Definitions

dictator

dictator

[dik-tey-ter, dik-tey-ter]
dictator, originally a Roman magistrate appointed to rule the state in times of emergency; in modern usage, an absolutist or autocratic ruler who assumes extraconstitutional powers. From 501 B.C. until the abolition of the office in 44 B.C., Rome had 88 dictators. They were usually appointed by a consul and were invested with sweeping authority over the citizens, but they were limited to a term of six months and lacked power over the public finances. Dictators were held to strict account for their conduct in office. Lucius Cornelius Sulla and Julius Caesar abolished the limitations to dictatorship and governed unconstitutionally. The Romans abandoned the institution after Caesar's murder. Modern dictators have usually come to power in times of emergency. Frequently they have seized power by coup, but some, most notably Benito Mussolini in Italy and Adolf Hitler in Germany, achieved office by legal means and once in power overthrew constitutional restraints. In the USSR the "dictatorship of the proletariat" took the form of a concentration of power in the hands of the Communist party. Under Joseph Stalin it developed into a personal dictatorship, but after his death there emerged a system of collective leadership. Latin American nations have undergone many dictatorships, usually by military leaders at the head of a junta. See totalitarianism.

In the Roman republic, a temporary magistrate with extraordinary powers. Nominated in times of crisis by a consul, recommended by the Senate, and confirmed by the Comitia Curiata, the dictator's term was six months or the duration of the crisis, and he had authority over all other magistrates. By 300 BC his powers were limited; no dictators were chosen after 202. The dictatorships of Sulla and Julius Caesar were a new form with almost unlimited powers. Caesar became dictator for life just before his assassination; afterward the office was abolished.

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A dictator is an authoritarian ruler (e.g. absolutist or autocratic) who assumes sole and absolute power without hereditary ascension such as an absolute monarch. When other states call the head of state of a particular state a dictator, that state is called a dictatorship. The word originated as the title of a magistrate in ancient Rome appointed by the Senate to rule the republic in times of emergency (see Roman dictator and justitium).

Like the term tyrant, originally a respectable Ancient Greek title, and to a lesser degree autocrat, it came to be used almost exclusively as a non-titular term for oppressive, even abusive rule, yet had rare modern titular uses.

In modern usage, the term "dictator" is generally used to describe a leader who holds and/or abuses an extraordinary amount of personal power, especially the power to make laws without effective restraint by a legislative assembly. Dictatorships are often characterized by some of the following traits: suspension of elections and of civil liberties; proclamation of a state of emergency; rule by decree; repression of political opponents without abiding by rule of law procedures; these include single-party state, and cult of personality.

The term "dictator" is comparable to (but not synonymous with) the ancient concept of a tyrant, although initially "tyrant", like "dictator", did not carry negative connotations. A wide variety of leaders coming to power in a number of different kinds of regimes, such as military juntas, single-party states and civilian governments under personal rule, have been described as dictators.

Roman Origin

In the Roman Republic the term "Dictator" did not have the negative meaning it has later assumed. Rather, a Dictator was a person given sole power (unlike the normal Roman republican practice, where rule was divided between two co-equal Consuls) for a specific limited period, in order to deal with an emergency. At the end of his term, the Dictator was supposed to hand over back to the normal Consular rule and give account of his actions - and Roman Dictators usually did.

The term started to get its modern negative meaning with Julius Caesar making himself a Dictator without a set limit to his term, and keeping the title until his assassination (which was itself largely due to Republican diehards resenting his keeping indefinite dictatorial powers).

Garibaldi as a positive dictator

Still, even in the 19th Century, the term "Dictator" did not always have negative connotations. For example, the Italian revolutionary Garibaldi, during his famous Expedition of the Thousand in 1860, proclaimed himself "Dictator of Sicily", which did not prevent him from being extremely popular in Italian and international public opinion. His usage of the term was clearly derived from the original Roman sense - i.e., a person taking power for a limited time in order to deal with an emergency (in this case, the need to unite Italy) and with the task done Garibaldi handed over power to the government of Victor Emmanuel II of Italy.

Garibaldi's case was, however, an exception which proved the rule. In general, the term "dictator" came to be a negative term, not a title used by rulers to call themselves but a term used by the foes of an oppressive ruler.

