Review

What’s New About the New Authoritarianism?

Three recent books tackle how threats to democracy have shifted in the 21st century.

Supporters cheer in front of an image of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Supporters cheer in front of an image of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Supporters cheer in front of an image of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a rally at Kizilay Square in Ankara, Turkey, on July 20, 2016. ADEM ALTAN/AFP via Getty Images
By , a professor of politics at Princeton University.

It is a well-established empirical finding that democracies have declined in number and in quality in recent years. It seems to follow that another political system is becoming more prevalent—but how the alternative differs from previous forms of autocratic politics remains an unsettled question. Although much attention has focused on so-called strongmen, such as former U.S. President Donald Trump and former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, they are hardly novel characters in world history. But what enabled their rise now, and can their brand of governance survive beyond them?

Three recent books considering 21st-century political systems arrive at very different answers to these questions. One demonstrates how today’s autocrats prefer manipulating their citizens to outright repression; it may be the most sophisticated and robust account of the new alternatives to democracy. Another identifies mistakes that liberal democracies keep making with regard to the new autocrats. And the last points to a supposed factor in the decline of democracy—increasingly diverse societies and the difficulties of dealing with them—without arguing that democracies are necessarily doomed.

There is a widespread sense that today’s autocracies differ from previous dictatorships in that rulers ruthlessly concentrate power but do not officially abolish institutions such as parliaments. Nor do they actually disavow democracy, for that matter. Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman’s Spin Dictators substantiates this intuition with data. Guriev and Treisman, social scientists who specialize in Russia, distinguish between “fear dictatorships,” a more traditional model relying on terror to enforce ideological conformity, and “spin dictatorships,” a newer kind that refrain from widespread repression but that ensure a change of power is nearly impossible.

Supporters cheer in front of an image of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Supporters cheer in front of an image of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Supporters cheer in front of an image of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a rally at Kizilay Square in Ankara, Turkey, on July 20, 2016. ADEM ALTAN/AFP via Getty Images

It is a well-established empirical finding that democracies have declined in number and in quality in recent years. It seems to follow that another political system is becoming more prevalent—but how the alternative differs from previous forms of autocratic politics remains an unsettled question. Although much attention has focused on so-called strongmen, such as former U.S. President Donald Trump and former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, they are hardly novel characters in world history. But what enabled their rise now, and can their brand of governance survive beyond them?

Three recent books considering 21st-century political systems arrive at very different answers to these questions. One demonstrates how today’s autocrats prefer manipulating their citizens to outright repression; it may be the most sophisticated and robust account of the new alternatives to democracy. Another identifies mistakes that liberal democracies keep making with regard to the new autocrats. And the last points to a supposed factor in the decline of democracy—increasingly diverse societies and the difficulties of dealing with them—without arguing that democracies are necessarily doomed.


Supporters carry Lee Kuan Yew through the streets of Singapore
Supporters carry Lee Kuan Yew through the streets of Singapore

Supporters carry Lee Kuan Yew through the streets of Singapore after his first election victory as prime minister in June 1959. ullstein bild via Getty Images

There is a widespread sense that today’s autocracies differ from previous dictatorships in that rulers ruthlessly concentrate power but do not officially abolish institutions such as parliaments. Nor do they actually disavow democracy, for that matter. Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman’s Spin Dictators substantiates this intuition with data. Guriev and Treisman, social scientists who specialize in Russia, distinguish between “fear dictatorships,” a more traditional model relying on terror to enforce ideological conformity, and “spin dictatorships,” a newer kind that refrain from widespread repression but that ensure a change of power is nearly impossible.

Book cover
Book cover

Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century, Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman, Princeton University Press, 360 pp., $29.95, April 2022

Traditional autocracy has not vanished, and Guriev and Treisman concede that its most important example—China—has just “digitized the old fear-based model.” But a trend has emerged: Based on their empirical model, the authors find that fear dictatorships decreased from 60 percent of the total cohort of autocratic leaders in the 1970s to less than 10 percent in the period since 2000; meanwhile, the proportion of spin dictatorships increased from 13 to 53 percent.

