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Book Review: 'The Dictator's Learning Curve', by William Dobson


"Modern dictators understand it is better to appear to win a contested election than to openly steal it"

Illustration by Alex Nabaum

"Modern dictators understand it is better to appear to win a contested election than to openly steal it"

The Dictator’s Learning Curve:
Inside the Global Battle for Democracy

By William Dobson
Doubleday; 352pp; $28.95

 

Over the past two years, one tyrant after the next has been driven from power, if not slain, and democracy has appeared to take root in places—from Egypt to Libya and Myanmar—once considered resistant to its promise. Some world leaders and political scientists, such as Carl Gershman of America’s democracy promotion group National Endowment for Democracy, have predicted the Arab uprisings are part of a “fourth wave” of democratization, following waves of change that occurred first in the West, then in southern Europe and Asia, and then in many regions following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

William Dobson’s new book, The Dictator’s Learning Curve, is a bracing correction to such optimism. Traveling through some of the key battlegrounds for democracy—China, Egypt, Venezuela, Russia—Dobson, now a foreign policy editor at Slate, shows that while democratic protest movements are learning from each other, authoritarian regimes are adapting, too, and forging uniquely 21st century types of dictatorship. In these new regimes, autocrats such as Vladimir Putin, Hugo Chavez, and Hu Jintao co-opt the forms of democracy—elections, nongovernmental organizations, a seemingly free Internet and social media—but use these processes to reinforce their authority. The appearance of democracy is projected to the world and even to their own publics, yet they continue to dominate the state, without the thuggish repression of old-style rulers like Muammar Qadaffi or Joseph Stalin.

Dobson’s thesis comes together through a series of colorful and sharply reported vignettes, some about insiders of these new-style autocracies, and some from the protest movements mounted against Hosni Mubarak, Putin, and others. He examines how many of these movements take their inspiration from Gene Sharp, a once-obscure University of Massachusetts academic whose works on nonviolent action became increasingly popular in the 1990s and early 2000s among pro-democracy groups in the world’s least free places, especially the Balkans. In addition to a network of Sharp’s acolytes, Dobson cites the increasing power of social media and the Internet to poke holes in regimes’ power.

Dobson’s insights from the front lines are not terribly novel. There’ve been many articles and books written on the rise and spread of the nonviolent tactics pioneered by Sharp, as well as on the use of social media to spread information and organize protests quickly. Regrettably, Dobson barely touches on the debate, stoked by Malcolm Gladwell, Evgeny Morozov, and others over whether social media actually are effective, in the long term, in sustaining protest movements.

Far more vital, however, are Dobson’s insights on dictators’ response tactics. These New Age autocrats, he says, can no longer rule by brute force. Instead, they use “more subtle forms of coercion” while investing heavily in maintaining the appearance of rights, law, and elections, and keeping their borders open so that opponents can always leave. “Modern dictators,” he contends, “understand it is better to appear to win a contested election than to openly steal it.” He points to Chavez, who altered legislation to boost his chances of electoral victory, then, after winning, used his poll victory to eviscerate opponents—never accepting the idea, crucial to democracy, of legitimate differences between parties. Then there’s Putin, who maintains the façade of a constitution while working in what Dobson calls the “seams of the political system” to centralize power, using proxies to take over leading companies and key media outlets. Putin has created government-dominated NGOs that mimic free speech but make it harder for activists to get their voices heard.

Today’s smartest dictators, such as the Chinese Communist Party, adopt many of the technocratic methods of the most successful modern businesses, justifying their rule with their economic success. The CCP operates by consensus at the highest levels, while tailoring the government, at local levels, to enhance the delivery of services without actually opening up the political system. The party also normally keeps its internal debates internal, presenting a uniform face to citizens. The Bo Xilai scandal has taken on such epic proportions in part because such leaks of infighting in the CCP are so rare.

In an epilogue, Dobson, who contends that dictators have more tools arrayed against them than ever before, offers an upbeat take on democracy’s future, suggesting that if Myanmar can liberalize, change can happen anywhere. For a fourth wave of democracy to really crest, however, it will take more than toppling repressive regimes. From Thailand to Bolivia to the Philippines, conservative middle classes, after seeing how democracy can empower poor majorities in highly unequal societies, have turned against free elections. In many other newly democratic nations, meanwhile, the working class has grown disillusioned with democracy and begun grasping for more authoritarian stability, after the first few years of freedom brought with them increased corruption and ethnic conflict while weakening economic growth. The global economic downturn will hurt democracy in developing nations, too, since promoting Western democracy becomes far harder when increasing numbers of people in once-vibrant democracies such as Greece, Japan, and even the U.S. have lost faith in democracy itself. Autocracies may be down, but they are far from out.

Kurlantzick is Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Democracy in Retreat: The Revolt of the Middle Class and the Worldwide Decline of Representative Government.

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