Doug's Darkworld

War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World.

Dictator Schmictator, what’s all the fuss?

with 8 comments


Following up on last week’s post, a few observations on dictators. The “common knowledge” in the west is that they are always bad, with comparisons to Hitler usually cited to illustrate the point. So of course if some foreign leader is labelled a dictator by the west, people immediately assume the worst. And not only do they assume that dictatorships are bad, they also assume that the people living under them automatically oppose them and want to see them overthrown. As part of this assumption, most people seem to think that the only way to get rid of a dictatorship is through force, I mean, no dictator would voluntarily relinquish power, would they? Lastly, it’s commonly assumed, and frequently stated, that the USA opposes dictatorships on general principles and promotes freedom, democracy, and self-determination around the world.

The reality is little more complicated. OK, it’s a lot more complicated. First let’s look at the idea that dictators are almost universally despised by their subjects. This usually includes the codicil that since dictators don’t hold elections, they don’t need to worry about their popularity. To start with, some of history’s most famous and admired people, especially in their own lands, have been dictators. Julius Caesar, the original dictator so to speak, was wildly popular. Napoleon’s grave is still one of Frances most revered sites. Hitler and Mussolini were both swept into power by popular revolt, Hitler in fact had something like 85% of the vote in the election that put him in power, and both to this day have their supporters. And for our American readers, a certain President Lincoln assumed blatantly unconstitutional powers in his efforts to reconquer the Confederacy. Lincoln was certainly a dictator by some definitions (and in many people’s minds at the time,)  yet he is one of America’s most revered national figures.

Then  of course the idea that dictators don’t have to worry about elections or popularity.  In this sense, the common knowledge is completely ass backwards. It’s the people who are elected who don’t need to worry about popularity. A dictator on the other hand has to worry about their popularity every single day, because if they become too unpopular, bad things can happen. And while the leaders of any nation to one extent or another have to be concerned with assassins, the problem is particularly acute for dictators. The Sword of Damocles hasn’t endured in popular culture for nearly 2000 years for no reason.

As for the idea that dictatorships are always bad and that force is the only way to deal with them, this doesn’t hold up well when compared with the historical record. In fact let’s review, in 1960 or so most of the world’s nations with a few exceptions, were dictatorships. Mostly right wing dictatorships. Salazar in Portugal. Franco in Spain. South Korea was a military dictatorship. And virtually all of Latin America and Africa, as well as Indonesia and other Asian countries. Not to mention Eastern Europe, virtually all dictatorships. Yes, during the Cold War dictatorship was the norm, almost always propped up by weapons from the USA or Russia. And yet somehow virtually all of these nations have some semblance of a modern secular parliamentary government now. Even more astounding, most of these nations made the transition from dictatorship to parliamentary democracy with little or no violence. And very very few of them were “liberated” by foreign armies. Actually, it’s not astounding at all, what is astounding that people continue to make the claim that armed revolution and/or external intervention is the preferred or only solution to the “problem” of dictatorships. The historical record clearly shows otherwise.

Lastly we come to the idea that the USA is a force for democracy and self-determination in the world, part and parcel of the idea that we are occupying Iraq and Afghanistan out of some principled opposition to dictatorships and tyranny. This one is so contraindicated by the evidence that it’s a little hard to even know where to start. So let’s start with 1953, when the CIA overthrew the popularly elected government of Iran and put the Shah in power, where he ruled as a dictator for 26 years. In 1973 we have the USA supporting a military dictatorship that seized power in Chile. And there’s the little problem of the USA’s support for mass murderous dictatorships by any standard in Indonesia and Guatemala. And today Egypt and Saudia Arabia, two dictatorships by any definition of the word are significant recipients of US aid. I could go on, the list of brutal dictatorships the USA has tacitly or actively supported is so extensive that it’s a wonder anyone buys the idea that the USA is some supporter of worldwide democracy.

Well, outside the USA it’s probably not particularly widely believed at all. Especially people who have lost family and friends to our efforts to “spread democracy” at the point of a cruise missile. In any event, that’s not the point of this post, though I will be getting back to  America’s flying death squads soon. The points were, well, as stated above. In a future post I’ll discuss Lincoln and his seizing of dictatorial powers as well as some of my favourite dictators. Lot’s of fun to be had here.

(The above image of Hitler and Mussolini is public domain under US copyright law, at least I hope so. At the very least it is an historically important image, it’s not being used for profit, and I’m claiming it as Fair Use under US copyright law. Yada yada yada (Which is in the OED by the way.))


Written by unitedcats

November 2, 2009 at 8:50 am

8 Responses

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  1. Back before the 20th century, the term for dictatorship was Monarchy.

