Democracies Don’t Disappear With A Bang, They Go Out With A Whimper

cartoon style image in which professor asks student "What's Democracy" and student answers, "Democracy is the freedom to elect your own dictators"

by Tony Wyman


To learn all we need to know about the death of a democracy, all we need to do is look at what dictator Daniel Ortega did to Nicaraguan democracy after his election as president in 2006 with just 37.99% of the vote.

His party, the Sandanista National Liberation Front (FSLN), failed to gain a majority in the legislature, but allied with the Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC) to form a coalition that held more than two-thirds of the seats in the National Assembly.  With allies in the legislature, Mr. Ortega went to work solidifying his control over the rest of the government.

The first thing he did was he used the legislature to make a series of changes to the laws that allowed him to tighten his grip on the nation’s security apparatus, military and central bank.  He combined the changes in the law with a wide number of leadership changes in the nation’s banking, police and national security posts, replacing past leaders with men loyal to the Sandinista government.

He then created Citizen’s Power Councils (CPCs) that were run by the FSLN and Mr. Ortega’s wife, Rosario Murillo.  The CPCs, allege critics of the president, are little more than “patronage mills” that hand out money, with no oversight, to those loyal to and doing the bidding of the government.

Once Mr. Ortega, a former Marxist guerrilla who waged war against his country from 1979 to 1990, consolidated power in the executive branch, he set about building his power in the country’s municipal bodies.  Using the power of the government to suppress political opposition, before the 2008 elections, Mr. Ortega arrested opponents, decertified competing political parties, and intimidated voters, keeping them from appearing at the polls. 

The Economist Magazine, in an article called How To Steal An Election, wrote this the 2008 municipal elections:

In the months before municipal elections on November 9th, Mr Ortega’s government manoeuvred to disqualify two opposition parties from the ballot. It sent police to ransack the offices of the country’s leading investigative journalist, Carlos Fernando Chamorro, and those of a women’s group. It is investigating another 15 organisations, including Oxfam, a British aid agency, for money-laundering and ‘subversion’.

The article accused the Ortega government of fixing the election by fraudulently miscounting the votes and by withholding voter cards from those the government thought would not support the Sandinistas. They also withdrew the credentials of election watchdog groups seeking to observe the integrity of the ballot counts, causing Managua’s Archbishop Leopoldo Brenes to characterize the response of voters to the tally as “People feel defrauded.”

With the Sandinistas controlling 105 of 146 municipalities after the disputed 2008 election, the Ortega government then turned their attention to the obstacle in their path towards solidifying their control over the country: the constitutional ban prohibiting a president from serving consecutive terms.

Daniel Ortega and his wife Rosaria Murillo.
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo, who he married in 1979, have ruled over Nicaragua since 2007 by suppressing political opponents and rigging elections.

Because the National Assembly, not yet firmly in Sandinista hands, opposed eliminating the restriction, the Ortega government went to the Sandinista-led Supreme Court to lift the ban, which it did. 

This action led to the National Assembly passing a resolution condemning the Court’s action. 

This put the head of the Central Election Commission (CSE), the body that oversees elections in Nicaragua, in a position where he had to decide which body’s order to follow, the National Assembly or the Supreme Court.

He chose to follow the court’s guidance, but his term as head of the CSE was due to end in 2010, before the 2011 election.  To prevent a new CSE chief from reversing the previous head’s decision, Mr. Ortega issued a presidential decree stating appointed government officials could stay in their posts until the National Assembly appointed replacements.  This allowed him to run for another term, while Mr. Ortega’s supporters in the National Assembly stalled all attempts to appoint a new CSE head.

With the election rigged to come out in the favor of the Sandinistas, Mr. Ortega’s party finally swept to a majority victory in the National Assembly and he won another term in office as Nicaragua’s president, a position he holds today, seven years later.

Democratic Erosion and Creeping Illiberalism

What happened to Nicaragua isn’t unique to that country.  In fact, it is happening to other democracies around the world right now, including places like NATO member Turkey, Poland and U.S. ally The Republic of the Philippines.

