President Donald Trump's administration appears to (forgive my use of the phrase) trump or significantly problematize much of this work. When a political leader of a democracy espouses ideas/thoughts/statements/principles that appear to be associated with political policies that would restrict civil liberties as well as violate human rights and then they enact them, how should this be understood within the context of prior work? Well, interestingly and unfortunately, existing research is not much help on this point. The most common set up within existing literature involves the idea of democratic leaders and democratic political systems reducing their ongoing use of repressive behavior because of what they think citizens will do against them. I say “reducing” here because most scholars do not consider the onset of repressive campaigns. Rather, they are studying “degrees of repressiveness” with databases like in the Political Terror Scale or they are studying the “number of repressive events” like in Cingranelli and Richards (CIRI) or Social Conflict in Africa Database or a variety of other resources.
Trump problematizes existing work because he makes folks really wonder: what does it mean if a significant part of the population supports a candidate who for all intents and purposes says that they are going to engage in repression if they get in office and then once they get in office they do it? Ummmmmmmmm – most research has nothing on this point. Some work does get us there though.
Most of the research on state repression/human rights violations/protest policing adopts a position where democratic citizens and leaders alike do not favorably view repressive activities. It is expected that once you get to a democracy, that leaders are kind of like: “well, now that we are here, we should not behave repressively because that is not going to help us get elected or stay in office and if we do engage in repression we will get bounced out (the “vote the bastards out” theory of political repression [a phrase from David Armstrong]). Similarly, it is generally maintained in this body of work that citizens are kind of like: “well, now that we are here, we should not support repressive action because this is not how we would like to be treated and this is not how we would like our fellow citizens to be treated.”
Ok, so here is the rub – harking back to Robert Dahl’s interesting work about exclusion. The pacifying element of political democracy on repression only works when citizens and political leaders believe that the relevant behavior is directed against "other citizens". If you can convince the part of the population that supports you that the coercive arm of the state is going to be directed against non-citizens (e.g., illegals and/or behavioral challengers/rebels/dissidents), then all bets are off – repressive behavior is not only allowed/allowable but political authorities can be benefitted electorally for adopting a position like this, either in office or while running for office. Here, repression pays - you get elected and from what things look like you attempt to get re-elected.
This political race to the bottom (in terms of human rights protection) has generally been ignored in cross-national quantitative work on repression. Most research never interacts the variable concerning political democracy with the variable concerning behavioral challenge/threat (i.e., civil war [which is somewhat problematic], terrorism or violent dissent). Instead, scholars act as if the primary force for reducing repression and the primary force for increasing repression has no connection to one another. Trump brings us back to this awareness - repeatedly ("left wing mobs" and "marauding through our cities") - the barbarians, the savages are not only at the gate in this narrative, they are inside wreaking havoc.
In my earlier work (State Repression and the Domestic Democratic Peace), I discovered that “voice” or mass participation in the political system (specifically, electoral competition/participation) is more potent in reducing state repression relative to “veto” or institutional mechanisms and elites which serve as mechanisms to block, delay or override particular policies (executive constraints). But there were some interesting caveats that never quite caught on. For example, democracy was found to be better at increasing the likelihood of lower-level repression than decreasing the likelihood of achieving higher values. Democracies work on reducing those activities that are not that lethal. More important for the current discussion, I also found that violent dissent (riots and guerilla warfare) decreased the influence of all democratic characteristics. The Domestic Democratic Peace is thus not bulletproof; rather, it is vulnerable to disruption under specific conditions. These points are summarized in this unpublished article.
What is missing in this book as well as the research that followed it was a discussion about what should be thought of the democratic vulnerability to behavioral challenges. What does it mean that disorder within a society diminishes the impact of democracy? Well, this brings us to something that students of American politics know quite well or maybe they don't because the study of contention has not figured too prominently in this work: under the right circumstances, politicians can gain popularity for promising to deliver the velvet glove or hammer against perceived challengers. Rather than being a "cost" to political leaders therefore repression can be a major "benefit". When though? The answer involves the ability of politician to create, distribute and compel the adoption of a particular threat perception. If the political authority can get the population to believe that it is threatened, then the pathway to repressive action has been cleared and, in fact, the relevant politician can be delivered significant benefits for meeting the perceived need for order to counter the disorder that may in part be created by the very same political authority. The last part is crucial because the politician should do their best to maintain some degree of plausible deniability. At face value, is seems as though Trump has partial deniability. There is no smoking gun that he gave supporters the green light to rough folks up a bit during his campaign or to activities that have taken place in civil society since his election (we will discover if there was any connection later perhaps). There is a direct connection however to the use of federal police to intervene into civilian-police interactions during the wave of recent protests post-Floyd. \The principal-agent work here and here weighs heavily as the action of agents is often heralded as the answer to much state coercive action.
This fits in the classic conception of state repression but it also brings several distinct forms of contention together. We have human rights violations, we have protest policing, we have vigilante violence, we have hate crimes and in all likelihood we will have some “electoral violence”. Those interested in understanding what is going on need to stop separating the distinct forms of contention. They are all moving together. This also considers the other side: we have protests, we have lawsuits that are trying to protect rights, we have efforts to get less repressive people elected and we have discussions about revolution. Lets talk about contentious politics, writ large - not the individual tactics taking place.
The point remains: how should citizens in a democracy view a democratic candidate that is associated with violence (state sponsored as well as non-state sponsored but seemingly allowed by the government in question)? If the candidate is believed to deliver “what the people want” or at least some of them or at least those of them that are voting, then this seems to provide a mandate for repression(ish). Under this circumstance, there would be no need to think that repressive action would be curbed or reduced after it was identified by NGOs and newspapers because this is actually part of the leaders’ mandate given by the population. There is no sense that we would expect the repressive campaign to be brief. There is no expectation that there would be any serious checks or balances that would be operative. There is no expectation that excesses would be investigated or prosecuted. Indeed, if given a mandate to coerce, what one would reasonably expect is coercion and more of it.
This said, a different part of the literature shows that when repression is applied, all bets are off with regard to what those subjected to repressive action would do. Some pieces show decreases, some show increases, some show decreases and then increases whereas some show no impact at all. Repression might be called for and it might be delivered but it does not mean that the relevant policy leads to any specific end. Indeed, it might just be that the repression becomes an end in itself like the arresting of African American youth. There were vague senses that this government policy would be linked to declining crime rates but no such outcome was delivered.
What then trumps the Trumping of the domestic democratic peace? Most likely seeing the xenophobic exhortations and manufactured threats for what they are. Perhaps the key to overcoming the Achilles heel to political democracy is to more vibrantly seed the field with more information about the realities of the alleged threats themselves. Perhaps it involves awakening all aspects of civil society to take action - not simply in the form of mainstream political engagement but every single form of engagement ever imagined/tried. Within a democracy, there is room for all forms of participation and we should be trying to facilitate all of them. This is not the truth will set you free kind of comment but there is something of that in there. Let democracy arise and Caveat Civis (Citizen Beware).