Say you woke up dictator.
It’s a predicament in which I find myself.
It is, in reality, possible to just step down and say “new elections in 6 months.”
Of course, it’ not always precisely that simple. Doing that without other preparations can get you killed, or can destabilize your country.
The other members of your regime might not be so eager about stepping down.
Here’s how to persuade them gradually.
How Do These Goddamned Things Even Happen?
Regimes use the authoritarianism formed during crisis in order to entrench themselves permanently.
The authoritarianism is due to military necessity.
Sometimes you just have to deal with it a minute, while the military threat is eliminated.
But what if the external pressure dissipates, or is defeated?
Often a regime will then falsely claim the threat remains, to retain power.
Worse, it’s not always intentional. Sometimes the structures are formed, and then develop a lethal combination of self-interest and bureaucratic inertia which prevent self-disbandment. Sometimes a leader forms a structure temporarily, but then the staff of that structure keep themselves around against the leader’s will.
This happens to revolutionaries continuously.
Best to build in a framework for self-disbandment when creating any “temporary” power arrangement.
Form an advisory legislature that has no binding power. (Napoleon did this kind of thing, but as increments toward his absolute power; we’re trying to do Napoleon in reverse.)
What good is that? I’ll let the expert explain:
“Even in one-party states, where power is in the hands of a few self-appointed leaders, a muted but nevertheless active dialogue can take place. The higher organizations of the party can discuss policy decisions, and, in times of relative relaxation, the discussions extend to the larger numbers in the lower echelons and to publications reflecting different ‘currents’ – though only within the wider framework of the accepted ideology and the broad policy decisions of the leadership. The value of the dialogue that takes place in nondemocratic states varies greatly.
In the former Yugoslavia, for example, the Communist Party contrived to remain in control for decades while nevertheless functioning to an increasing extent as a semi-open forum for increasingly free, increasingly wide-ranging debates on major political issues; the press, though unable to assert truly independent opinion, at least echoed those debates. In the process, while there was still no democracy, the population evolved from subjection to participation, learning to scrutinize and question orders instead of simply obeying them”
— Coup D’etat: A Practical Handbook, by Edward Luttwak
Hybrid Regimes: Transition, Not Immediate Abdication
The French Revolution went from democracy, to oligarchy, to constitutional dictatorship, to constitutional monarchy, which effectively became absolute monarchy.
It was a perfectly incremental and graduated transition from democracy to monarchy. It really stopped at every little line on the ruler. Napoleon was a maestro of statecraft like that.
But again, we’re doing Napoleon in reverse.
A hybrid regime is one that blends and combines democracy and authoritarianism.
Sometimes they help with stability, but in the modern context, the main use of them is to provide transitional stages for a gradual devolution of power from authoritarianism to democracy.
Napoleon was interesting insofar as he claimed to rule in the name of the people rather than in the name of himself or God. This was a departure from prior monarchies.
As superficial as that might seem, it was part of Europe’s long-term transition from theocratic monarchy to secular republic.
Gradual transition is about mastering these fine distinctions in statecraft. Gradual abdication allows the members of your regime to psychologically accustom themselves to increased democracy, and gives them a chance to find their place in the new direction of society, rather than giving them all a sudden panic attack which causes outbursts, defections, and coup d’etats against yourself.
(The people who attempt this coup against you won’t share your commitment to democratic reform whatsoever, so stick to your guns.)
First, if things have gone so far that you are a literal monarch, you can become a constitutional monarch.
If that’s still too weird, then downgrade to constitutional dictator.
Again, all these differences may seem superficial. But they all create just a little more space for the population to exert itself, and to begin to think of itself as possessing and deserving rights. Each change increases political participation by a small, safe increment.
So now you’re down from monarch to dictator. Congratulations. Most people don’t make it this far.
Now it’s time to declare one of those advisory legislatures. You can think of it as your echo chamber for helping you think aloud in your rule, giving you an expanded support base, and an expanded base of collective thought that can help formulate wise policy.
But, obviously, we’re not trying to get stuck in transition.
Eventually that advisory body can be given actual binding power, once it is sufficiently organized, stable, credible, and legitimate. Continually give it legitimacy by holding dialogue with them while you’re dictator.
Occasionally you can hold some plebiscites as a safety valve. You give the people a direct vote on certain critical issues while maintaining power over all other matters. These can be used to legitimize a dictatorship, but also to ease the transition out of one.
The transition from an advisory to a ruling body can be gradual. It can have a specific quantitative timeline (6-18 months, etc.). The dictator can retain a strong veto over the legislature for a time, to make it even more gradual.
But eventually, this advisory body you appointed might actually become an elected body.
You can let the people hold elections to a legislature while still remaining dictator or monarch. This is similar to the Russian Duma or German Reichstag at certain periods of history.
This signals the transition from oligarchy to representative democracy.
However, in all technicality, even elected legislatures count as oligarchies. What do we do about that? Plenty.
So you’re on a roll. The people love you! You’ve become a democratic leader! They don’t even want to let you step down! But you have to, because you know you’ll be killed or go insane if you don’t.
You’re not stepping down for the people, buddy. You’re stepping down to save yourself from the people.
The people are savage animals. They will do anything. Protect yourself from their wrath through resignation.
So you want to throw them a last few hunks of meat to keep the anger targeted away from yourself.
Maybe you’ve still got some power left, institutionally. Hell, what’s it matter? You’re the ruler who is stepping down! Your political and cultural capital is massive right now. So make a few last changes.
Maybe it’s time to just let people vote on the laws themselves. Give everyone direct democracy, or even e-democracy. If you want to be a real God-Emperor, learn enough cybersecurity to keep the e-democracy webway safe.
Maybe you can give a giant middle finger to the rest of the ruling class on your way out, by declaring that all workers have a right to collective ownership in the workplace.
Perhaps a few last plebiscites: maybe this is the time to put nationalizing healthcare, energy, and finance on the ballot, as your one last proposal. Propose giving people all the free stuff they deserve: healthcare, housing, jobs, education, transit, basic income.
Reform the police. Raise a new security force made of rotating patrols of the people, independent of yourself or the full-time police.
Don’t try to carry these noble measures through as a monarch or dictator, though. The people will always crucify you for trying to help them. Just watch Life of Brian, or read the story of Jesus. As former ruler, you’ve probably got enough money to go off and chill in the mountains with well-paid bodyguards, good perimeter security, and supportive international contacts.
Don’t stick your neck out for people who will just use it as an opportunity to cut your throat.
Force them to fight for themselves.
Keep Your Time Promises for Stepping Down
Temporary power should always be limited by specific quantities of time, not unspecified postponements and delays. “Temporary” means permanent. “Sixth months” means actually temporary.
What happens if the time promise gets broken?
You’d better have a goddamned good reason, and be able to explain it articulately to the entire public.
Sometimes it’s not your fault. Sometimes things seem unstable.
But it might be your power that’s making them unstable.
Maybe, regardless of the conditions, it’s just time.
Power is a sham. Don’t fall for the hype.
What we really want is freedom.
It may take some power to defend your freedom, but too much power destroys it.
Don’t die for a cause. Live free. Step down.
Unless, of course, the people are being that terrible. Sometimes the people mistreat each other beyond what even you can stomach. Sometimes the Purge has to be purged.
In that case, it’s best just to remain a moderate, hands-off ruler.
Keep yourself safe. Don’t die for them.