Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman, "Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century" (Princeton UP, 2022)


Hitler, Stalin, and Mao ruled through violence, fear, and ideology. But in recent decades a new breed of media-savvy strongmen has been redesigning authoritarian rule for a more sophisticated, globally connected world. In place of overt, mass repression, rulers such as Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Viktor Orbán control their citizens by distorting information and simulating democratic procedures. Like spin doctors in democracies, they spin the news to engineer support. Uncovering this new brand of authoritarianism, Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman explain the rise of such “spin dictators,” describing how they emerge and operate, the new threats they pose, and how democracies should respond.

Spin Dictators traces how leaders such as Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and Peru’s Alberto Fujimori pioneered less violent, more covert, and more effective methods of monopolizing power. They cultivated an image of competence, concealed censorship, and used democratic institutions to undermine democracy, all while increasing international engagement for financial and reputational benefits. The book reveals why most of today’s authoritarians are spin dictators—and how they differ from the remaining “fear dictators” such as Kim Jong-un and Bashar al-Assad.

Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century (Princeton UP, 2022) is aimed at a general audience, synthesizing a vast amount of qualitative and quantitative research by the authors and many other scholars. The book is highly readable, with a great mix of anecdotes and examples along with plain-English explanations of academic research findings. However, it also provides an excellent overview of contemporary global authoritarianism for academics. Almost every claim in the book has an endnote reference to the original research for those who want to follow up. The endnotes mean that despite its moderately intimidating 340-page heft, the main text is a very approachable 219 pages.

Daniel Treisman is a professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles and a research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research. His research focuses on Russian politics and economics as well as comparative political economy, including in particular the analysis of democratization, the politics of authoritarian states, political decentralization, and corruption.

In 2021-22, he was a visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences and he was recently named a 2022 Andrew Carnegie Fellow. A graduate of Oxford University (B.A. Hons.) and Harvard University (Ph.D. 1995), he has published five books and numerous articles in leading political science and economics journals including The American Political Science Review and The American Economic Review, as well as in public affairs journals such as Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy. He has also served as a consultant for the World Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and USAID. In Russia, he has been a member of the International Advisory Committee of the Higher School of Economics and a member of the Jury of the National Prize in Applied Economics

Peter Lorentzen is an Associate Professor in the Department of Economics at the University of San Francisco, where he leads a new Master's program in Applied Economics focused on the digital economy. His research focuses on the political economy and governance of China.

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Peter Lorentzen

Peter Lorentzen is economics professor at the University of San Francisco. He heads USF's Applied Economics Master's program, which focuses on the digital economy. His research is mainly on China's political economy.

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