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Democide traditionally means the killing of a person or people by their government, but political theorists have given it another, newer meaning: democratic suicide, the killing of democracy by self-destruction. 

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The idea that democracies can contain the seeds of their own destruction is explored by scholar Mark Chou, who writes, “democratic failure is a prospect that remains very much entrenched both within the idea and ideal of democracy itself.” The anti-democratic choice is always, tragically, democratically possible. 

“That all democracies have, by their very nature, the potential to destroy themselves is a fact too rarely documented by the acolytes of democracy,” writes Chou. “Preferring instead to focus on how sustainable a practice democracy is, democrats have rather concentrated on the longevity of democracy and not its supposed likelihood to self-destruct.”

Chou points to two different categories of democide: when a “democracy boldly sanctions critical affronts to its current course,” and “situations where a democracy incrementally elects to limit the democratic rights and freedoms available to its citizens in order to safeguard itself from popular threats.” Both “too much democracy” and “too little democracy” have the potential to kill it off.

Expanding a notion from political theorist Nathalie Karagiannis, that “democracy is a tragic regime,” Chou argues that there is “no effective mechanism in a democracy which can prevent that democracy from paving the way for its antitheses, that is, without itself being a risk to democracy.” 

The fifteen-year life of the Weimar Republic is the classic case. Weimar democracy was, writes Chou, beset by “deep-seated social and religious divisions, economic inflation, a contrary political culture, and a growing resentment towards the Republic as a whole.” The Nazi rise to power “took place within and took advantage of the very Weimar democratic processes which it would go on systemically to dismantle and repudiate.” 

The very citizens created by the Republic would heed the populist appeals of the fascists to decertify their citizenship. Elites played a significant role in the Nazi take-over, but throughout the Weimar period a majority of Weimar voters supported parties that were “anti-liberal, anti-democratic, and anti-parliamentary.” 

In the election of March 1933, the last contested election until after Word War II, the Nazis got 43.9 percent of the vote. In coalition with the German Nationalist People’s Party (8 percent), the fascists had the majority in parliament—a parliament that they proceeded to dissolve within a week of the election. In rapid successions, power was wielded by decree; special courts were set up to deal with political enemies; and other political parties were banned. The sham election called in November 1933 gave the Nazis 95.2 percent of the vote.

The Nazis largely worked within Weimar’s constitution—although on a parallel track they also “blatantly violate[d] democratic principles through the resort to violence and political intimidation.” 

How, then, do democracies protect themselves from…themselves? The notions of militant democracies and emergency measures are paradoxical precisely because “efforts to discredit or prevent this prospect [democide] from occurring can in themselves posses distinctly anti-democratic characteristic, thus jeopardizing the life of democracy all the same.” 

Chou admits that such thinking can lead to pessimism about the fate of democracies. He suggests, however, that the “tragic nature of democracy” can be viewed as “something of a good thing.” Democracy is a gamble: being brave enough to welcome the very “menacing ideas and restrictive initiatives” that dismantle it, “the spirit of democracy cannot be so easily tarnished and destroyed by this radical openness.”

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Theoria: A Journal of Social and Political Theory, Vol. 59, No. 133 (December 2012), pp. 21–49
Berghahn Books