03 Apr 2018

When democracy leads to dictatorship

With more and more countries leaning towards illiberalism, two political scientists raise the question many fear -- is democracy on its way out? 

Julia Sahlender
Julia Sahlender Der Standard, Austria
Source: Der Standard
When democracy leads to dictatorship - NewsMavens
Polling station, Wikicommons.

Why this story matters:

In most countries worldwide, dictatorships are luckily a thing of the past and have been replaced by democracies -- seemingly for good.

Yet, according to a new book by Harvard University researchers, democracy as we know it might be in danger. And it won't be ending with a military coup or a revolution but, ironically enough, with democratic elections.

Once elected demagogues are in power, they attack or undermine the institutions that protect democracy, such as the independent judiciary, the media, cultural institutions and secret services. By creating a sense of threat, they take over these organs and use them to push their political agenda.

Alarmingly, many points raised in the book could be applied to the current political situation in Austria.

Since the beginning of the refugee crisis, more and more people have leaned towards the right wing. Some surveys also indicate that a growing number of Austrians long for a "strong figure" leading the country.

With a conservative and right-wing government in charge, it will require staunch defenders to uphold the common good that is democracy.

illiberalism, politics, science

Details from the story:

  • Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt felt compelled to explore these ideas during the primaries and the 2016 presidential election campaign in the US.
  • In their book "How Democracies Die", they criticize the leading figures in the Republican Party, who -- although concerned about Donald Trump becoming president -- still supported him, just to prevent Hillary Clinton from winning.
  • The authors have developed four questions concerning a politician's mindset that can be treated as warning signs for citizens. According to them, Donald Trump tested "positive" for all of them.
  • The quick rise of Nazis in Germany and Austria in the 1930s can be regarded as the most extreme example of how quickly a democratic society can abandon its principles and turn to authoritarian or dictatorial tendencies, when in crisis.
  • However, the authors believe that current events in Hungary, Turkey or Venezuela are also examples of this phenomenon.
  • The Austrian presidential elections in 2016 offer a positive example. When Norbert Hofer from the right-wing FPÖ and Alexander Van der Bellen, a former member of the Greens, were in a head-to-head race, leading conservative figures endorsed Van der Bellen in order to stop Hofer from taking the office.
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