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When Democracy Gets in the Way by Sven R. Larson

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When Democracy Gets in the Way

The democratic world is being overrun by a wave of extra-democratic power grabs by governments.

On February 17th,

for the first time in Canadian history, the federal government invoked the Emergencies Act in response to the ongoing trucker blockades and anti-vaccination protests.

Bypassing the normal statutory and constitutional way of governing Canada, Prime Minister Trudeau simply decreed that it was no longer legal to express your disagreement with government. 

Fast forward to July 20th:

The EU Commission is discussing plans to get emergency powers that would allow it to impose block-wide gas rationing from August to May. Details of a proposal to the Council should be finalized at the Commission meeting held … July 20th.

A Commission-imposed rationing plan would override not only the European Parliament, but also the parliaments in all the EU member states. 

These are just two mundane examples of how so-called emergency powers are being used by otherwise “democratic” governments. We saw more examples of these extra-democratic powers at work during the recent pandemic, when otherwise democratically founded governments forced citizens to vaccinate, shelter in place, lose their jobs, shut down businesses, and keep their children out of schools. 

We even saw the state security service of the purportedly democratic German government brand critics of COVID-related measures as “enemies of the state.”

There is more. Three years ago, when President Trump was considering the use of emergency powers to address the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, Dan Farber, law professor at University of California, Berkeley, explained:

Republicans are apparently worried that if Trump could use emergency powers by declaring border security a national emergency, the next president could do the same thing for climate change. 

Fast forward to July 20th this year:

President Joe Biden on Wednesday will announce executive action to confront climate change, including plans to steer federal dollars to heat-ravaged communities, though he’s holding off for now on an emergency decree that would allow him to marshal sweeping powers against global warming.

The president reportedly “won’t allow a congressional impasse on climate legislation” to get in the way of his battle against alleged global warming. 

Presidential powers in America are still confined by the Constitution. In principle, any judge in any federal court can put a stop to a presidential action until it has been thoroughly vetted by the judicial branch. In practice, President Biden continues to expand the powers of his office, in line with what both Democrat and Republican presidents have done since at least Lyndon Johnson was in office. 

In Europe, the EU Commission is doing the same. Given the muddy waters of accountability in which the entire EU is swimming, it is easier for the Commission than for the U.S. President to expand its powers. To no one’s surprise, back in December we reported on a proposal from EU Commissioner Breton to increase the emergency powers of the Union. His idea, which conveniently follows on the heels of the COVID pandemic, is well in line with the old adage that government never lets a crisis go to waste.

This trend among democratic governments to neutralize the will of the people is nothing short of disturbing. The affection for emergency powers and other measures to limit popular influence can only be interpreted in one way: government officials, elected and unelected, see democracy more and more as an inconvenience, even an obstacle.

Behind this ambition lies the idea that more powers to government, and less to the people, is better for both. 

Out with the Judges, in with the Kings.

As old as the Bible and the lure of absolute power, are two uncomfortable, yet quintessential questions. 

First: if those who govern under democracy no longer behave as if democracy is legitimate, then how long is it before the people lose faith in democratic government?

Second: what happens when we reach that point?

Human history is full of examples of what happens when man tries to find answers to these questions in real time. In fact, we need look no further back than 100 years. 

In the aftermath of World War I, many governments were tested by the changing tides of time. Some of the challenges to the existing order came from movements inspired by the Russian revolution, which appealed to millions of Europeans who wanted their share of the Marxist-Leninist dream.

In a few select countries, communist movements became a threat to the prevailing political order. Italy was a case in point, with a government whose legitimacy was rapidly eroding, and with government officials more concerned with holding onto power than solving the nation’s problems. In a brilliant summary of the sad state of affairs in Italy at the time, Virginia Crawford writes in Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review (“The Rise of Fascism and What It Stands For,” Dec. 1923), about how the Italian state

was singularly weak and ineffective. It neither remedied legitimate grievances nor suppressed disorder; plunged in debt, it yet did not dare reduce expenditure or cut down its over-staffed war-establishments for fear of unpopularity. Prime ministers came and went, and parliamentary authority dwindled to a vanishing point.

Furthermore, government “had no courage at all” to confront the communist threat. This threat had grown in complexity and strength to the point where, according to Crawford, the communist-led labor movement had begun forming “regional Soviets” with the Leninist creation as their role model. 

Economic unrest spread throughout the country, disrupting increasingly critical sectors of the economy. A government that lacked effort, interest or ability to counter the threat, lost even more support and legitimacy in the eyes of the Italian people. This fed both the communist movement, which could market itself as the force of tomorrow, and the anti-communist movement that for good reasons feared a communist takeover.

As economic disruption spread throughout Italy, calls kept coming for government to launch a stern counter-reaction. However, the longer it waited to address what more and more people saw as an existential problem, the more legitimacy government lost. There came a point where the window of opportunity shut, when to move against the communists would have been counterproductive, i.e., done more good than harm to the communists.

