When fear leads to tyranny

Jonathan Sumpton writes:

In many ways, the biggest threat to democracy is not oppression by the state, but the intolerance of our fellow citizens.  …

The deliberate campaigns of suppression conducted by pressure groups against politically unfashionable or “incorrect” opinions on, for example, race, gender reassignment, or same-sex relationships; the attempts to impose a new vocabulary which implicitly accepts the campaigners’ point of view: these things are symptoms of the narrowing of our intellectual world.

The tests recently imposed on freshers at the University of St. Andrews and the campaign against Kathleen Stock at the University of Sussex suggest that intellectual persecution is alive even in our universities, for the first time perhaps since Thomas Cranmer was burned at the stake just 200 yards from here. Demonstrations, such as those organised by Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain, are based on the notion that the campaigners’ point of view is the only legitimate one. It is therefore perfectly acceptable deliberately to bully people and disrupt their lives until they submit, instead of resorting to ordinary democratic procedures. This is the mentality of terrorists, but without the violence.

So well said.

Democracy can only survive if our differences are transcended by our common acceptance of the legitimacy of the decision-making process, even when we disagree profoundly with the outcome. This implicit bargain breaks down if a society repeatedly finds itself resorting to coercion to enforce the majority view about controversial moral issues. It breaks down if people feel more strongly about the issues than they do about democratic procedures for settling them. The result is the abandonment of political engagement and a growing resort to direct action of one kind or another.

Direct action is an invitation to authoritarian government, because it implicitly rejects diversity of opinion. It assesses the value of democratic institutions by one criterion only, namely the degree to which the activists’ program has prevailed. Those who engage in direct action instinctively feel that the end is so important that it justifies the means, but they rarely confront the implications of their acts. What holds us together as a society is precisely the means by which we do things. Since we are never likely to agree on controversial issues of principle, what holds us together is not consensus, but a common respect for a method of resolving our differences, whether or not we approve of the resulting decisions.

This is so true. I regard democracy as more important than whether or not I agree with the decisions made by a democratic Government. But for many democracy is merely a means towards and end.

The transition from democracy to authoritarian rule is generally smooth and unnoticed. It is easy to sleepwalk into it. The outward forms, the language of politics, are unchanged. But the substance is gone. These things do not happen with a clap of thunder. Democracy is not formally abolished but quietly redefined. It ceases to be a method of government, and becomes instead a set of political values, like communism or human rights, which are said to represent the people’s true wishes without regard to anything that they may actually have chosen for themselves.

Sadly I think democracy is losing in many places. We had a golden era from 1980 to around 2010 where the trend was towards democracy and (classic) liberalism. But now the trend is going the wrong way.

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