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What is the difference between a populist and a dictator? The ancient Greeks have answers

The first basic principle is that tyranny is defined by the distribution of power within the state and not by ideology or behavior * The second basic principle is that power corrupts and the distribution of power determines behavior

By Edmund Stewart, Associate Professor of Ancient Greek History, University of Nottingham

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Maloney. Image:
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Maloney. Image:

Giorgia Maloney is the new Prime Minister of Italy. Her party, Fratelli d'Italia, received 26% of the vote, and as part of a far-right coalition - now controls a majority in both legislatures.

According to Stern magazine, Maloney is "the most dangerous woman in Europe". One of the concerns is that her party is a "neo-fascist" organization and therefore poses a danger to democracy in Europe.

Her victory poses an old question: how can one distinguish between a democratic populist and an ambitious tyrant?

The experience of the twentieth century shows that highly ideological and totalitarian parties, such as Mussolini's fascists, represent the greatest threat to democracy. But we can better identify threats to democracy in the modern world through a wider range of historical examples. The "tyrants" and "strongmen" of the 21st century resemble an older model of authoritarian rule: the personalistic dictator or dictator, where power is vested more in an individual than in a party or an ideological group.

The first people to examine the conundrum of how to spot a future dictator, and the first theorists of tyranny, were the ancient Greeks. Classical theorists, including Plato and Aristotle, recognized two truths that have since been neglected by the modern Western world.

The first basic principle is that tyranny is defined by the distribution of power within the state and not by ideology or behavior. Constitutions in the ancient world were classified according to who was sovereign (therefore a democracy is a state where the people, demos, have power, kratos). In tyranny, one person and his closest supporters have a monopoly on power and wealth. To identify tyranny, the key question is not whether a politician is a demagogue, but whether the way the country is structured allows him or (much less often) her to establish their power.

The second basic principle is that power corrupts and the distribution of power determines behavior. If so, the dictator - who has excessive power - will be morally corrupted over time. This diagnosis is first recorded by the Greek historian Herodotus (around 430 BC). Herodotus claimed that certain Persian nobles debated which constitution they should adopt (around 522 BC). One of those nobles, Othanes, observed that the lack of effective legal checks led even good people to succumb to the temptation of abuse of power over time.

Separation of powers

Modern data go some way toward confirming these diagnoses. Authoritarian regimes tend to be associated with higher levels of corruption and poor governance than functioning democracies. At the most extreme, "personalist" dictatorships (of which Vladimir Putin's Russia is a prominent example today) are characterized by unstable decision-making, high levels of internal repression, and external militancy.

The key is to examine the separation of power (or concentration) in certain countries. The overall health of democratic institutions, with or without nationalist politics, determines whether countries are susceptible to democratic decay. An important factor (as illustrated by data on regime transitions) is how long these institutions last. Established democracies are much less likely to move toward authoritarianism than democracies where new laws are enacted or changed routinely.

Ambitious tyrants do not usually remove institutions but prevent them from functioning properly. Populists don't trust institutions, dictators use them. In the ancient world a tyrant like Pisistratus of Athens (ruled around 546-526 BC) did not have to abolish the existing laws. One anecdote tells how Pisistratus was accused of murder and attended his trial. The plaintiff, however, did not appear at the trial. He panicked and closed the case. Dictators can act this way because they control who holds the offices of the state. They often also have a personal militia or coercive means. One of Pisistratus' first moves was to convince the Athenians to grant him a bodyguard. A tyranny is therefore a state in which the law does not rule, but the dictator rules through the law.

Ambitious and established dictators come from all backgrounds and ideologies

Modern analysts tend to focus less on the distribution of power and more on leaders' ideologies, public statements, and leadership styles. In Maloney's case, any resemblance to the fascism of the 30s in Italy is alarming. Many point to the origins of Maloney's party in the Italian neo-fascist Movement.

Ambitious and established dictators come from all backgrounds and ideologies. Nationalist politics does not necessarily lead to authoritarianism. While xenophobia is often a tool of dictators, Fratelli d'Italia's promotion of national sovereignty is also mainstream conservatism.

Viktor Orban's Hungary is an example of a place where the right-wing party (Fids) not only won the elections but managed to concentrate power to an alarming extent. The government has increasing (though not universal) control over the media, and there are widespread allegations of corruption. Judicial independence is now in question and illegal surveillance has been reported.

For an article in The Conversation

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