cover image Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century

Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century

Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman. Princeton Univ., $29.95 (352p) ISBN 978-0-691-21141-1

Economist Guriev and political scientist Treisman (The Return) examine in this insightful account how modern autocracy has evolved from WWII to the present. Throughout, they contrast new age “spin dictators,” including Hungary’s Victor Orban, Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan , and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who simulate democracy while relying on advances in technology and communications to control their nations, with “fear dictators,” such as North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, who more baldly use repression, censorship, and violence to remain in power. Citing evidence of a “downward trend in violence,” including state-sponsored killings and torture, by “nondemocratic leaders” since the 1980s, Guriev and Treisman analyze how modern dictators tolerate criticism in the independent media in exchange for credibility; how lawsuits and arbitrary regulations have replaced outright censorship; how elections are used to convert “mass appeal” into “institutional and political advantages”; and how authoritarian regimes have courted right-wing groups and hired lobbyists to improve their image in the U.S. Intriguingly, the authors suggest that modern autocrats may be part of a global trend toward nonviolence, though this theory needs more evidence. Still, this is an eye-opening and well-informed study of 21st-century geopolitics. (Mar.)