Human rights organizations have recently been sounding the alarm that increasing numbers of people around the world are living under repressive governments. Although the world is rarely simple, one way of understanding governments is to divide them into democratic or authoritarian political systems.
Democracies are characterized by freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, free elections, majority rule, protection of minorities and the rule of law with independent judges. Examples are the United States, Iceland, Denmark, France and New Zealand.
Authoritarian governments are controlled by one person or an elite group. Citizens are denied fundamental freedoms. Public life is controlled and dissent forbidden. The judicial system is controlled. Elections, if held, are for show. Examples are North Korea, Iran, Russia, China and Saudi Arabia.
There is a stark contrast in psychological and social life under these different political systems. All aspects of life are curtailed under tyranny. Feelings of chronic fear and powerlessness prevail. People are imprisoned, executed or disappear. Less obvious are ongoing injustices and persecution. People describe life as dark and smothering, with a loss of meaning and creativity.
The flow of history suggests a movement toward democracy. Great Britain, France, Germany and Japan were authoritarian at one time, but now are living democracies. When the communist Soviet Union collapsed around 1990, Eastern European tyrannies also dissolved. Many people newly enjoyed unprecedented freedoms. And a few years ago, the Arab Spring ushered in freedoms for many in the Middle East. Some countries freed during those two eras are still solid democracies.
Sadly, however, recent history has seen a decline in freedoms for many, as some previously democratic nations have become autocratic. Others are “backsliding democracies” losing ground. Surprisingly, some of these erosions are happening with the consent of the population through free elections.
Brazil, Hungary, Poland and Turkey are examples of the pattern of countries losing freedom not through military force or political deception, but when citizens elect candidates who openly express autocratic and anti-democratic intentions during elections. Of course, no candidates simply say, “I intend to trash our democratic institutions, abolish your freedoms and steal the powers that belong to the people.” So what do they say, and what are the psychological mechanisms that make them attractive?
Appeals are influenced by local circumstances, but the overall script looks something like this: “Our country was once great but is declining because of threats to our way of life from outsiders and from those who have abandoned our core values. We are being overrun by immigrants, betrayed by a biased press, criminals and corrupt politicians, and destroyed by drugs and rampant crime. I can restore us to greatness and defeat our enemies, but I must not be constrained by political correctness or legal technicalities.”
In the 1950s, psychologists developed the concept of authoritarian personality to understand the authoritarian fascism that had swept over Europe. The traits of this personality type include: a desire for simple answers, an attraction to strong leaders, the scapegoating of out-groups, a high regard for obedience and rigid allegiance to traditional beliefs. Early research suggested that fascism rose from the prevalence of this personality type in the population.
This implied that there was something about the psychology of the people of Germany, Italy and Spain that yielded dictatorships. This suggests that the rest of us are safe because we are not like them. In truth, a move toward authoritarian thinking occurs anywhere when democratic government is seriously failing. Corruption, incompetence and crime can combine with high unemployment and rapid social change to induce fear and anger to push people to find someone to blame, look for simple solutions and follow an authoritarian leader promising to fix it all and restore former greatness.
Winston Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried.” And when things are going badly, democratic restraints on power can seem to get in the way of cleaning things up. Authoritarian leaders exploit fear and anger and attack democratic safeguards. Attacking journalists, judges, opposition leaders and career government officials escalates from verbal attacks to threats to violence.
As citizens of the United States, which in the words of Abraham Lincoln was “conceived in liberty,” we may have a special obligation to promote freedom in the world and to understand how it can be lost among our neighbors. And the psychology of authoritarianism also suggests that we are not immune to the possibility of the erosion of freedoms here at home.