Democracies that have collapsed in history

These are only a few examples and do not represent an exhaustive list.


Photo by Marco Bello

Photo by Marco Bello

Venezuela had very high scores on Freedom House’s measures of political rights and democracy in the 1980s; at the time it was nearly unthinkable that Venezuela could become a dictatorship. However, in 1992, a military officer named Hugo Chavez led a failed coup. Then, just 6 years after this failed attempt, Chavez was elected as the President because he was able to tap into latent anger about the inequality and corruption rampant throughout the country.

He called a Constituent Assembly in 1999 and drafted a new Constitution, solidifying his authority.

Over the years, the National Assembly would frequently grant Chavez Executive Power to rule by decree. Chavez used it to declare a “national emergency” 18 times, further eroding any liberal democratic impulses. When Chavez died in 2013, Vice President Nicolas Maduro took the reins of power and has been intent on further consolidating his power. He was “re-elected” in 2018 in what many consider to be a sham election and since then, has begun to violently shut down protests.


Photo by Max Trujillo

Photo by Max Trujillo

Following decades of civil strife in Nicaragua throughout the Cold War, in 1990, Nicaraguans gathered for the first time to change their government at the ballot box. For the next two decades democratic institutions appeared to be consolidating, as a vibrant civil society began to emerge in the country.

In 2006 Daniel Ortega, a former revolutionary, was elected president and began a slow process of consolidating power. He stuffed courts with loyalists, took control of all branches of government and most media channels, disbanded the opposition and abolished constitutional term limits. Moreover, he made his wife, Rosario Murillo, his vice-president, and put his children and confidantes in charge of a network of businesses. For a time Nicaraguans acquiesced: the economy was growing at over 4% a year (the fastest rate in Central America), the country was a safe part of an otherwise volatile region, and Mr Ortega continued to support social programmes thanks to generous aid from Venezuela. The economic collapse of Venezuela, which led to a reduction in aid, changed the situation.

The spark that lit the fuse came in April 2018, when Ortega announced he would slash social security benefits as a cost-cutting measure. The public responded by taking to the streets by the hundreds of thousands and demanded Ortega’s resignation. In response, Ortega chose to launch a crackdown by government and paramilitary forces that has since left hundreds dead and many more injured.


Photo by Spencer Platt

Photo by Spencer Platt

Liberal reforms by the Soviet Union’s last leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, alongside external pressure and pressure from various Soviet Republics, triggered the collapse of the Soviet Union. From out of these ashes, Russia emerged as a struggling, but nevertheless promising, democracy. Competitive elections were held, media was unmuzzled, and former state enterprises were privatized, all features of a budding liberal democracy.

However, incompetence, corruption, and poorly executed privatization led to mass poverty and crime. Many Russians took to calling this period the “Wild, Wild, 90’s” as rampant inequality and criminal activity led them to lose faith in Russia’s burgeoning democracy and turn to strongmen.

Since becoming Acting President upon Boris Yeltsin’s resignation, Vladimir Putin systematically dismantled many liberal democratic elements such as freedom of press or assembly—while maintaining the charade of democratic processes.

Germany (Weimar Republic)

Photo by Sean Gallup

Photo by Sean Gallup

In the 1920s and early 1930s, Germany was essentially a liberal parliamentary republic, but it was being buffeted by both right-wing and left-wing extremists. It is in this milieu, that a relatively unknown politician began his rise to power by appealing to German nationalism and condemning various minority groups. Adolf Hitler began his political career with the German Workers’ Party (DAP) eventually transforming the group into the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, commonly referred to as the Nazi Party. An early sign of what was to come was the Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler’s failed coup attempt in 1923. He was arrested, tried, and convicted, but served less than a year in prison and was able to use that time to write Mein Kampf and elaborate on his political beliefs. Upon his release, Hitler’s effective manipulation of the media, impressive rhetorical abilities, and endorsement of violence by the party’s faithful, eventually allowed the Nazy Party to become the second largest party in the Reichstag.

In 1932, President Hindenberg appointed Adolf Hitler Chancellor despite the Nazis being a minority in the Cabinet & Reichstag.

In 1933, the Reichstag building was set on fire and Hitler convinced President Hindenberg to issue the Reichstag Fire Decree, which significantly curtailed basic rights & liberties.

Shortly thereafter, Hitler passed the “Enabling Act” which allowed him to enact laws without the Reichstag’s consent.

Later that year, Hitler’s Nazi party was declared the only legal party and all others were forced to disband.

Finally, when President Hindenberg died in 1934, Hitler declared himself Fuhrer and became the uncontested supreme leader of Germany. The last vestiges of liberal democracy had been completely destroyed.

Note: The NYT argued in 1922, that Hitler wasn’t a real threat and his Anti-Semitism wasn’t genuine, but just a ruse to rouse support - “Several reliable, well-informed sources confirmed the idea that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was not so genuine or violent as it sounded, and that he was merely using anti-Semitic propaganda as a bait to catch masses of followers and keep them aroused, enthusiastic, and in line.”

Photo by Chris Hondros

Photo by Chris Hondros

Signs the U.S. democracy is at risk

Only about 30% of Americans born in the 1980s think it’s “essential” to live in a democracy. That’s compared to 75% of Americans born in the 1930s.

According to a Brookings/UCLA survey, 50 percent of students on U.S. college campuses believe that “offensive” speech should be shouted down and 20 percent believe it should be “violently crushed.”

And 20 years ago, one in 16 Americans thought that ‘army rule’ was a good system of government. A few years ago, one in six Americans did.

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