enhancement and greater legitimacy, greater support for the spells. Because then you have different nations that are speaking to one another. We’d like to subjugate these potential challengers—can you give us some money for that? And the U.S. government going: well, can you connect this with radical Islam or this other thing? And then we’re presuming that these governments are doing their best to separate individual citizens from challengers. Our book would lead us to understand these longer periods of repressive behavior.
It’s like Kagame in Rwanda. The lack of overt manifestations of large-scale repression in Rwanda right now, by looking at the earlier vanquishment of all behavioral challenges and the razing of civil society by Kagame and company in this nation. The only way we can understand certain types of repressive behavior is to put it into the context of these spells.
Ben Appel: Focusing on spells, focusing on the continued existence of repressive apparatus, helped explain some of these cases even today, like Russia. Why was the Russian government able to oppress its own citizens in these antiwar demonstrations? They didn’t have to take a step back and get the repressive apparatus up and running, pay people, hire people. No, they had it already built in. It’s part of their regime because they are in a repressive spell. Same thing with Iran and China. There are some protests, obviously, in China. The Chinese authorities immediately reacted because they have an apparatus built into their institutions right now. So they can quickly say: go target these people.
Your study looks at repression from 1976 to 2006, as we’ve been discussing. And you find that democracy is a great antidote to repression. But democracy reached a peak in 2006 and has been declining ever since. V-Dem, which measures democracy, called 2020 the year of autocratization. If democracy is part of the answer, a really important part of the answer, and democracy is on the decline, where does that leave us?
Ben Appel: In a troubling state. I’ve actually looked at this a little bit and there is a correlation. States that are backsliding do tend to commit more large-scale severe repression. You see an uptick in repression in the U.S. under the Trump administration. You saw it in Brazil. You saw in Hungary. It’s a major concern right now.
Christian Davenport: The unraveling that we’re seeing with backsliding leading to repression makes sense. But we should also pay attention to the fact that we can’t lump all the democracies together. We need to differentiate the backsliders in terms of the robustness of civil society and civil resistance up to the democratization. And we could look at the unraveling of civil society to see what works in that direction as well. But we definitely need to pay attention to it. And it doesn’t look good.
The thing that’s kind of interesting for me is you had what was called the Community of Democracies, a global group of democracies that came together to advocate for democracies. Where are they now? How are they countering the community of autocracies? And we might need to acknowledge that the United States might not be able to lead that effort of democracy and democratization because of the tarnished image that we have internationally. It might need to be other actors that are stepping in to say, we are truly a community of democracies, not just one.
Ben Appel: Civil resistance movements and non-governmental organizations are really important. Some of the big cheerleaders of democracy like the U.S. and the UK are backsliding. So who’s going to be there to stop it? I think some of these non-state actors will play a pivotal role in keeping democracies strong, ultimately.
I know that, for each of you, this is not just an academic exercise. I go back, again, to Darfur, and the huge global swell of support to end the violence there. It’s such a powerful example of how people can be moved to care about something outside of their own life. But part of what this book is saying is that that doesn’t actually help the way that we wish it could. So I want to ask each of you how you are living, given what you have learned? And how should the concerned community of people who listen to a podcast like this think about how we can remain concerned in a way that works?
Christian Davenport: There was this great book called Compassion Fatigue. Basically, the premise was that a problem emerges and people are more than willing to focus in on it for a bit. But if the solution isn’t simple and straightforward, then they get compassion fatigue: I really care about this thing, but I can’t do much with it. And in fact, people kind of forget about it.
But in countering compassion fatigue, I think we need to follow the truth wherever it happens to be. And that very much describes our ten-year effort to try to explore this particular topic. Wherever and whatever answers were to be found, we would explore it. That comprehensiveness helped us in many respects. Civil resistance turns out to be incredibly important within our piece. I work with civil protesters to try to help and understand what’s going on in terms of the complexities of what’s involved, rethinking the policies that they’re most committed to, not the ones that might be most effective, but the ones that they’re committed to, to be like: okay, what’s the most effective? Getting people to just ask that question and map out conceptually what they see going on has been very useful.
I found the findings [of the book] to be somewhat depressive but also triumphant at the same time. If we know not to look at some stuff, then we can focus on the things that actually might have an impact and figure out exactly what those mechanisms are. Yes, it was disheartening that some of the things that we had believed in weren’t working. But it was heartening in the sense that, now we have an idea of what we should focus in on. So I didn’t find the piece to be as damaging to my positivity and general life as I initially thought it was going to be. I was kind of like: okay, so what should someone do? I’m like, Yo, man, protest matters, okay? These governments need to be challenged and civil society is useful to focus in on, okay?
We started asking different questions and that kind of reinvigorated me in many ways because initially I was like, oh, damn, okay, that doesn’t work. All these people think that that thing works and it doesn’t. Meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha. Let’s move on. Nothing’s sacred. Let’s develop something that is effective. That’s not working? Okay, let’s leave that, leave that baggage. Let’s move. From that perspective, the book is a recipe for moving forward.
Ben Appel: That’s a great way to characterize it Christian. It is on some level very depressing. I love a nice story. I spent my early career studying international law and organizations. I believe in these institutions and I wanted a nice story that we could tell people about but the results that didn’t go that way. I was disappointed at first, I really was. Wow. What kind of story are telling? It’s pretty terrible.
We found democracy or democratization to be so important. That’s great. But then at the same time, democratization is also so difficult to accomplish. Right? And so I was still kind of depressed, but then I had the same thought as Christian. We are providing a pathway, an opportunity for others to get involved to find out where they can make a difference. We’re shifting the focus, we hope, from the international factors to these domestic ones. That may not be the best story, but I think it’s probably more correct than the other stories that are out there. Now we can funnel our efforts to backing domestic-based movements. That’s where the action is.
I really like what you’re saying about, we have a responsibility to face the world as it is and not as we wish it was. And it’s not a depressing story in the sense that what you’re showing, too, is that repression can end. Thank you for joining us on Talking Policy. I hope to talk to you guys again soon.
Christian Davenport: Thank you.
Ben Appel: Thank you very much.