Spin dictators focus on keeping people docile or distracted, often through sophisticated public relations, but they do not demand constant loyalty. Election victories with 99 percent of the vote provoke anger; spin dictators ensure the triumph is overwhelming but not obviously proof of fraud while still demoralizing the opposition. Guriev and Treisman write that the pioneer of this new form of authoritarianism was Singapore, where Lee Kuan Yew, who served as prime minister from 1959 to 1990, kept up a facade of democracy through regular elections. Rather than arresting opposition figures for dissenting, he would have them sued for libel—bankrupting them—and then benefit from a law barring bankrupt citizens from seeking office.

If traditional autocrats relied on the illusion of consent, today’s autocrats wish to create consent to the construction of illusions—whether about the persistence of real democracy, the leader’s infinite competence, or making the country great again. Guriev and Treisman write that many of these leaders start from a position of genuine popularity—Russian President Vladimir Putin is an example—and then slowly transform institutions such that they cannot lose power if circumstances change. This new autocratic playbook is easily copied across borders, the authors argue, not least because there is no unifying ideology. (Lee Kuan Yew, for instance, called himself a pragmatist.)

Guriev and Treisman marshal a wealth of empirical evidence to back up their argument, with each chapter detailing different mechanisms for how 21st-century dictators preserve power without obviously looking like tyrants. The authors show that today’s authoritarians are less violent than their 20th-century predecessors, including a significantly decreased propensity to start wars. There is one exception. Guriev and Treisman observe that Putin initiated far more military disputes than any other spin dictator: 21 at the time of the book’s writing and now 22 with his invasion of Ukraine.

Putin’s conduct during the war in Ukraine complicates other aspects of Guriev and Treisman’s account of the new authoritarianism. This spring, the Russian leader shuttered the last remaining—though already marginalized—independent news outlets in Russia and is working to make society conform to his ideological outlook. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan undertook a similar descent from simulated democracy toward outright repression in Turkey after the 2016 coup attempt against his government. It seems that when circumstances change and when the international context permits, today’s autocrats are ready to fall back on fear.

The Erdogan government’s current attempt to prevent the popular mayor of Istanbul from running in next year’s presidential election on a laughable legal pretext is closer to the Guriev-Treisman model, showing that repressive tactics can coexist with seemingly softer ones. And no matter the character of their regimes, today’s autocrats rely on an underrated factor for political survival: Whereas in the 20th century many borders were closed, discontents can now simply leave. It will presumably help Putin that hundreds of thousands of highly educated Russians left the country after the invasion.

That spin can give way to fear is not a decisive argument against Guriev and Treisman’s thesis. Drawing on a large range of cases, they capture something important about early 21st-century politics: Contrary to a view popular among liberal democrats since the fall of the Soviet Union, autocracies are not automatically self-undermining; autocrats can innovate and learn new governing techniques. Yet that some dictators revert to fear casts some doubt on the authors’ claim that a “modernization cocktail” of advances in the economy and especially in education will ultimately be a deadly mix for autocracy. Such leaders are clearly not invincible, but Spin Dictators makes us wonder if authoritarians will not just keep innovating in order to neutralize the apparent political consequences of modernization.


U.S. President Donald Trump (right) gestures at British Prime Minister Boris Johnson
U.S. President Donald Trump (right) gestures at British Prime Minister Boris Johnson

Then-U.S. President Donald Trump (right) gestures at British Prime Minister Boris Johnson as they arrive for a bilateral meeting during the G-7 summit in Biarritz, France, on Aug. 25, 2019. Stefan Rousseau/Pool/Getty Images

Gideon Rachman’s journalistic The Age of the Strongman nicely complements Guriev and Treisman’s social science-driven account. As the title suggests, Rachman, a columnist at the Financial Times, holds that the world has entered a new era. Putin provided the archetype for the strongman, and Xi Jinping’s elevation to head of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012 confirmed the trend. Importantly, the model originated outside the West, and it is not confined to authoritarian regimes: Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson are also instances of strongman politics, Rachman writes.

