I was born in the USSR, Russia, so this is the question that always puzzled me: how it happens that in some countries there are people who vote against the authorities, for instance, the president?

If the person in question, president, is the boss, he just can tell the people to vote for him. How it is even possible that there are people who vote not for the current people in charge?

If he is the president, he is superior, and if he is superior, he can order to vote for him. Okay, there will be some people who will vote differently, but this is a clear act of insubordination, and they can be punished.

So, how the people avoid being punished for not doing what the authorities told them to do?

For instance, take the current Russian presidential elections. The opposition candidate Duntsova was in great trouble finding a notary that could cerify the creation of the support group. She received more than 40 refusals from the notaries, and the one who agreed, it seems (from the available data) allowed for intentional mistakes thus making many documents invalid. Another candidate, Girkin, also said he faces a problem finding a notary for registration.

It all looks absolutely natural for me: the authorities tell the notaries, voters, police, counting committee how they want the election to happen, and those do what they were told by the superiors. If anyone will defy the orders from those in charge, they will face consequences, such as firing from the position or losing the notary license.

Of course, the law may tell that the notary is obliged to certify and cannot refuse (which is what the law says indeed), but everyone knows that if someone will do the things the authorities do not like, they will face consequences.

If you do not follow the orders of the superiors, you can expect even the ambulance not coming to your rescue and the police doing nothing if you are attacked.

So, my question is: you have a person in charge, the boss, the authority who says to vote for them, to not allow this or that candidate to run to the electoral commision or to the court to make this decision, how can you do something in defiance?

Basically, if you do not do something ordered to you, you rebel against authorities, you are attempting a revolution. How can you do something like this and avoid punishment? How can you rely on police if you raised voice against the police head?

Take for instance, the USA. If you campaigned against the county's sheriff, how can you feel safe after that living in that county?

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    95% of the text of the Q is anecdotes about what happens in an authoritarian country such as the USSR/Russia. The last paragraph then suddenly asks us to, "Take for instance, the USA". Is this Q about the USSR/Russia or the US?
    – user182601
    Commented Dec 25, 2023 at 2:32
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    @user182601 the question is about western countries. I gave examples about Russia so to ask how you make it different in the West.
    – Anixx
    Commented Dec 25, 2023 at 2:33
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    It seems like the core question here is just "how does democracy work", or maybe "how do democracies prevent retaliation against losing candidates" is closer. Either way, it sounds like a very broad question unless you narrow it down to a single government.
    – Giter
    Commented Dec 25, 2023 at 3:57
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    Vote to reopen. It has upvotes, good answers and is a very relevant question to democracies. Some of the answers - about the limits in democracies of being "The Boss" and peaceful transfer of power - are also highly pertinent to elections in some large democracies next year. The question is clear enough as is, notice how the better answers didn't struggle to qualify it. Commented Dec 25, 2023 at 22:05
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    Anixx, you asked your question and it was too broad. Why? Because you've been given several very good answers, and under each them, you ask further clarifications: what about judges? what about the police? what about? what about? This is proof it's too broad. Stop arguing with the answerers and take your further questions and ask more pointed questions about them. Show that you really want to know what you ask about. You want to know about judges? Ask a question about how the judiciary works in a democracy. Don't carry on discussion in the comments.
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Dec 27, 2023 at 13:07

18 Answers 18


How does democracy work?

A democracy gives a mechanism for non-violent transfer of power.

The Leader doesn't and can't act as you describe in a democratic culture.

A democratic culture develops through successive Leaders not acting like that. The Leader has trust that there is a non-violent route back to power, and they have that trust because previous leaders have willingly given up power. The leader pays forward that trust by being willing to give up power, knowing that this will build trust by his opponents and make them more likely to freely give up power in the future.

Now what happens if a Leader orders that people vote for them. Why should people do that? The ballot is a secret ballot. What happens if the Leader tells the various people involved in the election to "fix" the result? They don't. Instead they tell the media. In a democratic culture, there are always a lot more people to oppose an attempted autocrat than stooges who will obey/support them.

The layers and layers of government are not personally allied to the leader. The judges, notaries, police, counting committee all have been appointed in a democratic culture, and are not personally allied to the Leader.

