What would stop a representative democracy becoming a dictatorship?

  • 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a political party had a majority in the relevant legislature(s), could that party use its majority to write a law that superseded all other laws?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!

    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.

    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.

    *"I'm a democrat by the way!"* Ahhh... *puts back pitchfork*

    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.

    I think I saw a very similar question here.

    Democrat != general sense, unless you favour mob rule over all other concerns

    If the question is "does the law allow a 2/3 majority to put an end to democracy", I think the answer is somehow irrelevant, because it is not a relevant concern for those who write the constitution. The relevant concern is "how do you avoid to have 2/3 people wanting to put an end to democracy". Because such a majority would not be stoped by the law.

    @CortAmmon It's not hard to speculate though, as there is more than one way.

    Representative Democracy =/ Representative Republic. Indeed, representative democracy is redundant. Democracy was originally representative but not in the way we used to think about it.

    @pjc50 agree — just want to add that general strikes and mutinies are exactly the things that unions are (officiously) mandated to avoid at all cost. Ask for raise, okay. Ask for less working time, okay. Riot in the streets along predefined paths, okay. But union with other unions and run by hundreds of thousands straight to the Capitol with guns and pitchforks? No way. Logical conclusion is that any democracy will inevitably fall into a dictatorship of a very few.

    @Jivan It's something that's happened in quite a few places; Kiel mutiny was the one I had in mind, but there are quite a few examples in 20th centurty history.

    @pjc50 agree again - Union were not originally designed for what I mention, they were recycled by the “system” during the course of the 20th century - hence it doesn’t happen anymore while it’s true that it used to

    One of the underlying fundamentals for all the answers was not mentioned: you need enough people that support such a transition (just about half of them). You can get that by convincing them that this is a good thing for them; for that you need to be very convincing/charismatic, and you need to reduce general education levels. Once you reach the point where the median educated person believes you everything, you can get a majority for anything.

    This is why the United States has the second amendment to the constitution. Even if the government repealed that amendment or otherwise attempted to infringe upon the right to keep and bear arms, the National Guard (the state militias) would still exist and the citizens who owned arms would still own them.

    Constitutional checks and balances and/or the people.

    @CortAmmon So Goedel proved the existence of god and found a flaw in the US constitution? Is there anything else one should know about the guy?

    It is happening in Hungary. We are going down the exact some road Turkey and Poland does. And people who grew up in the pre 1989 dictature love this.

  • Philipp

    Philipp Correct answer

    4 years ago

    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.

    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 https://lagen.nu/1974:152#K8P14S1 (in Swedish).

    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 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.

    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? ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Night_of_the_Long_Knives ) Why did the Reichstag burn after Hitler was appointed Chancellor? ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reichstag_fire )

    I take issue with your reasons why not every government attempts to establish a dictatorship and stay in power forever. You say it's self-interest, a simple Machiavellian calculation of costs and benefits. But I think that many politicians are actually not morally rotten. Yes, they may be corrupt to a degree (but we all are), have their week moments (we all do) and cave in temptations (like anybody else). But most of them do not blatantly serve just their own self-interest (and those who are are often recognizable). They at least believe that they try to serve the country and its principles.

    You might include outlawing protests, as in Russia today, as another example of how demagogues maintain power.

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Content dated before 7/24/2021 11:53 AM