Regimes versus Repression: The Unraveling of Democratic Institutions

By Jennifer Earl

Researchers interested in repression have historically seen repression as something independent from regime type (even if certain kinds of regimes may be more likely to repress), something that is costly and hence scarce (creating important allocation decisions for states where they decide who to repress, how much, and how often), and something that primarily has impacts on extra-institutional action. In other words, while non-democratic states may be more likely to repress movements, democratic states also engage in repression. Also, even non-democratic states don’t necessarily repress all extra-institutional engagement because they cannot afford to, they fear backfire if they tried, or they simply don’t see a need to. Moreover, there are many things that create political opportunities for protest (or limit them) and repression is only one element in the larger political environment. Indeed, even in states that are very antagonistic to protest (e.g., China), repression is still selective.

My central argument in this essay is that we should not conflate everything that is bad for protest with repression because doing so misses some important distinctions that can help us to understand the nature and severity of different threats to democratic life. Many things that are bad for protest actually affect all civic, institutional, and extra-institutional political activity and even affect the ability of democratic institutions to function. Simply put, my argument is that it is important to distinguish between general attacks on democratic institutions (which are attacks on our regime type) versus repression (which are attacks on a specific kind of engagement that happens in a wide variety of regimes).

To be sure, the last 10 months have featured a wide array of actions at local, state, and federal levels that should alarm any one concerned with democratic institutions. Not only has Trump worked to undermine confidence in journalism, facts, and science, he has encouraged violence against opponents and encouraged private employers to fire individuals engaged in First Amendment activity (e.g., kneeling during the National Anthem at games), among many other concerning actions. And, Trump has not been alone: states have considered a wide range of anti-protest bills, ranging from bills that allow motorists to hit protesters to asset forfeiture expansions that would allow the assets of protest organizers and participants to be seized. Police have stood by while white supremacists threatened and then engaged in violence and police have provocatively chanted “Whose streets? Our streets!” after arresting protesters who were there to oppose legal impunity for police violence. This has created a very polarized civic and political landscape where the sum of these dangerous parts is even more pernicious. Where journalism is concerned, for instance, the steady assault on journalists, particularly from the right, has even culminated in physical attacks on journalists in the US.

Although all of these actions should concern anyone interested in the health of democratic engagement, and perhaps all share an important foreboding threat to democracy, there are important differences amongst these actions and how we may think about their likely impacts. Most importantly, some of these activities are not specifically targeted at protesters or social movements, but rather more broadly at the democratic institutions—both legal and informal—that underlie the ability to protest, but also to engage civically and politically more broadly. They are more system-wide attacks on our democratic regime than on protest in specific. Chief amongst these system-wide attacks are rhetorical wars against journalism, facts, and science, which together harm civic life, institutional politics, and extra-institutional politics. These are certainly not the only system-wide assaults on democratic life, to be sure. De facto legalized police violence against people of color similarly harms our entire civic and political fabric.

I argue that there are at least three important implications of distinguishing between these system-wide attacks against our democratic institutions (i.e., regime) versus more specific social movement repression (e.g., anti-protest bills, police action against Black Lives Matter protesters, and police inaction against white supremacists).

First, system-wide attacks work simultaneously against civic, institutional, and extra-institutional engagement and wreak havoc on democracy and therefore affect the terrain for all political life. Following Gessen (2016), a dissident Russian journalist, I have argued elsewhere (Earl forthcoming) that Trump’s attacks against journalism, facts, and science, and his insistence on repeating objectively untrue statements, is a very fundamental power play about who has the power to define reality. One need not worry about facts and science being at odds with one’s policies if no one believes in facts or science and/or if the production of journalism and science can be sufficiently curtailed. The undermining of these democratic institutions puts our democratic enterprise as a whole at risk. Repression is more selective in the kinds of political activity it deters and repression doesn’t usually affect regime type (although regime type may roughly affect the levels of repression), but system-wide assaults are not so selective and can, over the course of time, affect regime type. I am not arguing that repression is not caustic for democratic participation, but I am arguing that there is a difference in selectively limiting democratic participation and undermining the institutions that make all democratic participation possible.

Second, while repression sometimes fails to deter and may even create backlash, system-wide attacks that affect core democratic institutions may provoke backlash in the moment, but over the longer run are likely to be effective at reducing oppositional political life because they diminish core capacities for all kinds of independent and oppositional political engagement.

Third, it is becoming clear that not all system-wide attacks require substantial state resources to execute and therefore are not bounded by the same resource constraints and demands for scarcity by which military or police actions are necessarily constrained. Fox News and Twitter, whose views-based business model benefits from controversy and assumes free speech and a free press even as they help undermine them, has powerfully facilitated Trump and his delegates system-wide attacks on democratic processes without need of substantial state resources. The low cost nature of this attack, which is distinct from repression, is important because it reduces the constraints that may otherwise limit it.

To be sure, attacks on core democratic institutions may increase social support for also attacking specific forms of political engagement, like protest. I am not denying a link between attacks on democratic institutions and values and attacks on protest (i.e., repression). Nor, should I be understood in any way as saying that repression “isn’t that bad,” or is unproblematic. Far from it! Instead, I am arguing that although both are bad for protest and bad for democratic life, to conflate system-wide assaults with repression ignores the greater scope, reduced resource limitations, and very long term damage to all political life that system-wide assaults can reap. However, there is an important lesson that repression researchers can take from this: we need to work with political sociologists and political scientists to better understand the characteristics of regimes, and democratic institutions that help facilitate opposition, whether in civic life, in formal institutions, or in protest. This will likely involve understanding democracy as a category containing substantial variation in the health and vitality of democratic institutions and also work on transitions away from democracy.


Earl, Jennifer. Forthcoming. “I Say It is the Moon: Taming the American Political Will?” Forthcoming in PS: Political Science & Politics.

Gessen, Masha. 2016. “The Putin Paradigm.” New York Review of Books Daily, December 13.


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