The question was raised from Thursday’s lecture quiz, “What does it take to destroy Democracy?” I feel that democracy is likely harder to destroy from outside (i.e. a coup d’etat) than from inside (an autocrat taking power), mostly because the use of coercion in an authoritarian regime would merit such a coup while a functioning democracy likely would not. So how might an autocrat come to power in such a democracy?
From historical examples, the turn to autocracy often comes out of desperation. This was the case in the Weimar Republic, as unemployment skyrocketed, poverty reigned supreme, and many were desperate for some sort of change. For many, it seemed as if almost every solution had been exhausted. It took until 1930 for the Nazis to gain any sort of traction in an election, and considering the relatively large support for the Communists as well, it had less to do with ideology. Their voters were willing to mobilize behind one party and their leader, who seemingly could solve any problem.
The French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville, in his observations on American democracy, noted a potential threat called democratic despotism. The public in a democracy wants to be free, but there is still somewhat of a desire for a strong leader. At some point, a society might become too comfortable with outsourcing power and their democratic voice to a strong central government that can protect them. In Weimar Germany, this kind of democratic despotism may have occurred because the public was too worn down by economic and social turmoil and disillusioned with the democratic experiment. Essentially, it may take an established democratic spirit in the population, as well as strong and effective institutions, that allow democracy to function and survive.