So what does the Leader get from not upsetting this order? Well, the Leader achieved their position through the democratic process, so they have some trust in it. The previous Leader gave up power in a non-violent way. If the Leader is willing to conform to the democratic culture (and give up power non-violently), they will build trust in their opponents, and make it more likely that they will be able to regain power in the future (if not personally, then at least on behalf of their party).

The Leader who doesn't do this risks being taken down by the system, and losing a route back to power. Further, if a Leader cuts off non-violent transfers of power, they risk people seeking violent transfers of power. If Putin or another autocrat allowed someone else to take power, they would face a high chance of being imprisoned or even executed; in democracies leaders (usually) don't need to worry about that.

Your question seems based on your personal incredulity of two facts that I shall just state:

  1. People don't do what the leader tells them.
  2. The Leader has much to gain by acting in accordance with the constitution.

How does Russia differ from the USA? The trust that I mention above does not exist, so the Leader does not see a non-violent route back to power if he gives it up. Hence he acts in such a way to not give up power, which of course means that if his opponents were to wrest control from him, they would also not have trust.


Your confusion comes from the fact that in a democracy, the president is NOT the big boss.

Any decent democracy contains in its core mechanisms that not only keep the president in check, but also allow them to be legally demoted.

It is not done by snapping your fingers, and requires a lot of people to decide accordingly, but it is possible.

And even if there is technically the possibility of a president to remove/change those mechanisms, it would require the same lot of people to accept it.

he can put people in the key positions that do. For instance, judges, police bosses

Not in France (and most democracies): they cannot (or at least not without external approval). That's the point of it.

And I'm not even talking about the possibility of a military (or even civilian) coup.

Of course, when your president is a bully that resorts to threats, blackmail, or outright killings in order to ensure nobody will challenge him, it kinda kills the purpose of it.
But in this case he is not a president anymore, he is a dictator.


If the person in question, president, is the boss, he just can tell the people to vote for him. How it is even possible that there are people who vote not for the current people in charge?

Because of systems.

You have secret elections. This is carefully designed so that you can't prove what you voted for even if you want. The system ensures this by having open processes documented openly monitored by volunteers from the different parties (and outsiders).

This spreads to other branches. The courts is independent from the government, and a judge can't be instructed nor kicked out. Thus the government can't revenge on a judge that judges in their disfavour. This is the principle of separation of power, so that the different branches (executive, judiciary, legislature) watches each others action, and any abuse can be handled. In many western countries the parliament can oust the executive branch through a vote of no confidence. The judiciary can strike down a law passed by the legislature. And so on.

You have openness laws which gives everyone broad access to government records, and free press that can write critical news stories - and as a general rule will refuse any orders from the government of what not to print. For instance see pentagon papers.

So in short it's a system that ensures that if the leader tried, he'd fail. This is ensured by layers watching each other, and ultimately an open society where everyone can check the government records.


The core of how and why western democracies work is rooted in the nation's culture and traditions. Ultimately, it all comes down to the overwhelmingly universal support among the general population for the ideals of democracy and for the rule of law.

If the President of the US tried to blatantly place his own authority above the rule of law in any of the manners you have suggested, his own government would remove him from office. Afterwards, he would likely be tried and sentenced as a criminal for breaking the laws, and he would no longer have the authority to pardon any crimes.

Regarding the possibility of the president ordering the assassination of his primary opposition:

  • There are a great many other people who would readily step up to lead the opposition in the assassinated leader's place, and the loss of any single leader would have little or no impact on their supporters, so the president would gain almost nothing from it.
  • Police would investigate the murder, and the President actually does NOT have the authority to order them not to.
  • The president could pardon the assassin, but such a pardon would immediately become a major scandal, even if the president claims that he did not order the assassination.
  • Whether or not he pardons the assassin, the president's own action of ordering the assassination is also a crime, and pardoning himself for that would be publicly admitting that he did it.
  • If the president orders the assassination of enough opposition leaders to meaningfully discourage other people from becoming new opposition leaders, or if he admits to having ordered such assassinations, the House of Representatives and the Senate would impeach him and remove him from office. Many of even his own supporters would vote against him for such actions.
  • If the president tried to order the police or military to threaten and coerce the House and Senate to not remove him, they would refuse. The US army's oath of service is to support the Constitution, the basis of the US government's laws, not the president.

