2019 – The Crisis of Western Democracies and Our Autodestruct Mechanisms: How Can We Turn Things Around?

Picture: Ship of Fools (painted c. 1490–1500) by Hieronymus Bosch.

When I left Germany for Asia in the 80s, our nation was still composed as a fairly orderly and clearly defined world. We had a total of three public TV-channels, the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats (CDU and SPD, analogous to Democrats and Republicans in the US) fought things out as major political rivals, enjoying a wide following within the population, while the EU-Integration was still in its infant stages and limited to few key players. Politicians were abiding, at least to some predictable degree, by honour codes. Regardless if one was progressive or conservative, everyone clearly knew his or her position within the political landscape. Newspapers, public TV-channels and face-to-face activism served as the central means 1.of social and political discourse and protest. Life was neither better nor worse, but it was notably simpler.

Today, this orderly world has gone. The CDU/SPD great coalition government (or ‚GroKo‘) in Germany since 2005 left Germany without a sensible opposition. In the following years, both parties became, in the perception of many of their voters, indistinguishable. Mrs Merkel opened Germany during the refugee crisis in 2005 (instead of closing borders such as many conservatives demanded), led Germany’s exit from nuclear energy after Fukushima and introduced homosexual marriage, despite her disagreement on a personal level. Her political moves alienated traditional conservatives.

Mrs Merkels biggest weakness was the lack of concept, starting from the Greek financial crisis (which still remains unsolved, leaving generations of young Greek indebted to the EU for the next 60 years) and the uncontrolled, amateurishly managed influx of refugees. Until recently, there has been no immigration law, no clarifying definition of the conditions and requirements to live, work and stay in Germany. The lack of a legal framework, combined with mismanagement such as housing refugees isolated in rural areas, overwhelming locals, contributed to the rise of right-wing sentiments (‘The government treats refugees better than their own people. They get everything, we get nothing‘). The situation is no different in other EU-countries.

Despite a flourishing economy, the country struggles with an eroding middle class, fueled by a zero interest rate (by now negative interest, this means people paradoxically have to pay for their money) of the European Central Bank, ECB. Mario Draghi keeps on printing cheap money. Bankers may argue that this is good news for those in debt, or ‚negative assets‘ as it might be called in the speak of a post-orderly world. The fact remains that the accumulation of humble wealth for the middle class has stalled. What is there to look forward to once members of the middle-class live from hand to mouth like paupers? The infrastructure and pride of the nation stem from better days. Although many Germans are not poor, as compared to most other EU-countries, they feel belonging to an endangered species. The felt threat, the imagined decline, powers the new German Angst – the anxiety of losing all wealth at the top of success. Once having arrived at the pinnacle the only other path, given environmental anxiety blurring clear thought, appears downwards.

Education, the judiciary, care for the elderly and infrastructure, such as the ailing railway system, lack of school teachers or geriatric nurses, have been notoriously underfunded for the past decades. Still, the government refuses to invest in the future of the country. Germany’s dysfunctional and backward digital infrastructure has become an international laughing stock. 

1. Digitisation has been limited to consumerism. Its emancipatory potential remains greatly unexplored

Digitization has complicated things further. Not only has it led to a growth of unqualified and poorly paid jobs, but also have digital overlords such as Amazon conquered the market, effectively eliminating local and regional competition while expanding into supermarkets, postal services, health insurance and financial transfer portals. Amazon does not dominate the market, it seeks to replace it. Regarding the economic and social effects of digitization, Cathy O’Neil’s ‘Weapons of Math Destruction’ is a brilliant reflection on the role of invisible algorithms starting to rule society. Facebook, likewise, has demonstrated a corrosive effect on democracy, not only since Cambridge Analytica. Mark Zuckerberg appears to have lost control of his creation, similar to Goethe’s ‚The Sorcerer’s Apprentice‘ (Der Zauberlehrling) or Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein ‚The Modern Prometheus‘: Social groups radicalize in filter bubbles and echo chambers, neighbours turn into Nazi activists, so-called alternative facts replace truth, beliefs replace facts, feelings and attitude count more than integrity and good arguments. Most disturbingly, the broad consensus about a shared common good, collective thinking, ethos and responsibility, have largely vanished as uniting values and have been replaced by digital tribalism. Facts are interpreted in the light of conspiracy theories. Impartial, bipartisan analyses have become the exception of the rule. Welcome to the ship of fools: In the new ‘anti-social media’ of Facebook, previously unsuspecting citizens of Western societies radicalize while genocide on the Rohingya in Myanmar, at the other end of the world, is openly supported by providing platforms for hatred. Needless to say, Google, Amazon and Facebook hardly pay any taxes for consolidating their dominance of the virtual world.

