Democracy Depends on Those Who Are Harder to Fool: Daniel Treisman on the Changing Face of Dictatorship

In this conversation with RevDem editor Ferenc Laczó, Daniel Treisman – co-author, with Sergei Guriev, of Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century – discusses how ‘spin dictatorships’ differ from ‘fear dictatorships’; why such a new form of dictatorship has emerged and spread in recent decades; what might explain the at times notable popularity of such regimes and whether they are likely to represent the wave of the future; and why an informed citizenry should be seen as crucial to the defense of liberal democracy.

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. His research, published in leading political science and economics journals and numerous books, focuses on Russian politics and economics as well as comparative political economy, including in particular the analysis of democratization, the politics of authoritarian states, political decentralization, and corruption. He has also served as a consultant for the World Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and USAID, and has acted as the director of the Russia Political Insight project, among others.

Ferenc Laczó: Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century, which you have co-authored with Sergei Guriev, is an attempt to explain the nature of current dictatorships that have emerged and spread over the past half a century. How do spin dictatorships operate and how is this new kind of dictatorship different from earlier forms you call ‘fear dictatorship’ in the book? 

Daniel Treisman: In the book, Sergei Guriev and I argue that the dominant model of dictatorship has changed from that of the classic twentieth-century autocrats, who were very violent. Hitler, Stalin, and Mao each imprisoned and killed millions of people. They censored the media and imposed an official ideology that everyone had to accept. Even those dictators who didn’t have much of an official ideology, like Pinochet or Mobutu, still tended to be brutally repressive. And all of these leaders were very public about their violent methods; they wanted people to be scared. We call them fear dictators. I should say this type hasn’t completely disappeared. There are still dictators who meet this description – think of Bashar al-Assad in Syria or Kim Jong-un in North Korea. 

But the average non-democratic leader in the last few decades looks quite different, looks more like Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, the leaders of Singapore, or the early Putin. They wear expensive suits and send their kids to college in the West. They claim to be democratic and hold elections. They allow some opposition media, so long as its audience remains small. They’re much more open to the outside world.

It’s all part of an act. They monopolize power like the old dictators, eliminating any effective checks and balances but they do so with much less violence.

They do it rather by manipulating information – co-opting the media and presenting a distorted version of reality. Instead of terrorizing people, they fool them. 

Your book diagnoses a rather momentous and encompassing shift between these two types of dictatorship over the past half a century. Why this shift, why did spin dictatorships emerge and spread so widely? And how might your diagnosis of this shift perhaps differ from other explanations of some of the same regimes? 

By our estimates as of 2015, more than 40% of leaders in non-democracies were what we call spin dictators and fewer than 20% were pure fear dictators – the rest were various kinds of hybrids. If we look at the cohort of non-democratic leaders who came to power in the 2000s, spin dictators amount to more than 50% of those. That’s up from around 10% in the 1970s cohort. 

Why did this happen? We think it´s a result of the modernization and globalization of the world in the late 20th century. For example, rates of higher education have soared. In 1950, there were almost no college graduates in authoritarian countries. In contrast, in 2010, they made up about 6% of the adult population – and their numbers were rising further in countries that have been transitioning from industry into services and the knowledge economy. Today, people are more connected by the Internet, social networks, and social media while the human rights movement is becoming increasingly global. Countries are trading more. People are traveling more internationally. Their values are becoming more individualistic, more cosmopolitan.

This shows up in cross-national opinion polls, such as the World Value Survey where there is a growing demand for personal and political freedoms. And all of this makes it harder to control societies with violence.

Still, there are certainly some fear dictators left and recently some spin dictators like Putin have reverted to fear dictatorship. But using violence to control a country with a large urbanized and educated population is harder than using it to control a country where, say, 80% of the population are peasants living in small, isolated villages. 

At the same time, economic growth in a knowledge economy requires a more open society.

Thus, dictators have created more sophisticated methods of controlling the political sphere that reduce demands for genuine democracy but that don’t interfere too much with economic progress. 

