Dictators rise to power – and stay there – by taking one of two roads. The first is by military means. The second is by getting elected (through whatever means necessary) and then destroying your opponents and paying off your backers. There is a dirty little secret to the second road, however. It cannot work without the acquiescence of both the ruled and the powerful.
The road to initial power for a wannabe dictator is based on a very simple story: “Everything’s terrible. It’s the fault of those others [blacks, Jews, Mexicans – insert your favorite target group]. Only I can fix it and then everything will be wonderful”.
Once in power, our dictator then systematically sets about destroying or nullifying anything and anyone that can get in his way: the media, the judiciary, the legislature. But here’s the thing: he can only get away with this if not only the people who voted him in but also those in positions of power go along with it. Very often, these people know full well what he is doing but either ignore it in the interests of their own power base or make believe that they can control him.
John Heartfield, Have no fear – he’s a vegetarian, 1936
Of course, a dictator has no interest whatsoever in a social contract, but it doesn’t hurt if the actual contract itself is already on shaky ground. If people who have seen their local economies flattened feel that no-one is listening to them; if the wannabe dictator plays to inherent prejudices; if people are fearful for their incomes, health or social security; or if they merely want to belong to something bigger than themselves but have felt excluded or threatened in the past; then there is fertile ground for making his case. However, in a democracy – or a democratic republic such as ours – no aspiring dictator can succeed (however strong his case) if the powerful do not go along with him. But if they do, then the world is his oyster.
Over the last few days, we have seen how the social contract in the US is damaged, even broken. This is fertile ground. What we are also seeing today is many of the powerful in the media as well as in politics acquiescing to an assault on the structures and players that are designed to uphold our freedoms and rights. The seeds were sown a long time ago when capital gained the upper hand over labor, when health care became a for-profit industry, when education was undermined, when money took over political life, and when it was decided that the social safety net was not a priority.
The danger is real.
The only way to counter the direction that this country is taking is for the ‘silent majority’ (thank you, Reagan, for coining the phrase) to take action at the ballot box, in the media and in the streets, not only to say ‘no’ to our slide into autocracy, but also to say ‘yes’ to an alternative way.
Covid-19 has stripped away the veil and exposed the highly vulnerable underbelly of this nation. It’s time to re-evaluate. It’s time to demand that the social contract be real.
Tomorrow, in the final article of this series, we will put forward a manifesto for achieving a real social contract.