43

In a representative democracy, those elected pass laws for the country. If a political party had a majority in the relevant legislature(s), could that party use its majority to write a law that superseded all other laws? Could this new law do away with any further elections, free press, etc? If a 2/3 majority would be needed instead of a simple majority, could two parties team up to achieve the same thing? I'm a democrat (general sense) by the way!

EDIT
I've been asked whether the previous question 'What electoral mechanisms might prevent the rise of a demagogue?' solved my problem. In response, although the question is similar to mine, mine is broader, so I've decided to keep it.

  • 12
    The approved answer gives the legal approaches, but there are other street or extra-legal options to prevent a collapse into dictatorship: general strikes and mutinies. – pjc50 Nov 28 '17 at 17:10
  • 23
    "I'm a democrat by the way!" Ahhh... puts back pitchfork – Mehrdad Nov 29 '17 at 1:16
  • 6
    It's because Godel took the secret of how to do it to his grave. =) – Cort Ammon Nov 29 '17 at 14:59
  • 9
    The bedrock foundation of modern democracies are not laws and constitutions, but rather institutions and principles, and people willing to defend them even against their own interests. The judgement of history is that this was the failing in the Wiemar Republic that allowed the Nazis to take over. – RBarryYoung Nov 29 '17 at 22:05
  • 3
    Possible duplicate of What electoral mechanisms might prevent the rise of a demagogue? – T.E.D. Nov 30 '17 at 16:17
79

Most democratic countries have a constitution which says how the state functions and what kinds of laws can and can not be made. Laws which contradict the constitution are usually declared invalid by a constitutional court.

However, most democracies also have a process by which they can modify the constitution. This usually requires a larger majority than a simple law and might also have additional legislative hurdles like consent from additional political instances, a public referendum, prolonged waiting periods, and others. But if a party (or coalition of parties) have enough voting power and political clout to pass all these hurdles, they can sometimes do that. There are several examples, both in history and recently, of countries which made anti-democratic constitutional changes using ordinary democratic processes.

Historic examples:

Recent examples:

  • Poland making their constitutional court de-facto unable to act
  • Turkey unifiying the position of head of state with that of head of government and no longer requiring the president to be non-partisan

Why doesn't every government attempt this? Because democracy also has benefits. Losing power in a dictatorship usually means you will end up in exile or dead. When you lose a democratic election, you become opposition, spend the next couple years badmouthing the government (and they can't do anything about that because the constitution says you have freedom of speech) and try to get re-elected in the next election. And when you get too old for these power-games, you can retire with a life-long pension and don't need to be afraid of persecution, no matter who becomes your successor.

  • 2
    Might be worth mentioning that sometimes modifying the constitution requires not necessarily a referendum, but instead two parliamentary votes with a general parliamentary election in between. This is the case in Sweden, for example (calling a referendum is an option which hasn't ever been used). In Sweden, this is regulated in regeringsformen, currently in chapter 8, §§ 14, 16. The legal text can be found at lagen.nu/1974:152#K8P14S1 (in Swedish). – a CVn Dec 3 '17 at 13:50
  • 2
    The problem with this answer is that legal documents do not actually prevent a dictatorships. One can simply use force and threat of force to ignore any legal documents, including constitutions. – Infiltrator Dec 4 '17 at 9:59
  • @Infiltrator Of course, but the question is precisely about the legal documents. The point isn't to prevent a dictatorship. The OP wants to know if there is a legal proceeding that one could use to put a dictatorship in place by using the legal, standard democratic procedures of a given country, without the use of firepower. – T. Sar - Reinstate Monica Dec 4 '17 at 10:11
  • No!!! The national-socialists of 1930's Germany did not use ordinary democratic processes to establish their dictatorship! What was the Night of the Long Knives? ( en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Night_of_the_Long_Knives ) Why did the Reichstag burn after Hitler was appointed Chancellor? ( en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reichstag_fire ) – elliot svensson Sep 11 '18 at 15:17
85

The only obstacle between a government by the people and a dictatorship are the people.

