Democracy and the strong man problem

Philip Coggan
10 min readMar 6, 2022

Sometimes it is easy to despair of democracy; how could a sensible system bring the likes of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson to power? These would seem to be the kind of leaders that Plato worried about. Their appeal is based on emotions and misleading information rather than logic and hard facts. In The Republic, Plato cites Socrates as comparing the state to a ship; it would not make sense for the passengers to choose the captain in a vote. Only someone with the requisite skills should be in charge. Democracy, Plato felt, leads to incompetents being in charge.
Another problem with democracy is that it is so messy. It is hard to get anything done because almost any policy change creates winners and losers, and the losers will be more passionate in their opposition than the winners will be in their support. However, this inertia has been built into the system for a good reason. The glaring flaw at the heart of democracy is that the majority can impose its will on the minority.
America’s founding fathers worried that the poor would use their electoral muscle to seize the property of the elite. But the more consistent problem has been that the rights of minorities — religious, ethnic, sexual — have been suppressed by the majority. That has led to the adoption of laws enshrining the “rights” of certain groups. In turn, this means that majority wishes can, on occasion, not be implemented because of such laws. But this can create frustration among the majority.
A liberal democracy needs to consist of a lot more than just the right of the citizens to vote. It needs independent courts and a free press to hold the government to account. And it needs the electoral process to be free and fair, so that the voices of all citizens can be heard. This was not the case in the southern states of the US from the 1870s to the 1960s when “Jim Crow” laws denied African-Americans the right to vote.
Despite the system’s flaws, democracy seems to offer its citizens a better life. A 2019 study by Daron Acemoglu and others found that countries which switched to democratic rule experienced a 20% increase in GDP, over 25 years, compared with what have happened had they remained autocratic. And this prosperity comes, of course, on top of the greater freedom of citizens to express their views.
But there have been moments when the benefits of democracy have not seemed to be sufficient. In the 1930s, many people felt that the totalitarian governments of Germany and Russia had been able to act more decisively to protect their citizens from the economic effects of the Great Depression. In particular, they had used public spending to generate employment. (In both cases, there were special circumstances. A lot of German spending went on rearmament with eventually catastrophic results. And Soviet investment was devoted to heavy industry, with little priority given to developing consumer goods.)
After the second world war, western governments developed welfare states, largely because it felt like the right thing to do but partly because it was a tactic to dissuade the working classes from voting communist. Communist parties did well in France and Italy until the 1980s but the appeal of the Soviet system gradually diminished, as its stagnation and repression became widely known. The far right remained on the political fringes.
Democracy’s crisis
However from the 1990s onwards, just as liberal democracy had triumphed over communism, its appeal seemed to dwindle at home. In my 2013 book, “The Last Vote: The Threats to Western Democracy”, I recounted many of the problems. The first was an increasing cynicism about the behaviour of elected politicians which translated into a lower turnout at elections. The second was the tendency for the internet to cause extremist views to proliferate, as voters abandoned traditional, balanced media for sources that reinforced their existing prejudices. The third was the failure of democracies to generate rapid real income gains for their citizens, in the face of globalisation and rising inequality.
Things have duly deteriorated in recent years. At the end of 2020, the Political Instability Task Force, an academic group, downgraded the US from a democracy to an “anocracy”, defined as a “regime that mixes democracy with autocratic features”. This was due to the Trump administration’s “systematic rejection of congressional oversight” and its “systematic purge of disloyalists from the administration, forceful response to protest, vilification of the main opposition parties; and undermining public trust in the electoral process”.
Trump’s appeal is very similar to the “strong man” role played by other autocratic rulers around the world such as Erdogan in Turkey and Orban in Hungary. Such rules come to power democratically but then seek to dismantle the constraints on their power, whether in the form of the courts, the press or opposition parties. Trump was able to alter the composition of the Supreme Court to create a conservative majority, undermine public trust in the press and came close to clinging on to power by falsely claiming electoral fraud. In a “through-the-looking-glass” moment, Trump supporters trying to “stop the steal” were actually trying to steal the election. Only a few brave Republican officials stood in their way.
