A Conversation with Charles Dunst: On Defeating the Dictators

Charles Dunst is the author of Defeating the Dictators: How Democracy Can Prevail in the Age of the Strongman. In a world where democracy is in decline and autocracy is on the rise, Dunst argues autocracy is not the solution despite being an attractive alternative for those disillusioned with current democratic institutions. The only way to defeat dictators, he argues, is to have better democracy. The following are edited excerpts taken from an interview with the author on The Looking Glass podcast.

You suggested that democracies have an advantage over autocracies when it comes to innovation and economic growth. Can you explain why this is the case?

Innovation requires very dynamic social systems. It requires open discussion. It requires the ability to fail and the ability to try things and have them not work and then get up and try them again. [The] inability to have free and open discussions [bleeds] over into the sciences. It [bleeds] over into academia on things like math and technology. This is not to say, though, that autocracies can’t innovate. It’s just basically an argument that democracies have an advantage because we have more open systems, whereas I think if you allowed for open debate in China, I think you’d have much more innovation.

It almost seems as if the United States and maybe other democracies have fallen short of promoting and advocating this advantage of democratic values and institutions. What are the strategies for democracies to position themselves [and say] democracy works, this is how it works, and this is how you build institutions within these frameworks.

That’s the whole focus of the book. [I’m offering] eight principles of good governance that democracies need to follow one way or another to ensure that we are strong enough to serve two purposes. [First], democracies need to be strong enough at home to fend off the domestic autocratic impulse. And secondarily, to make sure that democracies work well enough, that more people around the world, particularly in the developing world, look to us as a model again. Where I think in the early 90s, people thought, well, the United States, the United Kingdom, [and] Germany, these democracies are so rich and powerful, that’s who we want to emulate moving forward. Whereas I don’t think that’s very much the case anymore.

Why is democracy declining? What’s the problem? That literature is fairly well established. What I wanted to do is offer proactive solutions, an aspirational roadmap of things like how do we restore trust in government? How do we restore our meritocracies? How do we boost accountability? How do we invest more in human capital?

You’ve been to a lot of different places and I’m curious as to how that has informed your worldview around this contestation between democracies and authoritarians? [Are] the lines blurred?

[Hungary is] walking that difficult line between democracy and autocracy. From the late 1990s through the mid-to-late 2010s, you had a left-wing democratic government governed really ineffectively. The 2008-2009 financial crisis really hurt them, and then there was this speech that leaked that they had been corrupt, that they had lied, that they hadn’t fixed anything.

Victor Orban used that speech to say look at the corrupt elites who have been lying to you. I’m gonna come in. I’m gonna fix all these economic problems. [He] has campaigned on that election after election. He has kind of hollowed out the judiciary. He has expanded voting rights to previously non-Hungarian citizens and ethnic Hungarians abroad, [also] making it much harder for Hungarians living in Western Europe to vote. All of these things have stacked the deck so heavily against the opposition that I personally would not call Hungary a democracy at this point. [But the lines are blurry].

To learn more, listen to the full podcast interview on Spotify, iTunes, or Buzzsprout.
You can get a copy of Charles Dunst’s book, Defeating the Dictators: How Democracy Can Prevail in the Age of the Strongman, via the following linktree.

Charles Dunst
Charles Dunst

Charles Dunst is the author of Defeating the Dictators: How Democracy Can Prevail in the Age of the Strongman.