  • 4
    This is the real answer – axsvl77 Nov 28 '17 at 17:12
  • 5
    I'm a sucker for quotes; "... if you can keep it." and "... shall not perish from the earth." come to mind. – user9389 Nov 28 '17 at 17:42
  • 6
    @notstoreboughtdirt This meme also comes to mind... – reirab Nov 28 '17 at 18:52
  • 11
    "When the government violates the people's rights, insurrection is, for the people and for each portion of the people, the most sacred of the rights and the most indispensible of duties." Marquis de Lafayette – jean Nov 29 '17 at 11:04
  • 6
    This is one of the rare answers where the solution is short, simple and unfortunately completely true. – Thorsten S. Nov 29 '17 at 15:23
41

A good example of a system trying to prevent this is the Constitution of Norway.

The constitution has various ways to protect itself from being altered in undesirable ways.

Changes to the constitution require a 2/3 majority in parliament, and perhaps more importantly, they require two consecutive parliaments to confirm the changes. This means that if a parliament attempts to pass changes to the constitution that are not favored by the people, the voters have the chance to vote those representatives out of parliament before the changes can be completed.

Requiring a 2/3 majority twice is meant to ensure that only desirable changes are made to the constitution, and typically means that changing the constitution takes years, since a new parliament is only voted in once every four years.

This does not mean that the constitution is not changed, but it is meant to ensure that changes are thought carefully through, and agreed on by many people.

  • 6
    Would be cool if you could mention how often that constitution has been actually amended! – Mehrdad Nov 29 '17 at 1:24
  • 10
    The constitution of Norway is actually changed quite often. The original was written in 1814. For the 200 year anniversary in 2014 somebody counted them and found 148 amendments. Many of them fairly recent, e.g. the 2012 severing of the last ties between the government and the Church of Norway. – Stig Hemmer Nov 29 '17 at 9:06
  • @Mehrdad I've edited my answer for clarity. – Revetahw says Reinstate Monica Nov 29 '17 at 9:16
  • 11
    This answer is a great addition – I can see why Norway is top of the Economist Democracy Index. – Martin Nov 29 '17 at 10:39
  • 1
    That is also a way to keep the constitution away from changes and restricted from intromission from opposite political views (cosmetics changes available). If the constitution was created when a party or a group was in power, it is even worse. Example to this: Chile. People want one thing, political parties won't agree on changes, consensus is never reached, constitution stays the same, different views of political parties spread apart, new political parties start to appear to fill the new views, agreements cannot be reached to reach the minimal ammount of votes, constitution never changes. – Billeeb Dec 1 '17 at 12:47
12

Given your stated party affiliation, the implication is that you want to know how the US could become a dictatorship under a flawed but idolized executive who is beloved by the masses. First, you need an extreme popular support (at a 30-40% approval rating, you're no where close with present executives, so there). Next, you need to be able to get a super-majority who can give you the authority without filibusters from the opposition. Then, you need to pack the supreme court with judges to your liking... the more the merrier. Four justices and one who kinda goes your way occasionally, but has been known to swing to the other side, won't cut it. And that's in the rare (but very much heard about because they are hugely controversial cases) 5-4 decision. SCOTUS is a lot more unanimous than one might think.

Now, lets say you got all that... you need your supported party in congress to all fall in line and do what you tell them to make law... no small feat. Even in the last Supermajority (2008-2010) the majority party had a very difficult time passing major legislation to reform health care, let alone reforming all of government. Now that's changing the law... but peskier things... like first amendment rights... and second amendment rights... you need 75% of government on your side and 75% of the states on your side. Now, assuming all that, is where the real fun begins.

Let's take that second amendment right away from the constitution. Now that that is gone, you have to ban guns by law. All that amendment 2 does is stop you from making laws banning gun ownership. You have to write, pass and enforce the ban... and that goes for any rights protected by the constitution that the government cannot presently act on. Also any thing like bans on military law enforcement and the like.