It is not difficult to imagine a situation in which Republican states overturned the public vote, and Congress rubber-stamped the process. And what would have happened then? People would have protested but would quickly have been derided as “anarchists” or “terrorists” and faced with arrests and vilification. Political leaders of other countries would have been privately horrified but, given America’s economic and financial dominance, would have recognised Trump. The message I was trying to get over in “The Last Vote” is that, once a population gives its backing to an authoritarian leader, it might be the last fair vote they experience.
Another civil war?
In her book “How Civil Wars Start”, Barbara Walter, an academic who has studied the genesis of civil wars, thinks that the US is dangerously close to that stage. Civil wars have a variety of causes. One is factionalism, the belief that only one part of the population is genuinely entitled to rule and that any government headed by another faction is “illegitimate”. This was clearly the case in the US where, well before 2016, the “birther” movement was claiming that Barack Obama was not a genuine US citizen.
A second cause is the feeling among a previously dominant social group that their position has been undermined. These groups are often rural and are dubbed “sons of the soil”. Again, this is true of the US where white males in rural areas and small towns feel that their economic and social position has been undermined by multiculturalism. Their concerns are exploited by “ethnic entrepreneurs” who use fear to maintain their power. This happened in Yugoslavia where Franjo Tudjman of Croatia and Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia inflamed their citizens’ passions against each other and against the Muslim population. And the final factor is the existence of armed militia, with easy access to guns, of which the US has plenty.
What Ms Walter is envisaging is not a repeat of the 1861–65 civil war in which uniformed soldiers fought pitched battles but something akin to the FARC insurrection in Colombia or the “troubles” in Northern Ireland. Extremists conduct violent events which makes citizens feel insecure and look for support from extremists on their own side, leading to more violent incidents. As the state seems impotent to stop the bloodshed, people lose faith in government and welcome the idea of a “strong man”, however extreme his views, who could put a stop to it.
The Putin phenomenon
Vladimir Putin owes his appeal as a “strong man” for the Russian population to the chaos that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, when there was hyperinflation, a decline in life expectancy and living standards and a sense of national humiliation at Russia’s apparent loss of superpower status. Once in power, he followed the traditional tactics of muzzling the press, persecuting opponents and playing on a sense of national grievance against the west.
Putin was lucky in that Russia’s vast oil and gas reserves gave his regime an economic cushion. But in 2020, the country’s GDP per capita was around $10,000, down from $16,000 in 2013, and a lower figure than Barbados or Costa Rica. He has not succeeded in diversifying his economy; this is hardly surprising given the power of a few oligarchs and his arbitrary approach to the rule of law. Male life expectancy at birth is 68, lower than that of Bangladesh.
And the Ukraine crisis shows another fundamental flaw of “strong man” rule; a country’s strategic whims are entirely dependent on the psychological whims of the man in charge. In this case, Putin has come to believe that Ukraine is a fundamental part of Russia and has no right to exist as a separate entity. As could be seen from an excruciating video where Putin was “advised” by his team, top officials are either too cowed to express their dissent, or have risen to their positions only because they are willing to defer to his wishes.
Who knows whether Putin believes his nonsense about the “denazification” of Ukraine? It is Putin who has followed the Hitler playbook, seen in the Czech and Polish crises of the 1930s; exploit the complaints of a small ethnic minority within the target country, manufacture incidents of “atrocities” and then amass troops on the border to demand concessions, or to invade if he does not get his way.
A further flaw of “strong man” rule is that dictators tend to devote a large proportion of government resources to military spending and the secret police; investment that does nothing to add to long-term economic growth. Because they themselves have a tendency to plot, they become paranoid, seeing evidence of plots everywhere else, even among their close associates. In 1941, Stalin refused to believe reports of an imminent German invasion, believing that the British were out to trick him. As a result, the Red Army was underprepared for the Nazi assault.