How does our account differ from others? Some scholars deny that economic and social modernization have anything to do with the evolution of political regimes. They argue that the kind of political regime a country has today is the result of distant historical turning points, a matter of culture, or pure contingency. We think the patterns in world history just don’t support those views, although all those factors do contribute. The patterns are anything but random and democracy has spread across parts of the world with very different cultures. 

We agree with those who think that modernization does lead to democracy, but we add certain caveats. First, what matters for political evolution within a given country is not just the level of modernization within that country, but also the level worldwide. More and more countries develop knowledge economies with sophisticated and highly educated societies.

That leads to the emergence of global networks of activists, media, lawyers, and others. These networks create pressures for democracy, even in countries at lower development levels. 

Some countries, often those near the West, are dependent on Western aid. Some countries have indeed democratized before their societies and economies became all that modern. As a result, we don’t always see a simple linear relationship between say national income and democracy across individual countries. 

It is true that economic and social development push countries toward democracy, just as the old modernization theorists argued. But our second point is that dictators can fight back, and they do so precisely by introducing spin dictatorship. They delay the transition to genuine democracy by faking it.

Spin dictatorship is a kind of intermediate stage in some regimes, between the old, violently repressive type of dictatorship and democracy. It’s a way in which dictators resist the pressures of modernization and hold on to authoritarian rule for a bit longer. 

You write of spin dictators as being among the most inventive politicians. You also underline the popularity of spin dictatorship and that their leaders make a modern, professional impression. They have replaced ideological rule and terror by the softer techniques of deception and manipulation. They try to appear pragmatic and competent and are indeed often able to persuade the relatively uninformed. They have developed more sophisticated ways of faking free and democratic government – you call them masters of subversion from within in the book. This depiction raises at least two questions: what might explain the popularity of these spin dictators? And if they are quite genuinely popular in certain countries and at certain times, what then really distinguishes their rule from liberal democratic rule? 

Leaders tend to be popular when their economies are doing well. But economic booms don’t last forever, especially when the leaders are not particularly competent. Spin dictators need to build and preserve support, even in bad times.

How do they do that? First of all, they coopt or covertly censor most of the media and they use it to project an image of themselves as skilled, benevolent, and democratic leaders. When the facts are good, they take credit for it; when the facts are bad, they have the media obscure them and blame foreign enemies or the global economy. The media slanders and discredits any possible alternative party or leader, so the incumbent looks good by comparison. When that works, the incumbent is genuinely popular, which we can observe in a whole range of dictatorships.

Of course, it’s difficult to know for sure what to make of opinion polls in authoritarian settings, but there’s a lot of evidence that, especially in the early years of Putin or of Orbán’s rule in Hungary, these leaders have been genuinely popular. 

After having achieved that popularity, the regime holds elections, allowing a few unthreatening opposition candidates to run, but manipulating those elections behind the scenes to assure victory. And the incumbent uses his popularity to lock in advantages through constitutional changes, eliminating checks and balances, gerrymandering constituencies, and so on. 

In contrast to the fear dictators of old, spin dictators avoid violent repression, or at least camouflage it. For example, they arrest political opponents for non-political offenses like fraud or draft dodging. Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader, was even accused of illegal elk hunting. Nazarbayev prosecuted a journalist in Kazakhstan for allegedly raping a minor. 

Unlike many of the old-style 20th-century dictators who tried to isolate their country, spin dictators keep their countries open to the world. They integrate fully into global trade, capital, and international institutions, which they often try to exploit cynically.

What distinguishes these regimes from genuine liberal democracy? In a liberal democracy, there are free independent media, there is a political openness that allows people to debate and criticize the leadership and expose lies and distortions, and there are checks and balances – which, as I said, the spin dictator tries to remove, using his great popularity to push through changes in the constitutional order. 

