How Do Democracies Turn Into Dictatorships?

By Alec Medine

How do Dictators Come to Power in a Democracy?

Over the last one hundred years, democracy has become the most common type of government across the world. It has arguably become the dominant form of politics; more than half of the countries on Earth are democracies. A modern democracy, as opposed to the pure, direct democracy of ancient Athens, is a form of government in which the general population has the right to vote and participate in politics by electing political representatives to act on their behalf. These types of governments also tend to have strong safeguards to personal rights, such as freedom of speech. 

However, despite democracy’s popularity around the globe, it is important to remember that democracies can easily fail without proper upkeep. Indeed, many countries such as Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Egypt have lost their democracy over the past century. So how exactly does a democracy slide into a dictatorship?

Ways Dictators Come to Power in a Democracy

Dictators may rise to power in a democracy through several ways. One way is the result of political polarization, where the competing political sides no longer want to cooperate with one another, allowing violent or extremist groups to take over politics instead. 

A democracy can also fall when a country’s elites feel that democracy no longer “works” for them. When these elites feel that losing an election may mean forfeiting their power and influence over the country, they may seek to take over the country by force, turning it into a dictatorship. Or, democracies can fall the other (more subtle) way, when elites first grab on to power via democratic means, before then stripping away democratic rights. 

Political Radicalization and Social Desperation 

Democracies are characterized by lively but peaceful debate between a variety of political parties and interest groups. In a healthy democracy, these groups agree to make compromises that will benefit their group of voters, or constituencies. But sometimes, these political groups begin disagreeing with each other so much that they no longer believe that compromise with the other group is possible. When the political arena no longer becomes about compromise, it becomes a matter of dominating by one group over the other. 

In some situations, such as in the case a major economic collapse or a significant military defeat, voters may seek extreme options by choosing political parties which promise to single-handedly save the country from its economic or political woes, usually through authoritarian means. The often unforeseen cost of electing these parties, however, is that they tend to destroy democratic principles once they enter power. 

Weimar Germany 

Weimar Germany’s descent into Nazism is one of history’s most evocative examples of democratic collapse. In 1919, after the end of World War I, Germany was defeated, its monarchy ousted, and a republican democracy was formed in its place. The young Weimar Republic had a highly innovative constitution that, for the first time in German history, granted all Germans broad representation and the universal right to vote. 

However, the young German Republic was plagued by a series of significant problems stemming from Germany’s defeat in the Great War. The Entente powers imposed the harsh and deeply humiliating Treaty of Versailles that forced Germany to pay massive indemnities to the Entente powers, which left the country impoverished. The defeat also significantly destabilized German society and politics, leading to a series of revolutions and attempted coups (Putsches) throughout the 1920s as various different radical groups ranging from communists to militarists sought to take over the Weimar government. 

Amidst the disorder, a fringe group slowly rose to prominence: they were the National Socialists, or Nazis. They first emerged on the German political scene in 1923 when they attempted the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich, a plot where they sought to take over the Weimar government by force. The coup was unsuccessful and was quickly crushed, prompting the Nazis’ leader, Adolf Hitler, to try and enter the Weimar political system through democratic means (with some caveats) before overthrowing the German state and bringing about their dictatorship. 

Representatives of the Nazi Party (first two left), German Centrist Party (middle), the Social Democratic Party (middle-right), and the Communist Party (far right) canvassing before the 1932 Elections, the last free elections before the rise of Nazi Germany. Credit: HistoryToday

After six years of recovery and even some economic prosperity for Germany, the Great Depression of 1929 once again threw Weimar Germany in a desperate economic state, prompting many German voters to seek radical political options, including National Socialism. In 1932, the Nazis were elected to become the leading party of the German parliament, campaigning on the promise to restore German greatness by taking revenge on Britain and France for the Treaty of Versailles. The next year, an arsonist attempted to burn the German parliament building (the Reichstag), which Hitler and his Nazi Party used as a pretext to seize full dictatorial control of Germany. Over the next twelve years, they entirely dismantled the democratic political establishment; instituted the worst genocide in human history, the Holocaust; and started the bloodiest war humankind has ever experienced, World War II. The fall of Germany’s first democracy shows us the serious consequences when any country loses their democracy. 

Dissatisfied Elites 

In some cases, democracies fall into dictatorships when “elites” (that is to say, people in important positions in society such as political leadership, business, finance, religion, or the military) feel that the democratic system no longer “works” for them; the system is at odds with their financial or political interests. As a result, they may seek non-democratic alternatives that will protect their wealth, status, or political influence from being taken away by rival elites, or even average voters. 

These non-democratic alternatives may then take power through a variety of methods. One means is to use democracy against itself. In this situation, a specific party wins an election and then uses its position as the leader of the government to curtail democratic rights, such as cancelling future elections. The Nazi Party, democratically elected with 33% of the vote in the 1932 parliamentary elections, did exactly this in 1933 when they used the Reichstag Emergency to enact authoritarian measures in the name of maintaining public order, including banning all oppositional political parties and ending competitive elections.

At other times, a democracy may collapse in a significantly more violent fashion, such as through a coup or revolution. In the case of a revolution, a significant portion of the population mobilizes itself against the current reigning government and then overthrows that government, promptly instating an alternative government which is not necessarily democratic in nature. What is more often the case, however, is that democracy can be ended through a hostile coup against the democratically-elected government, where a relatively small but powerful political faction (such as the military or an intelligence service) overthrows the elected officials. The newly established post-coup regime, usually claiming the excuse of a national emergency, then curtails democratic rights, governing instead through dictatorial means. 

Chile and the Pinochet Coup

Prior to 1973, Chile had been a successful and long-standing democracy in South America. However, starting in the mid-1960s, Chilean politics became increasingly more fractious between capitalist conservatives backed by the United States, and the supporters of socialism and communism backed by the Soviet Union and Cuba. In 1970, the socialist candidate Salvador Allende won the Chilean presidency by an incredibly slim margin. Over the next three years, Allende used his presidency to institute socialistic political and economic measures while ostensibly claiming to be democratic. These socialist actions, such as the nationalization of key industries including copper mining and agriculture, deeply alienated both Chilean conservatives and political leaders in the United States, who together sought to undermine, or even potentially overthrow, Allende’s presidency. 

General Pinochet’s soldiers besieging President Salvador Allende in the Presidential Palace, Santiago, Chile. Credit: AP Photo/Enrique Aracena

Then, in 1973, General Augusto Pinochet and other conservatives in high-ranking positions within the Chilean military launched a coup to forcefully eject Allende from power. After a dramatic battle where Pinochet’s troops stormed the presidential palace in Santiago and killed Allende, Pinochet took full dictatorial control over Chile. For the next seventeen years, Pinochet and his military junta ruled with an iron fist, ending all elections while disappearing and killing thousands of suspected political opponents to the regime. To this day, Pinochet’s military regime over Chile is considered one of the most brutal dictatorships of the late-20th century. 

The Business Plot of 1933 and the United States

In the midst of the Great Depression, American voters overwhelmingly chose to elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the Presidency of the United States. Soon after his inauguration, FDR embarked on a highly controversial political project to try and pull the United States out of the Great Depression, now known famously as the “New Deal.” 

FDR and his New Deal, however, faced a significant amount of opposition by businessmen and financiers, who viewed FDR’s economic reforms as an incoming form of socialism; one Republican Senator at the time wrote that the president had “not merely signed the death warrant of capitalism, but [had] ordained the mutilation of the Constitution.” 

In response to the apparent danger FDR and his New Deal posed for their financial interests, a circle of businessmen and financiers devised a plan to forcefully overthrow the president of the United States with the help of the military. They reached out to Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler for military support in the planned uprising. Fortunately for American democracy, the Marine general refused to participate in the plot and informed Congress about the conspiracy, halting the coup before it could ever begin. Without Major General Butler’s conscientious discretion, America could very well have become a military dictatorship in the 1930s. 

Apathetic and Alienated Voters 

Democracies can also fall into dictatorships when voters become politically apathetic, thereby withdrawing themselves from participation in the political process. This is a growing problem in many democracies, as indicated by falling voter turnouts across much of the democratic world. 

Voters may feel apathetic when they come to believe that they will no longer make a difference in average politics. Voters may experience alienation when their political choices fail to reflect their democratic interests. Altogether, when voters think that there’s a wall between them and how politics gets done in the national capital, they tune themselves out to political happenings. This is particularly dangerous, as this presents an opportunity for authoritarian-minded political leaders to start curtailing political rights for minority groups, if not the entire national population. This can then start a backslide into dictatorship when the democratic voice becomes permanently suppressed, eliminating any kind of recourse against undemocratic policies such as voter suppression or encroachments onto free speech. 

