by Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman (Princeton, 360 pages, $29.95)
Until the invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin stood as the undisputed leader of global autocracy. The Russian president’s strategies for accumulating power were emulated by strongmen across the world and envied by aspiring despots. He has thwarted domestic opponents at every juncture and gained near-total domination of Russia’s information space. Unless he suffers catastrophic defeat in his Ukraine campaign, Putin seems likely to attain leader-for-life status, a dismaying feature of 20th century dictatorships that the post-Cold War democracy wave sought to erase.
Putin’s blunders early in the war have somewhat eroded his former image of invulnerability. A leader who carefully rationed acts of overt repression and his military’s involvement in shooting wars has bet the house on Ukraine. In so doing, Putin has redoubled internal intimidation such that he has become an out-and-out dictator with the blood of thousands on his hands.
Recent developments call for an assessing of the political system that Putin has constructed over the past two decades. Described variously as illiberal democracy, sovereign democracy, or modern authoritarianism, this model has gone from strength to strength as it has pushed traditional democracy aside in Hungary, Turkey, Venezuela, and elsewhere. Modern autocrats have suffered reversals, but success has been more likely. Steady gains have contributed to a perception that movements based on populism, ultra-nationalism, and the cult of the strongman are on the march while democracy is in free fall.
Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman have written the most astute account of the system that has risen to challenge liberal democracy in the 21st century. Their book, Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century, describes the methods which have made it possible for Putin, Viktor Orbán, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and others to rule over societies that in most cases had developed reasonably well functioning democracies. Other scholars and journalists have written about the tactics used by 21st century autocrats to secure control over the institutions of a free society. But Guriev and Treisman have assembled the most thorough analysis of the building blocks of contemporary dictatorships.
The authors have identified the avoidance of violence as the feature that distinguishes contemporary dictatorships from past tyrannies. Twentieth century dictators—Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot, Duvalier—used terror as the core instrument of power. They ruled through fear and boasted of mass murder campaigns against political adversaries, class enemies, and minority groups. Of current major autocracies, China is notable for retaining important features of what the authors call the “fear dictatorships” of the past century: China does not qualify as among the authors’ spin dictators.
Spin dictators govern more or less without killing their own citizens. They are restrained in sending political adversaries to gulags. More crucial to their success: the ability to use the instruments of democratic rule to subvert democracy itself. Most conduct elections according to schedule, tolerate opposition political parties, and allow an independent media. In superficial ways spin dictators copy the behavior of normal democratic politicians, holding town hall meetings, hiring consultants, and conducting opinion polls.
It used to be said of political movements that participated in elections despite an obvious disdain for democracy that they were motivated by the slogan, “One man; One vote; One time.” With spin dictators, the road to indefinite rule is more subtle. Once in power, modern authoritarians maintain control through two basic techniques. First, having won an initial victory at the polls, they rig the system so as to make opposition triumph impossible, or nearly so. Their methods include extreme gerrymandering, control of electoral mechanics, and the massive use of state resources to advance the strongman’s interests. They also use government contracts and patronage to build a loyal base in the private sector to support the ruling party and deny funding to the opposition. Furthermore, spin dictators vigilantly ensure that charismatic liberals are prevented from challenging the leader. In Russia, this has been accomplished variously through mysterious assassinations, the imprisonment of regime critics through spurious fraud charges (à la Alexei Navalny), or the banning of candidates on concocted fraud charges.
Second, as the name would suggest, spin dictators maintain sweeping control over the commanding heights of the media and other forms of political communications. In practically every country where spin dictators hold sway, the road to power runs through the transformation of the information landscape, from one notable for plurality of opinion and party loyalty to one controlled by the leadership through direct state ownership or indirectly, through loyal oligarchs who gain dominance over news outlets. In keeping with spin dictators’ claimed fidelity to private ownership, the transfer of media control comes not through presidential fiat but instead via buyouts secured under duress. There are, to be sure, small segments of the media that are left in the hands of regime critics. But their audience is small and their influence limited to the educated classes. The popular outlets, especially national television stations, are brought into the leader’s fold.
Spin dictators are relentless in their deployment of propaganda to shape and distort the public’s image of reality. Gleb Pavlovsky, a Putin adviser who has since broken with the leader, described elections as “special operations using media technologies.” For the modern autocrat, the demonization of enemies is a higher priority than touting the regime’s successes. For Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, enemies range from George Soros, the European Union, immigrants, advocates of “sexual radicalism,” and in the most recent election, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. For Orbán, Putin, and their ilk, there are no mere rivals—only traitors, conspirators, enemies of the people, Nazis, and deviants.
