Dictatorships, as we are seeing in the Middle East today, and as we saw in Iran in 1979 and in the communist nations in 1989—not to mention France in 1789—have a way of imploding unexpectedly, the unexpectedness lying in the fact that no external event seems to have precipitated the collapse. These events belong to chaos theory: if you rock a canoe, it will maintain an equilibrium until at some unpredictable point you rock it so hard that it capsizes. So I will not be speaking of regimes that collapse because of a catastrophic military defeat, nor of regimes ended by civil war, nor of sesessions, such as the American revolution, but just of sudden collapses, unforeseen because there was no visible triggering event that might have been foreseen.
Over a long period of time, democratic and quasi-democratic nations change profoundly, but the change is gradual. Dictatorial regimes change in fits and starts, so that most of the time they seem more stable than nonauthoritarian regimes. They experience punctuated rather than incremental change.
There are several reasons. The obvious one is lack of information. A government that uses intimidation, surveillance, and control of media to quell dissent deprives itself of good information about the population’s concerns. People keep their concerns to themselves out of fear. Grievances are driven underground, to fester. Not having a good handle on what people want, the government risks being blindsided by a sudden explosion of repressed anger. Repression also fosters conspiracy; fearful of expressing themselves publicly, people learn to form secret cabals; they become experts at dissimulation.
Second, the leadership of an authoritarian regime has difficulty obtaining information even from its own officials, or more broadly of managing disagreement and absorbing and responding to criticism. Without fixed terms of office and rules of succession, the position of leaders is insecure: they maintain their position by charisma or fear, by projecting an image of infallibility and omniscience, and these sources of power are undermined by criticism, which is often implicit in “bad news” conveyed to leaders by their subordinates. Even without being critical, the subordinate who warns his leader about popular disaffection is implicitly claiming to have knowledge that the leader did not have.
Third, and again attributable to the absence of set rules for peaceful transition of leaders, authoritarian regimes tend to be conservative in the sense of reluctant to change even in response to known problems. If you do not have a good handle on public opinion, it is very difficult to predict the consequences of change—change may convey weakness, create expectations that cannot be fulfilled, empower the advocates of change, and undermine belief in the infallibility and omniscience of the leadership.
Fourth, and again related to the absence of regular rules of appointment and succession, the leadership of authoritarian regimes tends to be old and sclerotic. Retirement is dangerous. The leader will have made enemies and when he relinquishes power he is defenseless against them. By clinging to power he grows out of touch, and is ill equipped to respond decisively and effectively to a challenge.
Although there are exceptions (particularly in East Asia), authoritarian regimes tend to be bad for economic growth, and this is still another source of potential weakness. No person can rule alone, or by fear alone; he has to reward his key officials, and so corruption tends to be common in such regimes. Also, the military tends to be larger and more expensive than actually required for national defense, because the regime depends on force and therefore most cultivate the loyalty of the military. It is not that a large, well-paid army is necessary to maintain internal order, but that if the army is not coddled it may overthrow the regime, or fail to come to its defense in crisis.
When an authoritarian regime suddenly collapses, this is seen by the world as an occasion for rejoicing—democracy has triumphed. That is the response of most of the media to the current crises in Tunisia and Egypt. And in fact a sudden collapse often is followed by a democratic interlude, as happened during the French, Russian, and Iranian revolutions. But I emphasize “interlude”; there is nothing automatic about a democratic succession to a collapsed dictatorship.
Indeed it is likely that if, unlike the formerly communist nations of Central and Eastern Europe, a country has never had a democratic government for more than a brief period, the flowering of democracy in the wake of the collapse of the authoritarian regime will also be brief. Admittedly there are numerous exceptions. Russia is one, though it is less democratic today than it was immediately after the collapse of the communist regime. Japan is a partial exception, because it did have a parliamentary government before World War II, though it was never really democratic. India is a real exception, and there are others in Africa and Latin America. As these examples show, nations are capable of transitioning from authoritarian to democratic societies. There are many democratic nations today, but, apart from the ancient Greek city states, there were virtually none before the nineteenth century, and few before the twentieth. Most of these, however, emerged from authoritarian government by a process of evolution, rather than suddenly; there were democratic roots in the American colonies and Great Britain, for example, long before democracy became the regime of either polity.
In a country without democratic or liberal traditions, the party to win the first election and become the governing party will think it the most natural thing in the world to endeavor to retain power, by whatever means available, once power is achieved. And the party to win the first election might be whatever conspiratorial faction was best organized; it might have no commitment to democracy. So the first election might be the last. The old regime’s techniques and institutions of repression would be at hand to facilitate the takeover by the winning party. That is why the media’s celebration of the emergence of democracy in the Middle East today is premature, and why the Obama Administration is beginning to back away from its public celebration of what is happening on the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities.