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Democracy Is Being Undermined by Stealth: Reflections on the Demagogue and the Failed Washington Putsch


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(13 January 2021)

by Matt Qvortrup, Professor of Political Science, Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations, Coventry University, UK

A demagogue, according to Merriam-Webster, perhaps America's most trusted dictionary is "a leader who makes use of popular and false claims and promises in order to gain power." The same dictionary defines a Putsch, as "a secretly plotted and suddenly executed attempt to overthrow a government." What we saw in Washington, D.C. on the 6th of January was a Putsch egged on by a Demagogue. That is not opinion. It is not hyperbole. It is a strict fact according to America's most trusted dictionary.

Some would say that Trump's actions are covered by the First Amendment, that is, freedom of speech. In fact, it is clear that they went beyond the constitutionally afforded protection. There are limits to freedom of speech. As the U.S. Supreme Court put it in the landmark ruling Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444 (1969), freedom of speech is restricted if it is "directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action." To say that Trump is a demagogue, that he instigated a putsch, and that his actions were lawless is not opinion; it is fact. And it is the law.

This was a threat to democracy. Indeed, we tend to think of democratic breakdowns as momentous events, like General Pinochet's violent overthrow of Salvador Allende

in Chile in 1973 — or more recently of General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi's military coup in Egypt.

But this is not how democracies die. Most democracies wither by stealth — almost imperceptivity. The despotic leaders do not start by sending in the marines.

No, they win power — often by using fake news — they then gradually replace the judiciary and other checks on power, and then they use libel or tax laws to silence the press, tax-laws to eliminate opponents and business leaders, and presto, after a few years the country falls into dictatorship. This is what I have just written a book about, it is called Death by a Thousand Cuts.

What we are witnessing now is not, therefore, a violent overthrow of power but a subtle undermining of democracy. Many of the institutions remain the same. Not much changes. Not formally, at least. Tout c'est la même chose, mais plus ça change (the more things stay the same, the more things change) — to turn the French saying upside-down.

I know one ought to be careful not to selectively cite the past as evidence for the future. "History does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes," Mark Twain reportedly said. (I have not been able to verify that he actually uttered these words!)

The Roman Republic did not die in a revolution. No, not at all, it died a slow and imperceptible death. After Octavius (later Augustus) had taken over as princeps (note he did not call himself chief, emperor, or king!) around 30 BCE, he did not abolish the Senate. Many of the rules and institutions stayed the same.

The Roman historian Suetonius (70-130 AD) observed in The Twelve Caesars how the emperor — on the face of it — democratized the Roman state, "by granting city councillors of the colonies the right to vote," and even how "ballots were placed and sealed in containers and counted at Rome on polling day," (Suetonius, (2007), The Twelve Caesars, Penguin, p. 71).

And, yet, a more critical historian of the same vintage, namely Tacitus (56 – 117 AD), sounded a more cautious note,

"He [Augustus] seduced the army with bonuses, and his cheap food policy was successful bait for civilians. Indeed, he attracted everybody's goodwill by the enjoyable gift of peace," (Tacitus, (1956), The Annals of Imperial Rome, Penguin, p.32).

So far so good, but then, Tacitus, as noted in a kind of punchline, "he gradually pushed ahead and absorbed the functions of the senate, the officials and even the law" (Tacitus, ibid).

It is the word "gradual" that is the key here. The overthrow of government does not appear overnight but little by little — almost by stealth. It is the same today, as political scientists Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz wrote,

"The playbook is consistent and straightforward: deliberately install loyalists in key positions of power (particularly in the judiciary and security services) and neutralize the media by buying it, legislating against it, and enforcing censorship. This strategy makes it hard to discern when the break with democracy actually occurs, and its insidiousness poses one of the most significant threats to democracy in the twenty-first century," (Kendall-Taylor, Andrea, and Erica Frantz, (2016, December 5), "How Democracies Fall Apart: Why Populism Is a Pathway to Autocracy," Foreign Affairs).

In the first decades after the Second World War, democracies were for the most part destroyed by military coups; 64 percent died in this way. But since the beginning of the 1990s, democracies have been undermined by gradual, piecemeal, erosion of democratic norms by elected leaders. (See: Barbara Geddes, Joseph Wright, and Erica Frantz, (2014), "Autocratic Breakdown and Regime Transitions: A New Data Set," Perspectives on Politics 12(2): 313-331.)

We are back to a more historically familiar pattern; Octavius to Viktor Orban, from Russia to Rwanda, democracies are dismembered in four stages: first a demagogue is elected; secondly, he (and it is typically a man!) changes the rules of the games (the electoral system, for example); thirdly, he draws up new rules; and lastly, the new rules are then used selectively against opponents of the regime. After that, the ruler has dictatorial powers. The general pattern is a kind of perverted rule of law: "For my friends, everything; for my enemies, the law!" (Kurt Weyland, (2013), "The Threat from the Populist Left," Journal of Democracy, Vol.24 (3), pp. 19-32, at p. 25).

"World historical events," Karl Marx observed, "occur, as it were, twice…the first time as tragedy the second time as farce," (Robert Tucker, ed. (1978), The Marx-Engels Reader, Norton, p. 586).

Again, history does not repeat itself exactly, but there is a strange tendency to see some of the same patterns reoccur. In recent years, we have seen several examples of rich businessmen who transform themselves into political leaders, Berlusconi in Italy, Andrej Babiš in the Czech Republic, and sadly, Donald J. Trump in America.

Reflecting on history, it is odd to note how much has not changed.

Nothing in history is inevitable. We — the defenders of democracy — may have lost battles, but there is still time to win the war. The fightback begins here!

Matt Qvortrup Matt Qvortrup is a professor of political science at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University. Described by the Financial Times as "a world authority on referendums," he has published more than a dozen books on democracy and presented the BBC Program How to Kill a Democracy. His book Death by a Thousand Cuts will be published by DeGruyter in early 2021, https://www.degruyter.com/view/title/590418?language=en

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