Preemptive repression: deterrence, backfiring, iron fists, and velvet gloves

K.J.M. De Jaegher, Britta Hoyer

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We present a game-theoretic model of the repression–dissent nexus, focusing on preemptive repression. A small group of instigating dissidents triggers a protest if each dissident participates. The dissidents face random checks by security forces, and when an individual dissident is caught while preparing to participate, he or she is prevented from doing so. Each dissident can invest in countermeasures, which make checks ineffective. For large benefits of protest, higher preemptive repression in the form of a higher number of checks has a deterrence effect and makes dissidents less prone to invest in countermeasures, decreasing the probability of protest. For small benefits of protest, higher preemptive repression instead has a backfiring effect. Both myopic and farsighted governments avoid the backfiring effect by setting low levels of preemptive repression (velvet-glove strategy). However, only a farsighted government is able to exploit the deterrence effect by maintaining a high level of preemptive repression (iron-fist strategy)
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)502-527
JournalThe journal of conflict resolution
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2019


  • preemptive repression
  • repression–dissent nexus
  • game theory
  • political order
  • expected tenure length


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