Let’s talk about Spin Dictators: The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century (Princeton Univ. Press, 2022) by Sergei Guriev (an economist) and Daniel Treisman (a political scientist). After I checked it out from my local library a month ago, I discovered it was on one of those “ten best books of 2022” lists, so I paid a little more attention to it. It’s an easy book to summarize, then I’ll get to the Mo app.
The thesis is simple: During most of the 20th century, authoritarian leaders relied on fear and force to retain power, suppress critics, and deter dissenters. For internal opponents, if intimidation and harrassment don’t work, just throw them in jail or kill them. One party states with tightly controlled elections, if any. Foreign policy was generally a mixture of bluster, threats, and aggression. But as the 21st century dawned, increasingly a softer form of authoritarian control emerged: spin. Manipulate public opinion by skillful use of the media and disinformation. Allow weak opposition parties and elections, which the ruling party wins by 65% or 75%, not the 99% often seen in fear-driven authoritarian regimes. Use landslide election results as justification for fiddling with constitutional arrangements (reduce limits on power) and election procedures (gerrymandering, etc.).
Most of the book fleshes out this simple argument with data and lots of examples. Consider Russia in the early 2000s, where Putin won two elections, then stood down. There were opposition parties, some press freedom, and so forth. Only recently, in the wake of the catastrophe in Ukraine, have Russia and Putin tightened the screws and reverted to fear-based rule and violent enforcement. In many other countries the softer spin approach is successful and enduring.
It’s apparently fairly easy for a spin dictator to convince most of that nation’s populace that rigged elections, corruption, and misinformation are no different in the home country than anywhere else. Recent US experience certainly makes that an easier argument. We’ve got plenty of gerrymandering. Political contributions can be a little shady. Candidates and government alike try to manipulate citizen opinion through advertising and misinformation. A shady third-world spin dictator can even point to America and say (often truthfully!) “Sure, there’s some corruption in my government and lots of misinformation circulates in our newspapers and websites, but at least I don’t send thousands of enraged followers to march on the capitol and threaten to harm or even kill my vice president and our legislators!” Bottom line: It’s an enlightening book that will make you more aware of what’s going on in the world. It helps you understand, for example, why pre-Ukraine Putin had amazingly high approval ratings in apparently legit polls for many years in Russia.
I’m not going to leap directly to the obvious extrapolation to the LDS scenario. That would be misleading, I think. Governments have vastly more power and more incentive to engage in these tactics, whether fear or spin. But the general tactic of manipulating opinion by controlling the media and, more recently, by using social media for widespread misinformation campaigns is not limited to governments. Corporations and companies do it, in legit advertising, product placements in the shows and movies you watch, infomercials, and so forth. The military does it, glamorizing the jobs of soldiers and sailors in order to boost volunteer recruitment. Sports teams do it to energize the fan base and sell more tickets. Churches might be on the most restrained end of the spectrum when it comes to PR and manipulation. But the LDS Church is, among churches, one of the most active. So, without overstating the case, let’s look at a few examples, likening some of the spin tactics discussed in the book with similar things the Church does. I’m pulling most of these illustrations from Chapter 5, “Democracy for Dictators.”
Elections. In a free democracy, fair elections actually elect representatives and presidents. In the US, we even elect judges. In a spin dictatorship, a well-managed election is used to reinforce the power and credibility of the ruling party, justify changes in the constitution and election procedures, mobilize and engage the electorate, and give a veneer of democracy (the fair election type) to the outside world. If the opposition gets 35% of the vote, it looks a little bit fair, doesn’t it? But the primary purpose of truly fair elections, to throw the bums out, rarely if ever happens in the managed elections of a spin dictatorship. The same word (“election”) describes significantly different processes.
Think about LDS sustaining votes, both local and general as done in General Conference. First, it’s not really a vote (so right off the bat the term used to describe it is designed to mislead). It gives the membership a vague feeling they have chosen their leader (they don’t). It constitutes a degree of participation by the membership. It helps leaders identify dissenters and troublemakers, anyone bold or foolish enough to vote “no” before their fellow members in the public ritual. It gives every leader some faux leverage over the members: “You sustained me, so you ought to honor that commitment by agree to teach in Primary or work with the youth or be the new ward clerk.” LDS votes are a lot more like spin dictator votes than fair democracy votes.
Polling. You think only candidates in fair and competitive democratic elections need polling? Apparently spin dictators do more polling than candidates and pols in fair democracies. They don’t need to just get elected, they need to constantly manage their citizens, tracking dissent and mere dissatisfaction, gaging what new (crooked) initiatives the ruling party can get away with, making sure citizen unhappiness never reaches the boiling point that leads to mass demonstrations and rioting.
Now it turns out the LDS Church does a lot of proprietary polling. By that I mean not just following public polling by Pew and other organizations, but doing their own internal polling of the membership. The results are closely held, not made publicly available. Your tithing dollars fund the whole ongoing operation, but the results are for the benefit of the leadership, not the membership. Just like spin dictators, they track member happiness or dissatisfaction in general as well as on specific issues. Have you ever heard a GA in General Conference discuss an internal polling result, or even acknowledge that such polling is conducted? Wouldn’t it be interesting to see some of the results?
Disinformation, Misinformation, No Information. I don’t think we can talk about blatant LDS disinformation campaigns that compare with what governments do. And your life is fairly saturated with disinformation already, from all directions, from your social media feed to commercials to the packaging on just about anything you buy at the store. I guess the first thing to call out about LDS information/disinformation is how little information the leadership releases to the rank and file nobodies like you and me. Do they release annual tithing revenue? Annual investment holding or gains? The number of resignations or excommunications in a year? What’s hiding in the First Presidency safe or vault? Not just the number of missionaries serving, but how many missionaries die or are injured in the field or who return home for mental challenges or who just flat out quit? Financial support, however defined, for leaders? The various committees and departments that actually run the Church? Have you ever seen an actual org chart for the Church? (As opposed to a list of apostles and seventies, which are priesthood offices, not functional positions in the actual operating structure of the Church.) The leadership possesses and uses all of this information and more.
As opposed to disinformation or misinformation, the biggest fault of the Church is missing information and no information. We’ll tell you what you need to know, which is very little, and don’t ask questions. Several years ago, I visited a UU (Unitarian Universalist) congregation two or three times on Sunday. I learned more about the finances of that congregation in three visits than for any LDS ward I ever attended. That’s because I happened to be there on the Sunday when the pastor did the annual financial review. He put up big charts showing revenues and expenses. A big pie chart categorizing expenditures by category. Then there was a Q&A session. Hello, transparency. It’s really not very hard to do.
Maybe you have some other examples to add. I intentionally skipped correlated LDS history, which at least isn’t as correlated as it used to be, and limited or no access to LDS archives, which is not as limited as it used to be. History gets all the attention. I’m trying to highlight other features of LDS governance that don’t get so much attention, even to the point that the average member never even notices the possibly questionable practice. Here’s another one: interviews. You’re rarely told what it’s about, so you can’t prepare any response ahead of time. You’re always unprepared and possibly unsettled. Another example of withholding relevant info to increase leadership leverage.
So what do you think? Is this a spin religion? Is the LDS approach to church governance and ward management an exception or are all churches run like this? Has the technology that has empowered spin dictators around the world also changed the way the LDS Church is governed at the general and the local level?