A government that fails to react for long enough, eventually forfeits its legitimacy altogether. As J.H. Harley explains in an analysis contemporary to the Italian crisis of the early 1920s (“The Theory of the State,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Vol. 25, 1924), when totalitarianism is on the rise—in this case in the form of Communism—it is the state’s duty to protect its government and the people. However, Harley explains (p.182), “the exercise of ultimate force only succeeds if the effective power of public opinion is not vigorously marshaled against it.”

In other words, if the state loses enough legitimacy in the eyes of its people, the balance of loyalty shifts in favor of the threat to the state. This threat, in turn, derives its saliency as much from loyalty in its favor as from the lack of loyalty to the current government. 

This shift in loyalty is a very real phenomenon. In a Foreign Affairs article titled “Italy and Fascism” (April 1925), Count Carlo Sforza points to some rather prosaic factors that explain where the communist movement gained at least some of its strength. When Italian soldiers of World War I returned home, most of them to rural communities, they “had been led to expect” better living conditions than they had left when they went into battle. There were, Count Sforza notes, expectations of a land reform where “each would be given a piece of land as his own.” This did not happen, which led many of the peasants to observe that where Communism had actually been implemented,

the men who actually fought the war, were now apparently the masters in Russia … the great estates of the idle proprietors had been divided among the descendants of those who, only three generations ago, were serfs.

Is it outlandish to compare this kind of disappointment with the kind that is currently spreading among Europeans in general, in the wake of the slowly growing hardship under the so-called green transition? Yes, definitely—without context. But put it in the framework of energy starvation, forced upon Europeans as low-productive windmills replace high-productive coal and nuclear power plants. Add the rising cost of everyday life as families are ‘encouraged’ to buy expensive electric cars instead of affordable, efficient vehicles with internal combustion engines. 

Add the rising cost of food as the agricultural sector is being targeted by increasingly onerous environmental regulations; add the stigmatization of critics of large immigration; a sense of lost public security in the face of rising crime. Add all this, then throw in 

  • The recent experience with the pandemic, and 
  • The nascent but ominous use of emergency powers to enforce increasingly unpopular policies.

How far down the current path does Europe have to go before the Italian example from a century ago becomes a case of retroactive clairvoyance? 

But is the use of emergency powers really this dangerous? Listening to Count Sforza, we have reasons to believe so. He makes a point that echoes with unwavering strength all the way through the last 100 years:

The blind policy of building a wall around Russia did the rest. Men said to themselves, “Aha! Russia is being quarantined like a plague center.” Therefore not a single story of Bolshevik horrors was any longer believed.

Count Sforza, of course, is referring to the domestic debate in Italy in the first years after World War I. The government in Rome, weakened by a self-aggrandizing image and an out-of-touch relationship to its citizenry, tried to stop the spread of communism by admonishing the very conversation about it. 

Does that in any way sound familiar?

When the Italian government had lost enough legitimacy in the eyes of its people, many who opposed communism soon found what they saw as a countervailing force: fascism. Needless to say, the rise of the fascist movement did not end well. It was not a fix for Italy’s deeply rooted, macro-systemic problems. 

Yet for many years, Mussolini’s government drew praise and admiration even from people far away from its loyal ranks. Given the state of chaos in Italy when Mussolini and his movement marched into Rome and seized power, it is perhaps understandable to find such praise as in “A Year of Fascism in Italy” in the January 1924 issue of Current History. The author, Arnold Cortesi, Rome correspondent for the New York Times, could hardly have showered the fascists with more praise than this:

In general, it may be said that order has been restored, lawlessness of all sorts has largely been suppressed, mutual tolerance now exists among the various social strata, a wonderful spirit of sacrifice has been engendered among all social classes, strikes have practically completely disappeared, and a new energy and desire to work have been infused into the nation. 

The Italian government that allowed its country to plunge into the moral, social, and economic chaos wrought by communism was a democratic government. While it did not explicitly abandon democracy, its policies abandoned the needs of the people. Per account of the aforementioned Virginia Crawford, incumbent politicians were more interested in the short-sighted preservation of their own power than they were in solving the nation’s problems. 

Mussolini did not solve Italy’s problems. He suppressed dissent to the point where the average Italian’s fear of government retribution superseded his resentment over the conditions of his own life. 

But the real question here is not to what extent Mussolini’s making the trains run on time was a respectable accomplishment. The real question is how democratic governments today, and in the future, will avoid paving the way for a new fascist march on Rome.

Sven R. Larson is a political economist and author. He received a Ph.D. in Economics from Roskilde University, Denmark. Originally from Sweden, he lives in America where for the past 16 years he has worked in politics and public policy. He has written several books, including Democracy or Socialism: The Fateful Question for America in 2024.