Picture: Pro-EU ‘Remainders’ protests in Britain in 2016. Image by i24TV. One trait of failing democracies is the simple majority rule, driven by group-egoism, not taking into consideration the severe consequences for everybody else.

2. The conservative backlash: Dreaming of regressive simplicity within a challenging, complex world

The consequences of political monoculture, favouring the wealthy and industry, combined with the digitization of society can be observed in public life. The once mighty political parties in Germany have shrunk significantly, the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland), a small right-wing party associated with numerous Nazi organisations, has entered parliament as the Green party (Die Grünen) are on the road to becoming a new ‚Volkspartei‘, merging conservative goals, such a preserving nature, with more progressive social policies. The diversification of audiences has, quite logically, led to diversified representation which has, in return, fostered the notion of inadequate representation. Democracies appear to fail their voters since no single party has the power any more to turn mandates into clearly visible policies. The temptation is big, to opt for so-called strong leaders instead.

Authoritarian populists and declared enemies of modern democracies, such as Trump, Bolsonaro, Erdogan, Duterte or Putin thrive in an atmosphere of mistrust and fear. Brexit would not have been possible without fear-mongering and social media support either. Many of older ultra-conservative white men (Michael Kimmel’s explicit analysis ‘Angry White Men‘ provides great insights here) have little to offer rather than the hatred of past generations against all others, irrational nationalistic sentimentalities (‘We want our country back‘) and abundance of prejudice. They feel empowered by right-wing movements and feel emboldened to stir up hatred against women, LGBT communities, minorities and foreigners. They dwell in nostalgia and feed on uncertainty. Arguably, young Britons have been the biggest loser in the chaotic turn of events in 2018. The rise of nationalism on a global scale, including Brazil, Eastern European countries as well as China’s recent rise to a superpower, plus throwing a declining planetary eco-system into the mix, leave a younger generation with very few if any hopeful prospects. Unlike the baby boomer generation, who still believed in social progress and advancement, millennials are facing a scenario of global doom and gloom. We are setting fire to the only spaceship we are living on. This is how behavioural- and policy changes pose a central challenge in social change management.

Picture: The drought in Europe in 2018 as seen from the ISS. What should have been green, turned brown. Photograph by Alexander Gerst on Twitter.com (Aug. 6th, 2018)

Again, there are those who rise up to the challenges of the time and those who don’t. Digitization has, at least up to this stage, predominantly represented consumerism. Instant gratification with the touch of a button has become for many the last predictable factor in an otherwise unpredictable world. It has become acceptable to surrender privacy and personal data for being rewarded by the care of digital overlords. Consumerist submission structures itself as a process of voluntary enslavement in the role of a new global precariat. Privacy and freedom in exchange for material care. Marx would have had a field day looking at digital monopolies in a neo-feudal society 4.0.

3. Paths towards solutions: Regulating digital overlords, fostering democratic forces within Europe, moderating religion to endorse multiculturalism, supporting a free press, focussing on international cooperation, investing in education

Is there a way out of this global chaos? From a problem-solving perspective, there certainly is. Like the finance sector, large digital infrastructures require regulation. It might be a long fight, but one worth fighting. Elizabeth Warren’s similar experience with Wall Street, which she reflects in her book ‚A Fighting Chance‘, serves as encouragement.