Book cover
Book cover

The Age of the Strongman: How the Cult of the Leader Threatens Democracy Around the World, Gideon Rachman, Other Press, 288 pp., $27.99, April 2022

Placing a bumbling member of the British establishment and murderous Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the same category will raise eyebrows, but Rachman insists on a continuum. Present-day leaders’ strategies to undermine independent institutions, particularly the judiciary and free press, are all too similar, he argues. So is the accompanying rhetoric: Johnson whipping up suspicion of the “people who really run the country” is not that different from Erdogan’s attacks on the “deep state.” (Since the book’s publication, Johnson has announced his intent to step down as prime minister pending a party leadership election.)

Although Johnson may not look like a strongman, he was able to get away with so much precisely because the United Kingdom relies on what the historian Peter Hennessy calls the “good chap” model of governance, which cannot cope with gentlemen who look like good chaps but are in fact political rogues. Despite plenty of measures taken from the authoritarian playbook—such as fiddling with the U.K. Electoral Commission—for years Johnson received the benefit of the doubt from politicians, journalists, and citizens in part because of the charming persona he has crafted and in part because people can’t imagine that one of the world’s oldest democracies could drift toward autocracy.

It helps his account that Rachman has had access to many of the figures he describes, through formal interviews or even on social occasions: He describes a wedding some years ago at which Johnson, a fellow guest, cheerfully admitted that his anti-European Union newspaper columns shouldn’t be taken seriously. Of course, not all such information can be verified. Rachman writes that autocratic Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban called his great ally, Polish leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, a “madman” after spending a day together in 2016—a remark that would confirm the widespread assessment of Kaczynski as a nationalist Catholic fanatic in contrast to the opportunistic Orban. Then again, that’s just something one of Orban’s friends told Rachman.

Rachman inserts some liberal self-criticism into his gallery of strongmen, highlighting the “West’s urge to find new liberal heroes.” Figures such as Erdogan and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed were once feted as great reformers; Rachman points to how politicians willing to let audiences hear the right buzzwords about globalization, diversity, and good governance generate excited chatter. To his credit, the journalist owns up to his own gullibility on this front, citing his own Times columns for misjudgments of figures such as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But is there a darker story—about Western elites shoring up their legitimacy with international converts while turning a blind eye to their abuses? Rachman does not quite say.

German playwright Bertolt Brecht famously wrote, “Unhappy the land that needs heroes.” But woe also to countries in which political analysis has been reduced to guesswork about the mind of a single person. Is there a pattern to explain their rise? Rachman goes through a familiar list, starting with the losers of globalization, but it’s doubtful how much one can generalize about this. Strongmen may look similar in different countries, but it does not follow that the causes of their success must be identical. In fact, Rachman’s own analyses of national contexts show that strongmen’s career paths are much more specific than glib pronouncements about a global wave of populism would suggest.

Rachman does identify one particularly pernicious strategy that strongmen have used in large multiethnic democracies such as the United States: the fear that the “real people”—a euphemism for the white majority—are being replaced by threatening “others.” And so the logic goes, only a strong leader can protect citizens from being “replaced.” Although today’s aspiring autocrats might not use most of the repertoire of 20th-century fear dictators, stoking panic can still work for them.


White supremacists and neo-Nazis chant at counter-protesters after marching through the University of Virginia
White supremacists and neo-Nazis chant at counter-protesters after marching through the University of Virginia

White supremacists and neo-Nazis chant at counter-protesters after marching through the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Aug. 11, 2017. Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Great replacement theory—shorthand for the conspiracy theory that conjures up enemies of the nation who seek to substitute “others” for the “real people”—has become central to far-right rhetoric in many countries. That makes carefully framing any discussion of demographics all the more important. In his new book, titled The Great Experiment, the prominent political scientist Yascha Mounk echoes former U.S. President Barack Obama in labeling multiethnic democracy an “experiment,” phrasing that suggests someone is pulling the strings in the first place. In any case, Mounk is very worried that the experiment might go wrong. He suggests that humans are tribal by nature—or, as he puts it, “groupish.” Diverse countries might end up with anarchy, brutal domination by one group, or an uneasy modus vivendi, where power is divided among factions, the author argues.

