How Democracies Die

My silence is due to a math-heavy post I’m cooking up on frequentism, in case you were wondering. To tide you over, here’s some reading on a topic I’m starting to pay a lot more attention to.

Those who have lived their entire lives in functioning democracies may find it hard to grasp how easily minds can be won over to the totalitarian dark side. We assume such a passage would require slow, laborious persuasion. It does not. The transition from day to night is bewilderingly swift. Despite what many assume, civilized coexistence in a culture of tolerance is not always the norm, or even universally desired. Democracy is a hard-won, easily rolled back state of affairs from which many secretly yearn to be released.

The author of that piece, Uki Goñi, has some relevant experience.

Although I was born in the United States, where my father was posted to the Argentine Embassy, this does not make me a US citizen, since the Fourteenth Amendment excludes the children of foreign diplomats. Yet I grew up as if I were one, pledging allegiance every morning to the flag on the playground of Annunciation School on Massachusetts Avenue. Later, as a young adult in Argentina, I worked for an English-language newspaper in Buenos Aires and reported on the crimes of the bloody military dictatorship that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983. As a journalist, I witnessed first the erosion and then the total collapse of democratic norms, and how a ruthless autocracy can mobilize popular fears and resentments to crush its opponents.

According to that author, the key ingredients to flipping a democracy are A) widespread paranoia, B) a slow and steady normalization of brutality, C) ignorance, motivated reasoning, and misinformation, plus D) a feeling that you’ll turn out A-OK.

For many Argentines, then, the military represented not a subjugation to arbitrary rule, but a release from the frustrations, complexity, and compromises of representative government. A large part of society clasped with joy the extended hand of totalitarian certainty. Life was suddenly simplified by conformity to a single, uncontested power. For those who cherish democracy, it is necessary to comprehend the secret delight with which many greeted its passing. A quick fix to the insurgency seemed infinitely preferable to plodding investigations, piecemeal arrests, and case-by-case lawful trials. Whipped up by the irrational fear of a communist takeover, this impatience won the day. And once Argentina had accepted the necessity for a single, absolute solution, the killing could begin.

That the guerrillas had failed to occupy any territory for any appreciable amount of time was a fact blithely ignored. The delusion prevailed over reality. […]

… the Nazis’ presence in Argentina normalized their ideology and weakened society’s democratic defenses against the totalitarian ideas they represented. Seeing Nazi flags paraded down the streets of Charlottesville last year, seeing them again in Washington, D.C., this year, makes me realize how different today’s America is from the country where I was born and grew up. It makes me realize how far advanced such a normalization already is in the US.

It backs up what I’d read from other sources. Take this old article, for instance.

When [Milton] Mayer returned home, he was afraid for his own country. He felt “that it was not German Man that I had met, but Man,” and that under the right conditions, he could well have turned out as his German friends did. He learned that Nazism took over Germany not “by subversion from within, but with a whoop and a holler.” Many Germans “wanted it; they got it; and they liked it.”

Mayer’s most stunning conclusion is that with one partial exception (the teacher), none of his subjects “saw Nazism as we—you and I—saw it in any respect.” Where most of us understand Nazism as a form of tyranny, Mayer’s subjects “did not know before 1933 that Nazism was evil. They did not know between 1933 and 1945 that it was evil. And they do not know it now.” Seven years after the war, they looked back on the period from 1933 to 1939 as the best time of their lives. […]

Even in retrospect Mayer’s subjects liked and admired Hitler. They saw him as someone who had “a feeling for masses of people” and spoke directly in opposition to the Versailles Treaty, to unemployment—to all aspects of the existing order. They applauded Hitler for his rejection of “the whole pack”—“all the parliamentary politicians and all the parliamentary parties”—and for his “cleanup of moral degenerates.” The bank clerk described Hitler as “a spellbinder, a natural orator. I think he was carried away from truth, even from truth, by his passion. Even so, he always believed what he said.” […]

The killing of six million Jews? Fake news. Four of Mayer’s subjects insisted that the only Jews taken to concentration camps were traitors to Germany, and that the rest were permitted to leave with their property or its fair market value. The bill collector agreed that the killing of the Jews “was wrong, unless they committed treason in wartime. And of course they did.” He added that “some say it happened and some say it didn’t,” and that you “can show me pictures of skulls…but that doesn’t prove it.” In any case, “Hitler had nothing to do with it.” The tailor spoke similarly: “If it happened, it was wrong. But I don’t believe it happened.”

Both pieces go into a lot more detail, so I recommend the detour to read them. Just make sure you’re in a comfortable place; not because there’s a tonne of racism or violence present, but because the echos to the current US climate are so strong.