A fluid study of how heavy-handed repression by authoritarian regimes has given way to more subtle forms of control.
Despite some reassuring advances in democracy over the last 40 years, from the collapse of dictatorships in Latin America, East Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and recent progress since last year’s Arab Spring, Slate foreign affairs editor Dobson sees a pernicious, no-less-repressive shift in the tactics of autocrats still hanging on. Old-style authoritarian regimes have given way to modern dictators who “work in the more ambiguous spectrum that exists between democracy and authoritarianism”—e.g., in Russia and China. In chapters that treat the newfangled dictatorial styles of these leaders (e.g., “The Czar” refers to Vladimir Putin; “The Pharaoh” to Hosni Mubarak) alternating with chapters on the increasingly savvy forces working against them (“The Opposition” and “The Youth”), Dobson travels around the globe, from Malaysia to Venezuela, chronicling his encounters with both camps. The tools of the dictator have always involved centralization of power, and for the modern autocrat no less, especially control of TV and newspapers. They are also more careful now not to upset the sense of political apathy, “the grease that helps any authoritarian system hum.” While Putin carefully maintains stability and order to keep his grip, Hugo Chávez of Venezuela cultivates popular chaos, stacking all government institutions with supporters so that he has amassed “unchecked executive power.” Besides speaking with plenty of brainwashed supporters of these regimes, Dobson sought out activists in the political opposition who have bravely endured terror and intimidation.
A pertinent work of journalistic research that will gain fresh meaning as authoritarian regimes both evolve and fall.