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Books: How the world has been 'made safe for autocracy'


'The Revenge of Power: How Autocrats Are Reinventing Politics for the 21st Century'

by Moisés Naím

St. Martin's. 294 pp. $29.99.

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In "The End of Power," Moisés Naím argued that power was decaying. The modern era was characterized by fluidity, by centrifugal forces that redistributed power away from long-standing centers of authority. Because of three revolutions — the more revolution, the mobility revolution and the mentality revolution — power was becoming easier to get but harder to maintain. The result was a tense combination of progress and instability.

Writing a decade later, Naím now turns to a new ordering of power by leaders unhappy with its diffusion. Naím — a journalist and scholar who was editor in chief of Foreign Policy magazine for 14 years — deploys a new alliterative trio (the three P's of populism, polarization and post-truth) to describe what he calls the revenge of power. This book contributes to a now-well-established genre explaining the global crisis of democracy. These books draw similarities between President Donald Trump and leaders like Viktor Orban of Hungary, Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, and Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini of Italy, all of whom came to power democratically but governed in contravention of the democratic process.

Today's autocrats are savvy, with new stratagems fit for a world upended by technological change. They exploit, and sow, distrust in experts, authorities, the media. They manufacture truth, invent enemies and use legal pretexts to consolidate power. This is what Naím terms stealthocracy: a way of maintaining the architecture of liberal democracy while gutting accountability and fostering public discord. He writes that "3P" power is "malign . . . incompatible with the democratic values at the center of any free society." Its danger lies in the slow way leaders transform societies that are already undergoing rapid change. Institutions may look the same, but the values, norms and freedoms that undergird them have worn away.

"The Revenge of Power: How Autocrats Are Reinventing Politics for the 21st Century" is wide-ranging in scope, providing insights into our current crisis without trying to ferret out a single cause of democratic decline. Naím is more interested in describing the array of economic, political, social, technological and attitudinal reasons that the world is primed for 3P power; the world has been "made safe for autocracy," he writes. Polarization, populism and post-truth are the critical strategies aspiring autocrats use to divide their societies and mobilize their bases of support.

Populism is a political style in which leaders claim to represent the "true voice of the people" against a corrupt and self-interested elite. While candidates throughout history have embraced some level of populist messaging, conditions today magnify its appeal. These include having a celebrity fan base and private control of the media, which allow leaders easy access to their loyal followers. Declining economic security also leads to dashed expectations, which populist messaging exploits.

Societies that are divided by economic inequality, or racial and ethnic tensions, may also be more susceptible to grievance-based political messages. 3P autocrats foster polarization, which then ups the stakes of politics. Post-truth, which Naím describes as the "rejection of complexity, nuance, and reason . . . the unembarrassed embrace of manipulation as a governing technique," makes it all but impossible to rebut an autocrat's outlandish claims. Further, social media and online news create an information environment characterized by "fear, uncertainty, and doubt" rather than expertise and fact.

"The Revenge of Power" is filled with illustrative histories of various autocrats and the ways they honed their craft in their rise to power. A young Vladimir Putin undergoes training at the KGB as the Soviets develop disinformation campaigns against Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson, fearing a presidential run. A young Boris Johnson, appointed Brussels bureau chief for the Telegraph newspaper, stokes anti-E.U. sentiment through sensationalist reporting. Hugo Chávez airs a television show that becomes "part revival meeting, part history lesson, and part revolutionary harangue." (As a former Venezuelan trade minister, Naím describes the eerie feeling of watching Trump deploy tactics similar to the ones Chavez used.)

Naím also acknowledges the ways democracies have failed to deliver. 3P autocrats find it easy to sell anti-democratic messages because democracies themselves suffer from institutional sclerosis and regulatory capture; former leaders have been imprisoned for corruption.

There is a sense of inevitability in Naím's narrative given the many factors driving autocracy today. Globalization and financial interconnectedness help autocrats (and their oligarch pals) not only accumulate wealth but also purchase influence abroad. 3P leaders have what seems like a foolproof tool kit of domestic political strategies alongside a new world of pseudo-internationalism, where autocrats take care to protect one another's interests on the world stage. They back each other's security objectives, deploy bot armies to destabilize neighboring democracies and even sponsor fake nongovernmental organizations.

"The Revenge of Power" also discusses the coronavirus crisis, particularly the way such emergencies help autocrats. Around the world, leaders canceled elections, controlled information about the virus and increased their surveillance of the public. Naím wonders if further autocratic control during a pandemic is an effective strategy and hopes that vaccines will help restore trust in democratic governments. Unfortunately, it seems as if the pandemic has only deepened divisions in democracies. Vaccine uptake and pandemic response have diverged along partisan lines in the United States, and vaccine mandates have been highly contentious.

Naím wants to be hopeful about the potential for little-D democrats — citizens and governments alike — to combat autocracy. He lays out five battles we need to win (against falsehoods, criminalized governments, foreign subversion, political cartels and illiberalism) and hopes that the world's democracies can come together to articulate the promises of democratic life. In his recent writings on the horrific Russian invasion of Ukraine, Naím has stressed this need for democracies to work together on global crises. The challenges facing democracies are worsening, with inflation driving up the cost of food and gas prices worldwide, climate change intensifying, and autocracies becoming more violent. These could present an opportunity for the world's democracies to come together, but unfortunately, they could just as easily enable further autocratic consolidation.

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Didi Kuo is a senior research scholar and associate director at the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford University.