Spin dictators are practical and, according to the authors, non-ideological. They do not seek to solve the “riddle of human existence,” nor present themselves as the “engineer of human souls.” Hugo Chavez is the exception who proves the rule. A devoted Marxist, Chavez promulgated socialist policies that led to economic catastrophe and that left an energy-rich, formerly prosperous society impoverished and starving. No other spin dictator has copied the Chavez model.
But while today’s dictators are pragmatic on matters of economic arrangements, they share common convictions and common enemies. They hate liberalism, despise pluralism, and have disdain for intellectuals and cosmopolitans. And they regard America with a combination of abhorrence and fear. Not surprisingly, they have a particular allergy to American advocacy of democracy promotion. The absence of evidence linking Washington to their political opposition does not weaken their suspicion that the American ruling class is planning a color revolution aimed at their overthrow. The source of their apprehension is not restricted to American policies, but extends to the American idea itself, a subversive force with its dynamism, unpredictability, and celebration of individual liberties.
Modern autocrats are intent on wholesale cultural remodeling and historical reinterpretation. Putin, Orbán, Chavez, Erdoğan—all have imposed versions of history on schools and cultural institutions, encouraged the shuttering of institutions that are regarded as “too Western,” harassed critical artists and writers, and promoted their own pet cultural figures. Nor is Putin the only spin dictator who has harbored ambitions beyond his borders. Orbán presents himself as surrogate father for ethnic Hungarians living in Romania and other neighboring countries, and he encourages populist demagogues throughout Europe. Hugo Chavez sought to export his model of “Bolivarian socialism” throughout the Americas. Erdoğan’s Turkey has promoted the ambitions of Islamist movements, notably the Muslim Brotherhood.
From the Cold War we know that no system is invincible. Yet it is somewhat surprising that having laid out the ingredients for the success of modern autocracy, Guriev and Treisman are sanguine about the ability of liberal democracy to overcome its current malaise. At the core of their optimism is the “modernization cocktail” that lies behind the remarkable global changes, including the spread of democracy, from the late 20th century onward. The modernization cocktail consists of economic globalism, the creation of a postindustrial order, and a liberal order—in other words, precisely the trends that autocrats and populists have sought to suppress. But Guriev and Treisman argue that these are indeed the qualities societies need in order to succeed in the modern world, and that withdrawing from the liberal system will eventually threaten the material security that spin dictators rely on for social peace.
And what of those democracies, the United States front and center, which are at serious risk from Putin- and Orbán-inspired illiberal forces? The authors assert that only the “active resistance of the informed” can check the ascension of the Trumps or the Le Pens, which in America sounds like the loose movement of mainstream journalists, the Democratic Party, liberal and leftist activists, and elements of the business community that coalesced to secure Joe Biden’s 2020 electoral victory. But even in America, the struggle has been intense, the triumphs narrow, and—as recent political developments suggest—the durability of liberalism’s modest gains far from assured.
Indeed, it is worth noting the impressive degree to which the American Right has taken in the values and methods that galvanize the most successful spin dictators. Among the disturbing examples is the drive to bring the election machinery in states crucial in the Electoral College system under the control of Republican Party figures whose commitment to honest voting is, to put it mildly, open to question. Extreme gerrymandering has been a component of GOP strategy for some time. So has the application of strict ideological tests to the appointment of judges at all levels.
The Right has embraced a withdrawal from the American-established liberal order through opposition to free trade and outright hostility to our political and military alliances, a trend accentuated since Putin’s Ukraine aggression. An antagonism towards immigration—legal as well as undocumented—is expressed in racist formulas that recently include the Great Replacement theory. And the Right is steadily augmenting a propaganda empire that is as predictable and relentless as the media created under Putin.
The American Right has also embraced falsehood and fabrication as core strategic weapons. Sometimes the lies are big, such as that Trump won the presidency in 2020 and Joe Biden is an illegitimate interloper. Other lies, like the claim that immigrants are prone to criminality, are less ambitious, but no less damaging.
In Barchester Towers, a masterpiece about the internal politics of the 19th century Anglican Church, Anthony Trollope has this to say about deceit and honor in public affairs:
A man in the right relies on his rectitude and therefore goes about unarmed. His very strength is his weakness. A man in the wrong knows he must look to his weapons; his very weakness is his strength. The one is never prepared for combat, the other is always ready.
Trollope’s words are an appropriate description of the lines that have been drawn in the great political struggle between the champions of democracy and the strongmen and demagogues who would see democracy terminally buried. In Trollope’s novels, men of virtue and resolve more often than not rise to the occasion and outwit the scoundrels. Let’s hope that democracy’s partisans have the resolve to ward off the threat posed by this new set of sophisticated and determined adversaries, and the stealth tactics that have paved their road to power.
Arch Puddington is senior emeritus scholar at Freedom House and principal author of the Freedom House Special Report Breaking Down Democracy: Goals, Strategies, and Methods of Modern Authoritarians (2017).
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