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It seems to me that if the majority of people want to end democracy it is still not possible.

Is there a self destruct mechanism for democracy?

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    Why would it not be possible?
    – Cadence
    Commented Jul 24, 2023 at 18:18
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    @Cadence Because a constitution might be written in such as way as to prevent the first politician to get 51% of the vote from (legally) declaring himself dictator for life. Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 5:18
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    Not really an intended self destruct, but roman dictators were given full power willingly. Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 7:02
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    This question should be improved. Please edit to explain what you mean. What do you mean by "Democracy". What do you mean by "legal ways". What do you already know about "constitutions"? Questions of legality only make sense in a particular legal system, so you need to specify which country you are asking about. Please don't say "any country" because then "legal" has no meaning. As it stands this is a poor question, and will likely attract vague answers.
    – James K
    Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 7:38
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    Yes, every country has different laws and political systems - I am having trouble telling if you are serious Sorry but this seems such a simple fact, like "not all trees are the same". Your edit did not address any of the issues in my previous comment. Please address those issues.
    – James K
    Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 11:07

8 Answers 8

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Yes, as a democracy/country is founded around a set of documents which include a constitution. If you are able to change those documents with an amendment process you can use that process to change from a democracy to any other form of government as setup in those changes.

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    This statement, in a vacuum is false. Countries like Israel, which was seen for decades as a model democracy (and therefore the token example when people say "a democracy" without qualification) does not have a constitution. Furthermore, in addition to Israel, Canada, New Zealand, and the UK all of uncodified "constitutions", which is basically an unwritten gentleman's agreement on how the country operates. Since the countries use common law systems, established constitution law is based on a collection of case law.
    – uberhaxed
    Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 14:32
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    @uberhaxed All your example countries do have large collections of written constitutional law. The 'uncodified' part (sometimes less exactly stated as 'unwritten') is that there isn't a single document from which other constitutional law derives. The practice of following convention certainly applies in them, but then it also does in countries with a single document called "the Constitution" too. Humans are too messy creatures to have law consisting of a bunch of if, else statements.
    – origimbo
    Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 14:51
  • @origimbo yes, and the statement I was referring to said "democracy/country is founded around a set of documents which include a constitution", which is to say that if these countries don't have a founding constitution then they are not democracies. Now to be fair, half of those countries do have monarchs so one can argue that they are not democracies.
    – uberhaxed
    Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 14:59
  • @uberhaxed I would argue that they still have a "constitution" just not as a single formal documentation. Everything I have read still says they have a "constitution" just that it is an "uncodified constitution". en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncodified_constitution
    – Joe W
    Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 15:05
  • @JoeW from your source, "In such a constitutional system, all these elements may be (or may not be) recognized by courts, legislators and the bureaucracy as binding upon government and limiting its powers." If a government body chooses not to recognize these uncodified rules (and therefore these rules are inferior instead of superior to written law) then I don't think it can be compared to a constitution. E.g. in the US a law that was passed during the completely legal legislative process can be struct down by courts on the basis the it is unconstitutional.
    – uberhaxed
    Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 15:10
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Yes. Many democracies have a means to edit their own fundamental law (constitution or similar), sometimes without limitation.

As one of the first modern democracies, the USA has a particularly simple permission escalation exploit written into it.

Step 1: Gain control of the US Senate (50+1), US House (Majority+1), US Presidency, and full legislative control over 1 US state, and the loyalty of an additional few thousand people in that state living in contiguous land.

Step 2: Use section 3 of Article IV to subdivide the US state you control. Create 500 new US States with at least 6 people loyal to you. Under the US constitution, each of those states have 2 senators and at least 1 congressmember and 3 electoral college votes. They each also have a state senate with 1 member, a state congress with 1 member, and a state governor.

Step 3: Have elections at the state and federal level, and seat your new supermajority.

Step 4: Call a constitutional convention. You have control over more than 3/4 of the states, 2/3 of Congress, 2/3 of the Senate, and the US presidency. A constitutional convention can rewrite the constitution to say whatever you want.

Now, as an earlier step you probably want to stack the US supreme court. While there is no method under the current constitution to replace members, you do have full control over the size of the court. Simply triple the size of the US supreme court and appoint enough loyal judges that you control whatever it says as Step 1.5.

Then if someone tries to block any of the above steps by lawsuit, the supreme court rubber-stamps your actions.

And with the constitutional convention, you can replace the US governmental system with whatever you choose, fully legally.

(Cloture - 60 in the Senate - is an administrative barrier. 50+1 can overrule it and remove it as a requirement: this has already been done in order to stack the US Supreme court with partisans since 2017.)

...

