Using Democracy to Kill It

Hitler famously exploited democratic rules to gain the power to destroy German democracy, the result being World War II. The lessons are clear: 1) democracy and the liberties it is supposed to deliver are about something far more profound than winning elections or gaining the momentary support of a majority; 2) forgetting this lesson can be catastrophic. Nonetheless, the historical examples of populations momentarily putting their freedom in the hands of a single man, who then uses this power to control them, are so numerous that far more effort should be put into studying how wanna-be dictators gain the momentary adulation of a naive population…and unfortunately there is nothing so naive as a population that enjoys civil liberties, because they forget so quickly that dictatorship is the natural order of things.

So consider this scenario:

Using Democracy to Kill It

Suppose a leader wanted the absolute control necessary to lead his country in a dramatically new direction that he knew was opposed by a majority of his people. Suppose that he launched an ethnic war against a minority group that was mostly loyal to the homeland but increasingly successful in democratic politics…and insisting on the right to express an independent viewpoint, one that would not toe the ambitious leader’s new line. When his concocted ethnic war failed to unite the rest of the population behind him, suppose the leader then meticulously tracked the political attitudes of soldiers, police, judges, journalists, and educators, making a list of the thousands who held opinions that differed from his own. Then suppose that he started a rumor that a certain faction was plotting rebellion and that he not only had such a list but was about to use it to purge everyone not obedient to him? One can imagine that such a scenario might well provoke a dissatisfied faction to fall into the crafty leader’s trap by launching a premature coup.

Rather than debating the details of how this scenario might be playing out in some real-world case, the bigger question would be, “How can a society retain civil liberties if the ruling faction is taking full advantage of events to impose dictatorship by playing to the crowd (mob)?” After all, “mob rule” is technically democratic as long as a majority joins the mob, right? Since Augustus destroyed the increasingly self-defeating Roman Republic in its final corrupt days by proclaiming his dedication to the people, history has been filled with examples of leaders who greased the wheels of dictatorship by trumpeting their love for freedom. People voted with their feet for Lenin; people voted with ballots for Hitler. Superior indeed is the society that can see through such trickery.

It will happen again. When it does, will political scientists be able to see it as it unfolds, understand the process, and be able to explain it well enough to help the voters who are being tricked or to guide policy-makers in other regimes on how to minimize the damage?

Among the many methods for peering into the future, one of the simplest in concept (very complicated in practice but with the inestimable attribute of being totally transparent when examined step-by-step) is the mapping of the conceptual chains explaining the dynamics.

The dynamics are the things that change. When democratic procedures are misused to install a dictatorship, first the way the rules are used changes, and then the rules themselves change. The spirit of democracy centers on the two-sided coin of majority rule plus minority rights. A budding dictator will use the existing rule of majority rule to ram through policies without regard for minority opinions in a vicious zero-sum approach. He will likely accompany this with a campaign of ethnic (e.g., “it’s all the fault of Group X”) or political (e.g., “anyone who opposes me is a traitor”)slander.

Once he has whipped up the baser emotions of the majority and grabbed power by these subtle shifts in how the rules are used, he will take the bolder second step of changing the rules. The “democratic” passage of a harsh new law that is then applied retroactively is a canary in the mine of rising dictatorship. College students in the U.S. who studied Russian during WWII, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union were allies, suddenly found in the 1950s that their former classroom work was destroying their careers under budding strongman Senator Joseph McCarthy, who accused them of being traitors simply because they had studied the language of “the enemy.” A second canary in the mine of budding dictators is suddenly to assert that criticism equals disloyalty, again of course applied retroactively. The careful dictator wannabe will be careful to wait until the mob is indeed whipped up before trying this patently absurd claim. Amazingly, it works like magic, over and over. Such rule changes make “slam dunk clear” that the days of liberty are gone.

Now returning to the question of developing a conceptual mapping of the dynamics underlying the rise of authoritarianism by democratic means, a re-reading of the above discussion of changes in the way the rules of democratic behavior are used and changes in the rules themselves reveals quite a number of concepts and how they are linked.

  • Blaming a religious or ethnic minority – a trait you were born with is almost never the source of society’s problems, and virtually every politician knows this, but such irresponsible politicians also know that telling lies about “those others with that religion” or “those others of that race” can oil their drive for power if done under just the right circumstances.

Thus, one could start the conceptual map with the concept “minority is to blame” which requires a contributing event (e.g., violence by one individual who happens to belong to the victim minority). Now, we have one tiny path toward a drive for power by means of a persuasive hoax. Keep adding concepts, think about when they may link together in some causal way, and soon you will have a complicated map of (more than likely) a vast network of paths that can lead you from here (democracy) to there (dictatorship).

Then, sit back and ask yourself, “Is there any country in the world right this minute that this conceptual mapping seems to be talking about?”