That last point is not entirely just a hypothetical. Near the end of President Trump's term in office, some of the highest rank officers of the US military discussed among themselves what to do if Trump ordered them to intervene to keep him in power, and they resolved that they actually would refuse that order.

Regarding the possibility of the president bypassing or breaking all of that by putting his loyal supporters in all the key positions:

  • The number of key positions he would have to control to pull that off is very, very high.
  • For most of those positions, who holds them is not decided by the president. Many of them are elected by the people, and many of the non elected key positions are appointed by other people (not the president) who are elected.
  • Taking control of enough key positions to make dictatorial authority for the president possible would require doing things that would only be possible if the president already has dictatorial authority.

In short, a western democracy's system of government is intentionally designed to limit the president's power, and to protect itself against having those limits be subverted.

  • In addition to all your other bullets, there's the "advice and consent" of the Senate that's required for any high-level position, even in the military (as demonstrated by the long hold on promotions by one Senator). Of course, there's also ways around that with Acting officials, but how much he can get away with that just goes back to your earlier points about the underlying culture supporting democracy.
    – Bobson
    Commented Dec 29, 2023 at 14:17

In the US we often talk about checks and balances, but what is not often spoke about is what you are confused about here. We have bureaucracy. The bureaucracy is not allied to one person or one party. It is massive and can't be easily replaced with stooges except at the very top, and even if you did that, the amount of leverage you gain by doing so is very limited the way it is designed.

We often malign our bureaucracy for making things problematic or slow to get things done. Taking something simple to change and making it complicated. That is in part it's design. Anything that is involved in running the government in an orderly fashion is done automatically by it, without interference by those in power. If those in power want to change something, they have to jump through hoops, bend over backwards, and fill forms out in triplicate to get any changes pushed through. Then it'll be changed in time for the mid terms after next election, and they likely won't be in office to see the changes.

Our elections themselves are often part of the bureaucracy in many states. This is why in the past couple elections so many attacks against them have been made. The states have been trying to take a more active role in coordinating them, and removing the bureaucracy involved. This they hope to allow themselves to change the electoral process to benefit themselves without repercussions. In some places it has backfired, though in others it has started to gain some traction. Our courts have been pulled to rule in on whether or not these changes violate the constitution or not, and it has been mixed. One example is in North Carolina, there was an attempt to restrict poll watchers that was rejected: https://apnews.com/article/2022-midterm-elections-voting-presidential-election-2020-0b9b56a3e9f0f7dbfacae88537cbc1fb Another in Arizona, a judge prevents a group of poll watchers from intimidating people: https://www.politico.com/news/2022/11/01/arizona-poll-watchers-restraining-order-00064559 Since the 2020 elections there have been a lot of hub-bub about poll watchers in the US, however poll watchers are a part of how we keep our elections fair and honest, as all parties to our elections send observers to make sure things are being handled correctly. This too is part of our bureaucracy.

What you see in our government in the media is our elected officials. They come and go every few years. The bureaucracy though is all career workers who have been at their jobs for decades. They keep our government running no matter who is elected. They make sure the government runs, no matter who is elected. They make sure bad policies don't destroy us, and help maximize the good policies. They do this by making sure that changes to our government are slow to enact, and won't ever happen till after the administration changes, or gets reelected.

So why does the President just not tell people to vote for him and they do that? Well he tries. He just has no force to back it up. The bureaucracy that is our government ensures that anything he would enact he wouldn't enjoy until long after it was too late.

(Note: Not all policies are as laggy or delayed as I make it out, but ones as far reaching as you suggest are. You talk about changing the way our government operates.)

