Why do they bother?

The Amherst News - - OP-ED - Gwynne Dyer Gwynne Dyer is an in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ist whose ar­ti­cles are pub­lished in 45 coun­tries.

Last week, Vladimir Putin, the Rus­sian dic­ta­tor, got him­self ‘re-elected’ to his fourth six-year term by a 76 per­cent ma­jor­ity on a 76 per­cent turn-out. This week (26-28 March) the Egy­tian dic­ta­tor, for­mer gen­eral Ab­del Fat­tah el-Sisi, will be ‘re-elected’ with close to 100 per­cent sup­port, al­though prob­a­bly on a very low turn-out. A quar­ter-bil­lion peo­ple are be­ing in­con­ve­nienced in or­der to wield what amounts to gi­ant rub­ber stamps.

So why do they bother? Both dic­ta­tors con­trol the mass me­dia in their coun­tries, so they can be rea­son­ably con­fi­dent that most peo­ple will not be ex­posed to much crit­i­cism of their ac­tions. They both can and do have peo­ple who op­pose them ar­rested or killed (and Sisi’s en­forcers also tor­ture peo­ple). Yet they feel the need to go through these fake demo­cratic elec­tions in or­der to val­i­date their rule.

Egypt’s pharohs felt no need to ask the peo­ple’s opin­ions on their per­for­mance as rulers.

The kings of 18th-cen­tury Europe ruled by ‘di­vine right’, not by the pop­u­lar will (and they didn’t ac­tu­ally ask God’s opin­ion on their per­for­mance ei­ther). But at some point in the past cen­tury, democ­racy has won the ar­gu­ment world-wide.

It has not won all the power strug­gles, and many dic­ta­tors sur­vive in prac­tice, but they are all obliged to pre­tend to have pop­u­lar sup­port. This is a very big change from the past, when tyran­ni­cal power was gen­er­ally based on a com­bi­na­tion of re­li­gious au­thor­ity and bru­tal armed force. Why, and in par­tic­u­lar why now?

The an­thro­pol­o­gists may have an an­swer. It is now pretty widely agreed in their pro­fes­sion that pre-civilised hu­man be­ings al­most all lived in bands where all adult men, at least, were treated as equals, and all had an equal right to share in de­ci­sion-mak­ing. They even had well-es­tab­lished meth­ods for mak­ing sure that no­body got too big for his boots.

These prim­i­tive ‘democ­ra­cies’ all col­lapsed in the early stages of civil­i­sa­tion, when the huge rise in pop­u­la­tion (from dozens to mil­lions in a thou­sand years) made it phys­i­cally im­pos­si­ble for every­body to take part in the dis­cus­sion about means and ends any more.

At the same time all the tra­di­tional so­cial con­trols that kept am­bi­tious peo­ple from seiz­ing power failed too. You can’t shame peo­ple into re­spect­ing the opin­ions and per­sonal free­doms of other peo­ple if the num­bers get so big that you don’t even know them per­son­ally.

Re­sult: five thou­sand years of tyranny.

But give these mass so­ci­eties mass me­dia, and they re­gain the abil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate with one an­other. It turns out, un­sur­pris­ingly, that they want to be treated as equals again. The first suc­cess­ful demo­cratic revo­lu­tion hap­pened in the Amer­i­can colonies in 1776 be­cause print­ing presses were ev­ery­where, and over half the pop­u­la­tion was lit­er­ate.

Now mass me­dia are ev­ery­where, and even the dic­ta­tors have to pre­tend that they are in power by the will of the peo­ple. It will be a long time be­fore they ac­tu­ally dis­ap­pear (if they ever do), but they al­ready rule less than half of the world’s peo­ple, and they all have to go through a cha­rade of democ­racy to le­git­imise their rule.

When the first re­sults of the Rus­sian elec­tion were com­ing in last week, a re­porter asked Vladimir Putin if he would run again in six years’ time. “What you are say­ing is a bit funny,” Putin replied. “Do you think that I will stay here un­til I’m 100 years old? No.” But that’s what Robert Mu­gabe, Zim­babwe’s for­mer ruler, would also have said when he had been in power for only eigh­teen years.

In the end Mu­gabe stayed in power for 37 years, and he was 93 and plan­ning to run for an­other term when he was fi­nally over­thrown last year. Putin would be a mere 85 years old when he broke Mu­gabe’s record, al­though China’s Xi Jin­ping would have to live un­til he was 97 to do the same. I’ll bet nei­ther one makes it.

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