Representative democracy is very much the norm in the modern West, and it has been so since the end of World War II. Despite the considerable successes these states achieved in the post-WWII era, the political, social and economical developments of the last few decades made many questions whether the West can maintain her democracies, or her states will slide into authoritarianism.
From a historical point of view, there were many examples of a democratic state turning into an autocratic state, Ancient Europe saw both the Greek democracies and the Roman Republic turning into autocracies.
One does not even have to go that far back in time to find another example, Weimar Germany happened only a mere 89 years ago. The destruction of the Weimar Republic led to the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich, a chilling development considering the proximity of the event, the fact that it happened in one of the more civilised and developed countries of Europe makes it even more unnerving.
If history is anything to go by, then if someone asks if a democracy can be turned into an autocracy, the answer is a very definite yes.
But just because it happened in the past, that does not mean it is bound to happen in the present or the future. Nonetheless, to brush aside the worrying signals because we dislike their implications would be foolish.
Citizens losing interest in politics
The difference between a democratic state and an absolute monarchy first and foremost lay in the fact that the citizens of a democratic state had a say in the governing of their country.
To put it into a simplified phrase, a republic had citizens, while an absolute monarchy had „serfs”. Citizens have the option of voting their leaders in and eventually out of office if they are unhappy with them. Thanks to the fact that they have a say in the governing of their country, a citizen also has an interest in it.
Serf on the other hand had no say in the governing of their country, the monarch ruled for life, and the only way a serf could remove the monarch was by armed uprising. Consequently, as the serf had no say in the governing of his/her country, the serf lacked interest in it and a serf society was generally quite apolitical.
The French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution swept away all the remaining feudal elements in European societies. Thanks to these two events society was changed beyond recognition. The previous rural-urban balance became tilted in the favour of the urban, the previously illiterate masses became literate, peasants who previously made a living by cultivating a piece of land turned into workers.
The rapidly changing life led to a heavily politicized society. The press probably had its golden age in the pre-WWII era, the newly literate urban population was heavily involved in the political life of the age. As economic hardship hit the West in the 1920s/30s this over-politicized atmosphere led to street violence and the emergence of radical parties.
The post-WWII era saw the emergence of the welfare state and a less politically active society. On the one hand, it was probably a good development, as the street violence and radical ideologies of the 1920s and 1930s were largely left behind. On the other hand, it can be seen as a negative development if the citizen, or a majority of them, will lose interest in politics altogether.
Understanding politics is a hard task, one needs to have some solid legal and economic understanding to really call himself politically literate in my opinion. I just give myself as an example, thanks to my legal background I know the rights and obligations of the political institutions. Thanks to this knowledge I have no problem seeing through the political nonsense and legal impossibilities that I see more or less from day today.
But my legal knowledge is often neutralised when the politicians are debating economical problems. Despite having learned economic, financial and commercial law, I am not ashamed to admit that I often have a hard time understanding the economical policies of my country, the EU or other political actors.
The lack of knowledge is often accompanied by a lack of interest from a good part of the population also. It is to a certain degree true, and I share this feeling, that despite the great rhetoric of some politicians, it seemingly makes little difference which party or politician is in power, in my country anyway, as they are either too cowardly or too weak to make changes that are visible to our lives, it usually takes an economic crisis to really notice that life is changing.
However, thanks to the pandemic we now see that in times of crisis we would need real statesmen to lead us. But will there be any in the future, if we only grew real interest in politics when the crisis hit our purses, while in times of plenty we are happy to leave our countries on auto-pilot?
Inequality can be the death of any social order, throughout the ages many regimes fell when the social inequality hit a level. Such examples are the Roman Republic, Anciem Regime France or Tsarist Russia.
The post WWII era saw the build up of the welfare state in the Western World, however, this process was hit hard by the energy criseses of the 1970s and 1980. The 1980s saw the rise of neoliberalism, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher became the main symbols of this process. Since the 1980s we saw the role of the state somewhat reduced in comparison with the immediate post war years. The increased privatization of previously state owned industries, plus the energy crises led to the deterioration of the living standards of the middle class.
The growth of inequality is ever present since than, and as always when this phenomena is present, the old cliche of the rich becoming richer, and the poor becoming poorer becomes a reality.
In the previous pharagraph I mentioned that the difference between the citizen and the serf is the fact that the citizen has the opportunity and the willingness to participate in the political life of his/her country. Unfortunately this theory goes right out of the window when the citizen is struggling to make a living and has to constantly worry whether he will be able to pay his rents, bills or buy the elementary food we all need to survive.
These disgruntled and dissapointed people will have no love for their country, the politicians leading it or the political system that created and allowed them to live in misery. These people will look for scapegoats and there will always be opportunistic demagogues who will try to use the anger of the people to achieve their political goals, which may even include overthrowing a democratic government and set up a dictatorship in its place.
Social media and opinion bubbles
A democracy is a form of running a state which allows political pluralism and freedom of expression. The branches of power are separated( legal, executive and judicial), and multiple opinions are allowed to be expressed.
The Internet and Social Media are still relatively new inventions, and their long term implications are still yet to be understood.
On the one hand the invention and spread gave the people the opportunity to express their opinion freely on different platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Medium etc. The threshold for entrance in such places is low, one can virtually start with nothing and build a huge platform.
On the other hand the algorithms of some of the platforms are not necessarily helping people to form a balanced view of the world. The main goal of these platforms is to keep people rooted there and the best way to achieve this is by showing them primarily the content they like, and not the one they would dislike. This can lead people to be „trapped ” on an island of opinions that they like, while they have relatively little contact with content they dislike.
One of my smarter friends once wrote an 800 word article of how to avoid being trapped in his „sect”, tellingly the simple solution of following both left and right wing news outlets did not occured to him. Coming from a country with a mixed population, and from a region with a very homogenous population in term of etnicity my general impression that the people who have the least direct contect with „alien” elements are the most xenophic, while those coming from a mixed background are usually more tolerant.
This is just my personal opinion, but I see a similar pattern with social media. People who take the effort to follow both sides of the story are more likely to be moderates, while those who only follow the opinions they agree with, are more likely to be quite intolerant of other opinions.
As any real, functioning democracy needs multiple opinion and citizens who are willing to tolerate the opinions they do not agree with, the growth of the latter group of people is a threat to the existing order.
Will democracy survive in the West?
Earlier in this article I have given examples of democracies falling, however, just because those democracies fell, does not mean that our will fall also, history never happens in the exact same manner twice, and most probably nor will it happen either.
For a democracy to function, however, a society needs specific ingredients such as educated citizens, a low percentage of people living below the poverty line, and a population that respects and wants to maintain the institutions of the state. If the current social and economic trends will contiune these elements will be taken away and we will be left with a sham. Our own Augustus Caesars might rise and decapitate the system, with the thunderous applause of the people who will be happy to leave it in the past.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2022 Andrew Szekler