The Autocrats Strike Back?

Gideon Rachman, The Age of the Strongman: How the Cult of the Leader Threatens Democracy Around the World, New York: Other Press, 2022, 278pp., $27.99.

Moisés Naím, The Revenge of Power: How Autocrats are Reinventing Politics for the 21st Century, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2022, 294pp., $29.99.

After the Cold War, hopes ran high for the triumph of liberal democracy at the “end of history.” Thirty years later, that triumph has receded into the much more distant future. It is by now a commonplace idea that democracy is on the run, suffering setbacks in countries around the globe and threatened by an upsurge in authoritarian sentiment. In this context, Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has been a kind of coming-out party for autocracy. To be sure, the party has not gone quite as expected; nevertheless, that it happened at all reflects a certain self-confidence, a sense that the moment had arrived when autocracy no longer required the velvet glove.

Even before Russia’s invasion, analysts were seeking to understand the rise of right-wing populism and autocratic impulses. In recent years writers such as Yascha Mounk, Timothy Snyder, and Anne Applebaum have offered explanations for this phenomenon. The past few months have seen two important additions to this literature by high-profile commentators. Gideon Rachman, who previously wrote for The Economist and since 2006 has been chief foreign affairs commentator for the Financial Times, explores the rise of autocratic politicians in The Age of the Strongman, while economist Moisés Naím, who edited Foreign Policy for over a decade and is now a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, examines the factors that have facilitated autocracy’s global revival in The Revenge of Power. (One can hear the two of them discuss populism in Latin America on a recent edition of Rachman’s podcast, the Rachman Review.)

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