The Social Psychology of Democracy

Troubling questions about why people support tyranny.

Posted Feb 11, 2017

Over the last few weeks, President Trump or members of his administration, have not only banned all people coming from seven predominantly Islamic countries (a ban currently not in effect due to a restraining order), they have summarily fired large numbers of State Department employees (which some have called a purge), told the press to “shut up,” and placed a slew of generals and billionaires in charge of most of the executive branch of the U.S. government.

Lee Jussim
Source: Lee Jussim

This has led some, including former George W. Bush speechwriter, David Frum, to raise concerns that what we are seeing is an Executive Branch of the U.S. Federal Govt subverting America’s democratic government into a fundamentally autocratic one. And he is not alone. The Economist has already downgraded the US to a “flawed democracy” – kinda like Botswana. Indeed, support for democracy among Americans — especially younger Americans — is at an all time low.

All of which raises some general, troubling, deep, social, psychological and political questions.

In my blog entry here, I highlighted these main signals of rising authoritarianism:

1. The less the results of national elections reflect the popular vote, the more the principle of majority selection of representatives is weakened.

2. If and when policies and practices threatening our fundamental rights – speech, religion, association, press – are even proposed, those rights are threatened. We know what this looks like. Blacklists. Loyalty oaths. Illegal surveillance.Torture. Tacit support for harassment and violence by “private” individuals and groups.

3. If and when the federal government advocates not changing laws, but violating laws, the rule of law is threatened.

4. Rising popularity, membership, and political action among hate groups and neo-fascist movements.

All four warning signals are flashing bright red.

The first signal is an inherently undemocratic characteristic of the Electoral College (lots of people defend the Electoral College on other, nondemocratic grounds but let’s not pretend there is anything democratic about it). Minorities tend to be more radical than majorities, in part, because radicalism is usually delusional (think about everything from Soviet and Nazi propaganda to the modern “alternative facts”) and, as Abraham Lincoln once said, “you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” 

Think concretely. Is it easier to convince one person or 1,000,000 people that the moon landing was faked, that AIDs was a conspiracy to kill blacks, or that Adolf was right all along?

Ok, let’s scale it up. How about 2 versus a million? 10 versus a million?


Lenin never actually had the support of more than about 20-25 percent of Russians. Hitler maxed at about 40 percent and his vote total declined before he first adroitly took power democratically then executed his coup from within the halls of power.

Minority rule is a very very dangerous thing…

So a system that empowers minorities to select rulers is at much greater risk of selecting radical rulers.

Source: scarletohairdye

The second signal is flashing hard and fast. The stay of the Muslim ban was issued, in part, because the ban appears to violate separation of church and state, and in part because it violated academic freedom of state universities (this is part of what gave the states standing to argue for a stay of the ban in court). In addition to the State Department Purge, President Trump has routinely advocated for torture, which is illegal (also flashing the third signal). His administration has also routinely attempted to silence, intimidate, or derogate members of the government and the press.

The third signal flashed hard when the Trump administration instructed the immigration arms of the executive branch to ignore the court rulings.

The fourth signal is flashing because of the rising tide of harassment of Muslims, minorities, and Jews.

To be sure, nearly all Presidential administrations have overstepped their legal and Constitutional bounds at some point. The Founders did not create a system of balance of powers and checks and balances to prevent attempts at overreach — they created it to prevent the success of such attempts. However, I do not recall so many attempts at overreach in the earliest days of any Presidential administration since I started attending to politics (around 1969).  

The question is: Can a system hold against a determined attempt to undermine it? Tyrants such as Hitler, Putin, and Chavez all initially came to power quite legally, and then subverted their respective systems to install authoritarian autocracies. "Following the law" is no guarantee against tyranny.

All of which raises some deeply troubling social, psychological, and political questions. Why do people support autocracies? What, psychologically, is necessary for democracy to flourish?  Why do democracies fail? 

Democracy, even American democracy, is not invulnerable, and will almost certainly not last forever. That, however, does not mean anyone needs to quietly acquiesce to its demise.

To be continued…