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What’s New About the New Authoritarianism?

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It is a well-established empirical finding that democracies have declined in number and in quality in recent years. It seems to follow that another political system is becoming more prevalent—but how the alternative differs from previous forms of autocratic politics remains an unsettled question. Although much attention has focused on so-called strongmen, such as former U.S. President Donald Trump and former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, they are hardly novel characters in world history. But what enabled their rise now, and can their brand of governance survive beyond them?

Three recent books considering 21st-century political systems arrive at very different answers to these questions. One demonstrates how today’s autocrats prefer manipulating their citizens to outright repression; it may be the most sophisticated and robust account of the new alternatives to democracy. Another identifies mistakes that liberal democracies keep making with regard to the new autocrats. And the last points to a supposed factor in the decline of democracy—increasingly diverse societies and the difficulties of dealing with them—without arguing that democracies are necessarily doomed.

There is a widespread sense that today’s autocracies differ from previous dictatorships in that rulers ruthlessly concentrate power but do not officially abolish institutions such as parliaments. Nor do they actually disavow democracy, for that matter. Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman’s Spin Dictators substantiates this intuition with data. Guriev and Treisman, social scientists who specialize in Russia, distinguish between “fear dictatorships,” a more traditional model relying on terror to enforce ideological conformity, and “spin dictatorships,” a newer kind that refrain from widespread repression but that ensure a change of power is nearly impossible.

Supporters cheer in front of an image of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a rally at Kizilay Square in Ankara, Turkey, on July 20, 2016. ADEM ALTAN/AFP via Getty Images

It is a well-established empirical finding that democracies have declined in number and in quality in recent years. It seems to follow that another political system is becoming more prevalent—but how the alternative differs from previous forms of autocratic politics remains an unsettled question. Although much attention has focused on so-called strongmen, such as former U.S. President Donald Trump and former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, they are hardly novel characters in world history. But what enabled their rise now, and can their brand of governance survive beyond them?

Three recent books considering 21st-century political systems arrive at very different answers to these questions. One demonstrates how today’s autocrats prefer manipulating their citizens to outright repression; it may be the most sophisticated and robust account of the new alternatives to democracy. Another identifies mistakes that liberal democracies keep making with regard to the new autocrats. And the last points to a supposed factor in the decline of democracy—increasingly diverse societies and the difficulties of dealing with them—without arguing that democracies are necessarily doomed.

Supporters carry Lee Kuan Yew through the streets of Singapore after his first election victory as prime minister in June 1959. ullstein bild via Getty Images

There is a widespread sense that today’s autocracies differ from previous dictatorships in that rulers ruthlessly concentrate power but do not officially abolish institutions such as parliaments. Nor do they actually disavow democracy, for that matter. Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman’s Spin Dictators substantiates this intuition with data. Guriev and Treisman, social scientists who specialize in Russia, distinguish between “fear dictatorships,” a more traditional model relying on terror to enforce ideological conformity, and “spin dictatorships,” a newer kind that refrain from widespread repression but that ensure a change of power is nearly impossible.

Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century, Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman, Princeton University Press, 360 pp., $29.95, April 2022

Traditional autocracy has not vanished, and Guriev and Treisman concede that its most important example—China—has just “digitized the old fear-based model.” But a trend has emerged: Based on their empirical model, the authors find that fear dictatorships decreased from 60 percent of the total cohort of autocratic leaders in the 1970s to less than 10 percent in the period since 2000; meanwhile, the proportion of spin dictatorships increased from 13 to 53 percent.

Spin dictators focus on keeping people docile or distracted, often through sophisticated public relations, but they do not demand constant loyalty. Election victories with........

© Foreign Policy


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