And because it is happening in small steps in those nations, rather than in dramatic, bloody, explosive revolutions, it is going largely overlooked by voters, politicians and major media outlets.  Political scientist for national security company Koto, –  Jay Ulfelder, put the process dictators are following to undermine and, ultimately, destroy the democracies they inherit, this way:

Don’t cancel elections or fake the vote count unless you absolutely must, and for God’s sake, don’t send in the tanks. Relax, take your time. Stack the watchdogs with your friends; pepper your rivals with lawsuits; sic the cops on their campaign rallies; buy up or shut down unfriendly media outlets; and tap the administrative and judicial resources at your fingertips to reward the people who play along and punish the ones who don’t. The outcome is the same, but it’s harder for your critics to slap a “dictator” tag on you because they can’t quite put their fingers on that moment when democracy finally died.

His point is echoed by other political scientists, like Brown University’s Professor Jeff Colgan, who warns that democracies don’t fail when the warning signs of their impending collapse are apparent and easy to see.  Instead, he warns, democracies fail when they erode and become illiberal in small, hard-to-perceive, steps.  “The key point to keep in mind,” he said in a reading list he compiled for his political science students,“is if there were good, reliable signs of democratic breakdown, the breakdown itself would be unlikely to happen. Breakdown mostly happens when it is unanticipated and supporters of democracy fail to mobilize.” 

And why do supporters of democracy fail to mobilize?  Because they don’t perceive the danger to their political freedom until it is too late.  The reason supporters are caught off guard is because dictators create diversions that obscure their real intentions, smokescreens that divert attention away from their efforts to undermine the nation’s democracy and towards a spotlighted danger or enemy. 

These demagogic diversions include, immigrants crossing the border, foreign governments threatening the home country, political outsiders seeking to overturn traditions and customs as well as secretive forces repeating unfair economic advantage while the masses suffer. 

George Washington University Professor Michael Miller put it this way:

The key initial steps: violations of free press, cronyism, using political power to starve the opposition of resources, building up the internal security apparatus, and chipping away at horizontal constraints. This is all excused by hyping emergencies and security problems, increasing polarization and us vs. them rhetoric, and hyping nationalism and blaming foreigners.

In his view, this is part of a pattern that dictators follow that can be seen in previous cases.  That pattern includes 10 signs warning of an impending breakdown of a democracy, as listed by Prof. Colgan.

10 Warning Democracies Are Breaking Down

While there are many signs of the impending rise of a dictatorship, political scientists largely agree there are at least 10 that are common in most, if not all, deteriorating democratic states heading towards dictatorship:
  1.  Government attempts to intimidate or restrict the media. Democracies thrive on the free exchange of information independent of government or special interest control.  But dictatorships can’t survive in tandem with a free press.  Therefore, authoritarians in the early stages of establishing control over their people, attempt to subvert or co-opt the media.  They often broaden libel laws to make it easier to sue or censor the free press and they encourage wealthy allies to acquire media outlets critical of the regime.  With outlets owned by political allies, authoritarians will show favoritism, granting greater access to the leader and his administration in exchange for approving media coverage.
  2. The creation of a crisis or failure of government to justify taking extreme or emergency measures.  The most famous example of this tactic was the way the Nazi regime used the Reichstag fire of 1933, which happened just one month after the election of Adolf Hitler, to incarcerate their communist party rivals in the German parliament and consolidate their grip on the German state.  The Nazis used the fire as an excuse to suspend civil liberties and make mass arrests of their political adversaries.
  3. The use of minorities, immigrants and foreigners as scapegoats. Blaming a nation’s ills on foreigners or politically weak minorities is a tactic authoritarian regimes have used for ages.  Dictators use rhetoric designed to dehumanize their targets, treating them as outsiders intent on harming their host country, often comparing them to animals or calling them criminals seeking to “invade” or “infest” the nation in which they live.  Creating an “us versus them” mentality among the dictator’s followers makes them more willing to take action against the subject of the leader’s antipathy.

