In my Democracy and Democratization class this semester, we spent some time covering how modern nondemocratic leaders exert their control…and how democratic oppositions try to undermine this control. Or, as I like to call this unit, “updating Machiavelli.”
As a fun challenge, I had students submit their suggestions for how to run a modern dictatorship. The best of the answers is featured below:
The realm of politics has changed in fascinating ways over the past few decades. Not necessarily in its core nature, but at least in how politicians are portrayed across the internet. Take Vladimir Putin for example, a man of millions of memes, presented as strong, suave, and menacing. Non democratic world leaders have been internet icons, if a bit ironic in their portrayal, with Putin and Kim Jong-un often gracing internet forums in the form of gifs. However, a leader like Putin doesn’t just show up and establish themselves over a nation by doing whatever they please. So, for all of the aspiring dictators out there, here are two rules for ruling as a modern dictator, and if you follow these, you might just be able to have some memes of your own.
Rule # 1: Violence Is Not The Answer
When someone uses the term oppression, many thoughts go to violence. The mass destruction of human life and the disappearance of the opposition were popular methods for old dictators. However, such tactics leave scars, emotional scars that often spur on those that knew the lost to take action. The Mothers of Tiananmen Square rose from the people related to the victims, not the victims themselves. This sort of fear leaves traces, which can be used to spur on rebellious thoughts. Violence serves only to perpetuate violence, and that can lead to a movement to topple a regime. Use a smarter means, such as the legal system. Tax evasion looks bad on any leader of protest movement, so establishing allegations of fraud works really well at delegitimizing a movement. Set up clever barriers, like permits for a protest, making it a mess to get any sort of rally going. By utilizing the appearance of legal action, the legitimacy of the actions of the government maximize fear and oppression, while minimizing the waves over martyrdom.
Rule #2: When Breaking Rule #1, DIY Is Not The Answer
Sometimes, a group may manage to jump through all of the hoops in the laws and get a protest going, foiling any attempts to smear the leadership. The protestors could cause all sorts of issues, so the need to stop them may call for action, and the military is a tempting option, however it causes some issues. Instead, build up a near fanatic support group to do the dirty work, or at least provide legitimate and legal reason for the military to get involved. The Russian Nashi, a group of Putin loving youth, are notorious for committing acts of violence, tempting opposition into scandalous situations, and setting the up the government for reasonable action. This citizens’ branch of oppression lets the population keep itself in check, while keeping the government’s hands nice and clean. This method of placing another party between the government and the violence makes it much more difficult for it to pinned to officials and used as revolutionary rallying points.
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The military may be pride of a dictatorship, but it can easily become its undoing, especially if it used on the people of the nation. A modern dictator uses abstract forms of oppression that leave no tangible traces, just knowledge of who really holds the power, often amplifying the persona of the leader of the non-democracy. Putin’s internet fame is simply a testament to his ability to exude an aura of power and authority, without slipping into the visage of bloody military leader. All it takes is careful maintenance of how one treats the opposition… And potentially a great pair of sunglasses.
- CollegeHumor. 2013. “Kim Jong Un vs. Vladimir Putin.” CollegeHumor Accessed April 16. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eHD22hqiDGU
- Herszenhorn, David M. 2012. “New Russian Law Assesses Heavy Fines on Protestors.” New York Times Accessed April 16. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/09/world/europe/putin-signs-law-with-harsh-fines-for-protesters-in-russia.html?_r=1
- Lim, Louisa. 2014. “25 Years On, Mothers Of Tiananmen Square Dead Seek Answers.” National Public Radio Accessed April 16. http://www.npr.org/blogs/parallels/2014/05/20/313961978/25-years-on-mothers-of-tiananmen-square-dead-seek-answers
- Ponomarev, Sergey. “Putin’s Patriotic Youth Camp.” Time Magazine Accessed April 16. http://content.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,1646809,00.html
- Putin in Sunglasses]. Image from Porter, Tom. 3 January 2015. “Vladimir Putin named Person of the Year for ‘innovation’ in ‘organised crime’.” Retrieved April 16, 2016, from The International Business Insider: URL: http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/vladimir-putin-named-person-year-innovation-organised-crime-1481739
- Reynolds, James. 2001. “Finding Chile’s Disappeared.” BBC Accessed April 16. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/1109861.stm
- Slater, Emma, and Alice Ross. 2012. “How Russia’s Youth Movement became Putin’s Private Army.” The Bureau of Investigative Journalism Accessed April 16. https://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/2012/04/20/video-how-russias-youth-movement-became-putins-private-army/