Fighting Against Dictatorship (2018)

Manfred Kets de Vries

Dictators and how to disable them

From our Palaeolithic roots onwards, dictators have always been with us. We have always been attracted to individuals who appear strong. Some people are easily persuaded to give up their freedoms for an imaginary sense of stability and protection, not to mention an illusion of greatness.


Generally speaking, times of social unrest have always been the feeding ground for dictators. Periods of economic, political or social chaos give dictators the opportunity to appear as saviors. Although their populist demagoguery is seductive, most of their inflated promises turn out to be no more than hot air. So how is it that they’re able to gain and maintain power? This article explores the social processes and dynamics that underlie dictators’ rise to power.


Riding the confirmation bias: First, they are extremely talented at inflaming the “wish to believe”. Their cries of patriotism and righteousness resonate with people. Moreover, the unquestioning acceptance of a dictator’s rhetoric is rooted in the confirmation bias, which compels us to look for evidence to support our ideas and desires, while discounting contradictory information. As expert manipulators, dictators take advantage of this cognitive shortcut.


Identification with the aggressor: Dictators are also especially good at targeting socially and economically vulnerable people who often feel confused and insecure. They exploit their rage and frustration through the process of “identification with the aggressor”. The disempowered see in the “strong” man or woman the promise of a victory over their downtrodden state.


The blame game: Dictators are also adept at inciting blame and scapegoating. They play off the defence mechanism of “splitting”, by positioning issues in terms of in- and out-groups, and magnifying external threats to incite collective paranoia. Buying into the simplistic, binary propositions, their followers align themselves with the “good fight” and become intolerant of those they perceive as different and “wrong”.


Propaganda lords: To maintain their hold on power, dictators often seek to control information in mainstream media. Positive news is attributed to them and negative news is ascribed to enemies. During elections, they manipulate the final outcome by curtailing press freedom, limiting the opposition’s ability to campaign and spreading misinformation in the form of “fake news”. Dictators also try to weaken or destroy social frameworks and institutions serving as countervailing forces.


Who’s responsible for dictators?


There will always be people whose rise to dictatorship. But while it is easy to vilify dictators, we should also realise that, in many ways, we (the people) are the ones enabling them. After all, a dictator cannot function without followers. But by abdicating personal responsibility, we cripple freedom of expression and derail democratic processes. The good news is, however, that although we enable dictators, we can also disable them.


Creating a responsible electorate


In this light, we need to consider two urgent questions: Can dictators in the making be “cured”? And can we prevent dictators from assuming power?  


The response to the first question is: “not likely”. Historical experience has proven otherwise. From a clinical perspective, most psychotherapists believe that dictators tend to be untreatable.


However, dictators can be with prevented or held in check by opposing powers. The most powerful way is through a healthy democracy with a voting population that’s knowledgeable, mobilised and engaged.  Furthermore, the government, the head of State, the legislature, the courts, the press and the electorate should all be independent to provide countervailing oversight.


Striving for a better world


In his 1940 film The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin satirises Nazism and Adolf Hitler in the form of a Jewish barber who, in a case of mistaken identity, is forced to impersonate the absolute ruler of fictional Tomainia. At the end of the film, Chaplin delivers an impassionate speech for the populace to unite and fight against dictatorship:


"You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure… In the name of democracy let us use that power; let us all unite…


Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people… Let us fight to free the world, to do away with national barriers, to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance.”


Unfortunately, we are still far from the kind of world that Chaplin described. Many of our present world leaders are making a great effort to endanger the democratic processes. Narrow-minded nationalism, xenophobia, greed and unimaginable violence is present everywhere. It makes it even timelier to strive for the kind of world envisioned by Chaplin.


This article is republished courtesy of INSEAD Knowledge. Copyright INSEAD 2017.

INSEAD Knowledge, 2018

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