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    @Anixx Again, culture. Western democratic cultures value loyalty specifically to the nation, not to the leader. Voting for the incumbent solely because they are the incumbent would, if anything, be viewed as disloyalty to the nation, because loyalty to the nation demands voting for the candidate who the voter believes would be best for the nation. Citizens of western democracies are raised to believe that their duty as voters is to vote for the best candidate, regardless of whether that's the incumbent or an opposition leader.
    – Douglas
    Commented Dec 26, 2023 at 20:13
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    @Anixx People in Russia vote as the president says to vote because they have been raised to believe that they should, and because they expect that refusing to obey will get them punished. People in a western democracy vote as they personally believe is for the best, and insist on taking the time to evaluate for themselves what would be best. We vote this way because we are raised to believe that it is how we properly should vote, and because we know that our choices of who and what to vote for will not be punished.
    – Douglas
    Commented Dec 26, 2023 at 20:29
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    @Anixx Let's think about this a different way: In Russia, who says that the President is the boss? Is it the President himself? If so, why does he say this? Does he have something to gain from you thinking of him this way? If everyone thinks of him as the boss, does everyone behave a certain way towards him? This is what his goals are then in using that ideology on you. It isn't because he is the boss. He just wants you to think of him that way. Commented Dec 26, 2023 at 20:44
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    @Anixx If you believe that everything you do if futile, and that everyone involved is against you, then you have already lost. What you are describing is a government wide conspiracy. While I don't know if it's true or not, such things are very hard to keep secret when they are more than just a handful of people. As for change, the power is in the hands of the people, not the other way around. As I said, the President there tells you he is the boss, because he wants you to believe that. There is a good reason why. If the people oppose him all at once, he has lost. Commented Dec 26, 2023 at 20:56
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    @Anixx In a western democracy, if the president tried to act as you describe, it would go like this: President: "Kill my opponent." Subordinate: "WTF? That's illegal and a betrayal of our nation's ideals. I refuse, and I'll tell the media all about it." President: "Other guy, kill the guy who refused my order." Other subordinate: "WTF? No, and I'll tell the media too." News media publicizes it, everyone is outraged, president gets impeached and removed from office. People feel safe from punishment for doing that because they know people ordered to punish them would react the same way too.
    – Douglas
    Commented Dec 26, 2023 at 21:20

A few years ago the UK was tearing itself apart over the decision to leave the European Union. The top man in the UK is the Prime Minister, and the then Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, was very keen on leaving. He was pushing for a so-called "Hard Brexit"; whether sincerely or as a negotiating strategy I won't pretend to know.

Mr Johnson had a problem though. The majority of the members of Parliament didn't want a hard Brexit. Some didn't want Brexit at all. So the Prime Minister tried to exploit a normally routine bit of procedure to get rid of them: he tried to order Parliament to go on holiday.

Parliament felt this was cheating, so they took the matter to the UK Supreme Court. Baroness Hale and the other members of the Court agreed, and declared that the holiday order was void. The MPs then came together and set up some rules about how the Brexit deal would happen. All this was reported by a diverse set of news organisations, and everybody who I've met whether or not they voted for Brexit has recognised the value of all these institutions being strong enough together to say no to the Prime Minister doing something risky.

Boris Johnson did actually survive that scandal without losing his job. He was later brought down, in part, over having a birthday party during the Covid pandemic when parties weren't allowed. The police investigated it and charged him a fine. The public were outraged, and his own ministers and MPs started to say "it's time for you to go."

To be clear, the UK does not have a perfect democracy, but the story illustrates a lot of relevant factors. It illustrates the value of defining the rules with game theory: ensuring that no one person or small group has more power than everyone else combined, so if they try to cheat there is room for an alliance to stop them. It illustrates the value of having formal rules, and an independent court able to judge people according to those rules. The independence bit is important: you need to make it part of the rules that the leader can't just appoint a bunch of his nieces and sons-in-law or other people who might owe him their loyalty. Perhaps most of all, it illustrates the broad cultural norm that there is such a thing as cheating, and that even the Prime Minister is not allowed to cheat.


In the democratic theory, the political and financial power is distributed to at least two camps of elites because of conflict of interests with neither one of them having too many advantages. The voters should have the brain the figure out their own best interests, and the ruling party is the representative of the elite group that aligns with the interests of the majority of voters. Because all camps have the power to influence people (by non-threatening means such as media and financial binding of locals through employment), and all sides have the power (an independent judiciary body that only does as the law says and not what the powerful elite says)to retaliate against anybody who cheats, it would be in every camp's best interest to play by the rules.

But that is the theory, the reality is more disappointing. There are lots of ways to manipulate the mass, and there are plenty more ways to avoid "losing".


Basically, if you do not do something ordered to you, you rebel against authorities

True, but the constitutional order in Western countries limits what orders are lawful/constitutional.

