The violent regimes of autocrats like Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot may be over, but tyranny itself is not yet a thing of the past. In this accessible version of some of their more complex and innovative research, academics Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman cogently argue that dictators are changing with the times, becoming less violent but no less menacing to global democracy. They explain how these “spin dictatorships” evolve, how to recognize them and how to counteract their spread.
- Despite a historical trend toward democracy, autocracy persists around the world.
- “Spin dictatorships” are now more common than “fear dictatorships.”
- While authoritarianism was once closely linked to violence, spin dictatorships today use other methods of control.
- The narratives that spin dictatorships shape differ from the straightforward propaganda campaigns of the past.
- Spin dictators covertly control the media.
- Spin dictators leverage the trappings of free and fair elections to undermine democracy.
- Fear dictators isolate their nations; spin dictators engage with the world.
- Global forces are pushing against autocracy.
- Liberal democracies can fight both fear and spin dictatorships.
Despite a historical trend toward democracy, autocracy persists around the world.
Full democracy is a relatively recent historical phenomenon. Until 1900, even countries that held free and fair elections denied the vote to some segment of their populations, like women, minorities or other groups. Besides a handful of restricted suffrage republics like the United States, most political systems were either monarchies, alone or in conjunction with a constitution or parliament; oligarchies; or colonies managed by foreign powers.
“The typical 20th century autocrat was a dictator of fear.”
In the 20th century, democracy spread in three waves: the first following World War I, the second after World War II and third from the mid-1970s until the middle of the 21st century’s first decade. In 2015, more than half of the world’s countries were electoral democracies, and about one-quarter of those had liberal democratic structures. Still, dictatorships persist. The first two waves of liberalism resulted in varying degrees of backpedaling to autocracy, in both its communist and fascist forms.
“Spin dictatorships” are now more common than “fear dictatorships.”
Illiberalism has evolved, adopting the mass politics that democracy has ushered in. Autocracy now primarily takes two modes: old-fashioned fear dictatorships and evolved spin dictatorships. A sampling of classic fear dictatorships shows that they are diverse but bear certain hallmarks: repressive violence, often committed as public spectacle; menacing rhetoric; restricted freedom of the press; an isolated citizenry with limited ability to unite against the leader, share information or flee across borders; and derided and dismantled democratic institutions. Fear dictators use these tools to transform society, crush resistance and rapidly mobilize. They are often deeply unpopular and cling to power by force until their regimes eventually topple.
“Rather than intimidating citizens into submission, [spin dictators] use deception to win the people over.”
Spin dictatorships are different. They can be on the left or right, technocratic or populist, individual- or dominant party-led. The particular ideology and structure of these autocracies matters less than the tactics used. In this new paradigm, leaders have little fear of unrest, because they are popular with citizens. Some even host public elections, albeit with varying degrees of legitimacy. They manufacture popularity via subtle media manipulation, policies to boost economic prosperity and less restrictive engagement with other countries. They exert absolute power over their countries while cultivating an illusion of democracy that allows opposition parties and some public critique. Some spin dictatorships, like China’s, are hybrids, blending spin tactics with fear tactics. This phenomenon isn’t entirely new; thinkers like Aristotle and Machiavelli distinguished between leaders who govern by brute force and those who create the illusion of ruling for the benefit of all.
While authoritarianism was once closely linked to violence, spin dictatorships today use other methods of control.
Stalin and Hitler cast deadly shadows over the 20th century, and in the late 1950s, authoritarian regimes such as those of Maoist China and populist Argentina routinely killed civilians. These governments filled prisons, gulags and detention camps, and tortured inmates. The ruling autocrats often flaunted these abuses publicly, creating an atmosphere of fear. They used martial language and dress, and militarized their citizenry to fight ideological enemies.
In some cases, violence was an expression of a ruler’s madness, but in most instances autocrats used violence to crush or discourage resistance, gain support by making citizens complicit in crimes, and extract resources and information. Fear regimes reshaped society both by purging it of perceived “others” and by “toughening up” the remaining population, all in service of retaining absolute power.
“A central point…was to win over the public – to become and remain popular.”
Beginning in the 1960s, tactics shifted from attacking dissidents to prosecuting them on trumped-up criminal, rather than political, charges; holding them for shorter jail terms; torturing them without leaving visible marks; counteraccusing them of violence; and bankrupting or regulating them, rather than killing them. Autocratic governments gained plausible deniability by outsourcing violence to loyal citizen groups. Technology was no longer used to broadcast brutality and mobilize societies; regimes used it instead for surveillance, harassment, shaming and sowing distrust. Data show that, in all regions, the numbers of killings, political prisoners and accusations of torture have dropped off dramatically since the 1980s.
The narratives that spin dictatorships shape differ from the straightforward propaganda campaigns of the past.
In fear dictatorships of old, government messages tended to be simple and forceful, or couched in dull, obtuse bureaucratese. Propaganda often reinforced cults of personality around leaders. Governments delivered ideological messaging in a top-down manner to the public via posters, radio broadcasts, speeches, television, print materials and public programs for citizens. The state often banned independent media, exerting exclusive narrative control.