The distinction you use between fear and spin dictatorship is illuminating. However, you also admit that dictatorships vary along a broad spectrum, so wouldn’t additional categories perhaps be useful to distinguish further subtypes? And I also wished to ask you a more specific question in connection with that issue of subtypes, a question that many of your readers might pose these days, I believe: can we still call Putin’s regime a spin dictatorship? Hasn’t the Russian regime evolved way beyond that by now? And if so, how might that negative evolution reflect back on the interpretation and explanations you provide in the book? 

Yes, there are subtypes and there is, indeed, a spectrum of political regimes. When we look empirically and come up with statistical measures of regime type, we do find a good number of what we call hybrid regimes – regimes which are like fear dictatorships in many ways, but not completely or like spin dictatorships, but somewhat different.

Some cases are quite difficult to classify. A particularly interesting one is China. China under Xi Jinping seems to us a fear dictatorship, but it uses very modern tools of surveillance and information control. The reliance on fear is pretty evident. The leaders use very tough language and force against ethnic minorities in regions like Xinjiang and Tibet. We also see very harsh policing and the jailing of oppositionists in Hong Kong. Mainland China dissidents are forced to make confessions on TV, which seems aimed at spreading fear in society. But at the same time, we see some quite sophisticated tactics on the internet, see relative openness to world trade, travel, and to a lot of new technology. 

In sum, we view China as an old-style fear dictatorship that uses high-tech tools to make intimidation more effective. The Chinese regime is a bit like the ones in Saudi Arabia and Egypt: these are not quite the same as the totalitarian regimes of Stalin or Mao, but they still belong on the fear side of the spectrum. 

As for Putin and Russia, Putin has transitioned from spin to fear. This happened between 2018 and 2022, with the final blow coming right after the invasion of Ukraine this year when the few remaining independent media were closed down and citizens were threatened with 15 years in jail merely for calling the war by its proper name. In the book, we note that Putin’s regime seemed to be in transition: when we were writing in early 2021, we characterized Putin’s regime as right on the border between spin and fear and moving in the direction of the latter. 

Still, although Putin has eliminated opposition media and embraced the rhetoric of fear, tightening internet control, he has not, or at least not yet, held large numbers of political prisoners. The current tally is less than one hundred, if one doesn’t include those in prison for religious reasons. There’s no mass killing, or at least not yet, outside the war zone.  

Of course, when spin dictators face a major crisis, they often try to hang on by reverting to fear. That has happened with Putin, as it happened before in the transition from Chávez to Maduro in Venezuela and in Turkey with Erdoğan’s evolution after the 2016 failed coup. We see this as a desperate measure; it’s a sign of weakness.

The economies of Russia, Venezuela, Turkey have all deteriorated sharply, as one would expect, given the difficulty of sustaining a modern innovation-based economy in a climate of fear. In each case, the leader felt he had little option. This is, in fact, what we should expect to see when a spin dictator is pressed by continued modernization of society, or perhaps by an economic crisis. When he sees that the techniques of spin are no longer working sufficiently and are no longer enough, we should expect some of those dictators to try to cling on to power by reverting to fear – to once again try to terrorize the population. 

You two write that the key elements of spin dictatorship – such as manipulating the media, engineering popularity, faking democracy, limiting public violence, and opening up to the world – complement each other rather well to produce a model of unfree governance that has spread in recent decades. At the same time, you sound rather confident and even quite optimistic, claiming that these regimes can merely delay democratization by faking it. You depict them as the ebb of a wave rather than a change in the current. What makes you so confident that these regimes do not represent the wave of the future and might in fact prove temporary? And, equally importantly, what strategies do you see as of key importance to make sure that they will not come to represent the wave of the future? 

Of course, we could be wrong, but sustaining spin dictatorship alongside economic progress is difficult. The only country that has managed this is Singapore. Perhaps some others will prove able to follow the Singapore model, but ultimately almost all countries that reach a certain level of economic development end up democratic, unless they are petrostates with vast oil reserves. 

That’s what underlies that element of optimism in our book, although it’s an optimism about the medium to long run, rather than optimism about the short run. 