How those limits come into being or how they can get dismantled seems to be the question here. The latter is much easier to demonstrate (see Hitler) or for a soft/contemporary perspective, see for example the upset that Orban caused by tweaking all the parameters of their constitution, e.g..

In March 2013, the Fidesz government passed a 15-page amendment to the new 45-page Constitution. László Sólyom, the Conservative former President of both the Constitutional Court and the Republic of Hungary, said in a public statement at the time that the ‘Fourth Amendment’ removed the last traces of separation of powers from the Hungarian constitutional system. Under the Constitution as amended, no institution has the legal right to check many of the key powers of the one-party government. The Fourth Amendment nullified more than 20 years of rights-protecting case law that the Hungarian Constitutional Court had developed before the new Constitution went into effect. This left a giant gap where firm legal protection of basic rights once stood. The Fourth Amendment specifically overturned nearly all of the decisions that the Constitutional Court made in the previous year striking down controversial new laws the Fidesz government had passed. The Fourth Amendment removed the Court’s power to evaluate on substantive grounds any new constitutional amendments, a move which allowed the government to escape review by inserting any controversial new proposal directly into the Constitution. The Fourth Amendment entrenched political control of the judiciary and gave the government new tools to prevent the opposition from coming to power. The Fourth Amendment reversed many of the concessions Hungary made in the first year of the new Constitution when the European Union, the Council of Europe and the US State Department criticised fundamental aspects of that Constitution.

Aside from that, constitutions are not self-executing and seldom encompass all practical details, so it's a combination of tradition layered on top of that. You also ask if the power of pardon in the US doesn't essentially make the POTUS a dictator. In theory, it could, I mean he could have some group murder everyone one in the opposition party and then pardon them etc. BTW

Surely, one might think, the framers did not intend for the pardon power to extend this far. It appears, however, that the drafters of the pardon clause recognized this danger, but did not act to prevent it. The issue was raised during the discussion of the pardon power at the constitutional convention when it was proposed that the president’s power to pardon be restricted not just for impeachments but also when treason was charged. George Mason, in language that seems to anticipate what some think is true of some Trump pardons, argued in favor of the addition: “The President of the United States has the unrestricted power of granting pardons for treason; which may sometimes be exercised to screen from punishment those whom he had secretly instigated to commit the crime and thereby prevent the discovery of his own guilt.” George Iredell argued against Mason’s position as unduly weakening the executive when the chance of a president committing treason against his country was “very slight” and suggested that no man honored by his country by being elected president would risk “the damnation of his fame to all future ages.” Apparently persuaded by Iredell, the drafting committee ignored Mason’s concerns.

It's somewhat more complicated in the US because states can also prosecute crimes like murder. So the distribution/separation of powers act on that level too, making monopolization more difficult in a true federal system.

BTW, Madison wrote (in Federalist paper 48) that "parchment barriers" (i.e. [purely] on paper separations) are generally not enough to ensure true separation of powers:

a mere demarcation on parchment of the constitutional limits of the several departments is not a sufficient guard against those encroachments which lead to a tyrannical concentration of all the powers of government in the same hands.


The answer to why elections work differently in different countries lies in two parts: culture and government structure. The relevant element of culture is called power distance, which is defined as how likely people in a society accept inequalities of power. The most relevant government concept is the separation of powers. Britannica defines this as "division of the legislative, executive, and judicial functions of government among separate and independent bodies." These two ideas can help explain why voting against the incumbent works in some countries, but not in others.

First, different cultures have different attitudes towards power distance. Some countries, such as Russia and China, are more hierarchical, while others, such as the Scandinavian countries and the US, are more egalitarian. In hierarchical cultures, people are more likely to accept power inequalities, while people in egalitarian cultures are less likely to.

Second, the structure of democratic institutions influence how much power the authorities have. Other answers have already explained this quite well. The US constitution, for example, uses the idea of separation of powers. Each branch of the government is independent of the others. The president is the head of the executive branch, but he cannot control the legislative or judicial branches. He can influence them, though, by vetoing laws that he disagrees with or by appointing certain members of the judicial branch, like the members of the supreme court. Even so, each branch of the government is mostly independent, limiting what any single person can do.