Oh, and you'll want to hurry up and not wait because you only have a two year time window. After that, all the House and one third of the Senate are up for re-election and those up for grabs seats might not be filled with people who like you at all (see that Supermajority thing that only lasted two years... yeah, there were a lot of people who were upset with what was done after that use of power). But barring that, you're in the clear, right? Um... yeah... there's a reason I mentioned that 2nd amendment

Cause agree with repealing it or don't, but most dictatorships tend to not last long if they allow for similar freedom. It is currently estimated that the U.S. has a people population of 330 million citizens and a fire-arm population of 350 million units. Even accounting for an uprising that has a significant but still minority percentage of the population decide to commit to an armed rebellion, numbers like that mean that you're gonna have a lot of enemy fire. Of course, the dictator has his loyal military with him... except he would be foolish to purge leadership as civil war is on the rise, he needs every man he can get... and their experience... and most of the U.S. military at present is filled with people with silly notions such as defending American freedoms and rights and protecting their fellow countrymen. And despite reputations, many are very, very smart... and while you do have a lot of grunts in the lower ranks, those cool toys that you intend to show superior firepower to the uprisings... those are used and operated by the smarter members of the military who are more capable of thinking for themselves and more likely to remember their oath is to the Constitution, not an occupant of an office.

And that doesn't take into account that people tend to not support you when you bomb their neighbors or occupy their towns and enforce harsh restrictions in order to put down the active resistance pocket in the area. And they really don't like it when you put down relatives and friends who you know are good people. In military campaigns, invasion forces need to be swift or face a long war of attrition. They also don't tend to met out just force against guerilla attacks, which only serves to push more and more locals into the rebellion. And the resource drain is not favoring the occupying force, who have to push their supply lines to meet the front lines, which can get hit by other guerillas. This lowers troop moral and home-front moral and interest in pursuing the rebellion at the cost of their own forces.

But if you can get rid of all those things, I guess dictatorship is possible. Just remember, the inaction of the U.S. Government is not a bug, it's a feature.

Edit: Just to clarify, these are the safeties needed to disable the system in the United States, and thus, do not prevent it, only make it very difficult to happen. Should the sufficient will of the people desire this change, it can happen and rather quickly. To paraphrase a famous modern political discourse "Democracy dies to Thunderous Applause."

  • 12
    "Given your stated party affiliation" - actually, OP might be using "democrat" in the general sense (supporter of democracy). Hard to tell without context. – sleske Nov 29 '17 at 9:56
  • 2
    The main flaw of this answer is that if we assume things like 75% of government and 75% of states on your side and a large supermajority, it is to be expected that a large majority of the population actually supports the leader, be it armed civilians or the military. The rise to power of the Nazis would have been impossible without a significant majority of the population supporting them. Oh yes, and there were an abundance of arms in the population and a military that frowned upon a former Private becoming the Fuhrer, but that didn't stop dictatorship. – Thern Nov 29 '17 at 13:06
  • 2
    @mlm: Thanks for clarifying and my discussion was based on the assumption you were posting party affiliation. Unfortunately, how this could happen in GB is not going to be as detailed as my knowledge of American system. Best I can do is "Don't let Humphrey near 10 Downing Street." – hszmv Nov 29 '17 at 13:54
  • 1
    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Sam I am says Reinstate Monica Dec 3 '17 at 1:43
  • 1
    @EricTowers Not all power - especially not when overturning democracy - has to come from the voting population. Often, those who never had a vote took a significant part in overturning a system... – Thern Dec 4 '17 at 8:21
11

@hszmv's excellent answer already alludes to this - there is also another major factor, to whit, the guys with big sticks. AKA, the military.

Obviously, how the military feels about things has a very large effect on success of any major national transformation.