In the book, we, indeed, also talk about how we think the West should deal with these new dictatorships as well as some of the more fear-based ones, such as China. We believe that the West needs to remain engaged, but in a smarter, more defensive way than in the past: we call this approach adversarial engagement. It breaks down into several ideas. 

First of all, the West needs to monitor better what’s going on to understand the relationship with dictatorships a bit more comprehensively. That means better financial monitoring, counterintelligence and, of course, cyber security. We need to build resilience, identify vulnerabilities in supply chains and trade patterns, and we need add redundancy to prevent spin dictators and other dictators exploiting the vulnerabilities that are created through asymmetric trade. 

We need to stop enabling dictators. In the West, there is quite a large industry of lobbyists, lawyer, and bankers who create shell companies for dictators and who lobby on their behalf and influence our own political process. I would add to that the tech firms that sometimes produce products that facilitate surveillance of populations in authoritarian states. We need to stop providing all this infrastructure of authoritarianism, both in the West and for them to use at home. 

We also need to reinvigorate democracy in the West, both for our own sake and to set a better example. We need to reform and strengthen international liberal institutions, like the UN, NATO, and Interpol. Spin dictators like Orbán in Hungary or Erdoğan in Turkey have been members of these institutions.

Western institutions have a very liberal pro-democratic mission, but they have internal procedures which rely a lot upon consensus which have been exploited and used by spin dictators to try to blackmail the West to get what they want.  We need to think hard about how to reform the internal workings of these institutions and also about which countries should be members of which particular international organizations in the future.

We argue that we need to support democracy democratically and not by invading countries. We see no evidence of the latter working except in very unusual circumstances – like the aftermath of World War II when the Western powers had comprehensively occupied Japan, West Germany, and some other former enemy countries. In general, invading other countries to spread democracy seems not to work. 

Supporting democracy democratically means leveraging public opinion and building international coalitions. Perhaps counterintuitively, we also need to welcome the modernization and global integration even of our adversaries. We shouldn’t try to isolate ourselves or isolate foreign countries, although, of course, a military defense mechanism is necessary when we see countries like Russia start wars of aggression. But at times of peace, we should welcome the modernization and global integration of our adversaries too, because those processes will generate positive pressures for change.

If a modernizing autocracy sounds dangerous, a blocked autocracy is likely to be even more aggressive and difficult for the West to deal with.

Of course, all this might be easy to say and much harder to do, but we need to start by thinking clearly about how the West could improve the way it deals with the authoritarian world. 

As a final question, I wished to raise one of a more epistemological nature. Your distinction between liberal democracy and spin dictatorship seems to hinge, among others, on the opposition between informed and uninformed citizenry. Could you elaborate on this distinction? How can we tell who is properly informed and who is uninformed? And why do you consider an informed citizenry so crucial to the proper functioning of a liberal democracy? 

The question is why leaders who seek to control the media, distort the news, manipulate information, and monopolize power sometimes succeed, but fail in other cases. It comes down to the strength of resistance to such projects.

We see a highly educated, internationally connected, sophisticated society as the crucial defense – that means journalists, lawyers, civil servants, NGO activists, academics, and many others who have the skills to communicate, organize, and resist a would-be dictator.

For shorthand, we call this part of society “the informed.” They are not necessarily the rich or the members of any particular party. They are those who are harder to fool, don’t like to be manipulated, and who have the skills and networks to fight back. Ultimately, the resources, sophistication, and determination of this part of society explain when an authoritarian leader in a democracy, like, say, Trump in the US, is likely to fail – although there’s never certainty in politics. 

By the informed, we mean something close to what some people have called civil society, but a particular type of civil society which is empowered by education and by interconnections, by organizational and associational skills and resources that enable that part of society to protect its freedoms against a leader who seeks to consolidate power using all those manipulative tools we’ve been talking about. 

The transcript has been edited for edited for length and clarity.

In collaboration with Iker Itioz Ciáurriz.

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