The Psychology of Repression and Polarization in Authoritarian Regimes

58 Pages Posted: 20 Dec 2017 Last revised: 26 May 2018

Date Written: August 11, 2017


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 paper, I present and test an original theory of how the repression 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 among these groups. I first test the proposed causal relationship through lab experiments conducted with 434 adult citizens in Tunis, Tunisia in May 2016. I then present evidence supporting the theory through condensed 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 (1981-2011), while Tunisia serves as a case of widespread repression against multiple opposition groups under Zine el-‘Abidine Ben ‘Ali (1987-2011). I conclude with implications for transitology theories and outline the analytic importance of considering the political psychological legacies of authoritarian repression on subsequent developments.

Keywords: Repression, Polarization, Egypt, Tunisia, Political Psychology, Arab Spring

Suggested Citation

Nugent, Elizabeth, The Psychology of Repression and Polarization in Authoritarian Regimes (August 11, 2017). Available at SSRN: or

Elizabeth Nugent (Contact Author)

Yale University ( email )

Box 208269
New Haven, DC 06520-8269
United States


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