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Is democracy fragile and easily destroyed, or flexible and resilient? We may be about to find out. The planet heats, the clock ticks, and with each increase in temperature, world harvests shrink, famines loom, and fire and flood impact millions. When a government fails to deliver basic necessities the result is either the toppling of power or a brutal crackdown. So says history. Democracy, by Margaret Atwood.
Imagine a circle. At the top is totalitarianism. At the bottom is chaos. Dictators ruled totalitarianisms, and gangs, mobs, and the war of each against all thrive in chaos.
Through the middle of the circle is what we might call the temperate zone. It respects the concept that those ruled ought to have a say in their rulers, or no taxation without representation, that rulers should be accountable to rule of law, that the judiciary, those interpreting and implementing the laws, should not be controlled by a dictator, and that freedom of religion, freedom to debate, and freedom of peaceful assembly are sacrosanct.
From the temperate zone, there’s an arrow going up to totalitarianism on the political right and one on the political left. You can get there either way. Hitler was elected, to begin with. The USSR began with communitarian communism, but ended with the dictatorships of Stalin and his successors.
There are also two arrows going down towards chaos on left and right. Upset the balance of the temperate zone, find yourself in a civil war. Witness a breakdown of the institutions that keep things running – the supply chain, the tax department, healthcare, the schools – and chaos will be the result.
From chaos, there are two big arrows going all the way up to dictatorship, one on the right and one on the left, because when things get too chaotic, and no democratic institutions work any longer, people will accept the abolishment of their former rights just so they can live and eat. The conditions leading to the appointment of Julius Caesar as dictator in ancient Rome are instructive: too much civil war followed by more civil war once he was assassinated.
Which is why both the extreme right and the extreme left tried to create as much chaos as possible. It gives them a better shot at a dictatorship. They say things like, burn it all down, and only I can fix it. Each has an ingrained contempt for ordinary people – useful idiots, sheep, parasites, and so forth; a firm belief in their own divine right to rule – only they are pure, true, just, and good; and each proceeds to purge any enemies from the other side, as well as any lukewarm slackers or potential rivals from their own side.
How close are we to the great, big arrows? Depends where you live. If in Canada, not very close. The zeal for dictatorship doesn’t seem strong at the moment. In the United States, too close. The extremist right already has a plan to make Donald Trump dictator for life, and it includes widespread purges and the bringing of all branches of government under the direct control of the president. This is to be done in the name of an Orban-like faux Christian ideology, which bears as much relation to the core tenets of Christianity as gravel does to breakfast.
Those working to enact this plan will attempt to weaken or abolish as many democratic institutions as they can, so they can say, look, democracy doesn’t work. It’s broken. You’d almost think these folks want to destroy their own country.
What is the antidote? Educate people about the hazards, strengthen essential democratic institutions, diminish the possibility for chaos by combating the effects of climate change and enabling a more widespread material prosperity.
Call the bluff.