  • If the majority of the military opposes your bid for power, no matter how "legal"/"democratic", they will get rid of you.

    The most obvious and recent case in point is Egypt; where Mursi tried to do something similar (gain power democratically, try to re-write the laws to become less democratic theocracy - this is bumper sticker level, without nuance). The military took a dim view of that, resulting in Mursi ending in jail and Al-Sisi being in power.

  • Whereas, if the military/law enforcement at large supports your bid for power, they will support you, not only against your own people; but even against dissenting parts of the military.

    Most relevant recent example: Turkey, and the abortive coup attempt against Erdoğan (this is especially notable due to the fact that, since Ataturk, the military was by design the guarantor of secularism in Turkey - the last time in 1997).

  • More pertinent to USA, the army is typically very ideologically supportive to constitution (see the oaths taken by every officer); and has a history of NOT being interested in establishing dictatorships, for example see Butler's example in 1930s.

    I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic...

  • 2
    Thanks for the props, but the most recent ousting of the dictator was within one week of writing, which was the ousting of President Mugabe of Zimbabwe, conducted by the national army. – hszmv Nov 28 '17 at 21:00
  • Also: As for the U.S. Military, I was suggesting a sizable amount of service ranks with rebel sympathies as opposed to the organization as a whole or on a leadership level. – hszmv Nov 28 '17 at 21:07
  • @hszmv - he was, in effect, in power by that same army, so i'm not sure it is a clean example :) But you are correct. – user4012 Nov 28 '17 at 21:07
  • 4
    Good point about the influence of the military. It should be pointed out, however, that historically the influence of the military has been both ways. In some cases they supported democracy, in some the supported or established a dictatorship. There's even a name for that - military dictatorship. – sleske Nov 29 '17 at 9:58
  • 1
    @sleske True, which is exactly why the United States has the Second Amendment. The framers of the Constitution were very wary of a standing army being used to prop up a dictatorship, so they wanted to ensure that the people had big sticks of their own. I don't care how big your army is, you're not going to stop 100,000,000 people with guns who don't want a dictator. – reirab Nov 30 '17 at 19:17
7

The vast majority of new representative democracies lapse into dictatorship early on.

  • The English Civil War in England the converted England from a monarchy to a Republic in the late 1600s, collapsed after a few years and was followed by the restoration of an absolute monarchy from which a representative democracy emerged gradually over the next two hundred years with the franchise gradually growing and the relative power of the Prime Minister and the Monarch shifting over time.
  • The French Revolution and the First Republic in the 18th century gave way to the Second Empire.
  • The liberal democratic regime created after the Russian Revolution in the early 20th century - it lasted a matter of days.
  • German's Weimar Republic in the 1930s - fail.
  • Portugal and Greece have both had post-WWII coups.
  • The lion's share of the new post-colonial democracies of Latin America, Africa and Asia experienced military coups or civil wars, followed by extended period of authoritarian rule and/or single party rule which often amounts to the same thing.

Some other answers have emphasized institutional or legal tools, like provisions in constitutions limiting amendments, but history tells a different story. The Weimar Republic had a state of the art constitution. England, which ultimately produced one of the healthiest representative democracies on the planet, still doesn't have a comprehensive, higher law status written constitution. Canada managed without one until the 1980s.

Far more important to the health of a representative democracy is the political culture of those who participate in government and the political system, and the competence of the people who conduct the affairs of that representative government. Part of this is the accumulated social capital of voting citizens ("the People"), but what really matters is the skill set and the values of would be political elites.

For example, one of the important features of the U.K. political system is that political parties carefully recruit, vet and affirmatively choose their nominees for political office, a power that U.S. political parties largely lost in progressive era reforms, and then, once a U.K. politician makes it to elected office, he or she still has almost no power as a back bencher for the party until his or her peers within the legislative wing of a political party elevate that member to a junior cabinet post or committee seat, a decision made by like minded partisans who know the individual well on a day to day basis and value that individual's ability to function well in a legislative arena.

