Spin Dictators | Sergei Guriev

Summary of: Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century
By: Sergei Guriev


In ‘Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century’, author Sergei Guriev examines the evolution of autocratic regimes, shifting from conventional fear dictatorships to a new breed: spin dictatorships. The book explores the use of fear, repression, and violence by autocrats in the past, noting the transformation of contemporary dictators who manipulate and deceive to gain popularity and the illusion of democracy. Dive into the rich analysis of past and present techniques employed by such leaders, from media restrictions to global interactions, and discover how the world can resist the influence of spin dictatorships.

The Evolution of Democracy

Full democracy is a recent historical phenomenon. Until 1900, most political systems were monarchies, oligarchies, or colonies managed by foreign powers. In the 20th century, democracy spread in three waves, resulting in more than half of the world’s countries becoming electoral democracies by 2015. However, dictatorships still exist, and the first two waves of liberalism resulted in varying degrees of backpedaling to autocracy.

The Two Faces of Autocracy

Autocracy has taken a new form, and it now primarily exists in two modes. The first is old-fashioned fear dictatorships, which use tactics such as oppressive violence, menacing rhetoric, restricted freedom of the press, and isolation of citizens. These dictators transform society by crushing resistance and quickly mobilizing their supporters. The second form is spin dictatorships, which can be technocratic or populist, left or right, individual or dominant-party led. These leaders are popular with citizens and manufacture their popularity through subtle media manipulation, policies to boost the economy, and less restrictive engagement with other countries. They exert absolute power over their nations while cultivating an image of democracy that allows for some opposition parties and public critique. Some, like China’s, are hybrids, blending spin with fear tactics. Though this phenomenon is not entirely new, this book analyzes the new paradigm and illustrates the methods by which autocracies avoid intimidating citizens into submission.

Evolution of Fear-Based Governance

Fear regimes that used violence to retain absolute power evolved to plausible deniability tactics that include outsourcing and surveillance.

Governments throughout history have used violence and fear as a way to gain and retain power. In the 20th century, Stalin, Hitler, Maoist China, and populist Argentina were known for their authoritarian regime’s deadly shadows. These governments utilized martial language and dress, militarized the citizenry, and used violence to suppress or discourage resistance. Fear tactics were also used to gain support from citizens by making them complicit in crimes.

However, beginning in the 1960s, tactics started to shift from violence to prosecution on trumped-up criminal charges, shorter jail terms, and torture without leaving visible marks. These governments outsourced violence to loyal citizen groups, gained plausible deniability, and used technology for surveillance and harassment rather than broadcasting brutality. Data shows that the numbers of killings, political prisoners, and accusations of torture have dropped off dramatically since the 1980s.

The central point of fear-based governance was to become and remain popular by purging perceived “others” and toughening the remaining population in the service of absolute power. While this tactic has largely disappeared, it is worth noting that fear-based governance has evolved to include outsourcing and surveillance as well to maintain power, albeit via less visible means.

The Evolution of Propaganda

In the past, propaganda in dictatorships was simple and forceful. Today, spin dictatorships use a combination of historical references, imagery, and relatable messaging to appeal to a wider audience. Rather than relying on cults of personality, these leaders cultivate celebrity appeal. Propaganda can now be found in unexpected places, including entertainment programs and social media. Governments even employ trolls to spread propaganda online. This modern approach to propaganda makes it harder to detect and can be more effective. Surprisingly, a comparative analysis shows that the rhetoric of spin dictators is more similar to that of democratic leaders than fear dictators.

The Evolution of Media Control

In the past, censorship was a common tool used by dictators to control media, with public book burnings and assaults on journalists and their families being just some of the ways. However, spin dictators have now realized that a lighter touch is more effective. They discredit journalists, drown out unflattering news, and use bribes, legal recourse, onerous regulations, sensationalist distractions, paper shortages and other obstacles to control the media. These tactics are also used in democracies, but due to strong institutions, history of democratic norms, and a comparatively informed citizenry, it is harder to get away with at scale. Media restrictions now need to be unobtrusive for a leader’s popularity to be boosted.

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