In Putin’s case, he has become obsessed with the “encirclement” of Russia by NATO. But NATO has never invaded a European country*, not even when the Soviets crushed dissent in Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968. Eastern European countries have joined Nato because they are frightened of Putin and this is hardly surprising since he has described the demise of the Soviet Union as a “tragedy” , attacked Georgia and annexed the Crimea. His war on Ukraine will make more countries want the protective embrace of Nato, not fewer.
Of course, Putin does not believe that these countries should have the right to join Nato. Because they border Russia, they should be part of Russia’s sphere of influence, whether the people of those countries want it or not. Remarkably, some people in the west seem to support Putin’s point of view, which rings us to the final problem that confronts democracies when dealing with “strong men”.
Fellow travellers and slow starters
As well as wanting a strong man to take charge in their own countries, many extremists often admire tyrants abroad. In the 1930s, French right-wingers opposed to a left-wing government led by Leon Blum adopted the slogan “Better Hitler Than Blum”. It is hardly surprising that the Nazis found so many collaborators when they did occupy France.
In Britain, Nigel Farage has spent years praising Putin , describing him as the world leader he most admires. He has blamed the EU and Nato for the current crisis by antagonising Putin. Clearly he does not believe the people of eastern Europe have the right to “take back control” by joining alliances of their choosing. In the US, there has been backing for Putin from right-wing commentators, such as Tucker Carlson.
On the left, 11 Labour MPs signed a letter from the Stop the War coalition attacking Nato over the crisis , before withdrawing their signatures after pressure from Keir Starmer, the Labour leader. The former leader Jeremy Corbyn did not withdraw his signature but he sits as an independent. Dreadful as Boris Johnson may be, it is a relief that Corbyn was not Britain’s prime minister during the crisis; he would have undermined Western solidarity. Remember when he suggested, after the Salisbury poisonings, that Britain should send a sample of the nerve agent to Russia so Putin could test it?
Part of this, of course, relates to the principle that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”. Putin is “anti-woke” so he appeals to the right and “anti-America” so appeals to the left. But the existence of Putin’s supporters shows that democracies can be slow to unite against an external threat. There was a feeling in the 1930s that the Germans had been badly treated by the Versailles treaty and that Hitler’s initial demands were reasonable. The Netflix film “Munich” makes the case that Chamberlain made such strenuous efforts to appease Hitler to show the British public that he did not want war. When Hitler broke his word over the Czechs and the Poles, that made it easier to rally the nation against him.
The need to get everybody onside means that democracies are slow to react to a dictator’s rise. My former colleague, Edward Lucas, was warning about the threat posed by Putin in his 2008 book, “The New Cold War”. Some of the early reviews said he was exaggerating the problem although, by the time the book was published, Alexander Litvinenko had already been assassinated by polonium poisoning in London, an act of nuclear terrorism. “The Kremlin uses energy blockades, trade sanctions, cyber-attacks riots and Soviet-style disinformation” Mr Lucas warned.
It is striking, in the British press at least, that the Putin threat is now widely accepted. And there has been an amazing turnaround in German foreign policy, with Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, abandoning the approach of trying to maintain good relations with Russia. Germany is increasing its defence spending, sending weapons to Ukraine and blocking the new gas pipeline from Russia.
Whether all this is enough is another question. It is to the credit of democracies that they are very reluctant to go to war, because of the sacrifices required among their young people. We tend to agree with Edwin Starr who sang that war was good for “absolutely nothing”. Dictators rarely feel such constraints. They can take advantage of their hesitation, using force in the belief that we are unlikely to resist.

For the moment, economic sanctions are all the west has to offer. A more rational leader than Putin would retreat (just as the British did in 1956 when the US pressurised them over the Suez crisis). But as the democracies are realising, Mr Putin is not rational.
The bombing of Yugoslavia, aimed at stopping ethnic cleansing by the Serbs, was not an invasion.



Philip Coggan

Former Economist and FT columnist. Author of More, Paper Promises, The Last Vote and The Money Machine