It is common for people to look at the destruction of foreign nations’ democratic institutions with confusion. They wonder how anyone could sit back and allow their government to be destroyed, or not realize the problems happening before their eyes. However, it is not fair to expect common citizens to always realize that certain politicians are would-be autocrats, leaders who intend to make themselves authoritarian rulers before it is too late.
By learning some key tactics autocrats utilize to undermine democracy without alerting the public, citizens can help prevent their own future leaders from fooling them into supporting the destruction of democracy.
Many rules make use of subterfuge to whittle away at democratic norms, concealing their anti-democratic practices under the veil of law to avoid any potential backlash. The days of violent coups and proud dictators are long gone, and most authoritarian leaders have begun to try and masquerade as supporters of democracy. We see dictators hold democratic elections (even though they are secretly rigged) and refer to themselves not as supreme leaders or Fuhrers, but as Presidents and Prime Ministers. As explained by political scientist Orzan Varol in Stealth Authoritarianism, rulers have shied away from the open repression and violent removal of opponents and political threats, having instead begun to enact their goals through legal loopholes and legitimate avenues, allowing them to claim legitimacy and hide behind the mask of constitutionality .
A key example of this is how Trump was able to gain control and influence over the judicial branch of government by packing the US courts, all without causing anyone to bat an eye. By using the legally granted power of the President to nominate judges, the Republican congress’ ability to confirm those nominations, and the lack of any strict limit on the number of judges a single President can appoint, Trump undermined the importance of our checks and balance systems all within the confines of legal action.
Mass polarization can also lead to a population being unable to realize that they are being fooled into supporting an authoritarian regime. Mass polarization, which occurs in the general population and leads to tribalism and intense feelings of support and belief in certain ideologies and policies, can lead to members of a populace willfully ignoring autocratic behaviors by their rulers so long as their goals align with their political beliefs. Political scientists Matthew Graham and Milan Svolik discussed the effects of polarization and partisanship in their paper, Democracy in America. Their research found that not only are many voters in America partisan, but many of them, while claiming to support the ideals of democracy, still ended up gladly supporting and ignoring clearly authoritarian actions taken by politicians belonging to their political party whose views and policy plans aligned with their own .
In India, we can see the special importance of demographic polarization, where non-political differences between groups are mapped onto political parties and become politicized, such as religious beliefs or ethnicities becoming associated with a political party. In India, in the 2010s we saw the politicizing of Hindu and Muslim faiths, with the BJP (a political party in India) promoting Hindu nationalism and other similar views. As a result, we saw Hindus being nudged into supporting the party that aligns with their faith. This led to intense polarization which allowed President Modi to take power and meant many Hindu (though not all) citizens of India began to ignore and support blatantly anti-democratic acts such as the Amendment of the Citizenship Act in 2019 (where the government granted citizenship to members of all religious minorities besides Muslims who were fleeing from persecution into India), all the while claiming to be supporters of democracy.
The media is another tool used by authoritarians to act unnoticed by the public. We often see cases of radio and television being used to help foster support for specific political groups. A prime example is seen in Germany during the 1920s and 1930s. Under the Weimar government after its introduction of pro-government newscasts, areas with easy access to radios saw much lower support for the Nazi power than those without radio, while the introduction of pro-Nazi broadcasts aw these same areas see some of the highest levels of Nazi support . The media is a common tool used by authoritarians to bolster support and convince the public to ignore their problematic actions. In America, we saw the effect that different news sources had on voters, with “fake news” having a strong impact on the 2016 election outcome. Areas where the number of links shared to proven Russian troll sites is highest demonstrated greater levels of support for Trump .
Furthermore, when the state is in control of all media in a nation, it can control the narrative seen by its public. Those of us on the outside with access to all sources of media and information have an easier time seeing how nations such as North Korea and China are ruled by problematic autocrats, but it is important not to forget that people living in those nations don’t have the same access to information that we do. They are severely limited in the number and types of online information they can access, which means that many citizens are never even made aware of some of the more blatant undemocratic actions taken by their government, with many even being taught that what their government is doing isn’t wrong at all.
It is important for everyone to learn about and familiarize themselves with the way in which autocrats take power and avoid public backlash. The rise of stealth authoritarianism, polarization, and digital media means that it is now easier than ever for autocrats to take power without anyone batting an eye. If we can understand the ways in which rulers fool their populations, we can perhaps enable ourselves to prevent future authoritarians from tricking us into destroying our democracy.
References: Ozan O. Varol, “Stealth Authoritarianism,” in Iowa Law Review 100, no. 4 (May 2015): 1676-1686.  Matthew Graham and Milan Svolik, “Democracy in America?: Partisanship, Polarization, and the Robustness of Support for Democracy in the United States,” in American Political Science Review 114, no. 2 (2020): 392-408.  Adena, Maja, et al., “Radio and the Rise of the Nazis in Prewar Germany,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics 130, no. 4 (July 2015): 1885–1939.  Richard Gunther et al., “Fake News Did Have a Significant Impact on the Vote in the 2016 Election: Original Full-Length Version with Methodological Appendix,” [Unpublished Paper]. Department of Political Science, Ohio State University.