Hungary 

Hungary, as many political observers have noted over the past decade, is a profound case of democratic decline towards illiberalism, if not an outright march towards authoritarianism. Since 2010, Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his political party, Fidesz, have dominated Hungarian politics through a combination of populist demagoguery and pernicious political engineering which have ensured repeated electoral success over the past three election cycles. 

Fidesz has taken advantage of the immense social and economic challenges Hungary has experienced as part of the country’s process of democratization and market privatization, as well as later integration into the economic and political systems of the European Union. These upheavals caused mass unemployment, creating a sense of resentment to the social-democratic and liberal parties whose policies led to the situation. 

Orban and Fidesz came to power on a political campaign that appealed to the Hungarian population’s sense of political alienation from the center/center-left political establishment. Orban himself described the previous political system of corrupt leaders as having been “overthrown” while promising to usher in a new system of “national unity.” The Fidesz platform furthermore bolsters itself on the premises of nationalism, and particularly ethnic nationalism; Orban’s government has since targeted a variety of groups they consider outside of the Hungarian ethnicity, including the Roma people and Syrian refugees. Orban has also repeatedly attacked international and European institutions in Hungary while expressing a vitriolic attitude towards economic and political globalism. 

Protestors march across Budapest’s famous Chain Bridge to defend Central European University, an international university in Budapest. The Fidesz government, suspicious of CEU’s endowment from the global financier George Soros as well as the university’s western-liberal political orientation, has placed significant pressure on the educational institution, first demanding to modify its curriculum before then being made to close. Ultimately, CEU was forced to relocate to Vienna, Austria. Credit: BBC

Fidesz has maintained a tight grip on Hungarian politics over the past decade, despite spirited attempts by the opposition to eject the right-wing party from power. Orban and his party have successfully established a stranglehold on the institutions of government, having taken control of the courts, revised the Hungarian constitution, and gerrymandered the electoral districts to favor their party. 

List of Dictatorships Which Arose from Democracies 

  • Poland: 1926-1989 
  • Germany: 1933-1945
  • Austria: 1933-1945
  • France: 1940-1945
  • Spain: 1939-1976
  • Brazil: 1964-1985 
  • Chile: 1973-1990
  • Nicaragua: 1979-1990, 2006-Present
  • Venezuela: 2002-Present

How to Stop Dictatorships From Coming to Power in a Democracy 

Perhaps now more than ever, citizens in democratic countries must work to prevent the encroachment of dictatorial politics into democracies. We must do more than just simply understand past historical examples of democratic decline; we must go further and make sure these historical examples do not happen again. 

The first step is to recommit to democratic principles and embrace them wholeheartedly. There will always be disagreements between different groups in a democracy — arguably, democracy’s very function is to both create and work through disagreement in order to prevent the majority from tyrannizing the minority, and to find a compromise that will satisfy all sides. 

Another important part of preventing democracy from turning into a dictatorship is to resist the allure of political “strongmen.” These figures enter the political stage often claiming to be an outsider to the political establishment, and vowing to “get tough” on everyone that is apparently sapping the nation’s strength, thereby “saving” the nation. Strongmen often turn their ireful gaze onto many different groups, including minorities, immigrants, the political opposition, and established national leaders; strongmen tend to view these groups as both personal and national enemies. 

Furthermore, these strongmen claim that in order to carry out their task of “rescuing” the country, they need to have all barriers to their power removed. As such, they often believe that democratic institutions such as political checks-and-balances are an unnecessary hindrance on their power and that these barriers only serve to “stop things from getting done.” For strongmen, “getting things done” means silencing, intimidating, and even persecuting their enemies until they can no longer participate in national politics. 

Strongmen need to be stopped at the polls. Elections tend to affirm strongmen by giving them a popular mandate for their regime, but their respect for democracy ends the day after the election. Beating strongmen means not giving them a position of power to abuse in the first place, or by denying them a mandate and voting them out of power. 

Ultimately, the best way to protect democracies against becoming a dictatorship is to continue embracing democratic practices. Voters need to make conscientious electoral choices that reject candidates or political groups that threaten to undermine the democratic process. Maintaining democracy requires voters to become yet more steadfast in their empathy towards others and participating in national politics with a frame of mind towards cooperation and understanding.

Title Image Credit: Alexis Duclos/Gamma-Rapho Photo/Getty Images