    Protest against Trump policy of separating children from their parents
    President Trump has described immigrants coming into this country without documentation as an “infestation” and as an “invasion,” suggesting they bring crime, drugs and gang affiliation with them.
  4. Preventing opponents from getting access to resources needed to compete.Disempowering the political opponents of a dictator is easier to accomplish if those opponents no longer have access to the resources they need to resist.

    Taking away sources of funding, access to the courts, the ability to assemble in groups or to get their information out before the general public, makes neutering political opponents substantially easier.

  5. Undermining the current political system by calling it is illegitimate and claiming elections are “rigged.” To replace an existing system with one more amenable to sustaining a dictator’s rule, the credibility of the existing system must be fatally undermined.  By claiming elections are “rigged” and those charged with protecting the system’s integrity are “crooked,” the dictator and his supporters erode the confidence the people have in the system to the point where they accept changes the dictator promises will make future elections a more accurate representation of the will of the electorate.
  6. Expanding the size of the judiciary to stack it with judges sympathetic to the regime.  If it is difficult to replace judges on the bench when a dictator comes to power, one tactic to remove a judicial obstacle preventing the rise of an authoritarian regime is to simply create more courts to fill with judges who will do the tyrant’s bidding.
  7. Eliminate term limits. Democracies typically limit the amount of time a president may stay in office to prevent a leader from accumulating so much power through patronage he is no longer constrained by the system’s checks and balances.  Dictators thrive on patronage and need time in office to thoroughly permeate the bureaucracy of the government over which they intend to rule.  Once established in power, of course, the dictator wishes to remain in office and requires the legitimacy granted by the elimination of term limitations.
  8. Suppressing, co-opting and intimidating the legislature.  A free, independent and confident legislature willing to take an adversarial role opposed to a dictator is a condition the autocratic ruler cannot tolerate.  To prevent this constraint of the leader’s power, dictators use political forces to attack the integrity, honor and even legitimacy of opposing members of the legislature.  They punish them by withholding national resources from the legislator’s district and by blaming them for problems the country faces.
  9. Politicizing law enforcement, national security agencies and the military and significantly increasing their size. One major obstacle preventing a dictator from overthrowing a democracy are the armed men and women serving the nation in uniform.  Without their support, a dictator’s ability to consolidate power would be greatly limited.  By beheading a uniformed service’s leadership and replacing it with one sympathetic to the dictator, a tyrant’s chances of staying in power replacing the nation’s democracy is vastly improved.  Once co-opted, dictators then consolidate their power by filling the ranks of uniformed services with those loyal to the tyrant.
  10. Using state power to reward the dictator’s friends and to punish his enemies. Using the treasuries of a nation to reward those propping up a dictator is how autocratic regimes have operated for years.  Turkish President Recep Erdogan amassed his power largely by filling the bank accounts of powerful Turks supporting his rise to power at the expense of the Turkish economy.Russian leader Vladimir Putin pays off his nation’s oligarchs in the same fashion, buying their support for his brutal and illiberal regime. Conversely, dictators use their nation’s legal and political systems to punish those who oppose them.  Passing legislation designed to hurt the business of an opponent, for example, is one way tyrants use their governmental power to force opponents to give up resisting their rule.

This list of warning signs isn’t exhaustive, but it does cover most of the major areas that those watching for signs their democracy is eroding should look.  While alone they may not presage the death of a democracy, they provide a basis from which to start raising public awareness and raise a warming flag that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance against those who would replace it with tyranny.    

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3 Thoughts to “Democracies Don’t Disappear With A Bang, They Go Out With A Whimper”

  1. Spencer Nutting

    Sickening. Especially while we watch it going on here

    1. Tony Wyman

      It is happening here and, depending on which observers you read, the trend towards dictatorship is accelerating at an alarming rate.

  2. Dana Lindeneau

    This should be a required read for every American. Not next week, next month or next year…but TODAY…right now!

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