Secondly, the EU has to sort itself out. The uncontrolled expansion for merely economic gain has led to a decline in quality when it comes to human rights or prospects for the younger generation. Currently, the EU represents primarily economic interests. By comparison, emancipatory values seem of little concern. Countries such as Hungaria or Poland have no argument benefitting from the EU monetarily but cheekily abandon democracy at the same time, replacing it with authoritarian one-party regimes. Italy has embarked on a rather shaky nationalistic path as well. Scandinavian societies, in stark contrast, enjoy the largest degree of individual freedom under the absence of religiousness, according to German political scientist Christian Welzel at Lüneburg University.

Thirdly, immigrants, like anybody else, are neither better nor worse human beings. In the end, all depends on the individual and us offering those, who make a sincere effort to integrate to society, a fair chance and lending a helping hand. Living in multicultural societies, so my experience after three decades living in Asia, can be a rewarding and very beautiful experience. The ethnic diversification of globalized societies is a fact, inclusion is our choice. In this context, the ‘Inclusion Imperative’ formulated by Stephen Frost provides an exemplary framework. There is also no room for religious extremism and exclusivism in this picture. Asian belief-systems are not based on monotheism and fare far better in terms of tolerating others as e.g. compared to Islam. A weird sense of political correctness does not permit a sensible critique of religion in Germany. However, preachers that promote hatred in German mosques, funded by money from Turkey and Saudi Arabia, are a sad fact, and so is the denunciation of moderate, modern Muslims by fundamentalists and the Turkish secret service. In this light, we expect from our Muslim friends to draw a clear line. There is no place for religion in politics in free, secular, pluralistic societies. Christianity has not been innocent either. Neverending scandals in 2018 about paedophile priests in the Catholic Church worldwide have questioned its integrity and contradict the claim to a morally enlightened view on life. To the very contrary, religions of all faiths have established parallel societies that circumvent the rule of law, escape criminal persecution and deny their followers basic human and civil rights such as, e.g. women to become priests, Pope or share prayers in a mosque with men. Honour killings as a response to apostasy or marriage to non-believers are still tolerated. A concluding hypothesis states that in order for open multicultural societies to work, monotheist religions cannot stay rigid and need to become more permeable.

Picture: The Panama Papers. There are strict laws for ordinary citizens and tolerated lawlessness for the top 1%. Illustration by Süddeutsche Zeitung. The revelations were just a tip of the iceberg.

Next, we can support our free press. We still have great newspapers and courageous investigative journalists (a good example in 2018 were the Panama Papers) who put their lives on the line. Dictators and authoritarian leaders will always target the free press first to suppress inconvenient news. They will vigorously seek to replace it with state-sponsored propaganda. Rather than talking about the free press, we should become a part of it. Contributing, supporting, valuing sincerity, professionalism, truthfulness, multiple perspective-taking, good argumentation and independent fact-checking. Without a sound and reliable coverage of events by a free press, rational public discourse comes to a standstill as the door to ideologies opens wide.

Lastly, even as global warming causes extrapolating social hardship (2018 presented a sneak preview of things to come), we do have a better chance returning the planet to a sustainable level within the next hundred or two hundred years by rational decision-making and cooperation, rather than ignoring science. The latter would have truly horrific consequences. It is not the problems that pose the biggest challenge. The biggest challenge seems deeply buried in human nature. To this extent, investing in education yields the biggest long-term benefits.

‘I Love Democracy – As Long as You Agree With Me’: Notes on the Social Psychology of Authoritarianism

Nationalist autocrats (Trump, Erdogan, Putin): Different cultural backgrounds, shared cognitive template

The Democratic Model: Deliberating Discussions and Open Inquiry

Before going into workings of authoritarianism, it is useful to remind ourselves how functional, non-authoritarian systems look like in order to establish a baseline for evaluation. As I noticed during my recent holidays in Germany, politics appeared surprisingly sober and plain, absent of drama and high-stake ideological debates. For example, the Ministry of Environment proposed a tax increase for meat and milk from a subsidized 7% to a regular 19%, arguing the unfavorable carbon footprint of meat production. Being a traditionally meat-eating country, the proposal was immediately dismissed by the food lobby and most political parties. However, in the media, a vivid discussion emerged. Questions were asked such as ‘Should only the wealthy be able to eat meat?’ ‘Would it make more sense to tax meat, but to keep milk at the subsidized rate?’ ‘How about fruit: Should we also label fruit according to its delivery by plane (= higher carbon footprint) versus by ship (= lower carbon footprint)’?