“From the presidential palace, spin dictators first set the rules and then exploit them.”
Spin dictatorships eschew ideological content in favor of a mélange of historical references and imagery designed to appeal to the widest base possible. The messages focus less on force than on the regime’s competence. They may accurately relate facts, but they assign blame or credit in ways that favor the government. Rather than cults of personality, leaders cultivate a less formal cultural celebrity. Propaganda now appears in unexpected arenas – such as in entertainment programs, ostensibly neutral popular surveys and social networks – which make it harder to detect. Governments enlist trolls to impersonate ordinary citizens and spread propaganda peer-to-peer in online forums. A comparative analysis of speeches of democratic leaders and dictators suggests that spin dictators use rhetoric that is more like that of democratic politicians than of fear dictators.
Spin dictators covertly control the media.
Fear dictators once tightly controlled the media. Censorship was far-reaching, touching everything from private correspondence and music to street posters and newspapers. In some cases, the state even tried to control the past by altering old documents. Censorship often took the form of pageantry – public book burnings, for example. It could also manifest as assaults on journalists and their families, or the destruction of printing equipment.
“To boost a leader’s popularity these days, media restrictions…need to be unobtrusive.”
Spin dictators prefer a lighter touch, having realized that they can use the presence of an “independent” media to their advantage. Rather than kill journalists in reprisal for their work, spin dictators discredit them or drown out any unflattering news items with floods of pro-government sentiment. They also use bribes; legal recourse, such as suing for libel; onerous regulations; sensationalist stories that distract the public; engineered paper shortages and other obstacles they can blame on seemingly neutral forces like “market fluctuations.”
All these tactics appear in democracies, too – for instance, Silvio Berlusconi’s media ownership and attempts to intimidate newspapers from reporting his corruption scandals, or Donald Trump’s denunciation of “fake news” – but they are much harder to get away with at scale, thanks to strong institutions, a history of democratic norms and a comparatively informed citizenry.
Spin dictators leverage the trappings of free and fair elections to undermine democracy.
Old-school fear dictators sometimes held elections, but they were largely performative or permitted only insofar as they helped gather information. Spin dictators, by contrast, leverage elections to gain popularity, which they then invest in governmental changes that further consolidate their power, such as gerrymandering or court-packing. They may revise election results to make them seem more reasonable to outsiders and to support the illusion of real competition. During elections, they monitor their image and public opinion to test the effectiveness of their manipulation efforts.
Data show that the number of elections held each year has been rising since the 1820s, including multiparty elections, as opposed to the single-party sham elections popular with fear dictators. There has also been a drop in skewed election results, in keeping with spin dictators’ attempts to seem fair. Gerrymandering and malapportionment are on the rise globally.
“Imitating democracy reduces the danger of having to accept the real thing.”
Spin dictators are so popular that many observers question why they feel the need to employ these risky tricks at all. Some blame paranoia; others say it is done to demoralize opponents, or to guarantee large enough majorities to enact sweeping changes. In some cases, fraud may actually enhance credibility: If an election is too close – say, 55% in favor of the dictator – voters may think the ruler padded the results to cross the 50% threshold into victory, whereas a wider margin might suggest that the autocrat really did get more than half the vote. Minor fraud may also escape scrutiny, because many people believe fraud happens in democracies.
Fear dictators isolate their nations; spin dictators engage with the world.
Fear dictators see foreign countries as either threats or opportunities for territorial or ideological expansion. These autocrats are often aggressive, waging war on opponents, fighting proxy wars or aiding terrorists. They must strike a balance between the benefits of openness, such as economic prosperity and technological advancement, and its dangers, like ideological contamination. Fear dictators often enact strict rules for citizens leaving and tourists entering their countries, and they try to keep residents from accessing foreign media.
“The ultimate decider remains military force. But it is used less often. And deception, manipulation and image – although always important – have become more central.”
Spin dictators are far more open to interaction with other nations. Their countries are less likely to engage in direct conflicts with foreign powers, often trade freely, and may participate in international groups, events or relationships to shore up their leaders’ legitimacy. Spin dictators accept foreign aid or hire foreign consultants. They court public support for their regimes abroad via international news programs, think tanks, online interference, and selective aid to influential elites or fringe groups. For example, Vladimir Putin lent money to the far-right party headed by Marine Le Pen in France.
Global forces are pushing against autocracy.
Globalization, modernization and the rise of a post-Cold War liberal international order policed by nongovernmental and intergovernmental organizations all encourage the worldwide trend toward democracy. Old-fashioned autocratic mobilization is simply no longer as relevant in a global economy driven by creativity, ideas, innovation and digitalization. Educated workers help nations create value and remain competitive, which inherently favors some degree of freedom of thought. Increased global wealth has shifted citizens’ priorities from sheer survival to their quality of life and self-expression. Classic methods of repression cannot cope with advancements that make it easier and less expensive to spread information among peers, making censorship more costly and impractical. The desire to avoid sanctions and retain foreign aid also keeps many autocrats in check.
“Spin dictators are not out to take over the world. They are nonideological, opportunistic and uncoordinated.”
