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Dictators Are Smarter Than You Think

Heads up democracies! We’re looking at the new staying power of dictatorship.

In this Tuesday, May 1, 2012 photo released by the Korean Central News Agency and distributed by the Korea News Service Wednesday, May 2, 2012, North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un, center, is applauded by military personnel during his visit to the Machine Plant managed by Ho Chol Yong in North Korea, to mark May Day. (AP)

In this Tuesday, May 1, 2012 photo released by the Korean Central News Agency and distributed by the Korea News Service Wednesday, May 2, 2012, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, center, is applauded by military personnel during his visit to the Machine Plant managed by Ho Chol Yong in North Korea, to mark May Day. (AP)


Think “dictatorship” and you’re likely to think of images from history. Stalin over Red Square. Mao before the millions.

Or of goofy images.  Qaddafi, with his crazy hair and sunglasses.  A North Korean Kim in high heels.

My guest today says think again.  Today’s most effective dictatorships, he says, don’t go in for the old theater and the naked iron fist.  They’re more subtle.  Savvy.  They use media, technology, cushy carrots, subtle sticks, even a lace of democracy to nail their central authority.

This hour, On Point:  the dictator’s learning curve.  They’re smarter than you think.

-Tom Ashbrook

Guests

Will Dobson,  politics and foreign affairs editor at Slate and the author of The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy.

From Tom’s Reading List

Foreign Policy “Dictators are supposed to be dumb, or at least crazy. Muammar al-Qaddafi was a ranting lunatic with a goofy fashion sense. Kim Jong Il had a weird hairstyle and a penchant for surreal sloganeering. Those generals in Burma were brutes given to consulting soothsayers on major decisions and shooting people at the drop of a hat.

The New York Times “It’s hard not to think about Tony’s woes while reading William J. Dobson’s intelligent and absorbing “Dictator’s Learning Curve.” It’s a book that intricately explores the headache-making complexities of being an authoritarian tough guy in 2012. These despots may well be on anti-depressants too.”

Wall Street Journal “In March 2011, a few weeks after the crowds had left Tahrir Square, I sat down with Sherif Mickawi, a former Egyptian air-force engineer turned political activist. He was one of the young leaders who had helped rally the people to overthrow President Hosni Mubarak. But despite the democratic revolution’s success, Mr. Mickawi was worried.”

Excerpt

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