Although the progressive idea of the Ministry may not have succeeded in the first round, the wider public started discussing the pros and cons, without a single politician or party hijacking the debate. This distributed discourse model stimulated in-depth analysis and new ideas that one day may serve as the basis for better-informed policies and laws. The point of public deliberation, after all, is to make well-informed decisions that are fair to all. The information processing in this model is conducted horizontally on a many-to-many basis.

Even on emotionally highly charged topics, such as the recent terrorist attack on a Christmas market in Berlin, the public debate took a widely pragmatic stand, ranging from critical analysis to prediction: How could a terrorist suspect, already in custody, be released by authorities? Where did authorities and the law fail? How can legal loopholes be fixed? How should the state deal with dangerous suspects in order to prevent future attacks?

Public discussion did not bother about ideological questions (such as ‘Does Islam endanger our Western civilization?’), but looked at pragmatic solutions addressing the problem at hand. Across political parties, a metacognitive principle was upheld to never blindly stigmatize and label groups of people and to differentiate within groups, such as e.g., fundamentalist Salafists versus moderate, integrated Muslims. Public consensus was that ontological and ideological judgments, due to their generalizing nature, tend to foreclose the discussion of specifics required for complex problem-solving.

Pluralistic Societies: Moving Beyond Group Conformity

In the cited examples, group affiliation or group membership did not determine the power of argument in the media. It is the suspension of group conformity that enables the unbiased public examination of arguments. Traditionally, social psychology dealt with issues such as social identity (Tajfel & Turner, 1979), social conformity (Asch 1953, 1956; Janis 1972, 1982; Milgram, 1963, 1974) and social comparison (Festinger, 1954). It is intuitive to conclude how group identities solidify attitudes and behavior. However, in complex, pluralistic societies, group memberships and identities overlap (e.g., for a person who is a single parent with a migration- and higher education background, representing at least three implied group memberships) and it is the specific needs and interest across those overlaps that determine social cognition, personal attitudes, and behavior.

In pluralistic societies, social norms of cooperation develop and group perspectives integrate under the aspect of superordinate goals. Subsequently, the psychology of pluralistic societies is multi-layered and distributed horizontally in terms of social group identities: in interdependent group-constellations costs and payoffs between groups balance, encouraging the emergence of shared values.

By contrast, ideological narratives in combination with strong emotions generalize and simplify a group’s worldview, avoiding the processing of specific cognitive content. A set of supportive narratives allows authoritarian leaders to turn people against their own interests, e.g., to manipulate working class people into believing that tuition-free education would be unaffordable for the government or that trickle-down economics benefits those at the bottom of the social food chain.

Authoritarianism simplifies people’s real-world problems and silences the diversity and complexity of modern life. It provides simplistic promises (‘Let’s make America great again‘) to complex challenges such as globalization, deindustrialization, and digitization, but it is incapable of developing adequate solutions to multi-faceted challenges. To this extent, authoritarianism opens Pandora’s Box – the very real prospect of collective failure and poor decision making by dismissing communicative, networked competence and independent critique.

The Foreclosure of Open Debate by Authoritarianism

There are a plethora of strategies available to foreclose, circumvent and disqualify open debate. The most obvious, as pointed out by Robert Reich, is the berating of public media as ‘dishonest’, ‘lying’, ‘deceitful’ or ‘scum’ (as labeled by American President-Elect Donald Trump) or as “Lügenpresse” (“Press of Lies”, as labeled by right-wing activist and neo-Nazis in Germany). The term “Lügenpresse” has been used continuously across diverse historical contexts by authoritarian regimes e.g., during the Third Reich to disqualify newspapers critical of the Nazi party or by the SED, the ‘Socialist Unity Party’ of former East Germany to label the Western press. Authoritarian leaders do not regard media as a prerequisite to democratic deliberation, but as a conspiracy working against them. Subsequently, authoritarianism thrives on paranoia which is why scapegoating, the dissemination of fears of outgroups, serves as an effective social control instrument to avoid the exchange of critical arguments.

