The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy, by William J. Dobson. New York: Doubleday, 2012. 352 pp. $28.95 (hardcover).


At the beginning of The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy, William Dobson states a fact that is all too clear for anyone who studies history or reads the news:

Authoritarian governments rarely fret over United Nations sanctions or interference from a foreign rights group that can be easily expelled. Indeed, the mere threat of foreign intervention, whether from the United States, the United Nations, or a body like the International Criminal Court, can be a useful foil for stirring up nationalist passions and encouraging people to rally around the regime. (p. 9)

Dobson follows this observation with an important truth that few people grasp regarding dictatorships:

When observers look at only one side of the coin—the dictators—they see regimes that appear all-powerful. They concentrate on a dictatorship’s massive security apparatus, its divisions of riot police, soldiers, intelligence officers, informants, and paid thugs. They focus on the regime’s tight grip on media, major industries, the courts, and political parties. Perhaps they see a culture of fear, grinding poverty for the majority of society, and government coffers fed by corruption and control of oil fields or other natural resources. And of course there is the brutality: any regime that has no compunction about jailing, torturing, or murdering its critics will not be easily ousted, so the thinking goes.

When they consider all of these conditions, outsiders see little reason to believe anything will change soon. So when revolution does come—whether it be the Philippines, Poland, South Korea, Indonesia, Serbia, Tunisia, or countless other places—most experts, academics, and policy makers write it off as a fluke, a rare or unique experience unlikely to be repeated. . . .

The piece of the puzzle they are missing is an appreciation for the skills of those who seek to topple a dictator. They don’t watch as activists learn how to topple a dictator. They don’t watch as activists learn how to mobilize a movement, chip away at a regime’s legitimacy, or master the tools of propaganda. They don’t pay attention to how democratic movements learn from each other, bringing new and innovative tactics to the fight. (pp. 9–10)

If outsiders often miss this piece of the puzzle, dictators and heads of authoritarian governments do not. They understand, Dobson shows, that while they do not have to fear the United Nations, they must constantly fear their own people and work hard to prevent being overthrown.

The tyrants’ method in this respect, a method that Dobson says has evolved over the years, is a key part of what he shares in The Dictator’s Learning Curve. Dobson relays this evolution by examining how Putin changed Russia; Chavez, Venezuela; Mubarak, Egypt; and a host of thugs, China.

For example, Dobson notes how in the past dictators would use overwhelming force to squelch a movement for greater freedom or to keep individual people under their thumb. Not so today, according to Dobson—at least not on anything approaching the scale of the 20th century.

Today’s dictators understand that . . . the more brutal forms of intimidation—mass arrests, firing squads, and violent crackdowns—are best replaced with more subtle forms of coercion. Rather than forcibly arrest members of a human rights group, today’s most effective despots deploy tax collectors or health inspectors to shut down dissident groups. Laws are written broadly, then used like a scalpel to target the groups the government deems a threat. . . . Rather than shutter all media, modern-day despots make exceptions for small outlets that allow for a limited public discussion. Today’s dictators pepper their speeches with references to liberty, justice, and the rule of law. Chinese Communist Party leaders regularly invoke democracy and claim to be the country’s elected leaders. And modern authorities understand the importance of appearances. In the twentieth century, totalitarian leaders would often hold elections and claim an absurd percentage of the ballots. Soviet leaders routinely stole elections by announcing they won an improbable 99 percent of the vote. Today, the Kremlin’s operatives typically stop stuffing the ballot boxes when they reach 70 percent. Modern dictators understand it is better to appear to win a contested election than to openly steal it. (p. 5)

Dobson often highlights this craving on the part of dictators to appear legitimate, and he makes many perceptive observations about it. Consider, for example, his view on what the supposed rule of law affords those in power:

For regimes that seek to mask their true nature behind a democratic facade, the law is one of the most powerful weapons they can wield. It offers the government the pretense it requires to accomplish its aims, all without stepping out of the shadows. Thus, if you seek to disband an NGO, you don’t arrest its membership. You send health inspectors to temporarily close its headquarters, pending a review of a series of alleged health code violations. If you are troubled by what a radio station is broadcasting, you don’t have the Ministry of Telecommunication force it off the airwaves. Rather, you send tax inspectors to audit the station’s books and find financial irregularities that require the station’s temporary closure. In fact, even this step may be unnecessary. The mere threat of legal sanctions or administrative review may encourage the radio station’s management to engage in the very self-censorship that accomplishes the regime’s ends—all without ever inflicting the punishment. Law, regulation, and procedure can be a dictator’s most effective tools for strangling an opponent, precisely because these weapons appear benign, apolitical, and objective. (pp. 51–52)

As for individuals who do not want to be ruled and have the courage to say so, Dobson relays how one of the bigger changes between dictatorships of old and those of our own time relates to that of closed versus open borders.

