By Ethan Hollander, Wabash College
How does one define a regime that doesn’t hold elections but would win them if it did? How does one define a regime that wins elections fairly, but then uses its power to violate human rights, or to persecute ethnic and religious minorities? All of these things make it hard not just to determine the survivability of dictatorship, but to define it. How?
Dictators and Public Opinion
Few (if any) dictatorships maintain power solely at the point of a gun. Most dictators don’t want to do things that way. Coercion is expensive; it sucks up a lot of state resources to suppress dissent and mete out injustice. Every dollar spent on quashing a dissident is money that a dictator can’t spend on himself or in furthering his own ideological goals.
Contrary to popular belief, even in dictatorships, people ultimately do have a vote of sorts: They can revolt. And they can try to overthrow the government. And while this is a risky strategy for those who try and fail, the fact remains that even dictators have something to lose (like their heads!) if resistance to their rule gets out of control.
As a result, even dictators pay attention to public opinion.
They also work hard at ‘legitimizing’ their rule—be it by stressing their place in history, battling the so-called enemies of the state, or just by making the trains run on time. If dictators can do those things, they can manufacture consent, even when it wouldn’t otherwise be freely given. Dictators who can do that end up having more resources left over to shore up vital constituencies, and in many cases that’s their strategy for survival.
How well does this strategy work? Well, it’s hard to tell.
Of course, many dictators do very well at election time. Kim Jong-Un, North Korea’s leader, is routinely re-elected with 100% of the vote! But, of course, nobody knows how many people would have voted against him if they had a real choice (Kim was the only candidate on the ballot!) or if the ballots were secret (which they weren’t).
(Actually, North Korea has this disturbing system where, if one wants to vote against a state-approved candidate, they have to actually cross their name out with a special red pen that’s provided for them right on a little table next to the ballot box. And so, what this means is that they have to actually reach for that pen—in plain view of the electoral observers—if they want to vote for the opposition! Needless to say, most people don’t avail themselves of that option.)
The point is that if dictators have popular support (and, no doubt, many of them do), it’s hard to know for sure. Elections are a sham, they don’t have a free press, and would-be opponents often aren’t brave (or foolish) enough to speak out.
Lack of Reliable Information
Moreover, dictatorial tactics sometimes have a way of backfiring on the dictator. One problem is that dictators have a difficult time in getting reliable information about what’s really going on in their countries. Generally, people tend to tell dictators what they want to hear, and not necessarily what’s true—and that can have disastrous results.
For example, the largest famine in world history by far took place in China in the early 1960s. China’s leader, Mao Zedong, implemented a number of wide-ranging agricultural reforms. But, they didn’t work. An additional problem was that local officials didn’t want to tell him that. And so, they exaggerated their production figures: They claimed to have more food than they actually had.
That led the regime to double down on the reforms, which made the situation even worse. The resulting food shortages killed almost 50 million people.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Democracy and Its Alternatives. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Unable to Act in Public Interest
Dictators also have a hard time providing an environment that’s conducive to economic growth. Would you believe a dictator’s commitment to honor people’s property rights? Would anyone invest their life savings in a project if they couldn’t be sure the dictator wouldn’t just take what they built and throw them in prison?
In short, dictatorships are sometimes cursed by their own power. To the extent that they can’t be held accountable, they also can’t be trusted—and that makes it hard for them to act in the public interest (even when that’s genuinely what they want to do).
These are just some of the trade-offs that dictators have to consider when deciding how much dissent they’re willing to tolerate, or how much they really want to insulate themselves from public pressure.
Why Authoritarian Regimes Are Popular
Still, dictatorship remains popular. For millions of people around the world, it’s not just a viable option but a preferable one.
Dictators don’t have to worry about elections, and that means they can undertake ambitious but costly projects that might result in their countries’ long-term good. And they have unparalleled capacity to muster the resources of the state—in no small part because they don’t have to worry about pesky little things like human rights.
Finally, authoritarian regimes don’t have to put up with nearly as much gridlock or dysfunction as democracies do. And the more the world’s democracies flounder, the more the world’s people might end up casting their votes in favor of dictatorship. Indeed, the occasional popularity of authoritarian regimes can make it hard to distinguish between democracy and dictatorship.
Common Questions about Dictatorships
Contrary to popular belief, in dictatorships, people ultimately do have a vote of sorts: They can revolt. And they can try to overthrow the government.
Dictatorial tactics sometimes have a way of backfiring. One problem is that dictators have a difficult time getting reliable information about what’s really going on in their countries.
Dictators don’t have to worry about elections, and that means they can undertake ambitious but costly projects that might result in their countries’ long-term good.