Assessing actions and events of the past is the only way to confirm the ruling of a state by a “dictator,” so as to better tailor societal teachings and communal understandings on the topic.
Asking ourselves about despotism and dictatorships will help address the question of whether we are facing them today. The psychology and trends behind the rise of dictators is especially interesting and should be better known to the public. In schools, when it comes to learning about Hitler and other tyrants, they remind us of the saying “if you do not study history you are doomed to repeat it”. Yet, around the world we see the same pattern of dictators, but learn nothing about them. This should be something studied and known so that future generations do not dilute themselves to thinking there are no problems because Hitler is dead. It is because these scenarios are too close to home that they should be known.
“Dictatorship” is less defined than society has lead us to believe. Yes, it is a system of government where a dictator would be the overarching ruler, but it carries a greater connotation in today’s society. These classifications of rulership are predominantly from ancient times, such as the Greek and Roman Empires. As the world has progressed so has our use of this and other terms. Dictatorships are one of many intertwining systems of government. The closest term with distinct connotation would be monarchies. One distinction that has previously been made was the proposed categorization of “traditional monarchies”, such as kings and queens, from the “presidential monarchies” that we typically see with today’s dictators (Liden 54). Traditional monarchies carry a connection with religion that presidential monarchies often do not. The term monarchy has progressed as well, and today oligarchies are seen rather than true monarchies. The same is true for dictatorships, but the democracy they stem from also have a distinct separation, as will be discussed later. We see with dictatorships that experts are still trying to assess term. Steffen Kailitz, a German political scientist, proposed that regimes could be categorized by how they legitimate themselves (Liden 54). If the power of the dictator comes from determinants within the state, it is referred to as endogenous. If the explanations for the power are found outside of the state and population of concern, they are deemed exogenous (Liden 59). Gustav Lidén suggested that a separation of dictatorships, specifically from democracy, is that dictators use means other than competitive elections to dispense power and they frequently violate civil and political rights (Liden 63). Although there is no shortage of ideas on the topic of dictators, teachings and understandings on the subject are not well established.
Through these ideas, a new criteria of a dictator has been developed for this paper. The first point is the unconventional acquisition of power. Typically, leaders in a democracy and most modern governments acquire power through general, fair elections. Dictators, on the other hand, will acquire power using force, often by destroying political opposition. This is most commonly done through coups or assassinations (Liden 52). Another important factor of their rise to power is national stability, for it is frequently done during times of great instability. The second point is the monopoly dictators have over their domain. They will derive support from various groups to maintain control over the state, and their allies combine to be the strongest force in the region (Liden 59). This also ties into a profound lack of privacy, as they have nearly unlimited information on the state’s proceedings to match their control and influence of them (Hunter, 2014). These resources provide a dictator with total power over a population. The third and final point is that dictators have a disregard for political and civil rights. There is overlap with the previous points in this criteria, but it is distinct and specific to dictators because it is the largest influence of the connotation we have developed. Evidence of this includes violations to privacy, fair elections, human rights or safety, and economic structures (Hunter, 2014). Another way to describe this would be crimes they personally commit against their own laws. Actions of dictators that parallel these points will be used to assess the perspective that must be taken when analyzing dictatorships.
There are many ways in which dictators have unconventionally acquired power. Saddam Hussein of Iraq gained power using military action. He was part of multiple coups and eliminated political opposition (Fischbach, 2005). Muammar Gaddafi was part of a successful coup that put him in power of Libya. Once there, he immediately eliminated political opposition (Anderson, 2004). Manuel Noriega started his career as dictator of Panama through the military. He was involved in multiple coups, and was rumored to have caused the death of his predecessor (Noriega, 2003).
The previous examples of dictator’s unconventional rise to power are overwhelmingly events that can only be observed by a population as past actions. The coups and assassinations that brought Hussein, Gaddafi, and Noriega to power were only released to the public well after they were firmly in control of their nation (Fischbach, 2005; Anderson, 2004; Noriega, 2003). In all three cases, the coups, assassinations, and other eliminations of political opposition were not brought forward until long after they were permanently in power.
Total power has been seen in many forms in the history of dictators. Hussein used the power of the Ba’th Party in Iraq. He oversaw five intelligence agencies, which spied on both the populace and each other (Hussein, 2017). Gaddafi was supported by the Arab Socialist Union, which was the only legal Libyan party and controlled the entire Libyan government (Anderson, 2004). Noriega unified the armed forces into his Panamanian Defense Forces, which he used to maintain control over the civilian population and leaders from the military position of General (Noriega, 2003).