    Mike Goldman

    November 2, 2009 at 10:04 am

  2. A Monarch is a hereditary ruler whose powers varied considerable depending on when and where they ruled in history, a dictator is someone who achieved power through other means and always exercises near absolute power. I don’t really see any similarity between them at all except that some Monarchs exercised dictatorial powers. The term dictator has been around for more than 2000 years and was never used interchangeably with Monarch. Even a Monarch with dictatorial power was referred to as an Absolute Monarch, not a dictator.


    November 2, 2009 at 11:15 am

  3. Nigeria is an interesting case for democracy vs dictatorship. It was pretty widely asserted by Nigerians in the 90’s when I was there that the most corrupt governments by far in Nigeria had been the civilian ones. Military dictators TENDED to be the ones who cleaned up the corruption.

    Further, it’s worth pointing out that in 1979 Obassanjo voluntarily gave up power to Shagari, an elected civilian leader. By 1983, Shagari was out on corruption charges, with a new military dictator, Buhari, in charge. It’s further worth noting that the first man elected to rule the new Nigerian democracy created in 1999 was Obassanjo … for their first civilian leader in 2 decades, Nigerians went back to a former military dictator.

    Lyle Bateman

    November 2, 2009 at 2:07 pm

  4. I agree with your views Doug.
    I comented on the previous post that dictators were a great way to get things done, no arguement about the way things should be done and by who….a dictator is a decision maker with a lot of power to make those decisions stick. What we USED to have here in America was a controlled and elected dictator with less power than a full dictatorship so you get the benefits of a ditctatorship with out the abuse of power. But presidents over the years have used fear to worm out of the controls, now all one has to say is “National Emergency” and its pretty much a dictatorship with no limits on what he can do.

    “He who sacrifices freedom for security deserves neither.”
    – B. Franklin (paraphrased)

    …..I’m not worried about Obama(just a marionette), I’m worried about the puppeteer…..


    November 2, 2009 at 2:50 pm

  5. Pyrodin123321

    November 2, 2009 at 3:03 pm

  6. A strong case can be made from a logical, historical, psychological, and sociological basis that a single strong leader in many (or most) cases is the best possible government. It’s certainly better than any sort of committee, where we now know that group-think will eventually result in disastrous decisions. It’s no surprise that deposed dictators have been elected, people respect a strong leader. Hell, Washington could have started a dynasty, they offered him a monarchy! I’ll post more on this, not only is it an important topic, in some ways it’s the only topic. IE “who runs the tribe?” has been a central issue for tens of thousands of years, we all live or die by the answer.


    November 2, 2009 at 9:35 pm

  7. Their was a philosopher (can’t remember the name) who figured out how to have the most just human gov’t/society possible, only it would take a little bit of magic or genetic engineering.

    Form a panel of intelligent, well reasoned people with different expertise. Let said panel work out all the details of their future society (gov’t, law, financial system, etc all). The catch is when they were finished and the final documents were signed they would be “killed” and “reborn” into their designed society. Only they wouldn’t know if they would be reborn male or female, what race, or to what class. Unrealistic I know but interesting food for thought, it would be in the panel’s best interest to make the most just, fare and balanced society possible as they wouldn’t know their place in it beforehand.

    Josh V.

    November 5, 2009 at 11:09 am

  8. I think there is a difference between a President forced to make tough choices to win a war, such as Abraham Lincoln, who was trying to preserve the union and eliminate slavery, or FDR, who put Japanese Americans in internment camps for their own (and America’s) safety, and a “Dictator”.

    I would believe that a Dictator believes in a continued state of enslavement or change in the Constitution, or it’s removal altogether. Take Hugo Chavez, the new hero of the Left (although Stalin, Castro, and Che Gueverra still hold a place in their hearts) who wishes to have a “Life Presidency” or who is shutting down the media he does not control. Or the fact he is taking (stealing) farmland from farmers to promote “citizen farming”, or that he is nationalizing (again, stealing) industry to promote state-run business. Few could deny this is pretty heavy handed.

    To glorify or minimize the name “Dictator” and compare some of our Presidents to Dictators is not very valid, in my opinion. America is not stealing the land which we certainly could by war–in fact we have put billions of dollars into rebuilding places like Japan, now a staunch ally. Can we be called “Imperialist” because of this? It is a pretty far stretch.

    Dictators spend a great deal of their time removing their county’s rights to the people, replacing them with their own power. And once taken, they do not return it to the people. They kill their domestic enemies or imprison them, do we? Not unless they attack our Govt outright. Have we made mistakes, sure. Do we regret them, generally. A Dictator regrets little, and takes all. That is not what we are about, or at least it wasn’t until recently.


    March 19, 2010 at 12:57 pm

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