According to Ludmilla Alexeeva, a Russian activist and one of the more than two hundred people whom Dobson interviewed for this book, despite the pretense of the Russian constitution guaranteeing “the same set of freedoms and rights as any Western constitution . . . actually only one right is observed—the right to travel abroad, to leave” (p. 7).

The effect, Dobson says, is “that many people who might have opposed the regime simply left,” and those who remained were the kind Putin could deal with (p. 7).

“The main idea of Putin [is] to reduce the level of political activity of the population. This is his absolutely cynical strategy,” [Boris] Nemstov [a leader of a Russian opposition group] told me. “He is very lucky when people say ‘nothing depends on my view.’ He is very much afraid of independent views. This is his main idea.” (p. 71)

Of course Putin is not the only dictator who fears the independent thinker, the man who refuses to bow to authority, the man who will speak out against tyranny. As Dobson points out:

Nemstov’s statement could just as easily have applied to the Chinese Communist Party, to Hugo Chavez, or to almost any other strongman. Widespread political apathy is the grease that helps any authoritarian system hum. And in the smoothest-functioning authoritarian systems, the regimes have gone to great lengths to turn disinterest in political life into a public virtue. When that is the case, the Yevgenia Chirikovas of the world are the people whom dictators may fear most. They possess the independence and persistence to challenge the system, the dreaded antidote to the apathy that an authoritarian regime requires to succeed. (p. 71)

Chirikovas is one of many activists whom Dobson profiles in the book; and, for Americans who want to do something about the current state of America, Chirikovas and these other brave men and women can be great sources of inspiration and knowledge. As Dobson shows, they have thought about how to undermine tyranny, they have tried many approaches to that goal, and more than a few have succeeded in toppling dictators.

Just one of the remarkable and perhaps initially surprising things that Dobson shares about these protestors is how organized they are.

When we see tens of thousands of people on the streets in a foreign capital demanding greater freedoms or an end to a repressive regime, it is tempting to accept the narrative that we are witnessing a spontaneous act. That there was simply a hidden, unexpected spark that led people to pour out into the squares and demand rights that had been denied for too long. That, in fact, is seldom the case. Revolutions, if they are to be successful, require planning, preparation, and an intelligent grasp of how to anticipate and outwit a repressive regime that thinks of little beyond preserving its own power. When the tide turns, events may indeed move fast. But there is usually a movement or organization that put months or years of dangerous (and often tedious) work into making that day possible. The work that [the Centre for Applied NonViolent Action and Strategies, or CANVAS] and others do defies one of the central myths of revolution. “There is no such thing as a spontaneous revolution. Spontaneity will only get you killed,” says Srdja Popovic. “The more you plan, the bigger your chance for success.” (pp. 229–230)

Dobson shows the protestors planning everything from ways to spread their message, to which tactics to use, to which people to target, to how to persuade the children of generals and police officers to side with your cause—because their fathers “don’t like to attack crowds with their children in the front ranks” (p. 238).

Another remarkable thing Dobson shares about these protestors is how focused they are (or, in successful cases, were) on the things that matter most. For example, they don’t attempt to overpower a government that could easily win any contest decided by force. What they do instead, and above all, is work to reveal the regime’s illegitimacy—the very thing Dobson shows dictators going through elaborate motions to pretend they have. The activists do this, Dobson says, by appealing to positive values, by overtly focusing not on what they are against but on what they are for—which sometimes means they don’t even speak out against the dictator in power. Other times they reveal the regime’s illegitimacy by explicitly naming the nature of the regime, naming what exactly the regime is supposedly reforming from, and thus naming what those individuals who work for the regime are actually working toward—and what that means for their lives.

Dobson shares a memorable example of this latter tactic in his profile of Pu Zhiqiang, a lawyer advocating free speech in modern-day China. After debating his “security minders” about the legitimacy of the state, hearing their excuse that without this work they would not be able to support themselves, he tells them that they are selling themselves short. Then Pu leaves them something to ponder. He says, “China is going through a transformation. We’re about the same age. Twenty years from now, what will you tell your children you were doing during the transformative years?” (p. 57)

Although that tactic struck me as powerful when I first read it, I didn’t realize until I finished The Dictators’ Learning Curve just how powerful such an appeal could be. Dobson’s book is precisely a lesson in the principle that revolutions are won by means of such seemingly small exchanges as this, exchanges that appeal to people’s positive values. That’s how you get the children of generals to join the side of the good guys; that’s how you get the generals not to shoot at the protestors; that’s how you get the “security minders” to mind their legitimate business and stop minding yours. And this tactic is open not only to everyone living under a dictatorial regime, but also to everyone living under mixed systems, such as America’s, that could go either way.

It is no wonder that dictators (and would-be dictators) fear men and women of independence so much; such individuals have real, life-oriented values, and they will seek to gain and protect these values. And now, with the publication of this book, such individuals can further integrate their knowledge of how to do so.

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