The Political Psychology of Repression and Polarization in Authoritarian Regimes

by Elizabeth Nugent

Institution: Princeton University
Year: 2017
Keywords: Authoritarianism; Democratization; Middle East; Polarization; Political Psychology; Repression
Posted: 02/01/2018
Record ID: 2179268
Full text PDF: http://arks.princeton.edu/ark:/88435/dsp01np193c77b


Polarization defined as the difference in policy preferences along the salient axis of political competition among non-regime elite actors has important consequences for successful democratic consolidation during authoritarian transitions. However, existing theories fail to explain why elites emerge more or less polarized from authoritarian contexts. In this dissertation, I develop an original two-stage theory of how the repression of opposition groups that defines authoritarian regimes affects processes of polarization in these systems. The theory builds on social psychology findings about the causes and consequences of group identification to posit that the nature of repression whether it targets a specific group, or is more widespread alters group members' level of in-group identification, in turn affecting the distance between groups' political preferences, and ultimately shaping the distribution of preferences and aggregate levels of polarization among these groups. I bring a variety of mixed methods evidence to support and test the theory. First, I present evidence from case studies of Egypt and Tunisia. Egypt serves as a case of targeted repression against a single opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, under authoritarian president Hosni Mubarak between 1981 and 2011, while Tunisia serves as a case of widespread repression against opposition groups under Zine el-`Abidine Ben `Ali between 1987 and 2011. My theory helps to explain why elite actors converged and compromised in Tunisia, but failed to do so in Egypt following the ``Arab Spring'' uprisings. Second, I present lab experiments conducted in Tunis, Tunisia, in May 2016. The results demonstrate that informational primes of targeted repression increase the distance between groups' policy preferences, while informational primes of widespread repression decrease this distance relative to a placebo control. Additional analyses demonstrate that in-group identification mediates the observed relationship between repression and polarization. Finally, I present evidence from former Soviet Bloc countries, demonstrating a correlation between variation in pre-transition repression and post-transition levels of polarization. I conclude with implications for the literature on democratic transitions and emphasize the analytical importance of considering the psychological and political legacies of authoritarian repression on subsequent political developments.Advisors/Committee Members: Jamal, Amaney A (advisor).