Almost all of today’s dictators deeply care about public opinion. No, really

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL February 12, 2015
Imelda Marcos's shoe collection came to the world's attention after people surged into one of her palatial homes

Imelda Marcos’s shoe collection came to the world’s attention after people surged into one of her palatial homes

Today’s dictators (except for Kim Jong Un and Bashar Al Assad) really really care about public opinion.

So say Robert D Kaplan and Dafna H Rand of the Center for a New American Security in their engagingly titled piece ‘The Postmodern Autocrat’s Handbook’.

If that sounds odd – how can you be suitably autocratic if you care what people think? – consider this.

They discern “a positive trend that stretches from the rubble of the Reichstag and the Berlin Wall to the drainage culvert that was the last redoubt of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.” It’s based on an interesting theory:

“Democratic rulers have only elections to lose if they miscalculate public opinion. Today’s autocrats, on the other hand, risk their lives, their power structures, families, assets and loyal advisers if they don’t satisfy their publics,” write Mr Kaplan and Ms Rand.

They point to the terrifying realization that came to dictators after the fall of the Soviet Union and the Arab Spring. “21st-century autocrats know all too well that they can be replaced”.

I think that few will argue with the fact that dictators can see how dreadfully so many of their tribe have fallen. And been lynched, as with Gaddafi. Or had their opulent palaces picked over and opened to a jeering public and a curious world: deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s mansion, complete with helipad, golf course, yacht, half-built car museum, exotic birds from Burma, and a petting zoo. Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest, which is so large that it can be seen from space. Imelda Marcos’s shoe collection, which has now become synonymous with the excess she and her husband exhibited in office, first came to light when the common people surged into one of her palatial residences at the Santo Niño Shrine in her hometown of Tacloban.

So yes, Mr Kaplan and Ms Rand are right. Dictators have been warned and they know that if they misjudge it, they stand to be clubbed to death (or forced into ingnominious flight) and all their prized possessions picked over by the grubby-handed masses.

But is this really what Mr Kaplan and Ms Rand discern as a “dilution of authoritarianism”? And are they right to discern this as “part of a global transition to more democracy?”

We’ll discuss that tomorrow.