Democracy in Crisis and Why Democracy Matters

Educate the next generation so as to cope intellectually, morally, and politically with the messiness and complexity of the world.

            Yehuda Elkana

In developing democracy in the United States and Europe over the last few centuries, the people of both continents have forged five fundamental safeguards against the tyranny of those with dangerous personality disorders. These safeguards are: representative democracy, in which leaders are freely elected and freely removed by the people; the separation of church and state, which limits the ability of tyrants to wield the power of the state on behalf of sectarian causes; social democracy, in which the state has the responsibility to redistribute wealth in order to minimise poverty and ensure social cohesion; pooled sovereignty, which reduces nationalist sentiment and deprives tyrants of a rallying cry to arms; and the protection of individual human rights in law, including the rights of minorities, which deprives tyrants of their most vulnerable scapegoats. Although the mix of safeguards varies between the United States and Europe, and between countries in Europe, they together characterise the Western democratic model.  

A number of insights can be gained from this psychology-based perspective on democracy. First, democracy emerged as a result of a process in which the psychological majority challenged the power of personality-disordered elites. The development of democracy in Europe and the United States took place over centuries and involved a long-drawn-out struggle between pathologically disordered and entrenched elites and the majority populations. The process was protracted and violent, primarily because it is not in the nature of those with dangerous personality disorders to compromise or relinquish power readily. The development of democracy also involved profound social and cultural changes, including the development of a democratic culture which empowered the majority population to challenge authority and demand to be treated as equal citizens, rather than as objects to be abused by those in power.


photo credit: RamyRaoof via photopin cc

photo credit: RamyRaoof via photopin cc

Second, the establishment of elections is not enough to unseat pathological elites and establish democracy. Effective democracy requires the establishment of law and order and the application of the law to all, regardless of wealth or status. It requires the inclusion of all ethnic and religious groups in the democratic process on an equal basis. It requires the collection of taxation from all citizens on an equitable basis and the redistribution of wealth to ensure social cohesion. It requires the passage of laws to protect the human rights of all members of society, particularly minorities, to ensure protection from persecution and discrimination. And it requires the establishment of institutions capable of enforcing and administering all of these essential democratic functions.

In attempting to establish these institutions and practices, the citizens of a newly democratising nation will come up against strident opposition from people with dangerous personality disorders on every one of these issues. Pathological individuals will inevitably hold positions of authority in the army, police and judiciary; they will be profiting from the vilification and persecution of those of a different ethnic or religious background; they will vehemently oppose any redistribution of their wealth and power; and they will reject the basic principle of equality underpinning democratic governance as threatening and offensive.

Pathology as Anti-Democracy

Psychologically normal people may also of course oppose each of these developments – on the basis of self-interest, prejudice or even reasoned argument. But psychologically normal people are capable of conceiving of the democratic principles of equality, power-sharing, compromise and concern for the rights and aspirations of others. Psychopaths, pathological narcissists, and people with severe paranoid personality are psychologically incapable of conceiving of these fundamental essentials of democratic citizenship and will therefore be at the vanguard of those opposed to the success of democratisation.

This psychology-based perspective helps to explain why mass protests and violent revolutions are often necessary preludes to democratisation. And it helps to explain why the process of democratisation is protracted and can readily fail.

In established democracies, once people with these disorders get into power their psychology impels them to dismantle the institutions and norms of democracy.




8 thoughts on “Democracy in Crisis and Why Democracy Matters

  1. Looking forward to reading your book once epub version is available. I hope it investigates the relationship of a hereditary ruling family as a legal structure against psychopaths rule by force (tyranny), given relative rarity of democracies compared to chiefdoms. Aristocratic families were a significant force in the formation of representative democracies.

    • Thank you for your comment. I haven’t looked into aristocratic families in detail to be honest. In the book I concentrate mainly on the dictators responsible for the horrors of the 20th century. The closest work I have done is on the Kim dynasty in North Korea which you will find on my blog here

  2. Despite all you say above, money still demands access to power, and is seldom rejected. Look at the “democracy” in the USA where two parties have broadly similar aims of preserving and enhancing wealth and power, or similar situations in the UK, France, Ireland . . .

  3. I couldn’t agree more. Money has corrupted politics – to a much greater extent in the US than in other Western democracies I think – and that corruption has been a huge contributor to the rising inequality we see, as well as a major cause of the 2008 Financial Crisis.

    • The inequality was caused by the Democrats raising income taxes. This led C.E.Os and others in similar positions to opt for stock options instead of a high salary since the tax burden is way less (20% vs. 39%). Then the stock market grew and so did the value of the options and we ended up with C.E.Os focused on stock prices and a strong incentive to keep wages low.

  4. I like your thesis regards control of disordered personalities as the reason for democratic principles and structures. I wonder if this could be extended somewhat by a sexed/gendered analysis of the personalities you describe? There seem to be substantial links between women’s empowerment and transition towards democracy, even if most democracies continue to struggle to implement sex/gender equality. Have you seen this recent work analysing democratic transitions across the 20th Century? I wonder if male emancipation is not enough to institute the civil and social changes required for lasting democracy given that even greater civil protections are required for the establishment of women’s democratic rights. Cheers, Ben

  5. Hi Ben. Thanks for your comment and for the paper. I hadn’t seen it and I am very interested to read it, so thank you. I totally agree that there is an enormous sex/gender dimension in understanding how dangerous personalities (who have historically been predominantly men) influence society. Research on psychopaths for example suggest that female psychopaths are much more likely to self harm than harm others. Male psychopaths predominantly harm others. So there seems to be a sex/gender difference in how dangerous personality disorders manifest. A second dimension of course is the one you mention, namely the constraining effects of societies in which women have equal rights as men. In such societies the norms and institutions are likely to be better able to constrain the hyper-masculine psychopathic narcissist than societies where women are viewed as inferior. Women’s equality is not only a matter of justice, it is also a matter of security for all, women and men. I have written a piece on why men are more violent than women here which you might find interesting. I’d be interested in your views on it. Thanks again. Ian

    • Thanks for this great response Ian. Those differences in psychopathic behaviour are certainly interesting. My own research relates to human aggression and differences in male and female violence so I was happy to read your other post. I’ve long been interested in how these differences came about, asking the question ‘why *male* violence?’. I will say, I find it impossible to accept that there could be a purely cultural explanation for it, though I do believe that culture strongly influences its expression, and that our responses to it can only be culturally/socially based. I have been very taken by recent suggestions that widespread evolutionary declines in male aggressive reactivity enabled recent expansion of complexity in human societies and civilisations. At the risk of overloading your existing reading list, I’ll link to one more paper: Glad to find your blog! Will be following! Cheers, Ben

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