Since almost all legislative policy making power in the U.K. is concentrated in a cabinet and leadership group of a few dozen out well over 300 elected officials in the majority coalition, it is easy to limit power to people whom well informed peers know are ready for the responsibility and are competent administratively.

In countries where representative democracy is abandoned by coup or revolution, the removal of the old government is often welcome (e.g. recently in Zimbabwe) where incompetence and corruption and a lack of a proper temperament tend to be the rule as early elected officials with no experience whatsoever running a representative democracy give it their amateur best try.

Faced with elected officials doing what is clearly wrong out of incompetence and/or mendacity, often of types voters didn't anticipate (at least in severity), and the lack of any politicians with the moxie to win the same post and oust the incumbent, it isn't hard to see how the situation gets so bad that drastic measurement must be taken, and the civilian establishment often has a too thin basis of competent elected officials, judges, lawyers and civil servants to pull that off. A lack of experienced and competent individuals qualified to run a Western style representative western Democratic system of government is often just too much.

For example, the really dominant factor in the slide of Sudan into authoritarianism after a brief flirtation with representative democracy was a shortage of officials with the knowledge and skills necessary to perform the duties and the elected officials, judges and the senior civil servants such a system required. They had perhaps 100 people qualified for those posts at the time if conducted in a Western-style fashion, but needed thousands of people with those qualifications for the system that they designed for themselves in their constitution to actually work reasonably well.

Similar factors are common elsewhere as well, not just in national governments, but at the local level and in NGOs that are intended to be democratically managed. For example, I am aware of a fairly new private college in East Africa where one of the main governance challenges has been finding someone with both the competence and the freedom from corruption to manage its finances without diverting funds or misreporting its accounts, something that has only been possible with outsider founders of the institution so far. They've found maybe a dozen people who have the skills necessary to do the job, but corruption is so pervasive in that region that almost everyone who manages to get the skills necessary to do the job also absorbs a culture of embezzlement, nepotism, and accounting fraud in the course of acquiring those skills (especially the men, one or two women looked promising but ended up being diverted by family or better prospects elsewhere).

The process of developing a non-corrupt corps of people with the right skills takes decades, and can't simply be brought into existence with the stroke of a pen. Imagine you have to make that same job search for hundreds of city managers, hundreds of managers of divisions and bureaus within government departments, and a thousand judicial posts. You see the problem.

  • 2
    This answer appears to confuse the Glorious Revolution with the Civil War. Two very different events, 50 years apart. – Brian Drummond Nov 29 '17 at 23:13
  • My bad. Point taken. Post changed accordingly. The misnomer doesn't really change the conclusion, however. – ohwilleke Nov 30 '17 at 19:53
  • I think you are confusing Democracy with Representative Republic. Indeed, I think the whole question is confusing Democracy with Representative Republic. USA is the biggest example of a Representative Republic but is, in NO WAY, a Democracy. – Billeeb Dec 1 '17 at 13:01
  • 1
    @Billeeb "Not a direct democracy" is not the same thing as "not a democracy." The USA (along with most other modern Western republics) is a constitutional democratic republic, wherein the representatives are elected democractically according to the processes set forth in a constitution. – reirab Dec 1 '17 at 23:51
  • 1
    @Billeeb Yes, the Roman Republic wasn't democratic (its representatives [Senators] weren't elected.) The U.S. republic, along with most current Western republics, is democratic. The representatives are elected by those whom they represent. This is both a democracy and a republic, though not a direct democracy for most purposes (though occasionally larger measures do get put up for direct popular vote, particularly within U.S. state or municipal governments.) It's possible to have a non-democratic republic or a non-republican democracy, but most current Western governments are both. – reirab Dec 22 '17 at 16:12
3

There is no legal instrument that would stop democratic government from transferring the country into dictatorship.

If such instrument would exist, it would mean, there is already no democracy, because it would mean that something would void the votes of people who want to vote for dictatorship party.

