Machiavelli referred to the subject of his most famous work as “The Prince” for a reason. Few, if any, revel in the title of dictator. That’s for good reason: dictatorships have always been horrific spectacles of repression, violence, secrecy, and instability.
The tribes are clashing today over the word “dictator.” The left is praising Bernie Sanders for tweeting at Trump, “you are not a dictator” (implying that Trump thinks he is). The right is pointing out that Bernie has praised dictators in the past. Who cares? Well, the term often comes to dominate foreign policy rhetoric during crises, such as the current situation in Venezuela. There is a burgeoning literature in political science that has taken great pains to be objective and scientific in its identification of “dictators.” Political commentators should consult it.
So, is Nicolás Maduro a dictator? Is Venezuela a dictatorship? This brief guide is aimed at helping you decide for yourself. Political science offers several ideas that can help in making the determination. The first step is to try and make a clear distinction between the leader and the regime:
Note: the terms “dictator,” “autocrat,” and “authoritarian” are used interchangeably to describe a leader.
Dictators tend to be more acceptant of political violence. Not in the sense of an unfortunately worded comment, such as Trump’s “good people on both sides” statement about Charlottesville, but more in the sense of tanks running over protesters and children being shot.
Dictators work to dismantle the free press — not via Tweets designed to provoke an immediate media flurry, but in the systematic dismantling of the rights that make the press free. No leader — dictator or democrat — can achieve this without broader support from the government.
Dictators tend to create parallel security forces, such as Maduro’s colectivos.
Dictators also work to stay in office for unlimited amounts of time, as Chávez and his successor, Maduro, have done by revising the Venezuelan Constitution.
Note: the terms “dictatorship,” “autocracy,” and “authoritarian regime” are used interchangeably to describe a government.
Dictatorships tend to have disproportionally large problems with corruption. Not in the sense of, “there are some corrupt people here” (there are corrupt people everywhere). But more in the flavor of “I can’t leave my neighborhood without paying bribes to someone,” or in Maduro’s case, the food-for-votes program.
Dictatorships tend to rely on relatively small numbers of elites for support. Of course, elites play an outsized role in any government. However, in dictatorships, they are curated and culled into a smaller and more loyal group. This is why Venezuela now has parallel governments, Maduro’s regime — recognized as legitimate by most of the authoritarian world, and Guaidó’s government — recognized as legitimate by most of the free world.
Dictatorships tend to support collective rights over individual rights. Whether it is the socialism of left-wing authoritarianism or the nationalism of right-wing authoritarianism, autocracies typically focus on supplying group benefits more than upholding individual liberties.
There is no definitive list or algorithm that can determine if Maduro is a dictator or if Venezuela is a dictatorship. Ultimately, that judgment is yours. But there are more productive ways to discuss it. The reality is that agenda-driven politicos often use social science terminology as a weapon to score points with their base — left and right. This needs to stop. It only fuels partisanship and discourages young scholars from engaging with policy.
There are no comments available.