What stops this from mattering is that laws and constitutions are only pieces of paper. Doing something like the above, following the letter of the law, won't make it legitimate in people who don't support your coup.

But exploits like the above is still a good thing to remember whenever someone says "they are not doing anything wrong, they are just following the rules and laws".

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    Your new tiny states could have smaller state governments. For example, Nebraska is unicameral (one legislative body, not two as with other states and the Federal government). As I recall, the states merely Constitutionally need "a republican form of government", so you could probably also skip the governor. Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 3:21
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    There is apparently disagreement over whether the Senate could be abolished, due to this part of Article 5: "no state, without its consent, shall be deprived of its equal suffrage in the Senate." Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 8:58
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    @TannerSwett - That's where the disagreement lies I suppose Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 11:01
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    @TannerSwett More plausibly, you could just defang the Senate and ignore it. For instance, if you gave the House the ability to override a vote of the Senate the way it can override a Presidential veto, then the states' right to equal suffrage in the Senate is not changed, but it's largely unimportant.
    – Cadence
    Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 13:34
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    But even if equal suffrage in the Senate could not be amended away, it could be mooted by amending away the powers of the Senate. Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 13:40
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Depends on the democracy in question.

The logician Gödel supposedly found a flaw in the US Constitution which allows the abolition of the Constitution by constitutional means.

The German Grundgesetz, which came one-and-a-half centuries of hard-won experience later, protects 'the essence' of several articles against change, but notably not the protection itself. Legal scholars assume that this protection of Art. 79 is implicit, but then why not write so?

And then the substance of democracy can be lost if there are not enough democrats around.

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    Does the constitution not expressly provide for it's own abolition through constitutional convention or amendment? Commented Jul 24, 2023 at 22:51
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    @RyanJensen, the German constitution would run into the same self-reference problem Gödel found. Certain things were supposed to be immutable, but that relies on democrats to defend them.
    – o.m.
    Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 4:12
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    Actually Art. 79 just protect the Grundgesetz from being changed in this way. Art. 146 allows for a complete abolishment of the Grundgesetz by democratic means and therefor – if we so desire – also everything in it, including democracy and human rights.
    – zvavybir
    Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 6:32
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    The German "eternity clause" is interesting - I looked it up and turns out it's also the inspiration behind the doctrine of basic structure that limits the powers of the Parliament to make extensive changes to the indian constitution.
    – sfxedit
    Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 7:14
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    But to change the constitution you need a majority, and if your political outfit wants to abandon democracy they will probably be found to be in opposition to the Freiheit-Demokratische Grundordnung (Liberal democratic basic order) and be disbanded (happened to some communist parties and I think some smaller Nazi party successors, even if that was some time ago). So there is some protection built into the system. Of course democracy will not prevail if it runs out of democrats, no matter what laws and institutions there are. Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 7:22
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Depends on the exact country and its constitutional structure; but usually yes, though the safeguards against it vary.

A famous example of that happening in history was the German Enabling Act of 1933, which was a constitutional amendment (passed with more than two thirds of the vote as required for constitutional amendments) that essentially said that from now on, the executive branch (i.e. Hitler) also gets to make law including law that does not comply with the constitution. So that is what they did a few months later.

Of course most dictatorships that now exist officially have a democratic-looking constitution, so those are arguably other examples.

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  • Though to be fair this act was more of a fig leaf at that point Hitler had already given his thugs police level privileges to terrorize other parties, had banned the communist party (which had double digit percentages) and coerced the remaining parties to get to that 2/3 majority. It was less of a democracy voting itself out and then figuring out dictatorships aren't great and more of a dictatorship in the making providing some halfassed legitimization. For example the Nazis themselves celebrated the appointment of Hitler in January as their power grab, not this act from March.
    – haxor789
    Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 9:48
  • The victory usually makes it legal after the fact....
    – bharring
    Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 13:29
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    The 2/3 bit was after unlawfully locking out the Communist legislators. The Enabling Act | Holocaust Encyclopedia : They prevented all 81 Communists and 26 of the 120 Social Democrats from taking their seats, detaining them in so-called protective detention in Nazi-controlled camps. Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 20:53
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Yes, in France, the President can end the democraty at any time.

Article 16 of the Constitution allows the President to suspend the democratic institutions.

And of course, as was the case in Germany, the Republic voted itself out during WW2.

