The allure of autocracy is on the rise. The easy explanation is that it’s about power and control. The desire for power, it can be said, drives much of the political class, even in places like the United States. But my premise here is about leadership breaking bad. Think about authoritarian regimes in the world like Russia, China, Belarus, North Korea, Venezuela, Iran and Syria. Yet these are the tip of the “iceberg.” A deeper dive into the netherworld of tyranny takes you to a myriad and growing slurry of repressively despotic countries.
The highly respected Economist Intelligence Unit ranks totalitarian regimes each year and has no trouble coming up with a list of 30 nations without even including places like Nicaragua, Hungary or Turkey, all of which are sliding toward strongmen authoritarian states. The list of the many include countries like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Eritrea, Congo, Sudan, Libya, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Congo and Chad, among many others.
According to Freedom House, a non-profit U.S. government funded organization in Washington, D.C. that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom and human rights: “Authoritarians in every region are working together to consolidate power and accelerate their attacks on democracy and human rights. Political rights and civil liberties have declined worldwide for each of the past 16 years, raising the prospect that autocracy could overtake democracy as the governance model guiding international standards of behavior.”
How does this happen? Weak democracies are easily corrupted. Other countries have a cultural tradition of imperial rule, like China with its 7,000-year tradition of dynastic rule, Russia with its succession of Czars, or Saudi Arabia with its absolute monarchy. But in the 21st century the method of ascension to dictatorship is essentially formulaic. In weak or fledgling democracies, opportunistic strongmen surround themselves with a phalanx of powerful and wealthy loyalists, and they make certain that those minions include military leaders and secret police to insure absolute fealty, keeping their cronies loyal through access to fortune and privilege. The corrosion and corruption that creeps in is manifest in wealth control, limits on civil liberties, information control and harsh consequences for opposition insinuating that the “emperor has no clothes.”
Putin’s Russia is a self-evident example. Opposition leader Alexie Navalny has spent years in prison, then was poisoned, then imprisoned again for years for “violating his parole” by leaving Russia to get medical help for being poisoned. Journalists and other opposition leaders have been killed, poisoned and incarcerated.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s tactics are no cleaner. Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s dismemberment was a clear message to that country’s opposition. As the killing took place at the Saudi Arabian embassy in Turkey, Turkey’s strongman president, Recep Erdogan, has put the brakes on the trial. After being anointed by the king as the next ruler of the House of Saud, MBS corralled hundreds of rich and influential Saudis in the Ritz hotel, holding them hostage for weeks until they confessed fealty. When Graeme Wood of Atlantic Magazine suggested that this seems like he was trying to silence or eliminate rivals, his response was: “How can you eliminate people who don’t have any power to begin with?”
As for truth, one adage holds that “He who has the power owns the truth.” Ethics and morality disintegrate with the demise of truth.
Another adage that helps to explain the allure of autocracy for those breaking bad, came from English historian Lord Acton when he explained: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Apart from the fact that most dictators present with some sort of narcissistic personality disorder, desire for control, the yachts, the luxuries, and the adrenalin surge that comes with power, wealth and being feared, the lingering question persists of why there is this rise of autocratic regimes in the world today?
Speculation leads one to believe that the answers are pretty straight forward. The world is more complex. Technology is driving change at unprecedented rates. Keeping up with technology (artificial intelligence and renewable energy), economic trends (cryptocurrencies and international finance), military and security issues (cyberwarfare and defense alliances), requires quick reactions and fast policy protocols, more easily done in command political, military and economic governments than in the grinding legislative environs of functional constitutional democracies.
Opportunistic dictators gain control when their people come to or are forced to accept the regime’s rules, limits and all. The goal is to normalize abnormal governing rules and regulations and to convince the population that the governing authority will take care of everything in this increasingly complex world. Of course, those who refuse to accept this covenant are condemned to suffer extraordinary consequences.
With autocracies on the rise, it is incumbent upon the liberal democracies of the world to show by action and deed why subjugation to dictatorial regimes is a certain suffocating fate in a 21st century world.
Vladimir Putin’s war, with his repulsive genocidal behavior, should be the perfect wakeup call for the rest of the world, especially those currently under the yoke of authoritarian leadership. As the horrors of what’s happening in Ukraine continue to unfold, tolerance for tyranny in the world should be declining, not rising.
In a 2021 speech to 100 world leaders in what was billed as the “Summit for Democracy,” President Biden speculated that the world was in a “democratic recession,” and that renewing our commitment to democratic governance was the “challenge of our times.” He went on to say, channeling President Reagan in Berlin, that facing down authoritarian forces is a constant challenge. “Democracy doesn’t happen by accident. We have to renew it with each generation.”
Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.