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What happened when these 6 dictators took over? - Stephanie Honchell Smith


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Under certain conditions, the idea of a dictator can sound appealing, like when a democracy isn’t functioning as it should due to corruption or political polarization. People may believe the solution is a "benevolent dictator"— a leader who only uses their absolute power for the common good. But can such a leader actually exist in today’s world? Stephanie Honchell Smith examines this common myth.

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The myth of the benevolent dictator is a pervasive one that modern and would-be dictators capitalize on to gain and maintain power. The word dictator originated in the Roman Republic (509 BCE-27 BCE), where dictators were appointed by the senate on a temporary basis to address crises, as happened with Cincinnatus. Another famous Roman dictator was Julius Caesar (100 BCE-44 BCE), who took the unprecedented step of declaring himself "Dictator for Life." This move, which undermined the power of the senate, was one of the primary motives for his assassination only a few months later.

In the modern world, dictators have come to power both through military coups and elections. Historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat explores the common features of 20th century authoritarian-leaning leaders in her book, Strongmen, which she discusses in this podcast. Specific case studies are also explored in the PBS series, "The Dictator's Playbook." Some dictators, such as Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore and France Albert-Rene of the Seychelles, are heralded as "benevolent dictators" who brought economic growth and stability to their respective countries. However, both took steps to silence opposition, limit individual rights, and punish critics. Most modern dictators have not brought economic growth or stability. Instead, they have engaged in divisive rhetoric, enriched themselves, and their cronies, and left the masses substantially worse off. All the while, they invest heavily in propaganda to stay in power, benefitting from and feeding into the myth of the benevolent dictator.

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Meet The Creators

  • Educator Stephanie Honchell Smith
  • Director Avi Ofer
  • Narrator Addison Anderson
  • Composer André Aires
  • Sound Designer André Aires, João Pamplona Mendes
  • Produced by Gerta Xhelo, Abdallah Ewis
  • Editorial Director Alex Rosenthal
  • Editorial Producer Shannon Odell
  • Expert Consultant Ruth Ben-Ghiat

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