The Rise of the Autocrat

Jake Miller, Copy Editor

Over the past decade, the world has witnessed a dramatic shift in leadership: the rise of the autocrat. Democracies across the globe have gravitated towards leaders who work to obtain absolute power, weakening legislative and judicial branches of government and disenfranchising the national electorate. The governing right-wing political party in Poland has erased the autonomy of the country’s court system while in the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has repeatedly forgone parliamentary procedure in an attempt to realize Brexit. Voters in the Philippines overwhelmingly support President Rodrigo Duterte, a politician who has pursued legal action against the free press and demands unyielding loyalty from all members of government. President Xi Jinping of China, with the help of an almost unanimous congressional vote, has abolished term limits on the presidency, hoping to maintain power for an indefinite amount of time. Both Jair Bolosnaro of Brazil and Narendra Modi of India have capitalized on the rise of xenophobia, using their populist brand to pressure other branches of government in pursuit of their policies. Some in the United States even label President Trump as an autocrat, citing his regular deference to nepotism and declarations of infallibility. Despotism is not a new concept, but to many, it seems to be rapidly increasing in popularity, leaving me with a couple questions. What conditions lead to the autocrat’s assumption of power? What dangers do they pose to modern society? And are things really as bad as they seem?

The concept of an all-powerful leader has been present since the dawn of time, but the first instance of one coming to power in a democracy can be found in the ancient Roman Empire. Fearing destruction in civil war, the Senate gave Cornellius Sulla, a well-renowned general and statesmen, a limited power of time in which he could exercise complete control over the government and military. This idea became known as “dictatorship,” and was originally seen in a positive light, as Sulla quickly won the war and immediately thereafter resigned his power. Ascension to absolute power is not much different today. A desire for safety and stability motivated by fear of an outside influence is nearly always the primary motivation for voters and legislative bodies to elect an autocrat. The ruler promises protection and a return to normalcy, and in return, asks for a centralization of power. Though senior Anisa Su fundamentally disagrees with the ideals of despotism, she understands the perspective of those who often gravitate towards it, saying, “Autocracies can be more efficient in times of crisis, when speed is demanded to address an issue.” These issues are rooted in national turmoil, in which the public searches for a savior and a scapegoat. Hitler’s rise to power offers a perfect example: Germany’s economy suffered from hyperinflation and Hitler blamed Jewish people and foreign powers for the crisis. In giving the general public a scapegoat and a promise of revenge, Hitler was able to rise in popularity, eventually obtaining absolute power. Though each despot’s rise to power is unique, all utilize fear in the general public to garner unchecked authority. In the U.S., critics of President Trump have accused him of behaving like a dictator, citing his capitalization on the fear of immigrants, and his numerous statements characterizing himself as being above the law.  “I think he would certainly like to be an autocrat,” says junior Aditi Pauls, “but thankfully the laws of the nation currently prevent him from achieving such a status.”

To many who live under the provision of an autocrat, their leader’s behavior is unproblematic. President Rodrigo Duterte’s approval rating, though declining, remains notably high for any politician, sitting currently at 78%. Globally, however, despotism has a negative connotation. A study published in The Leadership Quarterly shows that countries under autocratic leadership have overwhelmingly slower economic growth, in the short and long term. Rather than engage with the global economy and invest in research and development, autocratic governments generally ascend to power on a campaign of fiscally conservative economics, emphasizing independence and a maintenance of the status quo. As a result, these countries tend to fall behind in an increasingly globalized economy. Autocracies are also detrimental to the safety of the people, largely due to their reliance on violent methods to suppress freedom of speech. Journalists are particularly at risk, as governments in Russia and Saudi Arabia have demonstrated with their willingness to harass and even assassinate members of the press that challenge the current regime. Senior Hritik Arasu cites the covert murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, claiming that “the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia is using his power, which was not given to him by the people, to silence reporting.” Pauls cites climate change as another area of concern, criticizing the leadership of those like President Jair Bolsonaro, who use their power to unconstitutionally aid the fossil fuel industry. “Political leaders have the power to enact environmental regulation,” she says, claiming that leaders who act outside of the planet’s best interest endanger their constituency.

Whether or not the world has witnessed a surge in autocratic regimes is not up for debate. Political pundits label the past decade as a “democratic recession,” citing the global gravitation towards authoritarianism.  However, a report by Human Rights Watch offers a hopeful perspective, claiming that while autocrats have seen a surge in popularity, they have also experienced significant resistance in the form of protests organized by human rights organizations. The report argues that public refusal to adhere to unfair systems of government is at an all-time high, offering mass protests in Hong Kong, Ethiopia, and the Czech Republic as just a few examples. A majority of these protesters have garnered significant success, given that politicians will grow to understand whom their power comes from, and who can take it away. Pauls is optimistic about the future of world leadership, stating that, “the world is becoming more connected, it’s much easier to raise awareness about despots and their actions, so it’s easier to globally pressure them into doing the right thing.”