Part of The Best Books of 2012 on Political and Legal Subjects

The Dictator’s Learning Curve

Democracy has spread to every corner of the world. But the authoritarian and autocratic states that have survived appear to be stubbornly dug in. In this engaging book, Dobson reports from such outposts of despotism as China, Malaysia, Russia, and Venezuela, detailing authoritarian regimes that are remarkably sophisticated in resisting the formidable forces that have put illiberal states on the defensive: Western democracy promoters, the international human rights movement, and the spread of social media. Modern autocrats increasingly eschew overtly oppressive methods of control, such as mass arrests and executions, and instead manipulate legal systems—tax rules, health codes, media regulations—to isolate and undermine opponents. Appearances increasingly matter, so today’s authoritarians hold rigged elections and pay lip service to democracy to distract attention from their abuses. Dobson does not speculate on how this new phase of the grand struggle between liberal democracy and dictatorship will end. But he does make clear that modern tyrants—just like the old ones—fear nothing more than the people. And the people may yet have the last word.

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