Common Factors from Democracy to Totalitarianism

In 1982, Mancur Olsen conducted a detailed evaluation of the factors that go into the decline or rise of nations, presenting some compelling arguments for the natural tendencies of groups and coalitions, whether small or massive, to fall apart after a while.

His first argument is a paradox: that large groups, if composed of rational individuals, will not act in the group interest. The paradox is that the gains that come from membership in the large group are minute for each member, and that non members can also enjoy those gains without contributing!

In the case of excessive taxation and building of public debt, then squandering of the public treasury, governments place themselves at great risk. When excessive taxation is conjoined with diversions of excessive amounts of the public treasury to the benefit of the powerful and the elite, then the public perception that the government is useless becomes profound.

Taking another direction from Olsen’s paradoxes,  the populace pays taxes primarily for the infrastructure, public and national defense, social services, and maintenance of specific public trusts, such as parks, retirement trusts, and natural resources. When the tax funds are diverted or squandered to the extent that these main requirements are not being met, then the public begins to feel cheated, that the government is incompetent or corrupted, and that there is no hope of getting a functioning government without major changes in traditional structures.

This is a time that is ripe for political and social predators, deviant political entities, and extremists to infiltrate the public perceptions with charismatic, but highly destructive “leaders”, making it likely that the government will be permanently staffed with corrupted individuals.

In a massive population, the organization, party, or movement takes over the role of traditional individual expression. The individual is now required to affiliate with the group in order to volunteer for service, replacing natural selection of leaders. A natural national leader traditionally begins at the local level, earning higher and larger positions and learning lessons on the way to national leadership.

With organizations and “movements”, a problematic, polarizing and unqualified individual can rise to national prominence and power with alarming rapidity, gaining enormous power and causing great damage before the public can intervene to remove them.

As a result, very destructive and incompetent leadership gains power and remains in power, thanks to the cycles of voter apathy, fear, draconian threats, a move to totalitarian government features, secrecy, and other factors that challenge and change the traditional systems of government.

Without the collusion of government, the financing elite and corporations, and the media, no one group will be able to be heard on a consistent and wide scale basis. This is a time when extremist and deviant political groups can achieve domination of  the media to create conditions for a government takeover, often with extremist goals that are sure to be met with violent resistance and totalitarian government reaction to the resistance.

Xenophobia, racism, and some form of demand that a self-defined entitled group should be catered to arises in more and more shrill, overt, and socially appealing and effective utterances. If these groups are heavily infiltrated into the government, military and law enforcement, then they can actually create conditions for coups or attempted coups that are conducted by those who feel that they, not the incumbents, should be in power.

 The population may, when promised a return to stability, be ready to acquiesce to an alternative that turns out to be worse than the traditional government, and from which a nation cannot recover without a complete restructuring, often accompanied by wholesale social disorder or civil war.

In many cases of transition from democracy to totalitarianism, the process is reasonable and gradual when the populous is homogeneous, of like religion, politics and socialization, and in agreement as to perceived national internal and external threats and enemies.

As a result, the population is compliant and willing to comply with increasing loss of their rights and powers until the totalitarian government is able to control law enforcement and the military enough to suspend the law and to introduce and enforce new law, whether the populace agrees or not.