The structure of a country's government often reflects the culture that creates it. The US constitution's separation of powers probably came about because of the culture belief in political equality. Other factors, though, such as national history, economics, and geography, can also contribute to how a government works, though. The structure of the US government is also the result of other conditions like its origins as a British colony and its geographical remoteness from Europe. In other words, power distance and government structure are related points that help to explain why elections work differently in different countries, even though there are other important elements to consider.


There are rules and institutions above the President level, notably Constitution but also many others. President is not free to alter these as one wish at any time. You would be right be the President a king. Kings, indeed, rule mostly till they die (that may happen early if they rule very wrong). Same about dictators.

By these rules above, the duty of a citizen during elections is to communicate the honest personal view rather than "follow the order". This is permitted and required.

Such a society resembles a modern computer where some critical system processes run with rights higher than any user, including administrator, could have. These rules and processes are set up once and should not be altered. Same way, critical chapters of the Constitution usually may only be altered in some very difficult ways or, in some countries, literally not at all.

These protected processes ensure that the opposition will remain strong enough to protect the processes themselves from being dismantled. Free speech to criticize and democratic elections to regain the power are that the opposition always needs. When this happens, now another group is in the opposition and needs free speech and democratic elections as well. It will always be the group defending the democracy.


The American republic, which served as the model for many other modern republics, is based on these principles among others that make it very difficult for a tyrant to hold power from a freedom-loving and educated population:

  • The rule of law. The impersonal national law is sovereign; people serve only as officers who swear oaths to honor and uphold the law at all times. So we Americans do not serve our President, though we give him all respect due his office. The President has great authority but is ultimately a servant of the law and thereby of the people who (through representation) established the republic.
  • The consent of the governed. Everyone consents to be justly ruled by the same (uniform) law. In elections, the losers consent to be governed by an administration managed by the winners. This social contract is a precondition for a stable society. Otherwise civil war and strongman rule will be inevitable.
  • Separation of powers. Only Congress can write law. The Executive branch, helmed by the President, is oath-bound to faithfully execute the laws, whether or not they agree. The courts arbitrate controversies between parties put before them, civil and criminal. These three institutions are completely separate and there is no common authority over them. So the President cannot decide on his own to outlaw something and have people imprisoned over it, for example. To attempt such a thing would exceed his authority.
  • The protection of individual rights. Our Constitution provides that even the sovereign law must honor the natural, God-given rights of the citizen. Securing and protecting these rights is one of the core functions of government.
  • Impartial elections with secret ballot, managed by the states. No one can force you to vote a certain way, or stop you from voting if you are eligible. All states guarantee a secret ballot (all votes are anonymous) and protect voters at the polling place from coercion. Because the states manage the election process even for national races, it is much more difficult to rig a national race than it would be if there was a single national elections body. There are many practical issues at play, but this approach to elections has worked well when faithfully followed.
  • Federalism. The national government's authority is limited to issues specifically delegated to it. The states are broadly responsible for their own affairs and different states often have different approaches to the same issues. Counties and cities in each state are responsible for local issues. The federal government cannot intrude into state-level issues. Also, as written in Article 5 of the US Constitution, ultimate power in the United States is held not by the President, not by Congress, and not by 'the mob' (as in a direct democracy), but by the state legislatures, who have the power (if 3/4 of them agree) to completely rewrite the Constitution, or even to dissolve the union, at any time in a constitutional convention of state delegates if they so choose. (This was basically the old process followed under the former Articles of Confederation from 1777 to 1791.)

These built-in protections do not make dictatorship impossible; nothing can. But as long as We The People are vigilant in responsibly bearing the burden of self-government, it will be very difficult for a tyrant to seize power from us.

The question asked specifically whether challenger candidates for Sheriff should fear for their well-being. In the vast majority of Sheriff races in America, both incumbent and challenger behave with respect towards each other even after the election, at least publicly; both because all police officers swear oaths to uphold the law at all times, and those who are promoted through the ranks tend to be those who take their oaths and their responsibilities seriously; and also knowing that regardless of the outcome, it is important for the Sheriff's Department, especially the deputies, to carry on business as usual and to retain the respect of the local government divisions and the citizens they serve.

However, there have been notable and public exceptions to this over the years, when corruption in the Sheriff's Department or city police has posed a threat to law and order at the county level. And there are probably many more that the public never learns about.