Modern era

Modern dictators have usually come to power in times of emergency. Frequently dictators have seized power by coup d'état as Benito Mussolini did in Italy at the culmination of his March on Rome. But some dictators, most notably Adolf Hitler in Germany, achieved office as head of government by legal means. However, once he was elected in office, Hitler gained additional extraordinary powers.

Mainly Latin American, Asian, and African nations, especially developing nations, have known many dictatorships, usually by military leaders at the head of a junta, either claiming to constitute a revolution or to reestablish order and stability.

In popular usage in western nations, "dictatorship" is often associated with brutality and oppression. As a result, it is often also used as a term of abuse for political opponents, for example, Henry Clay's dominance in Congress—first as Speaker of the House and later as a member of the Senate—led to his nickname, "the Dictator." The term has also come to be associated with megalomania. Many dictators create a cult of personality and have come to favor increasingly grandiloquent titles and honours for themselves. For instance, Idi Amin Dada, who had been a British army lieutenant prior to Uganda's independence from Britain in October 1962, subsequently styled himself as "His Excellency President for Life Field Marshal Al Hadji Dr. Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular". In "The Great Dictator" (1940), Charlie Chaplin satirized not only Hitler but the institution of dictatorship itself.

The association between the dictator and the military is a common one; many dictators take great pains to emphasize their connections with the military and often wear military uniforms. In some cases, this is perfectly legitimate; Francisco Franco was a lieutenant general in the Spanish Army before he became Chief of State of Spain; Manuel Noriega was officially commander of the Panamanian Defense Forces. In other cases, the association is mere pretense.

In Marxist ideology the dictatorship of the proletariat refers to an intermediate stage between capitalism and pure communism, where the proletariat as a class must exercise dictatorial power over the bourgeoisie. The term does not refer to power vested in a single individual, but this false interpretation has led to its use as justifying true dictatorships, such as that by individuals or a political party.

Modern use in formal titles

Because of the negative associations, modern leaders very rarely (if ever) use the term in their formal titles. In the 19th century, however, official use was more common.

Dictator (plain)

Compound and derived titles

"The benevolent dictator"

The benevolent dictator is a more modern version of the classical “enlightened despot”, being an absolute ruler who exercises his or her political power for the benefit of the people rather than exclusively for his or her own benefit. Like many political classifications, this term suffers from its inherent subjectivity. Such leaders as Napoleon Bonaparte, Anwar Sadat, Kenneth Kaunda, Józef Piłsudski, Ion Antonescu, Miklós Horthy, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and Omar Torrijos have been characterized by their supporters as benevolent dictators.For example some of these people have been democratically elected e.g. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

In Spanish, the word dictablanda is sometimes used for a dictatorship conserving some of the liberties and mechanisms of democracy. (The pun is that, in Spanish, dictadura is “dictatorship”, dura is “hard” and blanda is “soft”). Some examples includes Yugoslavia under Tito or Spain under Francisco Franco. This contrasts with democradura (literally “hard democracy”), characterized by full formal democracy alongside limitations on constitutional freedoms and human rights abuses, frequently within the context of a civil conflict or the existence of an insurgency. Governments in Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Eritrea, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela have at various times been considered régimes by different critics and opposition groups, not necessarily with an academic or political consensus about the application of the term emerging.

Dictators in game theory

In social choice theory, the notion of a dictator is formally defined as a person that can achieve any feasible social outcome he/she wishes. The formal definition yields an interesting distinction between two different types of dictators.

  • The strong dictator has, for any social goal he/she has in mind (e.g. raise taxes, having someone killed, etc.), a definite way of achieving that goal. This can be seen as having explicit absolute power, like Pinochet in Chile.
  • The weak dictator has, for any social goal he/she has in mind, and for any political scenario, a course of action that would bring about the desired goal. For the weak dictator, it is usually not enough to "give their orders", rather he/she has to manipulate the political scene appropriately. This means that the weak dictator might actually be lurking in the shadows, working within a political setup that seems to be non-dictatorial. An example of such a figure is Lorenzo the Magnificent, who controlled Renaissance Florence.

Note that these definitions disregard some alleged dictators, e.g. Benito Mussolini, who are not interested in the actual achieving of social goals, as much as in propaganda and controlling public opinion. Monarchs and military dictators are also excluded from these definitions, because their rule relies on the consent of other political powers (the barons or the army).

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