Book cover
Book cover

The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and How They Can Endure, Yascha Mounk, Penguin Press, 368 pp., $28, April 2022

Mounk offers three ways to counter these dangers: a rather vague set of policies; an attractive metaphor to imagine a diverse yet harmonious polity; and platitudinous appeals for optimism, in contrast to the “fashionable pessimism” that he argues pervades both the right and the left. Mounk situates himself elegantly between ethnonationalist strongmen and various leftist strawmen. The far-right thinks the great experiment will fail because minorities cannot fully integrate, he argues, while unnamed “academic and activist circles” on the left despair that democracies can’t end structural racism. Hence, amid this never-ending conflict, the progressives allegedly instruct people to “double down on their identities.”

This is the kind of false equivalence that gives centrism a bad name: Whipped-up hatred against ethnic and religious minorities is a real threat in some of the world’s largest democracies, while the supposedly pessimistic left remains in a marginal position in the United States and has little political support in the other countries that feature in Mounk’s volume. Instead of studied equidistance from supposed extremes, it would have helped if the author had elaborated on the image he suggests to replace the melting pot and salad bowl clichés: an open public park that allows people to encounter each other but also to do their own thing. It’s a good metaphor, but it remains unclear what the park would really mean for policy.

Mounk offers a laundry list of things he likes, from ranked-choice voting to strengthening the welfare state. But The Great Experiment does not address hard questions: Should religious minorities get exemptions from co-ed education? Would that undermine the civic patriotism that Mounk also advocates? Do institutions such as universities issuing statements on diversity constitute an illegitimate “doubling down on identity,” or can they be justified in the name of shared universal ideals?

Mounk’s book is short on real research and reporting; much space is instead given over to the self-conscious centrism that is in danger of legitimizing an anti-democratic right. Why would an author who describes himself as center-left call for “sensible precautions that curb voter fraud” when it has been shown there is no such thing? Or take Mounk’s argument that the European Union should return decision-making power, “especially in the social and cultural realm, to the national level”—never mind that the EU has no real competence in these areas. Under traditional political circumstances, conceding something to both sides might be reasonable, but when one side systematically promotes falsehoods, such a stance amounts to a failure of political judgment.

The one genuine insight that can be taken away from the book is that demography is not destiny. Here, Mounk’s otherwise mechanical “bothsidesism” has some justification: Plenty of Democrats believe the future is theirs because of minorities’ growing vote share, while Republicans double down on voter suppression based on the same predictions. Both underestimate that identities are fluid and that parties have plenty of leeway in deciding whose interests to appeal to. Mounk is right that both sides should get rid of what he calls the “most dangerous idea in American politics”—but in the end that’s slim pickings for an author who calls himself “one of the world’s leading experts on the crisis of liberal democracy.”


The world may be approaching a new cold war, but unlike the leaders of the Soviet Union and China in the 20th century, today’s autocrats do not offer an ideology aimed at global appeal. In fact, they have no new political idea at all—to justify themselves, they often invoke democracy. What’s new is their ability to refine their governing techniques and to exploit the West’s tendency to put profit above political principles. Putin’s system crucially relied on legal loopholes and the cooperation of Western bankers, lawyers, and real estate agents with Russian oligarchs. Spin dictatorships have also benefited from the willingness of former Western leaders to certify them as real democracies.

However, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine may lead to a moment of reckoning for the West and a reassessment of how to treat its adversaries. Guriev and Treisman’s indispensable book, and to some extent Rachman’s, can help the West understand just what it is dealing with.

Jan-Werner Müller is a professor of politics at Princeton University. His most recent book is Democracy Rules.

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