Over the past two years, one tyrant after the next has been driven from power, if not slain, and democracy has appeared to take root in places—from Egypt to Libya and Myanmar—once considered resistant to its promise. Some world leaders and political scientists, such as Carl Gershman of America's democracy promotion group National Endowment for Democracy, have predicted the Arab uprisings are part of a "fourth wave" of democratization, following waves of change that occurred first in the West, then in southern Europe and Asia, and then in many regions following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
William Dobson's new book, The Dictator's Learning Curve, is a bracing correction to such optimism. Traveling through some of the key battlegrounds for democracy—China, Egypt, Venezuela, Russia—Dobson, now a foreign policy editor at Slate, shows that while democratic protest movements are learning from each other, authoritarian regimes are adapting, too, and forging uniquely 21st century types of dictatorship. In these new regimes, autocrats such as Vladimir Putin, Hugo Chavez, and Hu Jintao co-opt the forms of democracy—elections, nongovernmental organizations, a seemingly free Internet and social media—but use these processes to reinforce their authority. The appearance of democracy is projected to the world and even to their own publics, yet they continue to dominate the state, without the thuggish repression of old-style rulers like Muammar Qadaffi or Joseph Stalin.