However, that situation is quite theoretical and would not happen in any truly democratic country, because people would not vote for a party that would rob them their freedom to control their environment.

If you look at 'democratic' countries that transformed into dictatorship, you'll notice the 'democracy' there was the illusion for long time before that transformation.

The most prominent example: the Weimar Republic. People have voted for NSDAP. This party get the majority. It was not the absolute majority, but majority nevertheless.

But it was not healthy democracy. People have no real control over the most important aspect of their life: the distribution of goods. The Germany was forced to pay the reparations, which were intended to break the German economy, and they indeed were doing that. So people voting for NSDAP were not voting to diminish their control over their life, but to broaden that in the sense they wanted to remove enemy control over their economy, military and politics.

The examples from current headlines: Turkey and Poland. Turkey was not a real democracy, a facade democracy in best case. People could decide who gets into parliament, but military reserved the right to overpower any government they feel was the danger to the Kemalism. So it was effectively a military dictatorship. Any government who opposed military risked overthrowing.

The Poland is more near to me. On the paper, it was made a nice democracy. However, it's nothing near healthy democracy. People can vote any party they like, but then they have no control if the party hold up their promises (which they usually don't). The transformation itself wasn't fair either. Firstly, the money of all private people were confiscated after 1989 (the new government has triggered hyperinflation). Second, only a small group of population has really benefited from the transformation and achieved relative wealth. Most people deal with poor health service, very low minimal income (4 times lower than in Germany, although it was recently raised up). Labor laws are weak and almost not enforced, overtime, often unpaid, is a sad norm. People's initiatives land normally in shredder, and the last referendum was a farce (one of the question: do you want change something in financing of political parties - answering 'yes' could mean increasing or decreasing that financing, depending on the interpretation).

So if your 'democracy' is a farce, you are in real danger that people will vote for 'despotic' party to overthrow that farce.

0

The Constitution is just a piece of paper. It doesn't have any power beyond whatever common trust is placed on it by the citizens of a given country. You can include any restrictions you want when writing the law and it can still be overridden if the people in charge have enough public support (or enough muscle) to enforce their viewpoint.

So the answer is: absolutely nothing prevents the transition to dictatorship. But the good news is nothing likewise prevents the democracy from staying intact. So it's merely a question of balance within the society, not whatever legalese is written in some ancient document.

  • The first paragraph here kind of contradicts the second one, especially the bolded statement. The will of the people to remove a would-be dictator is a quite effective deterrent against a dictator gaining power, particularly when said people possess big sticks that are capable of causing high-velocity lead poisoning. – reirab Dec 1 '17 at 23:58
  • This doesn't seem very reasonable. If nothing prevents it, why doesn't every democracy turn into a dictatorship overnight? – indigochild Dec 2 '17 at 2:19
  • @indigochild : Because this is not quantum mechanics -- not every thing that is possible is mandatory. – Eric Towers Dec 4 '17 at 0:21
  • @EricTowers - No, but there is some reason to why things happen. This answer fails to capture the variation we see in nature, so it doesn't do a good job of explaining the phenomenon being asked about. – indigochild Dec 4 '17 at 15:27
  • 1
    I second @reirab. The first paragraph is right. The second paragraph is wrong. Power comes from institutions, culture, and the citizens. In the USA for example you have three branches of government, the military, 50 state governments, numerous law enforcement agencies, state militias, etc, and an armed citizenry. Even if all three branches of the federal government "voted" for a dictatorship, they'd still have to win over the military, the states, and the citizens. (This is why fascist and communist countries deliberately try to destroy such decentralized institutions.) – user15103 Dec 9 '17 at 23:26
0

Limiting powers instead of expanding them. The government's core principles must be to serve the people and protect the liberties granted by the constitution. Actually I can't think of one nation where it happens.

You must log in to answer this question.

protected by Philipp Nov 28 '17 at 18:30

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .