The world is in an illiberal phase. In recent years, dictators have strengthened their grip on many countries. Several democracies have witnessed the rise of authoritarian-minded leaders and movements. These trends make the task of understanding dictatorial rule all the more important. 

The research on autocracy is vast: the term “authoritarian” garners more than 800,000 citations on Google Scholar. But most analyses of the subject tend to either focus on the emergence and fall of dictatorships or examine their internal workings. Few examine both the rise of autocracies and how they rule. 

In How Dictatorships Work, the political scientists Barbara Geddes, Joseph Wright, and Erica Frantz offer a corrective, revealing not only how autocrats win and lose power but also how they wield it. They bring a wealth of new data to the table, following autocracies from cradle to grave and meticulously testing the received wisdom against hard numbers. How Dictatorships Work masterfully illustrates the paths autocrats take to power and the ways in which they keep it. Few dictators have a clear strategy, but the ones who seize control of a country’s security forces or build ruling political parties tend to stay on top.


Geddes, Wright, and Frantz define autocracies as regimes in which elections do not determine who leads or in which democratically elected leaders change the rules of the game to eliminate the competition. In their view, a regime either is or is not an autocracy. To compose their study, the authors drew on a database of 280 autocratic regimes that took power between 1945 and 2010. The data were first collected by Geddes and then greatly expanded by Wright and Frantz. 

Their first major finding is that 45 percent of authoritarian regimes in this period were the result of coups. (Dictatorships also tend to emerge when foreign powers prop up an unelected ruler or when elected parties change the rules to preclude further free elections—a move that Geddes, Wright, and Frantz term “authoritarianization.”) Militaries and political parties are the groups most likely to seize power. But for all their professional experience, these elites frequently have no detailed plans for how to exercise the power they have seized.

Brian Cronin

Contrary to what one might expect, coups rarely defend the interests of economic elites, nor do they generally emerge from popular movements. Instead, Geddes, Wright, and Frantz find that many coups grow out of the grievances of military officers—those who have been excluded from promotion on the basis of their ethnicity, for example. It doesn’t take many conspirators to carry out a coup: in 1969, for instance, Muammar al-Qaddafi took over the Libyan state with help from a small number of allies and 48 rounds of ammunition. 

Once in power, a dictator and his inner circle must balance cooperation and conflict. Autocrats must collaborate with subordinates to create a political base on which to rest their rule, but they also want to keep their crews loyal.

The dictator’s dilemma consists of giving his immediate supporters enough benefits to secure their loyalty but not so many that any one supporter can become a viable challenger. And the dictator has to deliver a continuous stream of benefits—promises alone cannot suffice, because the autocrat’s promises are not credible. After all, there are no institutions to enforce them, such as independent courts or parliaments. So rulers often survive by delegating authority and patronage or by redistributing land and other resources. 

One key lesson that emerges from How Dictatorships Work is that an aspiring autocrat would do well to establish a hegemonic political party. (Consider the late Cuban prime minister Fidel Castro’s Communist Party, which was founded in 1965 and has endured to the present day.) Parties mobilize society and provide citizens with benefits, creating the kind of dependence that encourages popular support—and, perhaps as important, complicity. Once schooling, jobs, and travel depend on one’s party affiliation, most members of society remain loyal or at least quiescent.

This partisan patronage does have the unintended result of filling the party’s ranks with opportunists who are far more interested in tangible benefits than in the regime’s putative ideology. But Geddes, Wright, and Frantz point out that even so, autocracies run through hegemonic political parties last twice as long as those that do not. (It would have been interesting to hear more about how leaders create and manage parties—for example, how they carry out purges without overreaching and provoking a backlash.)

Autocrats survive by delegating authority and patronage or by redistributing land and other resources.

