In their new and very interesting book “Spin Dictators,” Daniel Treisman and Sergei Guriev argue that, if the dominant form of dictatorship in the XXth century was based on fear, open violence and human rights violations, the dominant one in the XXIst century is based on the manipulation of information, often keeping some democratic surface.
The book is based on their joint academic work, both theoretical and empirical. Their classification is plausible and, as they explain, should not be interpreted as a discrete taxonomy, but more as a continuum. The fact that “spin dictators” like Putin or Orban, keep some democratic forms, also suggests that the border between democracy and dictatorship has become fuzzy. In their defense of a liberal, rule-based democracy, they might as well be presenting their arguments to defeat, more generally, different forms of national-populism (although some spin dictatorships, like the Singaporean, do not fit with the national populist mold).
In the final part of the book, they try to answer this question: “How to respond to spin dictators?” Of course, this part is necessarily speculative, but in my view it is a very useful contribution to the necessary debate on how to improve democracies in a concerted global action.
They propose five principles:
1) Be more watchful. That is, never take for granted that a democracy is fully consolidated and be watchful for signs that democracies may be deteriorating. Perhaps this is a message to those that thought that democracy had come to stay in Russia and did business with Putin in an open way. Democracy is not only about voting, but also about respect for the rule of law and reasoned discussion.
2) Welcome modernization -even in our adversaries. Treisman and Guriev believe that if dictators hesitate to use fear and open violence, it is because of globalization and modernization. They believe that if globalization and modernization persist, spin dictators will necessarily evolve into democracies. I am not so sure of that, and I guess there is no way to be sure, but perhaps we should at least share this piece of wishful thinking.
3) Put our own house in order. That is, improve the functioning of the institutions of what we proudly call democracies, so that they can be an example that others want to follow, and introduce reforms that show to a great majority of people that democracies deliver what they promise. Here I would add a greater emphasis on reducing inequalities and fighting climate change at the same time, and in general a more critical stance about capitalism. The authors put a lot of hope on informed elites, but throughout history I am not sure that it has been these elites the ones who put their lives at risk to defend democracies.
4) Defend and reform the institutions of the liberal order, especially those at the international level, like the EU, NATO and the UN.
5) Support democracy democratically (not through the army), uniting around the idea of liberal democracy.
These are all useful ideas. They may be incomplete, but all of them are food for thought. I recommend this book.