  • In 2000, the Sheriff of one of the metro Atlanta counties (DeKalb County) was defeated by challenger Derwin Brown. Brown was elected in large part to clean up corruption in the county, and specifically in the Sheriff's Department. Three days before he was to be sworn in as Sheriff, he was shot by one of the deputies. The defeated Sheriff was later convicted of ordering the hit.
  • A Tennessee Sheriff was caught up in a still controversial outbreak of violence over a local election, called the Battle of Athens by locals. Soldiers returning from World War 2 found their county not as they remembered it (rather more like the picture of corruption described in the question), and formed a slate of candidates for local offices, running as a bloc. On election day they grew suspicious that the Sheriff and his deputies were trying to fix the results. Unusually, the Sheriff brought all the votes into the county jail to be counted, and the soldiers' faction besieged the jail and opened fire on it. The Sheriff himself escaped and the soldiers supervised the tally after it was all over. Some of their bloc won and others lost. As one might imagine in any case when an issue escalates into violence, some of the actions of the soldiers' faction seem to have 'crossed the line'; but the integrity of the election seems to have been protected in the end.
  • While not directly involving a Sheriff, but the New York City Police Department, the story of Detective Frank Serpico is relevant. He took a stand against corruption in the police department and faced heavy retaliation for it, more than many could handle, possibly including an assassination attempt. Ultimately he was vindicated and his actions led to the gradual reform of the nation's largest police department. A film was made about his story. Thanks mainly to the film, he is now a symbol for anyone who stands up to corruption or rule-breaking in America.
  • Another famous example is that of Sheriff Buford Pusser, who was threatened by the local criminal rings he was elected to crack down on. He survived many attempts on his life before dying in a suspicious car accident. A dramatization of his career as Sheriff was the subject of the movie Walking Tall (1973), and a generation later another film of the same name was inspired by his story.

Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other. - John Adams


Note: this is a US-centric answer, but other democracies succeed on similar principles, even if they work differently

We mostly elect people who believe in the rule of law

Before 1951, there were no term limits for US President. A president could in theory be elected any number of times, and stay President for life.

There were 11 presidents who reached the end of their second term before 1951. Of them, over half of them declined to run for a third term. If they weren't going to try to win legitimately, they certainly weren't going to try and win illegitimately.

Even if a power-hungry dictator-wannabe who is willing to subvert the law to stay in power gets elected as president, they face the problem of actually convincing all the lower officials who are needed to actually carry out their plan. Most of these people were appointed by the president's predecessors (if they were appointed presidentially at all, and not appointed at state level or elected), and most presidential appointments need to be approved by Congress. If you wanted to override the Constitutional Amendment that sets a presidential two-term limit you need most of Congress to approve it, and most of the State Legislatures.

In short, the amount of influence you need to successfully subvert a US election is not something that can really be gathered in a single term, or even in two terms.

That said, Democratic Backsliding is something that can and does happen. A robust system of checks and balances can slow the process, but the only true way to prevent it is to continue to elect people who believe in the value of a democratic government more than they believe in claiming personal power.


A president is a man in a fancy office. How does this man become powerful? People who command people with guns lend him their support, typically because they believe it is within their interest. Accepting him as the boss will keep their position stable and will bring them prosperity.

In Russia, the political situation has been made so that there is one large coalition in power. If the current president has to unexpectedly leave, there is likely going to be a huge struggle for power as all the oligarchs and generals try to get their guy in charge so he gives them goodies. No one is confident that they'll win and won't be purged like the current president purges the oligarchs and generals he doesn't consider loyal enough.

In the Western countries, the US for example, there are several factions that are relatively equal in power. Neither of the big two-party presidents can grab too much privileges or do stuff like change the Constitution, because the other party will use everything they can to block him, and probably get him removed and his party smeared as fascists. In addition, as other repliers have said, the unelected bureaucrats act as the third faction, who aren't interested in either Republicans or Democrats becoming the only party in power. Because the instant they do, the president will likely decide that he doesn't need all those people slowing him down and will begin kicking them all out.

  • In America, the president is not the all powerful. The president has to get cooperation from Congress and Senate. One president actually asked to population to contact their senators and representatives to help the president achieve the requests of the populace. Commented Dec 28, 2023 at 0:27

@Anixx There are many excellent answers, but none appears to have mentioned the role of mythology.