As in all authoritarian systems, information is forwarded without further moderation and analysis top-down, from a leader to a complying group. In the 20th century, the choice of authoritarian transmission was by radio and state-owned newspapers. Today, technologies such as essentially fulfilling the same function of an efficient one-to-many transmission. Essential for the circumvention of collective cognitive processing is the convergence towards a single leader who manipulates the cognitive processing and behavior of followers. The problem for critics of authoritarian regimes is that they may fall into the trap of hanging onto a leader’s lips, similar to true believers. Instead, critics should refrain from commenting on every nonsensical statement, rather than questioning the legitimacy of underlying assumptions, putting a leader’s claims in the context of viable reasons, critically commenting on a leader’s socio-political and verbal behavior while exposing fabricated facts and holding writers of fake news accountable.

Other repressive strategies to disqualify the press include (1) the setting up of blacklists to punish authors that are regarded as too critical, (2) turning the public’s opinion against media in general and (3) threatening journalists with lawsuits by tightening libel laws. Simultaneously, media supportive of a regime are rewarded. In authoritarian regimes, media are no more conceptualized as bipartisan or unbiased information platforms, not as institutions that can be independently audited for the quality of their research, but as self-serving gratification outlets of a ruling oligarchy.

Authoritarianism is the reversal of democracy: Politicians stop perceiving themselves as public servants and they expect the public to serve them instead. Personal psychology such as politician’s need for self-affirmation dominate the debate, rather than the social psychology of shared deliberation.

1984-frontDoublespeak and Doublethink

On a social level, followers of autocratic leaders need to be provided an alternative version of reality to support their particular worldview. This process is accommodated in two steps: (a) Facts are re-interpreted to suit the agenda of the ruling class. In this light, truth does not exist in the form of objective, verifiable facts but as a convenient vessel to convey one’s convictions. (b) Once ‘alternative facts’ (‘doublespeak’) are widely accepted by a target group, attitudes, beliefs and cognitive styles around ideological interpretations solidify. Fabricated narratives lead to the ideological foreclosure of procedural cognition.

In his famous novel ‘1984’, George Orwell coined the term ‘doublethink’ for this type of sensemaking based on ideological indoctrination. A person affected by ‘doublethink’ is completely unaware of conflict or contradiction to obvious facts, oblivious to any cognitive dissonance (Festinger 1957, 1964). This is how ‘doublethinkers’ make for perfect supporters of autocrats – they will never question the fabricated facts upon which their beliefs are built. Followers rely on a seemingly coherent ideological worldview. The main characteristic of ‘doublethink’ is the absence and avoidance of cognitive dissonance, of divergent arguments and critical thinking.

In terms corresponding political behavior, autocrats dismantle democratic structures in two logical steps. Firstly, they surround themselves with a tight circle of people that share their worldview since they are intolerant to cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957). Secondly, they will set up mechanisms that circumvent media, the judiciary, and scrutiny by political parties to replace a democratic-divergent system with an ideological-convergent one.

Image above: Book-cover Design for George Orwell’s ‘1984’

The Social Psychology of Authoritarianism: Implicit Ideology as a Strategy to Quietly Dissolve Modern Democracies

The psychology of authoritarianism is based on regressing to the level of salient group identities.The hallmarks of authoritarianism were, as pointed out by Richard Reich and Elizabeth Warren, (a) the dissolve of open democratic inquiry, (b) the convergence towards appointed leaders (versus a pluralistic and diverse public), (c) the polarization of the public into true believers and traitors (or ‘the people’ versus ‘elites’), rather than acknowledging the specific interests of divergent groups and (d) establishing an oligarchy, an exclusive group of powerful people who self-sanction their rule by political and economic means.

