Recent events; including the election of President Donald J. Trump (R-New York) and Brexit, are driving many to wonder if democracy is dying. On a larger level, the success of the Leninist People’s Republic of China has driven many people to question democracy itself.
For instance, Jared Diamond devotes his latest book; Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis, partially to that theme. In that work, Diamond examines several nations in crisis, including the 1973 coup in Chile. In the coup, General Augusto Pinochet overthrew “Latin America’s most successful democracy” in a bloody massacre.
Political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt go even farther in How Democracies Die. Such gloomy thoughts are not new, however. In 1946, Willis J. Ballinger drew similar conclusions in By the Vote of the People. Ballinger felt democracy was finished because of the welfare state, World War II, and fascism.
Ballinger and American Founding Father James Madison believed that mob rule; or populism, can destroy democracy. Madison designed the U.S. Constitution to serve as a firewall against populist tyranny, The Atlantic notes. In fact, Madison spent 1786; the year before the Constitutional Convention, reading books about the death of democracy.
Madison and Ballinger’s examples, shows reports of democracy’s death are often exaggerated. However, all three books; and Madison, make a good case. The case is that crises can destroy democracies.
What Dead Democracies can Teach us
Madison shows us that we can learn a lot from the deaths of past democracies. Studying dead democracies is the best way to prevent our democracies from dying.
Some of the most important lessons we can learn from dead democracies include:
Fear is the Enemy of Democracy
Many democracies die because some group or class becomes frightened of everybody else in the country.
Chile’s democracy collapsed in 1973 because many Chileans became frightened of the working class and leftists. To explain, many Chileans backed Pinochet’s overthrow of democratically elected President Salvador Allende, because Allende was a Marxist.
Those people feared Allende was destroying traditional society and threatening their likelihoods. Similarly, the 1930s Spanish Civil War broke out because the aristocracy, the military, and the clergy became scared of the democratically elected government. Those conservative elements backed a botched coup; which sparked Civil War, because they feared democracy as a threat to their way of life.
The collapse of the Ancient Roman Republic began when frightened aristocrats murdered the radical politicians Tiberius Gracchus and Gaius Gracchus. The Gracchus brothers wanted to break up the estates of wealthy Romans and give the land to poor veterans. The Gracchus brothers also wanted to strip Equines (wealthy Romans) of their political power.
Therefore, we need to become scared whenever some group becomes frightened for its survival. In particular, we need to get scared when powerful minorities fear for their power.
Fear Kills Democracy
Thus, Americans need to worry when Christians, intellectuals, whites, the white-working class, and the rich become frightened. Scared people listen to would-be tyrants and accept violence and bloodshed.
Frighteningly, Catholic priests blessed death squads and led fascists into battle during the Spanish Civil War. The priests feared the leftists; or Republicans, planned to murder them. Sadly, the fascist priests’ fears were realistic. The Spanish Republicans murdered many priests including Miguel Pro.
In America today we see many frightened groups. For instance, a minority of Christians; who are afraid of growing secularism, accept the notion that God anointed President Donald J. Trump (R-New York) to defend them.
Bizarrely, a minority of Christians believe Trump is a modern day Cyrus the Great, Vox claims. Cyrus the Great was the Zoroastrian King who freed the Jews from the Babylonian captivity and established the Persian Empire. Oddly, 18% of white Evangelicals and 30% of white Pentecostals believe the President is “anointed by God,” the Religion News Services estimates.
Frighteningly, Cyrus was a brutal conqueror and military dictator. The idea is God used Cyrus to protect the Jews from their enemies. Hence, a minority of American Christians believes in dictatorship now that their people are becoming a minority.
For instance, I estimate 41% of Americans could be non-Christian by 2039. To explain, Pew Research estimates the percentage of Americans calling themselves “Christians” fell by 13% in in nine years. However, there is no evidence Americans are becoming hostile to Christianity, or less tolerant of Christians.
On the other hand, many leftists and moderates are becoming increasingly afraid of Trump’s Evangelical followers. The fear is that Christians are now a threat to democracy because they back Trump. Hence, so-called intellectuals are making a case for stripping Evangelicals of their votes and Free Speech.
Income Inequality Kills Democracy
Back in the 1940s, Ballinger observed that concentrated wealth leads to income inequality that destroys democracy. Sadly, there is plenty of historical evidence to back Ballinger’s thesis.
For instance, the rise of wealthy merchant classes led to the end of democracy in the Medieval Italian cities of Venice and Florence. The fantastically wealthy Medici banking family destroyed the Florentine Republic by literally buying political power.
Ballinger notes that Cosimo di Giovanni de Medici became so rich he was able to rule as absolute dictator in Florence for 30 years. Before de Medici Florence was a functioning democracy.* The Medici family ruled Florence for over 300 years from 1434 to 1737.
Hence, Americans are right to fear growing income inequality as a threat to democracy. Therefore, popular fears of billionaire politicians such as Michael Bloomberg (D-New York) and Donald J. Trump have a sound historical basis.
Likewise, working-class people sometimes welcome tyrants powerful enough to protect them from the rich. The Roman people welcomed Julius Caesar’s occupation of Rome in 49 B.C. because Caesar had the wealth and military power to overthrow oligarchic rule. More recently, the Argentine people welcomed the military dictatorship of Juan Perón; because Perón was powerful enough to crush that nation’s oligarchs.