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  • Do you have a clear English translation of Article 16? I thought it "merely" allowed the President to override specific democratic practices. This would mean Democracy isn't the Supreme law of the land at any time, as there are rules that limit it?
    – bharring
    Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 13:22
  • "Where the institutions of the Republic, the independence of the Nation, the integrity of its territory or the fulfilment of its international commitments are under serious and immediate threat, and where the proper functioning of the constitutional public authorities is interrupted, the President of the Republic shall take measures required by these circumstances, after formally consulting the Prime Minister, the Presidents of the Houses of Parliament and the Constitutional Council." - conseil-constitutionnel.fr/en/constitution-of-4-october-1958
    – Maxime
    Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 13:34
  • That seems to be describing what is commonly called "martial law" -- is that the intent?
    – Barmar
    Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 14:59
  • It would also be (theoretically) possible in the USA to pass a constitutional amendment that has the effect of changing the country into a dictatorship.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 16:13
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    But that requires a staggering level of support to amend the Constitution, far beyond majority. At those levels of support, most laws and social contracts lose their teeth.
    – bharring
    Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 16:20
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It boils down to: Can democracy create rules that the democracy cannot later change?

A "pure" democracy could, in theory, give power over to "something" (Ruler, oligarchy, or Constitution, for example). That "something" may be able to ignore later votes that stop it. So it can happen. In fact, it has happened.

More realistically, very few countries are "pure" democracies. Most have a set of rules that transcend democracy (in part for this reason).

To use the US as an example, it is a Constitutional Democracy. That means there are a set of rules (Constitution) that bind/restrict Democracy. Many of these rules stop a current majority from suspending Democracy itself.

So it can and does happen, but stable democracies have rules preventing it (by limiting democracy).

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    The United States of America are a Constitutional Republic.
    – paulj
    Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 12:55
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    Constitutional - rules as highest authority; Republic - not a monarchy (often meaning "for the people"); Democracy - ruled by votes of the people (direct or indirect). The US is Constitutional, and is both a Republic and a Democracy. It's status as a Constitutional Democracy was more relevant than it also being a Constitutional Republic (or Constitutional Democratic Republic), although they're both accurate.
    – bharring
    Commented Jul 25, 2023 at 13:20
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That depends on your definition of "democracy" and "legality".

Democracy just means "rule of the people", which is a principle that can manifest itself in various ways.

So at least in theory in a democracy executive and legislative privileges derive their legitimacy directly or indirectly from the will of the people. Often times through election of representatives and majority decisions, but people could also meet directly and have consensus based decisions.

Also having a majority isn't supposed to be a cheat code to ignore the rest of the population, in that case that would be the rule of the majority not the rule of the people, it's rather assumed that it's a discussion on issues and that if you already have the most hands and brains behind an idea, it would be reasonable to go with your approach given, that you'd be most likely to pull it off, so that the rest tolerates it. If the rest were vigorously opposed to it, that would already be a problem in the framework of democracy. As there would be a disconnect between the majority decision and the will of the people.

That being said, in terms of practical terms having the majority of hands, brains and likely resources against you a) makes your claim towards "democracy" rather sketchy and b) makes your ability to rule without them rather difficult as well.

So decisions by a majority of people are usually treated as legitimized, as anything else would be equally tyrannical yet with even less of a legitimization.

Now with regards to legality. Well you could democratically make laws that state that you can't change the system of government. But the more you'd do so the more this would be the rule of the authors of these documents and the less it would be the rule of the people. Suppose you make such a constitution that is unalterable and a few generations pass so that no original author is still alive would be that still be the will of the people or some form of necrocracy?

So even a constitution in a democracy receives it's power from the democratic mandate, that states that these are rights that the people stand behind.

Again similar to majority decisions, you can have constitutional protections against anti-democratic actions and people might still call it a democracy despite these contradictions, likely because of the democratic mandate for them. It's not perfect but it's still closer to the ideal of a democracy than outright authoritarian systems.

So technically the legal procedure of so called democracies already violates the idea of democracy legally. So it's easy to say in hindsight when you're over the line away from democracy, but different countries may draw the line differently as to when you're still within a democracy despite that.

Also again if you got a sufficient majority there's usually nothing stopping you from changing the laws "legally". Not to mention that even if something is legally codified by law you might still "interpret" that differently. Like how rights and regulations might just be seen as "guidelines" and "rule of thumb" and if a majority lets you get away with these crimes then they de facto aren't crimes. Which is something in a really dark corner of a legal grey area.

But yeah as Yakk has said, in the end a democracy stands and falls with it's democrats. Without people invested in democracy it's easy to change democracies "legally" and if it's just by the fact that no one cares whether it's legal.

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Why does treason never prosper? For if it prospers none dare call it treason.

If you want to legally end a democracy... All you have to do is succeed at ending the democracy and then declare your actions were legal. Encourage anyone who disagrees with the legality of your actions to stop speaking such nonsense, I will leave it to your imagination how this is to be accomplished.

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