How Democracies Are Subverted


A risk to democracy is that wily politicians can exploit moments of anger or fear to implement plans that the public wouldn’t otherwise accept, a danger that requires popular vigilance to avert, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

The repeated indicators of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies bring to mind that Erdogan once said, “Democracy is like a streetcar. When you come to your stop, you get off.”

With a statement like that, one can say that at least Turkish voters, including the many who have voted for Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party in multiple elections, were warned. But the phenomenon of authoritarian types rising within a democracy has been around for a long time.

Turkish President Recep Erdogan.

Turkish President Recep Erdogan.

It is part of the succession of varieties of government that Plato described in The Republic, with the excesses and failures of a democracy leading to emergence of a demagogue who ultimately establishes a tyranny. Adolf Hitler was made chancellor of Germany after his National Socialist German Workers’ Party had won a plurality in free elections.

Such history refutes the widespread notion that the danger of “one man, one vote, one time” is something peculiar to Islamists. (In recent Tunisian political history, the voluntary stepping down from power of the Islamist Ennadha party also refutes it.) The nearest example, in Turkey’s neighborhood, of another Erdogan-like figure taking authoritarian steps after gaining power democratically is the decidedly non-Islamist  prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban.

Erdogan’s comment recalls another use of the streetcar metaphor from more than 50 years ago. In February 1965 the Lyndon Johnson administration used the occasion of a Viet Cong attack on a compound at Pleiku, South Vietnam, in which several U.S. servicemen were killed, as the occasion to initiate a sustained aerial bombardment of North Vietnam. The incident thus became, along with a naval incident in the Gulf of Tonkin the previous August, a rationale for immersing the United States in the Vietnam War.

Johnson’s national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, later…

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