The social psychology behind authoritarianism does not necessarily require an explicitly defined ideology, such as fascism, communism or religious beliefs. It suffices to imply a specific worldview indirectly, in particular in populations with a large liberal minority that would immediately reject explicit ideology. The minimal condition is for followers to believe that their charismatic leader knows best, that the leader is infallible even in the face of counterfactual evidence. To this extent, post-factual fabulation endorses a self-affirming fatalism in the case of negative outcomes, since beliefs and sentiment circumvent causal and correlational reasoning, The attitude held by autocratic leaders is ‘I never lose, I always win. It was the others that made me lose.’ Public platforms are regarded as an opportunity for self-validation, not for the sake of cooperative problem-solving, open deliberation or independent auditing.

Image: Kellyanne Conway, counselor to President Donald Trump (top) officially established ‘alternative facts’ (‘doublespeak’) in January 2017 in a blunt rejection of empirical facts when she denied the low attendance during President Trump’s inauguration. Her interpretation was reinforced by Sean Spicer, the White House Press Secretary (Source: NBC/ CNN)

In authoritarian regimes, mechanisms of group compliance take over, such as described by Milgram (surrender to imperative authority, such as powerful oligarchs), Asch (conforming towards ingroup consensus), Tajfel (the minimum group condition for social identity is identification with a leader’s perceived infallibility) and Janis (the emergence of groupthink, a group incapable of examining external and divergent perspectives).

Social motivation in authoritarian systems is supported by falling back on traditional beliefs, exclusive and unempathetic social norms as well as a set of counterfactual ideological narratives such as, e.g. ‘Man-made climate change is a hoax’, ‘Wealth trickles down from the rich to the poor, this is why we need to support the wealthy’, ‘Free education for all is a communist idea’, ‘Social welfare is only for the weak and lazy’, ‘The less government, the better’, ‘Deregulation is bad for business’, ‘Our nation first’ etc.

Authoritarianism defines itself also by the absence of metacognitive assessment (Metcalfe & Shimamura, 1994; Schraw, 1998) the question of why we think how we think. For example, Why would someone think that man-made climate change is a hoax? How do people derive conclusions about wealth and entitlement? Which are the justifications for a libertarian, a socialist, a consequentialist or deontological approach to social fairness?

Authoritarian mental processing excludes such metacognitive reasoning since it would potentially expose the lack of democratic legitimization. Instead, it appears safer to fall back on a set of constantly repeated, salient narratives. If repeated often enough ad nauseam, they will appear to be true – truth by assertion (Freely & Steinberg, 2009).

The described mechanisms of social conformity in combination with metacognitive avoidance dissolve the diverse, democratic processing of information. The monopolization of information processing in the hands of a few prevents open, independent inquiry and discussion. There cannot exist open and sensible discussion in a world where a leader already knows best. This is perhaps why current developments are a grave reason for concern. The appointment of autocratic leaders is not about putting up with a disagreeable political party or its political agenda, at stake is the foreclosing of participatory debate by the converging ideologies of autocratic leaders, fueled by their idiosyncratic, narcissist need for self-glorification.

Nationalist noise is designed to hide the deficits of personality-centered politics: the inability to listen to and understand the other, to include others, the inability for self-correction via independent critique and the inability to cooperative problem-solving.

The emperor has still no clothes.



Asch, S. E. (1952). Group forces in the modification and distortion of judgments.

Asch, S. E. (1956). Studies of independence and conformity: I. A minority of one against a unanimous majority. Psychological monographs: General and applied, 70(9), 1-70.

Festinger L (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human relations. 7 (2): 117–140.

Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Festinger, L. (Ed.). (1964). Conflict, decision, and dissonance (Vol. 3). Stanford University Press.

Freeley, A. J., & Steinberg, D. L. (2009), Argumentation and Debate; Critical Thinking for Reasoned Decision-Making, Wadsworth Cengage Learning, p. 196

Janis, I. L. (1972). Victims of Groupthink: a Psychological Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and Fiascoes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Janis, I. L.& (1982). Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes.  Second Edition.  New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Metcalfe, J., & Shimamura, A. P. (1994). Metacognition: knowing about knowing. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67, 371-378.

Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to authority: An experimental view. Harpercollins.

Schraw, G. (1998). Promoting general metacognitive awareness. Instructional Science. 26: 113–125.

Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. The social psychology of intergroup relations, 33, 47.