Democracies Have a Remarkable Track Record of Rejuvenation – Charles Dunst

We got a chance to have a candid conversation with the author of ‘Defeating the Dictators‘, Charles Dunst. Recent turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East challenges the acceptance of dictatorships by their people. From Tunisia’s uprising to Egypt’s overthrow of Mubarak, the tide is turning against oppressive regimes.

George Ayittey, a White House advisor on Africa, analyzes the fight against dictatorships worldwide, highlighting historical factors and Western complicity. He explores effective strategies for establishing democracy and emphasizes the need to harness democratic institutions and grassroots efforts to bring stability to Africa.

What inspired you to write a book on defeating dictators, and what sets your approach apart from other authors in the field?

My experience living and traveling to autocracies like Cambodia, Hungary, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates inspired me to write this book. I wanted to explore why people are attracted to some form of autocracy, and how to counter that impulse. Most importantly, I wanted my book to offer solutions – rather than just detail the problem, as many other books have done.

How do you define a successful democratization strategy, and what key elements must be present to ensure its success?

Legitimacy is based on performance, meaning that democracies must perform to win public support. If Americans, Brits, Hungarians, and others do not feel like their democracies are delivering, they will be more open to new visions – like autocracy. That is in many ways what happened in Hungary.

The key elements of democracy, in my view, are strong meritocracies, accountable systems, and a trustworthy government. The government’s ability to deliver on issues like human capital and infrastructure – which is critical to democracy – will flow from having a meritocratic, accountable, and trusted system.

You mention the importance of civil society organizations in creating a robust and sustainable democratic movement. Could you elaborate on how these organizations can be most effective in achieving their goals?

I think most people are motivated by economics – they want money in their pockets, and are less concerned with ideological issues like “democracy versus autocracy.” I think civil society organizations would be wise to speak more about these economic issues and connect economic development with governance improvements in areas including transparency and accountability.

You argue that there is no one-size-fits-all strategy for deposing dictators. Can you give examples of successful and unsuccessful approaches and explain why they worked or failed?

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to strengthening democracy. I think the United States is currently trending in the right direction, with the CHIPS and Inflation Reduction Act being important efforts to boost human capital, for instance. But many countries – including the United States, India, and the United Kingdom – have a long way to go on issues like accountability and meritocracy.

Defeating the Dictators by Charles Dunst Book Cover

In your research, what surprised you the most about the challenges faced by those fighting against authoritarian regimes, and how can these challenges be overcome?

I was most surprised by the fact that many authorizing governments – like those in Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, and Vietnam – enjoy extremely high levels of public support. Trust is clearly no longer just a privilege of democratic countries. That is a fundamental change from the previous era of autocracies, in which governments simply repressed their people into accepting the regime. Many autocracies do still do that, but some of the more functional ones have won real public support by delivering for their people.

With democracy seeming to be in decline globally, what gives you hope for the future of democracy, and how can we ensure its survival and success in the years to come?

Democracies have a remarkable track record of rejuvenation. Our societies produce the world’s best innovations; our systems encourage positive feedback mechanisms that can prompt improved governance. But we will have to work for it. Democracy does not function without active, democratic citizens. Faith in democracy is not the problem, but faith in its automatic functioning is.

You draw on a variety of historical case studies, current political events, and personal interviews with influential people in democratic movements. Could you share any particularly memorable or impactful conversations you had during your research?

Singapore’s development is so central to the book because it is so unique. The country has no natural resources, and became the powerful, rich country it is today by having an authoritarian government that invested in its people. Certainly, democracies should not become autocracies like Singapore, but we can look at some of the city-state’s successes to make our democracies work even better.And because our systems are more open and transparent, we can make our systems more meritocratic, more accountable, and overall more functional than any autocracy ever could.

What message do you hope readers will take away from your book, and how do you hope it will inspire action to support democracy around the world?

I hope that ‘Defeating the Dictators’ will encourage governments and companies to invest in the institutions and communities vital to democracy – to invest in us, so that we, the people powering the democracies of the world, can believe in democracy enough to lay claim to the future on its behalf.

The interview was first published in Storizen Magazine May 2023 Issue.