Spot the Dictator

After reviewing the histories of dictatorial regimes from all around the world, what lessons can we learn?

In the past few years, several institutions have published lists enumerating various signs that point to dictatorial tendencies in our leaders. In democratic states around the world, rulers may emerge promoting an authoritarian style of leadership that diminishes the rights and freedoms of their people–whether they call it a dictatorship or not.

Drawing insights from various historical instances of authoritarianism as well as our own Philippine experience, what signs can we Filipinos keep an eye out for to protect our democracy?



No dictator claims power by promising to cause the nation harm; instead, they swing in the direction of the opposite extreme and promise the nation’s salvation. Watch out for leaders who promise to single-handedly solve the nation’s problems; they are lying. This means they either have a simplistic view of complex social issues, or are simply preying upon citizens’ frustrations and offering an unrealistic, quick fix to latch onto power. Often, this messianic complex manifests as justification for the indefinite expansion and extension of the dictator’s rule. When a leader tries to convince you only they can solve the nation’s problems, it probably means they are far from likely to do so. Only working closely with its institutions and diverse viewpoints can a nation move forward together.



The enemy of a dictator is not just dissent, but its mere possibility. Watch out for leaders who go beyond fair argument, and seek to shut down the credibility of their opposition’s very person. Democracies are built on dialogue: to hold power in a democratic society thus includes and even necessitates criticism, as this is what allows leaders to consider new ways of seeing things and potential flaws in their existing perspectives. In a society composed of millions of voices, to demonize one’s political detractors thus reveals a leader’s greater hunger for power itself, over a genuine desire to use it in a way that best serves their citizens.



Parallel with their desire to silence the opposition and offer simplistic solutions to the nation’s ills, the dictator will typically resort to focusing their accusatory rhetoric on a specific sector of society. Such a technique is called scapegoating, after the ancient tradition of sacrificing an animal to atone for a community’s collective sins. Again, such attributions are a form of deception: responsibility for any instability or threat a nation faces does not fall on any one individual or group. Watch out for leaders that trumpet such views of society, as this often leads to the violation of people’s rights and the trivialization of life. Democracy exists not only for the majority, but for the dignity of all.



As much as a dictator may desire a monopoly of power, the plunder of a nation remains a complicated task for any one leader. For this reason, dictatorships often flourish with the additional operation of a network of cronyism and corruption. Dictators enlist the assistance of men and women who have obtained their favor, and these favorites become the dictator’s proxies in dividing amongst themselves the nation’s provinces and economic wealth. Watch out for such networks, as the violations of the law and the destruction of the nation’s resources and institutions mean nothing if it means they stay in power. In the end, it is the ordinary Filipino who suffers most.



Because the dictator cannot stand dissent, they will claim that a good citizen is an obedient citizen. Watch out for leaders who claim that discipline means silently following the dictates of the state—without need for an explanation or tolerance for questioning. This is what the dictator wants: such a citizenry allows him to abuse his power without resistance. On the other hand, an engaged citizen obeys laws with a clear understanding of why these laws are set in place. Thus, the engaged citizen knows that laws may outlive their usefulness and that everyone plays a part in ensuring the rules of society exist for the right reasons. It is not blind discipline that makes a good citizen; only the dictator believes and benefits from this. For society to truly flourish, we need our eyes wide open.



 Truth is the people’s first defense against a dictatorship. Truth is the basis by which citizens engage their leaders and evaluate whether power is being genuinely used for the leader’s own benefit or in the nation’s service. Thus, the most insidious power a dictator can exercise is control over the sources of truth. Watch out for any attempt to shut down the media under any circumstance: dictatorial regimes all over the world have shut down independent press and put up their own centralized media outlets to control the public version of reality. This is the height of a dictator’s arrogance and betrayal of public trust, as not only are their actions hidden from scrutiny by the international community and their own people. By eliminating the public record, they also cripple the nation’s ability to remember its own pain in forging ahead toward a brighter future.


  1. Arendt, H. (1951). The origins of totalitarianism. New York: The World Publishing Company.


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