How Modern Dictators Survive: An Informational Theory of the New Authoritarianism
58 Pages Posted: 2 Mar 2015 Last revised: 9 Dec 2016
Date Written: May 1, 2016
We develop an informational theory of dictatorship. Dictators survive not because of their use of force or ideology but because they convince the public - rightly or wrongly - that they are competent.
Citizens do not observe the dictator's type but infer it from signals inherent in their living standards, state propaganda, and messages sent by an informed elite via independent media. If citizens conclude the dictator is incompetent, they overthrow him in a revolution. The dictator can invest in making convincing state propaganda, censoring independent media, coopting the elite, or equipping police to repress attempted uprisings - but he must finance such spending with taxes that depress the public's living standards. We show that incompetent dictators can survive as long as economic shocks are not too large. Moreover, their reputations for competence may grow over time. Censorship and cooptation of the elite are substitutes, but both are complements of propaganda. Repression of protests is a substitute for all the other techniques. In some equilibria the ruler uses propaganda and coopts the elite; in others, propaganda is combined with censorship. The multiplicity of equilibria emerges due to coordination failure among members of the elite. We show that repression is used against ordinary citizens only as a last resort when the opportunities to survive through cooptation, censorship, and propaganda are exhausted. In the equilibrium with censorship, difficult economic times prompt higher relative spending on censorship and propaganda. The results illuminate tradeoffs faced by various recent dictatorships.
Keywords: censorship, dictatorship, propaganda
JEL Classification: D72, P16
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation