Friday, December 9, 2016

How Democracies Fall Apart

This should be required reading for anyone concerned about the rise of populism and the risks that it poses for democracies.  It may be under a paywall but you can register in order to get a small number of free articles per month.

We all understand the circumstances under which populism flourishes.  A number of persistent problems continue to grow and people lose faith in the ability of governments to deal with important concerns that affect their lives.  They become suspicious of business leaders and other elite institutions such as the media.  These conditions may vary from country to country but a populist reaction to the failure of governments to deal with common problems is apparent in many nations with strong democratic institutions. 

When popular discontent with democratic institutions reached a boiling point in the past, governments were typically overthrown via a coup.  That is no longer true in many nations with a history of democratic government.  What we are witnessing today in many nations is a process of "authoritarianization".  This is a gradual process that takes place after the public elects an authoritarian leader they believe to be a change agent.  The popular support provided to the newly elected leader encourages others in government and other institutions to support the newly elected leader.  The insidious thing about this process is that change is gradual and difficult to perceive. Therefore, it difficult to counter it until it is too late.  It usually begins by establishing control over security forces and the judiciary.  Before long, the authoritarian leader has secured control over important political institutions  and the media.  This process is often accompanied by a process by which the leader creates a personal image that is attractive to many citizens.  The leader becomes a celebrity and often takes advantage of opportunities to create an image of strength and purpose by the use of forces under the leaders control.

America has elected a leader with an authoritarian personality who is supported by advisors who are very familiar with the process of authoritarianization.  They have studied how this has happened in other countries and they are intent upon capturing control of our fragile democracy by personalizing the authority of the leader we have elected to be a change agent.  The process is readily apparent to those who have witnessed it before.  Donald Trump has moved from an outsider in the Republican Party to its new leader.  The open question is whether he can gain complete control over the party that controls each of the important branches of government.

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