7 Steps to Becoming a Dictator
A manual for strengthening your power position as elected leader.
Posted Feb 05, 2017
As a democratically elected leader, getting absolute power is no easy feat. Just look at Hitler, or more recently, at Zimbabwe’s Mugabe, Russia’s Putin, or Turkey’s Erdogan. Here are some helpful tips for a prolonged iron rule.
1. Expand your power base through nepotism and corruption.
This is not just a tactic adopted in third world countries. Scandals like Bridgegate, Koreagate, Monicagate and Watergate demonstrate that the powerful will always find ways to abuse their privileges. Be warned, though: You will eventually be rumbled, so corruption tends to work only in the short term.
The lesson: Make sure to surround yourself with loyal kin who you can trust to do what’s best for you and your family.
2. Instigate a monopoly on the use of force to curb public protest.
Dictators cannot survive for long without disarming the people and buttering up the military. Former dictators such as Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, Mobutu Sese Seko of the Congo, and Idi Amin of Uganda were high-ranked army officers who co-opted the military in order to overthrow democracies in favour of dictatorships. Yet democracies are not always more popular than dictatorships. In reality, people prefer dictatorships if the alternative is chaos. This explains the nostalgia for rulers like Stalin and Mao, who were mass murderers but who provided social order. One retired middle-ranking official in Beijing told the Asia Times: "I earned less than 100 yuan a month in Mao's time. I could barely save each month but I never worried about anything. My work unit would take care of everything for me: housing, medical care, and my children's education, though there were no luxuries…Now I receive 3,000 yuan as a [monthly] pension, but I have to count every penny—everything is so expensive and no one will take care of me now if I fall ill."
Indeed, when given the choice in an experiment, people will desert an unstructured group (analogous to an anything-goes society) and seek the order of a "punishing regime," which has the authority to identify and reprimand cheats. This lawlessness can be seen in hunter-gatherer tribes, too. When anthropologists visited a New Guinea tribe, they found that a third of males suffered a violent death.
The lesson: Any aspiring dictator who restores order, even through coercion, is likely to earn the gratitude of his people.
3. Curry favour by providing public goods efficiently and generously.
Benevolent dictatorship was practised by Lee Kuan Yew, prime minister of Singapore for 31 years. Lee believed that ordinary people could not be entrusted with power because it would corrupt them, and that economics was the major stabilizing force in society. To this end, he effectively eliminated all opposition by using his constitutional powers to detain suspects without trial for two years without the right of appeal. To implement his economic policies, Lee allowed only one political party, one newspaper, one trade union movement, and one language.
Socially, Lee encouraged people to uphold the family system, discipline their children, be more courteous, and avoid pornography. As well as setting up a government dating service for single graduates, he urged people to take better aim in public toilets and handed out hefty fines for littering. Singaporeans tolerated these restrictions on their freedom because they valued their economic security more. On this point, Lee did not disappoint, turning Singapore into one of the world's wealthiest countries (per capita).
The lesson: Restore the economy and develop large infrastructural projects that create a lot of jobs; it will strengthen your power base.
4. Get rid of your political enemies...
...or, more cleverly, embrace them in the hope that the bear hug will neutralize them. Zimbabwe’s former dictator Mugabe abandoned the unpopular practice of murdering political rivals and instead bribed them, with political office, for their support. Idi Amin, who came to power in Uganda after a military coup, stuck with the murderous route: During his eight years at the top, he is estimated to have killed between 80,000 and 300,000 people. His victims included cabinet ministers, judicial figures, bankers, intellectuals, journalists, and a former prime minister. At the lower end of the scale, that's a hit rate of 27 executions a day.
The lesson: Keep your political enemies close to you.
5. Create and defeat a common enemy.
By facing down Nazi Germany, Churchill, de Gaulle, Roosevelt, and Stalin sealed their reputations as great leaders. Legendary warlords such as Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, and Napoleon were military geniuses who expanded their countries' territories through invading their neighbours. Dictatorships feed on wars and other external threats because these justify their existence—swift military action requires a central command-and-control structure.
More than half of 20th-century rulers engaged in battles at some point during their reign, either as aggressors or defenders. Among dictators, the proportion rises to 88 per cent. Democratic rulers find this tactic more difficult to adopt because most wars are unpopular with voters. To attract support, the ruler must be perceived as a defender, not a warmonger. The former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher received a lucky boost to her popularity after Argentina, a military dwarf, invaded the British-owned Falkland Islands; she triumphed over her Argentine enemies. Another former British PM, Tony Blair, was not so lucky. Although the 9/11 attacks did much to strengthen his government, his decision to attack Iraq (ostensibly to defend Britain from a long-range missile attack) sullied his legacy.
The lesson: Start a war when your position as leader becomes insecure. Having generals in top political posts will certainly help.
6. Accumulate power by manipulating the hearts and minds of your citizens.
One of the first actions of any aspiring dictator should be to control the free flow of information, because it plugs a potential channel of criticism. Turn the media into a propaganda machine for your regime like Hitler did and Erdogan does now. Other leaders, such as Myanmar's ruling junta, shut down media outlets completely. Democratically elected leaders are somewhat more restrained, but if they have enough powers, they can rig an election or do away with meddlesome journalists (like Vladimir Putin's Russia) or, if money is no object, build their own media empire.
Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi owned nearly half the Italian media, encompassing national television channels, radio stations, newspapers and magazines. Unsurprisingly, these outlets carefully managed Berlusconi's public image and shielded him from criticism. Aspiring dictators should note that muzzling the media is most effective in an ordered society: A 2007 poll of more than 11,000 people in 14 countries, on behalf of the BBC, found that 40 per cent of respondents across countries from India to Finland thought social harmony was more important than press freedom.
The lesson: Control the media or, even better, own the media. It’s as simple as that.
7. Create an ideology to justify an exalted position.
Throughout history, leaders have used—or in some cases invented—an ideology to legitimize their power. In the original chiefdoms like Hawaii, the chiefs were both political leaders and priests, who claimed to be communicating with the gods in order to bring about a generous harvest. Conveniently, this ideology often passed as an explanation of why the chief should occupy the role for life, and why the post should pass to the chief's descendants. Accordingly, these chiefdoms spent much time and effort building temples and other religious institutions, to give a formal structure to the chief's power.
Henry VIII of England started his own religion when the Pope refused to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. He created the Church of England, appointed himself Supreme Head and granted his own annulment. Other ideologies include personality cults such as Mao-ism or Stalinism; some serve to unite a nation divided by ethnicity, religion or language.
The lesson: Build buildings and erect statues in your honor, and get the Church on your side.
This blog post was written with science journalist Anjana Ahuja. A longer version appeared in our book: Naturally Selected: The Evolutionary Science of Leadership. Harper Business.