Leaders of the Year – The Autocrats

2021 was a good year for leaders who are autocrats. By comparison leaders who are democrats seemed hapless, feckless, disappointingly unable even to persuade large majorities of their own people that democratic systems are superior to autocratic ones.  Democratic leaders have, moreover, been unwilling to stand up to dictators around the world – leaving them mostly free to do what they want when they want.

Because the United States was the model of a democracy, it is now the most glaring example of a democracy as disappointment. Democracy as fractious and fractured; as unable to pass even legislation supported by most of the American people; as plagued by extreme inequity in income and opportunity; as riddled with petty players intent on undermining even that most fundamental of all democratic rights, the right to vote; and as led by a leader in trouble. One year after taking office President Joe Biden’s approval rating is close to an historic low.

Nor is the United States alone in its democratic descent. According to Freedom House, 2021 was the 15th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. Countries experiencing deterioration “outnumbered those with improvements by the largest margin recorded since the negative trend began in 2006.” India is a striking, example. Once touted as the world’s largest democracy, in 2021 Freedom House concluded India went from being “Free” to just “Partly Free.” This because the Hindu government “presided over rising violence and discriminatory policies affecting the Muslim population.”  Prime Minister Narendra Modi did his part by muzzling the opposition and cracking down on those who anyway dared to dissent.

Meanwhile the autocrats had a good year. Men – they are all men – such as China’s Xi Jinping, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and, yes, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Xi has swept China and now Hong Kong with his persona, his politics, and his policies. Effectively leader for life or, at least, so long as he wants, to all appearances he gets his way if not all the time then most of the time. Not a single domain lies beyond Xi’s grasp, not politics or economics, not education or culture, not the media or academia, not domestic policy, or foreign policy. Everything and everyone are being blanketed if not suffocated by the Chinese Communist Party, which Xi has revived as his primary instrument of power.      

Putin, meanwhile, has become Xi’s mini-me. Ever more repressive and oppressive, within Russia he has airbrushed history; demolished, or locked up most of his opposition; and tightened still further the reins of his power. He too wants to be leader for life and is doing what he can to give himself the option. Without Russia Putin has managed to drive the West nuts, most recently in Ukraine. Why is he making trouble on Russia’s Western flank? Because Putin longs to restore the old Soviet empire. Because Putin distracts from domestic politics by stirring up foreign politics. Because Putin wants to prove his manhood vis-à-vis the United States. Because Putin wants to prove his manhood vis-à-vis the European Union. Because Putin wants to prove his manhood vis-a-vis NATO. Because Putin fears being outdone by that other dominant autocrat, Xi.  Because Putin yearns to go down in history as one of the greatest Russian leaders of all time.  

Autocrats are not confined to the political realm – no reason they should be. The most outstanding example of an autocrat in the corporate realm is of course the inevitable, perennial Mark Zuckerberg. He too had a banner year – swatting away whatever came at him, ending 2021 more powerfully positioned than ever.  Notwithstanding an onslaught of damaging and widely publicized revelations about what Facebook had done in the past – courtesy of whistleblower Frances Haugen – Zuckerberg spent most of his energy on preparing for the future. His company’s name change – from Facebook to Meta Platforms, Inc. – was emblematic of where he was at. “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”

Once autocratic leaders are entrenched it is difficult if not impossible for followers to dislodge them. It’s why stopping them early on is critical, even essential. The insidiousness of incrementalism – unless, of course, you yourself lean not democratic but autocratic.  

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