Americans need to be afraid; because the U.S. Census Bureau estimates income inequality in the United States in 2018 was “significantly higher” than in 2017. NPR claims the Census Bureau estimates American income inequality rose to a record high in 2018.
Frighteningly, the Brookings Institution estimates 20% of Americans own 77% of the USA’s wealth. In addition, Brookings claims the 20% of Americans have three times as much money as the middle class.
Those who value democracy need to consider ways to reduce income inequality and restore egalitarianism. If not we could see an American Perón or Caesar.
Loss of Social Status Threatens Democracy
In Ancient Rome, 1973 Chile, and 1930s Spain, people became frightened of the loss of their social status.
The Roman Republic started falling apart when small farmers began losing their land and their social status. Those farmers began backing radical politicians; such as the Gracchus brothers and Julius Caesar, who promised to restore their land and social status and “get money out of politics.”
Rome’s ruling classes become frightened when the Gracchus brothers proposed changing the laws to strip the legislative body they controlled; the Senate, of its power. The Roman 1%; or patricians, first lynched the Gracchus brothers, and then backed the tyrant Sulla who murdered thousands of people in a bloody purge.
Later the Roman middle and working classes backed the dictators Julius Caesar and Octavian because those men promised to restore their social status. Eventually, average Romans’ accepted Octavian’s (Augustus Caesar) establishment of an absolute monarchy that respected their social status.
In Spain, the clergy, the aristocracy, and much of the middle class backed the nationalist side in the Civil War to protect their social status. After the Civil War, the same classes supported the dictatorship of Francisco Franco for over 35 years; because Franco protected their social status. In addition, the middle class ignored Franco’s bloody “White Terror;” in which the Generalismo’s thugs killed 100,000 to 200,000 people.
In Chile, the middle-and upper-classes stood by while Pinochet waged a civil war on unarmed enemies. For instance, the notorious “Caravan of Death” drove around Chile murdering anybody Pinochet viewed as a threat to his social status.
In a particularly gruesome murder, Chilean soldiers allegedly set famed folk singer Victor Jara on fire. Jara was an activist who was known for championing the poor, so he threatened the wealthy’s social status.
Social Status and Tyranny
Americans need to be scared because working-class whites, the wealthy, intellectuals, journalists, some Christians, and many African Americans fear they are losing their social status.
For instance, Pew Research estimates 25% of American newspaper journalists’ jobs (around 114,000) disappeared between 2008 and 2018. Consequently, many journalists will drop out of the middle class.
As a result, politicians such as President Donald J. Trump (R-New York), Michael Bloomberg (D-New York), Andrew Yang (D-New York), and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) are attracting large followings with promises to restore or protect lost social status. For example, Sanders portrays the “billionaire class” as a threat to working-class Americans’ social status.
Oddly, Bloomberg; a billionaire himself and the world’s eighth richest person, is running TV advertisements attacking billionaires. In contrast, Yang blames technology for job losses and portrays companies such as Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) as threats to Americans’ social status.
Fears of Outside Influence can Destroy Democracy
An often decisive element in the destruction of democracy is the fear of disruptive outside influences.
Allende’s growing friendship with Cuban Communist dictator Fidel Castro partially motivated Pinochet’s coup. The fear was that Castro’s masters in the Kremlin would send Russian troops to Chile to impose a Communist dictatorship. Many patriotic Chileans feared that Allende could open the door to alien enemies who could destroy the country’s independence.
In Spain, many people tolerated Franco because he defeated Republican forces backed by Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. Moreover, Franco accepted Nazi and Italian fascist help because his enemies were accepting Stalin’s “aid.”
Likewise, many Venezuelans tolerate President Nicolás Maduro’s increasingly authoritarian rule because they think Maduro is “protecting” Venezuela from American imperialism. Ironically, the socialist Maduro is emulating the fascists Pinochet and Franco’s tactic of claiming to protect the nation from outside enemies and internal traitors.
America’s Moderates are Emulating Pinochet and Maduro
In America today, increasingly embattled moderate opinion leaders are attacking their critics as Russian agents. In fact, former Secretary of State Hillary R. Clinton (D-New York) publicly called U.S. Representative and Presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) a puppet of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
On a larger level, moderates try to brand President Donald J. Trump’s administration illegitimate by alleging a Russian conspiracy put it in office. Thus, so-called moderates in the United States are using the tactics of Latin American tyrants such as Maduro and Pinochet.
Fears of outside influence are destructive because they demonize opponents. Leaders can dismiss critics as foreign agents; or traitors and safely killed or imprisoned. Pinochet could justify his murders of leftists by calling them Communists. Maduro can justify torture by calling his foes “tools of the CIA.”
Americans need to get scared when so-called leaders; such as Hillary R. Clinton, begin demonizing critics as traitors. In other nations, such demonization has led to human rights abuses and mass murder.
Democracy Under Threat
Yes, there is some evidence that American democracy under threat. There are some frightening trends in contemporary American society reminiscent of events in earlier democracies that died.
Despite the trends, I do not think American democracy is dying, but it is under threat. If we want to protect and preserve our democracy, Americans need to understand how earlier democracies died.
*See By the Vote of the Peopleby Willis J. Ballinger Chapter VII: Five Hundred Years Ago Florence for a good example of how wealth wrecks democracy.