No matter what type of ruler a dictator is – a monarch, general, or ideologue – he (and dictators are almost always men) never rules alone.  A dictator needs to manage three key constituencies to maintain his power:

  • The military
  • The elite
  • The public

He normally does so in two main ways:

  • offering a combination of carrots and sticks (benefits for compliance, repression for dissidence)
  • building institutions to channel activity and opinion to support the regime

In this video, I will describe common tactics for dictators to handle these problem of authoritarian power-sharing (or managing the elite) and the problem of authoritarian control (managing the military and public).

Managing the military

Dictators all rely on repression in some form to maintain their rule, and often come to power through the military.  This makes maintaining strong relations with the security services essential both to ensure they can maintain power by controlling other factions in society and to ensure that the military does not try to take power for themselves through a coup.  This is called a “moral hazard problem,” as described by Milan Svolik in The Politics of Authoritarian Rule: “The very resources that enable the regime’s repressive agents to suppress its opposition also empower them to act against the regime itself.”

It’s hard to use a stick to manage the military – purges of the security services often backfire and lead to coups by disaffected officers – so dictators tend to manage the military through carrots and institutions.

Dictators typically lavish attention and funds on their militaries, ensuring soldiers have good career paths with good benefits – they will be fed even if the country starves.  They often also invest in advanced weaponry, as the Shah did in Iran, building the strongest and most technologically advanced military in the region in the 1960s and 70s. 

Rather than attempt to punish military dissidents directly, dictators typically create new security services directly loyal to themselves.  Having multiple separate security forces allows a leader to play them off of each other and keep one force in reserve to protect a dictator’s personal security.

For example, Iran created the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) to monitor internal and external security since the traditional military were not considered sufficiently loyal or Islamic.  Similarly, Saddam Hussein created the Republican Guard in Iraq to report directly to him, unlike the paramilitary forces and regular army.

Managing the nobility

The second key group to manage are the elites – wealthy business owners, the intelligentsia, and other key groups that did not necessarily get their power directly from the king.  This group is what political scientists Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and James Morrow call the “selectorate” in The Logic of Political Survival.  Authoritarian regimes don’t always have elections, but there are still people whose voices matters in choosing the leader.  The winning coalition – the dictator’s inner circle – are then those people who choose to support the dictator and are rewarded in turn.

A dictator can buy elite support through patronage – offering them (or their children) positions in government – and corrupt practices such as grants of monopoly power in an industry or no-bid government contracts.

They also are sure to arrest elites (or as in the case of Russia, poison them) that go too far in criticizing the government.  But direct repression is not the only way dictators limit the power of their nobles – they can also appropriate or redirect their assets.  For example, Venezuela under Hugo Chavez in the early 2000s expropriated private property as part of a land redistribution effort.

Finally, dictators also manage their selectorates through institutions.  Parliaments under authoritarianism do not represent interests of the general public – they are not chosen through free and fair elections – but they do allow elites to debate legislation with varying degrees of freedom.  By managing which elites are allowed a voice in policy and which are banned from political participation, a dictator is able to play factions against each other and ensure everyone owes their position to him.

Political parties serve a similar role — cooptation.  For example, in China, the Communist Party provides ambitious politicians a path to become a member of the elite.  Party members recruit rising stars and promote those that either are the most effective at their jobs or are the most loyal.

Managing the public

Finally, while dictators do not come to power through public support in elections, they do need to keep a degree of public support (or at least compliance) to maintain power. 

Authoritarian leaders can build public support through clientelism – offering food, cash, or local development projects in exchange for their votes in rigged elections – and through indoctrination.  Political parties can serve a role here, providing the organization through which benefits are distributed, and by generating political ideologies.  States control the curriculum in their public schools and can create a favorable view of history or politics, and often require public demonstrations of support to make citizens hesitant to express their genuine political views to strangers.  Finally, arrests of activists and protestors and limits on free access to information (whether through banning newspapers or limiting access to the internet) form key repressive tools.