July 12, 2002

ELECTED DICTATORS: Can you be a dictator if you took power legitimately through an election? Readers seem to be enjoying this debate, so I guess I'll weigh in further.

The short answer is "yes," and in fact the original "Dictator" -- a war leader used by the Roman Republic -- was legitimately chosen, though he was "elected" by the consuls. (But as this Roman history page from the University of Texas illustrates, the Dictator is sometimes grouped with the elected magistrates. The Roman Republic -- like our own system -- was far from a pure democracy). The Dictators tended to abuse the, um, dictatorial powers they were granted, which led to the term becoming pejorative. (This is a cautionary tale regarding the grant of extensive wartime powers generally, of course, even through legitimate processess).

Reader John Monasch writes:

Will the "Chavez, dictator or democrat?" debate continue? I contribute the following recent, non-Nazi example of a democratically elected leader morphing into a dictator (in case you haven't thought of him or others already):

Peru's Alberto Fujimori

Please use him if you continue this mini-feud (it's fun for the readers). This example also seems to back up Porphyrogenitus's claim that people would be more outraged if Chavez was right-wing. I'm definitely a Reynolds partisan but I think that Alterman may have the advantage in that, so far, Chavez cannot be completely booted out off the democratic leader camp and into the dictator column. He hasn't rigged or cancelled any elections (yet) a la Arafat and Fujimori and the shooting of protestors and jailing opposition has not quite reached dictatorial proportions (yet), but I could be wrong. I know he's tried to tinker with the Venezuelan constitution but it may have been through proper legal challenges; I don't know enough about the details to say for sure. He's very iconoclastic.

Alterman may be right about the label you used but you, however, have the advantage in the big-picture argument in that Chavez (former failed coup leader) is a dangerous figure and needs to be watched, if not overthrown outright. Just because he's not a dictator, doesn't mean his actions are defensible. If he makes it to the next election, he's toast and will probably cancel or rig them and then you will be able to laugh at Alterman. In the meantime, democrat or not, Chavez will continue to cause further misery and shame for the people of Venezuela. At least Fujimori did mostly good things for his country and is an anti-terrorist hero. Too bad he slipped into corruption couldn't let go of power in the end. I have a hunch that if conditions in Peru worsen, Fujimori's reputation may eventually be rehabilitated and he may even return from exile in Japan. Maybe not. He slipped pretty badly. But I'd take him, over Chavez any day. Alterman wouldn't.

Well, I'm glad you're enjoying this (very) mini-feud. We aim to please.

Personally, I'd say dictator is as dictator does -- and more important than whether he/she was democratically elected is the question of whether he or she can be democratically unelected. Chavez, as I mentioned earlier, is no Hitler. But he's hardly a posterboy for democracy and legitimacy, either. It seems clear that he's willing to do pretty much anything, legal or otherwise, to keep and expand his power, which to me is the hallmark of a dictator.

Another example is Robert Mugabe -- democratically elected at first, but a pretty indisputable dictator now. If you don't want to count him as a dictator, then it suggests that your definition of dictatorship is too damned narrow.

UPDATE: Lynxx Pherrett notes that no similar outrage attended the removal of the Estrada regime in the Philippines:

Both Chavez and Estrada were clearly elected, both convincingly ran as champions of the poor, both fail(ed) as President, both were ousted in mob rule/direct democracy protests; Chavez was reinstated after counter-mob rule/direct democracy protests while the EDSA III protests/May Day riot failed to regain the Presidency for Estrada.

That the Left is acting outraged over Bush's response to the events in Venezuela in 2002, after only mildly questioning while tacitly approving the Philippine coup in 2001, has more to do with their disapproval of Bush's Mid East policies than any actual concern for constitutional procedures and the rule of law in other countries. In 2001, Bush wasn't telling the Palestinians that they had better come up with some responsible leadership if they wanted to talk to the US, so both the Left and the Right could quietly watch a (mostly) bloodless coup in the Philippines. But now it's a little over a year later, the Left had to squawk about Chavez to maintain their front of "principled opposition" to any Administration pressure for the ouster of Arafat.

I'm not sure that it's concern for Arafat that's the motivator here -- even my cynicism has limits -- I think it's more that this presents an opportunity to attack Bush.

UPDATE: And no, this isn't a "feud" that Alterman and I have cooked up to generate traffic. We're responsible bloggers, and we wouldn't do that.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Boy, but if we did, we'd be geniuses, judging by all the email this has generated. Reader Robert Hochman writes:

I noticed your discussion of elected dictators and couldn't agree more with your analysis. Democratic legitimacy comes not only from getting elected, but most importantly from ruling and submitting oneself for re-election.

Without trying to be self-promoting, this is the very point I made a few days ago in the The New Republic online, when talking about democratic reform in the Palestinian territories. President Bush said that rejecting old leadership and adopting reforms is a pre-requisite to statehood. What he didn't say, and what he should have said, is that electing new leadership that implements anti-terror policies, AND re-electing those leaders after a fixed term in office is a pre-requisite to statehood.

Yes. I think that being able to get rid of leaders is a greater hallmark of civilization than electing them in the first place.