There are many sorts of democracy, including illiberal democracies. Even with formally absolute power, a despot needs not only the support of his army, police, and other active clienteles, but also the support if only passive of a large proportion of his subjects. Putin in Russia provides a current illustration (“Public Sentiment in Russia Darkens Over Ukraine War,” Wall Street Journal, October 15, 2022):

Both Western Kremlin-watchers and many Russian political analysts who back Mr. Putin say that public discontent over the Russian president’s policies is unlikely to throw him off course or shake his control. But observers of Russia’s political landscape say the dissatisfaction threatens to spread, and the Kremlin does closely monitor 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 on the understanding that their lives and the country’s prosperity wouldn’t be destabilized.

“Many people feel disappointed, somehow deceived even, in the sense that they simply did not expect this turn of events,” said Grigorii Golosov, a political scientist at the European University at St. Petersburg. “Of course, it undermines their trust both in the Russian leadership in the short term and in the long-term perspective.”

If the Kremlin “closely does closely monitor Mr. Putin’s approval rating,” it is ultimately because it is recognized that the despot’s control could be shaken by too low a public approval. A despot must give, or be seen as giving, bread and circuses to “the people.”

We tend to exaggerate the difference between despotism and an unlimited—that is, illiberal—democracy.