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The Death and Life of State Repression

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Ben Appel with his book "The Death and Life of State Repression"

GPS associate professor Benjamin Appel’s latest coauthored book explores how repression ends in some of the world’s most repressive countries

Benjamin Appel, associate professor at the UC San Diego School of Policy and Strategy (GPS), and Christian Davenport, professor at the University of Michigan, have been researching state repression together for close to a decade and a half. 

That research has culminated in a book, “The Death and Life of State Repression: Understanding Onset, Escalation, Termination, and Recurrence,” which was released in October 2022. 

GPS News sat down with Appel to talk about the development of the book, how it can aid policymakers and academics alike in finding methods to end extreme repression, and where he’s taking his research on repression and human rights from here.

How did the idea for this book come about?

My coauthor Christian Davenport and I were kind of brainstorming the literature on state repression about 14 years ago, when I was in graduate school and he was a professor. We realized there are big gaps — that nobody’s ever really studied how repression ends, particularly in the worst-case states like China, Iran and North Korea. So we decided to focus on those states and then let’s figure out how to end some of the worst repression in the world.

What makes this book particularly timely?

Unfortunately, state repression still happens. A majority of countries still commit high levels of repression and commit abuses against their citizens. There’s lots of torture and disappearances and political imprisonment. It’s a major policy issue today. Still, despite all the advances we’ve seen the last 20-30 years in other areas, such as democracy, there’s been a disconnect between the policy world and the academic world. Academics focused on all types of human rights repression, whereas in the policy world, they really focus on the worst-case scenarios. They want to know: how do we end these worst-case scenarios? 

What is the intended audience for this book?

With this book, Christian and I worked to provide this information to both academics and the policy world. We really do try to reach multiple audiences. Certainly as an academic book, it has a lot in terms of methods and theories because we are trying to target academics that study human rights, repression and democratization. But we think the book has several important lessons for policymakers, and we go to great lengths in the introduction and conclusion to be clear about some of the major recommendations that come from the book. 

This is your first book. How did it feel to see this book finally come to fruition? 

We’ve been working on this for a very, very long time — since I was in graduate school. We’ve done other things, of course, but it’s been a very long process. When it finally got accepted and I got the hardcopy, it felt great. I was very proud at that moment.

What other projects are you working on right now? 

I’ve got a variety of projects that I’m working on. One paper looks at the International Criminal Court — there is a bunch of research, both by academics and policymakers, about the impact of the court. Very few people really study that first step: where do they choose to get involved? 

I’m working on a paper with my colleague here at GPS, Jakana Thomas, focusing on how sanctions by the UN and the U.S. government affect terrorist activity. We’ve found that sanctions do reduce the frequency of terrorism and also the level of the magnitude of some of these terrorist attacks, at least on the margins. 

I also have a couple papers on democratic backsliding, looking at how it affects repression. And Christian Davenport and I have some work looking at economic inequality and repression. There’s kind of a gap right now in the study of human rights and how it relates to repression; in terms of understanding the causes of it, there’s been very little research on economic factors and the onset of oppression.

Other than these projects, I’m teaching Quantitative Methods this quarter. This is my second year at GPS, and I love teaching these students. They’re very smart, very capable and very curious, which I love. They care deeply about the world. They want to learn more about the world, and they’re open to new tools to go out and solve the problems that exist in the world.

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Virginia Watson is the communications editor for the School of Global Policy and Strategy. She has spent her entire career in editing, writing and design, both in industry and higher education. She holds a master's in technical and professional communication from Auburn University and a B.S. in journalism with a minor in graphic design from Troy University.
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