The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy

William J. Dobson. Doubleday, $28.95 (352p) ISBN 978-0-385-53335-5
Totalitarian dictatorships are as obsolete as North Korean propaganda posters, but authoritarian regimes remain plentiful and powerful. In this deft, incisive book, Dobson, the politics and foreign editor for Slate, shows how the rulers of Russia, China, and Venezuela “have gone to great lengths to turn disinterest in political life into a public virtue” by promoting economic prosperity and relying on widespread political apathy. This battle is being joined by highly adaptable and technologically savvy democracy activists, many of them taking their cues from the political philosopher Gene Sharp (author of the nonviolent activist treatise From Dictatorship to Democracy) and veterans of Otpor, the Serbian youth movement that toppled Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. In one colorful passage, Dobson describes visiting a jailed opponent of President Hugo Chávez, then being tailed by Venezuelan security forces, a comic and chilling incident that encapsulates that regime’s nominal openness and its relentless paranoia, fueled “by a siege mentality that saw enemies lurking everywhere.” Dobson also examines the techniques used by dictatorships to hang on to power, from the mix of sanctioned dissent and centralized control of state television in Putin’s Russia to former Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak’s brutal methods. The mix of perspectives results in an impressive overview of the global struggle between authoritarian power and determined advocates of political freedom. Agent: Lippincott Massie McQuilkin. (June)
Reviewed on: 04/02/2012
Release date: 06/05/2012
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