Strongmen are seemingly everywhere. Russian President Vladimir Putin is omnipresent; the media has obsessed over everything from his latest actions in Syria and Ukraine to his sudden and recurring reshuffling of his inner circle in the Kremlin. Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s political purge following a failed military coup has won sustained attention. And even in China, a system that has long emphasized collective leadership, the media have dubbed President Xi Jinping the “Chairman of Everything,” reflecting his accumulation of more power than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong.
It is easy to get swept up in the colorful details of each case. But stepping back, it is clear that these examples paint a much more worrisome picture—highly personalized regimes are coming to the forefront of political systems across the globe. Beyond the best-known examples, leaders everywhere from Bangladesh to Ecuador, Hungary, and Poland seem to be showing a growing penchant toward the concentration of political power at the very top. But is there more to the story than just perception?
It turns out that there is. Data show that personalism is on the rise worldwide. And although the trend has been widespread, it has been most pronounced in authoritarian settings. Data show that personalist dictatorships—or those regimes where power is highly concentrated in the hands of a single individual—have increased notably since the end of the Cold War. In 1988, personalist regimes comprised 23 percent of all dictatorships. Today, 40 percent of all autocracies are ruled by strongmen.
It is easy to assume that all dictatorships fit the strongman mold. Vivid anecdotes of infamous and eccentric leaders from Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi to Zaire’s Joseph Mobutu reinforce this perception. But reality is more nuanced. Since the end of World War II, most dictatorships have not been run by strongmen, but by strong political parties, such as the Institutional Revolution Party (PRI) in Mexico, or military juntas, as in much of Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s.