How Dictatorships Work also makes clear why fraudulent elections and weak legislatures are useful to autocrats: less because they provide a veneer of legitimacy than because they offer a way for dictators to monitor their own regimes and their subjects. Local elections reveal the competence of lower party officials—low turnout, for example, indicates that a local leader is unable to mobilize the population in his or her favor. National elections signal the government’s strength to would-be challengers. Legislatures exist less to create laws than to divvy up ill-gotten gains.

But sometimes it all comes crashing down. Around a third of autocracies end with a coup; around a fourth end with an election. Economic crises often hasten the fall of dictators, but patron-client networks can cushion the autocrats as they fall. Take, for instance, Nicolás Maduro’s regime in Venezuela, buffeted by the collapse of oil prices but still clinging to power. Ultimately, however, patronage and political clout can do only so much. The Soviet Union stands out as a spectacular example of how economic decay, elite misperceptions of reform and its consequences, and the withdrawal of international support can result in a rapid and decisive collapse.


How Dictatorships Work is an impressive accomplishment, especially since autocracies restrict information about themselves. Marshaling a great deal of data, the authors uncover deep-seated patterns that observers might otherwise miss. But Geddes, Wright, and Frantz too readily discount studies based on “impressive local expertise” as lacking “evidence.” And in using crisp categories such as “democracy” and “autocracy,” they provide analytic clarity but overlook hybrid regimes in which the playing field is slanted toward incumbents even if the outcome of any particular election is not predetermined. Also, because the book’s database ends in 2010, just as democratic erosion began to quicken, the authors aren’t able to shed much light on one of the most urgent phenomena in contemporary politics—the creeping authoritarianism that follows democratic decay. 

Today, in established democracies across the world, the slow but steady undermining of norms and institutions poses a greater threat than sudden coups. After all, it’s risky and costly to try to overthrow an established government. Few people or organizations have the means to carry out such a plot. But a wide range of actors can undermine democracy gradually under the cover of law, prompting international concern and domestic protest but few real challenges. 

The informal norms that uphold democracy have become fragile.

That is why today’s would-be dictators do not rely simply on censorship, repression, and patronage. Instead, they follow a course similar to those charted by democratically elected strongmen in countries such as Hungary and Turkey: go after the courts, intimidate the press, hamper civil society, and use parliamentary majorities to push through new laws and constitutions. If one squints, things look normal: elections take place, people can travel in and out of the country, the cafés are full, and the secret police’s dungeons are (nearly) empty. But underneath the surface, checks and balances that had once prevented dictatorship are falling away.

Even in places where formal institutions are more robust, such as the United States, the informal norms that uphold democracy have become fragile. The political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt have identified forbearance (not using the law to entrench the incumbent) and toleration (accepting opposition and criticism) as critical to the health of democracies. One might also add equality before the law: the idea that neither the government nor the law can make distinctions that favor some groups over others. These norms are breaking down, and not just in young democracies. 

Informal norms also keep autocracies afloat. Geddes, Wright, and Frantz give little attention to the world’s most important dictatorship in this regard: the People’s Republic of China, an autocracy that has not only endured but thrived by adapting. The authors’ model would account for the regime’s stability, since it is governed by a hegemonic communist party. But other communist parties around the world have failed. How, then, was the Chinese Communist Party able to renegotiate its relationship with capitalism and society? What gave it the ability to shift course after Mao and open up China’s economy without opening up its political system? Scholars have argued that informal norms and institutions played a significant role, ensuring good governance and economic growth, on the one hand, and maintaining party control over society, on the other. This careful balance allowed the party to shift course without destabilizing the regime.

How Dictatorships Work is reassuring, in a way: the book demonstrates that even the most outlandish tyrants act according to familiar patterns. But understanding the current wave of democratic erosion requires closer attention to informal norms, how they contribute to a regime’s durability, and how they shape the path by which democracies can become autocracies or are able to stop someplace along the way.

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  • ANNA GRZYMALA-BUSSE is Michelle and Kevin Douglas Professor of International Studies and a Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.
  • More By Anna Grzymala-Busse