How Democracies Are Subverted

A risk to democracy is that wily politicians can exploit moments of anger or fear to implement plans that the public wouldn’t otherwise accept, a danger that requires popular vigilance to avert, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

The repeated indicators of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies bring to mind that Erdogan once said, “Democracy is like a streetcar. When you come to your stop, you get off.”

With a statement like that, one can say that at least Turkish voters, including the many who have voted for Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party in multiple elections, were warned. But the phenomenon of authoritarian types rising within a democracy has been around for a long time.

Turkish President Recep Erdogan.

Turkish President Recep Erdogan.

It is part of the succession of varieties of government that Plato described in The Republic, with the excesses and failures of a democracy leading to emergence of a demagogue who ultimately establishes a tyranny. Adolf Hitler was made chancellor of Germany after his National Socialist German Workers’ Party had won a plurality in free elections.

Such history refutes the widespread notion that the danger of “one man, one vote, one time” is something peculiar to Islamists. (In recent Tunisian political history, the voluntary stepping down from power of the Islamist Ennadha party also refutes it.) The nearest example, in Turkey’s neighborhood, of another Erdogan-like figure taking authoritarian steps after gaining power democratically is the decidedly non-Islamist  prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban.

Erdogan’s comment recalls another use of the streetcar metaphor from more than 50 years ago. In February 1965 the Lyndon Johnson administration used the occasion of a Viet Cong attack on a compound at Pleiku, South Vietnam, in which several U.S. servicemen were killed, as the occasion to initiate a sustained aerial bombardment of North Vietnam. The incident thus became, along with a naval incident in the Gulf of Tonkin the previous August, a rationale for immersing the United States in the Vietnam War.

Johnson’s national security adviser, McGeorge Bundy, later commented to a reporter, “Pleikus are like streetcars.” In other words, one is bound to come along sooner or later, and when it does, you get on and use it to get where you want to go. The plans for a bombing campaign already had been in preparation, and the Pleiku incident (which was no larger than some other operations that the Viet Cong had staged and in which Americans were targets) offered convenient timing for implementing the plans.

This use of the streetcar metaphor, in which the critical action is to get on the streetcar, is somewhat different from the other use, in which the most significant action would be to get off of it. But as with the getting-off usage, history provides ample examples of the getting-on usage. A month after Hitler became chancellor, for example, the Reichstag fire gave him an occasion to demand a suspension of civil liberties, a major step toward establishment of the tyrannical Nazi regime.

Netanyahu’s Scheming

Lesser examples can be found in more recent years. Two years ago, the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu used the kidnapping and murder of three teenage Jewish residents of a West Bank settlement as the occasion to launch a large application of force against Hamas. With the government intentionally misleading the Israeli public into believing that the teenagers were still alive, the Israeli military operations included not only huge sweeps and arrests in the West Bank but also bombing in Gaza — all before Hamas began retaliating with any rocket fire against Israel. The operations escalated into the highly destructive Operation Protective Edge.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

In a sense the 9/11 attacks served as a streetcar for the promoters of the Iraq War, who had long favored such a use of military force against Iraq but lacked sufficient public support to launch a major offensive war. By suddenly creating a militant public mood in the United States, the terrorist attacks finally provided that support, notwithstanding the fact that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11.

This instance was different, however, in that a terrorist incident with the impact of 9/11 was not nearly as predictable as that the Viet Cong would stage more ground operations against U.S.-connected targets in the 1960s or that there would be additional lethal incidents between Arabs and Jews in the occupied West Bank.

What both the get-on and get-off ways of using streetcars have in common is that they involve disingenuously exploiting public reaction to an incident in order to pursue some different or larger agenda. In each case a democratically elected government (or at least a coalition that somehow reflects an electoral outcome) is taking a direction that is the preference of a small group that has the power rather than of the voters who cast the ballots.

This observation does not constitute a larger knock against democracy. Authoritarian rulers pursuing their own agendas who do not even try to dupe or to sway the public are no more to be admired than ones who do. Churchill’s observation about democracy is still applicable.

Probably another applicable aphorism is the one, of uncertain origin, about eternal vigilance being the price of liberty. Americans need as much as others to be wary of political streetcars, even though what they most need to worry about is not liberty-depriving tyranny à la Plato but rather bad and destructive policies that flow from agendas they never voted for.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

4 comments for “How Democracies Are Subverted

  1. Robert Anderson
    June 1, 2016 at 18:44

    Turkey has never had the American feeling of power coming from the people. They worship Ataturk, who seized power and “gave” democracy to the people. The military has intervened since to maintain a secular democratic state. It looks like it will have to do that again, or a Moslem dictatorship will take over.

    • Rikhard Ravindra Tanskanen
      June 1, 2016 at 19:09

      Can’t you spell “Muslim” correctly, idiot? And the military just want an Ataturk-style dictatorship. If you think they want democracy, you are an imbecile.

  2. Erik
    May 31, 2016 at 16:12

    It is good to hear a consideration of the issues of tyranny over democracy from Mr. Pillar, whom I hope reflects the CIA perspective.

    Usually demagogues use “streetcar” opportunities, but are also skilled at making the very waves of fear they ride to power. When they cannot provoke the easy victim to defend himself and pretend that it was unprovoked attack (Vietnam, Ukraine), they simply claim that there is an existential threat to the group from which they demand power. They claimed that the firing upon Fort Sumter required attack not diplomacy, as did the sinking of the USS Maine (an accident), the sinking of the Lusitania (carrying contraband mine fuses to England), the (fake) Gulf of Tonkin incident, the invasion of Kuwait (a former province of Iraq), the 9/11 excuse to invade the uninvolved Iraq, etc.

    Fearmongering requires no intelligence; it is merely destructive exploitation of the instability caused by existing fears, essentially an opportunist vandalism of society. So the opportunities are clear and dear to the marketer, electioneer, and military strategist, whose job is to find and exploit such weaknesses; but those games suit the technical opportunist to the subversion of democracy.

    On classical views of tyranny, Aristotle’ Politics is a more rational approach to constitutions than Plato’s Republic. A good summary of the differences appears to be at this link:

    The quote “Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom” is attributed variously, Bartlett’s notes that John Curran in a 1790 speech said, “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance, which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt.”

    But of course subversion is not always through demagoguery. The federal judiciary are our most dedicated subversives, spending their careers rationalizing the abrogation of constitutional rights. State judges regularly advocate obviously unconstitutional practices.

    The most insidious mode of subversion of democracy is economic influence upon elections and media, by which the right wing installs its favorite demagogues, who install the corrupt judges.

    • Rikhard Ravindra Tanskanen
      June 1, 2016 at 19:11

      “They claimed that the firing upon Fort Sumter required attack not diplomacy”. That is disgusting. The South attacked the United States military, and therefore diplomacy was not needed. Lincoln wasn’t a demagogue – the fact that you are saying that shows you to be a white supremacist idiot. Go fuck off.

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