There are many types of democracy, including liberal democracy. Even with formally absolute power, a dictator needs the support not only of his army, police and other active clients, but also the passive support of a large section of his subjects. Putin in Russia provides a current example (“Russian public sentiment darkened by Ukraine war,” The Wall Street JournalOctober 15, 2022):
Western Kremlin-watchers and many Russian political analysts who support Mr. Putin say public discontent over the Russian president’s policies is unlikely to derail him or shake his control. But observers of Russia’s political landscape say discontent threatens to spread, and the Kremlin closely monitors Mr. Putin’s approval ratings. Policy analysts noted that while many Russians were willing to tolerate their president’s restrictions on political freedoms, they did so with the understanding that their lives and the country’s prosperity would not be destabilized.
“Many people feel disappointed, even deceived, in the sense that they did not expect this turn of events,” said Grigory Golsov, a political scientist at the European University in St. Petersburg. “Of course, this undermines their confidence in the Russian leadership, both in the short term and in the long term.”
If the Kremlin is “closely monitoring Mr. Putin’s approval ratings,” it is ultimately because it recognizes that the dictator’s control can be shaken by the slightest public approval. A dictator must give “the people” bread and circuses, or be seen as alms.
We tend to exaggerate the difference between despotism and unrestrained—that is, illiberal—democracy.