Democrats vs. Dictators

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskepticBy NeuroskepticJan 22, 2011 9:00 AM


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What makes a government democratic?

The obvious answer is: people voted it into power. But that's completely wrong.

People voted Hitler into power. The Nazi party won by far the biggest single share of the vote in the 1932 elections, which were as "free and fair" as any in the world at that time. The next election was less free, but only thanks to a, technically constitutional, emergency Decree. Hitler's assumption of all executive and legislative powers was aided by dirty tricks, but it was pretty much above board.

The current provisional government of Tunisia has not won any elections. The overthrown dictatorship won many, though they weren't free because most opposition was banned. The current government, however, is seen as more democratic, because its role is to facilitate free and fair elections. It will then dissolve and give power to whoever wins them.

Maybe the provisional government of Tunisia isn't entirely democratic. But it's clearly more democratic than Hitler, even though Hitler won more elections.

So being elected into power has nothing to do with being a democrat or a dictator. Don't forget that. What is a democratic regime, then? I think it's this: a regime is democratic if it would peacefully hand over power were it to lose an election. If and only if you respect the people's choice to kick you out, you're a democrat. It's not about winning elections, it's about losing them.

Dictators aren't dictators because their people don't like them. It's because they're going to rule whether or not people like them. They rule: that's the basic political fact. If the people agree, great - and many are genuinely popular. If not, too bad.

What we've seen in the Ivory Coast recently, and in Zimbabwe over the past few years, is what happens when elected dictators lose elections: they don't accept it, and blood flows. If you want a soundbite: a dictator is someone who's willing to get blood on their hands, if it meant they keep a grip on power.

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