Here’s A Dictate: Don’t Use These Words Interchangeably
A “dictator” has “absolute power and authority” (Webster’s). That power and authority may have been acquired through a military coup, family succession or over time. Dictators do not hold on to power through free elections.
An “authoritarian” enforces “unquestioning obedience to authority” (Webster’s), but doesn’t have the personal, absolute power of the dictator and might be just the latest leader of an authoritarian regime. Authoritarians may enjoy majority support, though any elections that keep them in office are not likely to be truly free.
“Strongman” is a word that foreign policy wonks and journalists love, probably so that they don’t have to say authoritarian or dictator. Here’s something to remember: A male dictator is a strongman, but a strongman might not be a dictator. That’s because he (they’re almost always men, right?) may not have absolute power.
A “totalitarian” government reaches down into, and attempts to control, all aspects of life. It goes deeper into society than an authoritarian regime. There’s usually a dictator at the top.
As always, action words are better than labels. For example, describing Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte’s violent crackdown on drug dealers and users, and the resulting deaths of 7,000 Filipinos, says more than only referring to him as a strongman.
Contributing: Will Dobson
(“Memmos;” May 8, 2017)
May 8, 2017