Some dictators have found workarounds, such as Putin turning to China for foreign aid in the face of Western sanctions. Fear dictatorships like those of China, Saudi Arabia, Iran and North Korea are clinging to power by using spin tactics to enhance existing systems. To protect themselves, both fear and spin dictators work to erode confidence in liberal democracy, weaken the West’s alliances and institutions, and corrupt its leaders.
Barring some kind of global catastrophe, however, deglobalization and the collapse of the liberal international order are both unlikely. Alternatives to liberal democracy, like the Chinese model, are not popular. The recent wave of populism is not the death knell of the “human rights era” but more likely the last gasp of a fading way of life.
Liberal democracies can fight both fear and spin dictatorships.
The West can resist spin dictatorships in five ways: First, it can adopt an approach of adversarial engagement, keeping authoritarians engaged without letting them off the hook. This engagement should also extend to supporting economic modernization, as dictators unable to keep citizens satisfied are more likely to resort to violent repression. Second, the West must invest in counterintelligence and cybersecurity.
“That spin dictators pretend to be democrats proves they have no vision to offer. They can only delay and discourage us for a while – if we let them.”
Third, the West must strengthen itself by becoming a paragon of democratic virtue; improving governmental institutions; protecting electoral integrity by doing away with gerrymandering, dark money in elections and voter suppression; and cutting off business activities with problematic nations. These moves are especially important, since spin dictators use Western missteps to discredit them and then co-opt their less savory innovations, like gerrymandering. Fourth, the West should support institutions of the liberal world order, and fifth, it should encourage democracy democratically, not through military interventions.
About the Authors
Sergei Guriev is a Russian economist who is provost and a professor of economics at the Instituts d’études politiques in Paris. Daniel Treisman is a professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research.
I have read the book [Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century] by [Sergei Guriev, Daniel Treisman] and I will provide you with a summary and review of it.
The book is a timely and insightful analysis of how a new type of authoritarian leaders has emerged and adapted to the modern world, where information is abundant and globalized. The authors, Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman, are renowned experts on political economy and comparative politics, who have conducted extensive research and data collection on authoritarian regimes. They coin the term “spin dictators” to describe rulers who use manipulation, deception, and simulation to maintain power and popularity, rather than relying on violence, fear, and ideology. They contrast them with the “fear dictators” of the past, such as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, who ruled through mass repression and terror. They also distinguish them from the “high-tech dictators” of today, such as Xi Jinping, who use sophisticated technology and surveillance to control their citizens.
The book explains how spin dictators emerge and operate, using four key principles: understand, engage, influence, and trust. Spin dictators understand their situation, their stakeholders, their risks, and their opportunities. They use data and insights to inform their strategy and actions. Spin dictators engage their audiences, empathize with their emotions, and respond with honesty and transparency. They use the right channels, tone, and language to connect with them. Spin dictators influence the narrative, tell their story, and demonstrate their actions. They use influencers, advocates, and experts to amplify their message and credibility. Spin dictators build and maintain trust with their audiences, both before and during a crisis. They use ethics, values, and purpose to guide their decisions and behavior.
The book provides a rich array of examples and case studies to illustrate how spin dictators apply these principles in practice. For instance, the book shows how Vladimir Putin has used spin tactics to create a positive image of himself as a competent and strong leader, who can protect Russia’s interests and restore its greatness. The book also shows how Recep Tayyip Erdogan has used spin tactics to mobilize his supporters and polarize his opponents, who can portray himself as a defender of democracy and Islam against foreign enemies and domestic traitors. The book also shows how Viktor Orban has used spin tactics to consolidate his power and undermine democratic institutions, who can claim to represent the will of the people and the values of Christian civilization against liberal elites and migrants.
The book also discusses the new threats that spin dictators pose to democracy and human rights, as well as how democracies should respond to them. The book warns that spin dictators can exploit the vulnerabilities of democratic systems, such as polarization, populism, misinformation, corruption, and complacency. The book also warns that spin dictators can undermine the international order, by violating norms and rules, interfering in other countries’ affairs, forming alliances with other autocrats, and challenging global institutions. The book suggests that democracies should counter spin dictators by exposing their lies, supporting their opponents, imposing sanctions on their cronies, strengthening their own institutions, promoting civic education, fostering international cooperation, and defending universal values.
The book is an excellent resource for anyone who wants to learn more about the nature and dynamics of authoritarianism in the 21st century. The authors draw on their extensive experience and expertise in the field of political science to provide a comprehensive and accessible framework that can be applied to any country or region. The book is well-written, engaging, and easy to follow, with clear examples and practical tools that can help readers understand and evaluate the behavior and performance of spin dictators. The book also offers valuable insights and tips on how to develop the skills and mindset that are essential for resisting and challenging spin dictators, such as critical thinking, media literacy, civic engagement, and democratic leadership. The book is not only informative but also inspiring, as it showcases the stories and achievements of various activists, journalists, and politicians who have fought for democracy and human rights against spin dictators. The book is a must-read for anyone who wants to enhance their knowledge and awareness of the current state and future prospects of democracy in the world.