When I was growing up in the 1950s we had comics, movies, and radio serials that included dictators, wannabee dictators, and corrupt sheriffs who behaved the way you described. Invariably they would have the misfortune to encounter the hero (or, more rarely, someone like Wonderwoman). If the story was a Western the hero would most likely shoot the town bully or the evil sheriff; in other stories the bad guy was hauled off to jail. The message that children got was that decent people were honest and democratic, and that non-decent folk suffered misfortune. It was a myth, but a very useful one if you want a democratic society. We grow up accepting the very behaviour that you find difficult to understand.


While it's tempting to point out that in countries with long histories of liberal democracies, the "boss" does not have absolute power, but only has a limited set of powers, and the rest of the power is spread among other elected officials, I have to also remind someone who is asking from the perspective of having lived in the USSR that you don't have to look quite so far.

Ukraine has elected 5 different Presidents since 1991. And clearly it came from the same political tradition as the Russian Federation because both Ukraine and the Russian Federation are successor states of the USSR.

Obviously, all it took was actually having elections instead of making mockeries of them.


You can use propaganda to undermine the present authorities. Show the constituency lies and reasons why they should not vote for the existing authorities (such as purple hair). You can tell the populace of how you {intend} to make the country great again, saying it with a lot of conviction. Apparently, you don't need plans or proof.

Holding a bible during press conferences may help also. Make and sell hats. Toss paper towels to flood victims (to show your goodwill). Speak loud and in debates, don't give your opponent any time to speak. Persuade your political supporters that they will lose funding and you know where their family lives.

Another method is to block voting of people who would not vote for you. If you are popular with the "over age 50" crowd, then make voting more difficult for the "under age 50" crowd.

It's all about convincing people to vote for you. Apparently, you don't need to fulfill your promises, as you can always blame the current or past establishment. Spread conspiracy theories.

  • The currently ruling political force can usually allocate way more resources towards propaganda than their opposition. This is an uphil battle.
    – alamar
    Commented Dec 28, 2023 at 0:43

Western country revolutions were based on Athens and Plato philosophies and the Russian and Chinese revolutions were based on Marxism which had no historical test and has been found to an unstable and extreme system of constitutional and legal anarchy.

Western countries designed their government using the Roman Senate and systems of voting to make decisions, through many years of intellectual exchange and reform rather than the guidance of a single new book like Marxism.

countries can be run by groups of people rather than individual people and families. These groups of people have decided that a constitution is more important than an individual and the group continues ruling over generations like a management team with chairmanship.

For life presidents appear to have more power these days because of military and communications control which did not exist in the past.

In western countries a balance has been struck to limit a leader's power so that situations like Stalin, Nero, Hitler, Chauchescu, Chairman Mao cannot occur.

Putin's leadership borrows from the old fashioned system of kings and family rulers which is more likely to produce poverty and genocide errors like Stalin and Mao's famines.

The people have kept ultimate power in western countries and also in Russia in the form of revolutions and leader depositions by rich groups of nobles.

Countries that have had recent revolutions and recent civil wars tend to have extreme forms of government which can resemble the king systems and weak systems of law which can promote corruption.


Take for instance, the USA. If you campaigned against the county's sheriff, how can you feel safe after that living in that county?

Because if the county sheriff is completely corrupt, then eventually someone would shoot the sheriff down, and there would be no witnesses even if it was done at midday in the town square.

Or plausibly, if the sheriff had both supporters and detractors in a sectarian fashion, then the sheriff would be killed, and then witnesses who tried to pursue the killers would also be killed, in a spiral of violence that would destroy any status quo.

And if the sheriff had been really stubborn and murderous in his corruption, then he might have his immediate and extended family shot down too, to disgorge all advantage he ever thought he would gain from corrupt practices, and to be a lesson to anyone in future who occupies that office.

That's the essential regulatory mechanism against those who use positions of authority against the community they are supposed to be serving - the ability of people to identify the cancer, and then collectively start imposing violence upon the cancer to destroy it.

That's why angry crowds become "irrational" - it's a psychological shift which is necessary to execute certain collective functions, which require individuals to risk harm in the process of gaining collective advantage.


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