Adapted from the 2023 edition of “Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century” by Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman. Princeton University Press.
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In a recent book, “Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century,” we show that a new model of governance – which we call the “spin dictatorship” – has spread widely through the nondemocratic world. In fact, the majority of nondemocratic leaders who came to power recently are spin dictators, while old-style “fear dictatorships” are a shrinking minority.
The common repertoire of tricks of spin dictators includes allowing but manipulating elections, permitting independent media but co-opting their owners and limiting their audience, crafting modern propaganda to project an image of the ruler’s economic competence, and exploiting cross-border trade and investment rather than shutting their countries off from globalization. The main idea is to pretend to be democratic, internationally responsible leaders. Whenever they use censorship and repression, they do it in a limited, covert, and deniable way.
Why this change in the nature of nondemocratic regimes? We argue that it is a response to globalization and technological progress and to the rise of cross-border media, the international human rights movement, and the liberal world order. Today, old-style mass repression is too visible and costly, while pretending to be a democrat (albeit an imperfect one) allows the leader to benefit from participation in the global economy and to import modern technology, thus increasing income growth and the leader’s popularity.
Also on the Forum Network: The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism by Martin Wolf
Market capitalism and liberal democracy are complementary opposites: they can be said to be "married" to each other. And while in good marriages the strengths of each partner balance the weaknesses of the other, we see the opposite in bad ones. In his latest book, Martin Wolf accordingly charts a path to improve the two systems, as well as the balance between them.
While this new species, spin dictatorship, fits better with modern realities, it also faces a major challenge. In today’s postindustrial economies, economic growth is based on the creative class of “knowledge workers” with higher education. 21st century’s economies need creativity and innovation which, in turn, are produced by university-educated citizens. By definition, such individuals can think critically and question authority. Hence the spin dictator’s dilemma: a large educated class is hard to silence (either through cooptation or via targeted censorship/repression), but suppressing its growth or nudging it to emigrate results in economic stagnation and the loss of popularity among the general public.
While this new species, spin dictatorship, fits better with modern realities, it also faces a major challenge. In today’s postindustrial economies, economic growth is based on the creative class of “knowledge workers” with higher education.
How should the West react to the emergence of this new breed of dictators?
We argue that full containment is neither realistic nor optimal. Instead, we should pursue a more sophisticated “adversarial engagement” strategy. The West should recognize spin dictators for what they are: dictators rather than (imperfect) democrats. It should fight against their violations of human rights and their attempts to undermine Western democratic institutions and international organizations, while monitoring and combatting their agents and enablers. A whole infrastructure of lawyers, lobbyists, bankers, and coopted politicians has emerged in Europe and the US to help dictators hide their wealth, influence Western policies, and weaken democratic cohesion. While respecting political and market freedoms, Western states can do more to roll up such networks. At the same time, the West should reach out to civil society in the countries that dictators have captured. Indeed, the educated class is the Achilles heel of spin dictatorships. Student exchanges, support of NGOs, independent journalists and academics, and cooperation with legitimate private businesses will eventually make even this sophisticated 21st century model of nondemocratic rule much weaker.
Find out more about Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century by Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman (2023, Princeton University Press)
And to learn more, read also the OECD's report Building Trust and Reinforcing Democracy: Preparing the Ground for Government Action
Democracies are at a critical juncture, under growing internal and external pressures. This publication sheds light on the important public governance challenges countries face today in preserving and strengthening their democracies, including fighting mis- and disinformation; improving government openness, citizen participation and inclusiveness; and embracing global responsibilities and building resilience to foreign influence.