Although citizens under dictatorships are experiencing these events in real time, many of them are unobservable to the public or unable to be formally recognized or studied. Hussein’s security agencies were not well known to Iraqis, and the security agents themselves were unaware that they were being observed. Information was not being circulated, or it was quickly put to rest (Hussein, 2017). It was known by the nation that the Arab Socialist Union was the primary force in Libya, but the extent to their power and actions were unknown at that time (Anderson, 2004). The struggle for power in Panama was widely unknown. Noriega’s unification of the armed forces and his secret control of the nation was not known or talked about until close to the end of his rule (Noriega, 2017). The monopoly on the government was behind the velvet curtain, so to say. With the use of faulty elections and other means of illusion, this criteria is generally not assessable until after the dictator’s regime.
Individual actions of civil and political rights that have been disregarded are strong indicators of a dictator. Hussein publicly murdered political opponents. He established cult of personality and omnipresence, and spied on the public. He caused a genocide of Iraq’s non-Arab Kurdish population and invaded other countries (Iran and Kuwait) and committed war crimes. (Hussein, 2017; Fischbach, 2005). Gaddafi killed political opponents; abolished private enterprise; seized foreign-owned property; and dealt harshly with threats to his authority, including brutally suppressing protests, having campaigns of terror with public hangings broadcast on state-run television, and threatening anyone who fled the state to return or face a life on the run from the death squads sent out to assassinate them (a threat he did fulfill) (Anderson, 2004; Benson, 2012). Noriega was suspected of gun trafficking, money laundering, torture, murder, selling U.S. information and technology to communist governments and the killing of his political opponents. When these crimes came to light, Panama turned against him. In response, he suspended constitutional rights, closed newspapers and radio stations, and drove his remaining political enemies into exile. He seized ballot boxes for his candidate to win elections when the United States attempted a coup (Noriega, 2003; Noriega, 2017).
These violations to civilian freedoms are largely overlooked at their time of occurence, and studied as evidence of dictatorship well after they have taken place. Hussein’s actions with the cult of personality and warfare were known to the public, but the underlying reasons and happenings were not (Hussein, 2017). People were aware of the man Gaddafi was, his actions, and his threats against them; however, the information was not well known outside Libya, and unable to be discussed and studied within the country (Benson, 2012). Noriega’s crimes did not come to light for years, and once they did it slowly lead to his demise. It would have been unknown that he had tampered with national news and elections without American intervention, and the information was not well known until his reign over Panama had ended (Noriega, 2017). The individual disregard and violation of rights by a dictator is something that can sometimes be seen in the present, but the most serious of offenses do not come to light immediately, and are often either seen before the fall of that dictator or after they are ousted from power.
There are times when a hostile dictatorship can be identified in present actions rather than the examination of the past. When Saddam Hussein first came into office as president of Iraq, he publicized footage of his political opponents being executed as traitors (Fischbach, 2005). This was something that could have been taken at its time as evidence of tyranny. Similarly, any threat to Muammar Gaddafi’s authority lead to televised campaigns of terror and public hangings. Protests were brutally suppressed, and there was a direct threat of assassination to anyone who attempted to, or successfully, fled the state. As these actions were presented openly to his citizens, Gaddafi could have been classified as a despot at that point (Anderson, 2004). Indeed, many of the events most indicative of a dictator are available to public discretion at their current time.
However, a high accessibility to evidence of a corrupt dictatorship does not necessarily correlate to identifying it as such. One of the main reasons for this is how easily it is to distract the public from issues of ill repute. This is a classic tactic of dictators, especially with the development and global access to new technology. This strategy has been seen in propaganda from Hitler’s era to news reports during the American 2016 election. A more recent example is the attempt of Bolivian President Evo Morales to change the constitution in order to remain in power while hiding it from the public through a series of unrelated news and scandals (Anria, 2017). More generally, cults of personality are something that can sweep a state through a nation seemingly unrecognized. Wars and other conflicts are often misrepresented and their underlying purpose unable to be pinpointed. Thus, much of the evidence establishing a despot, though available in current time, is not analyzed or classified as such until later.