The Washington Post added the phrase “Democracy Dies in Darkness” back in February 2017 under its online masthead. The phrase dates back to judge Damon J. Keith and his finding that the government could not wiretap individuals without a warrant in the United States v. Sinclair (1971). While the phrase invokes a sense of cleansing by shining a light on devious actions and signs of dictatorship, the reality is far more banal. Democracy has continually been eroded or “dies” not as a result of a deep state, secret cabals, or conspiracies or shadow governments. It does so right before one’s eyes.
A consolidation of power by a dictator happens quite openly. While not a democracy, in Russia Stalin needed no secret plans to assume complete control over the Soviet state. He blamed a secret conspiracy or group, the Trotskyists, as trying to undermine him along with the British and other western nations whom he accused of filling the state with spies. Whether he believed these things or not is debatable but the result was not a secret. Executions and Gulags were widely done. Was the Soviet state a democracy? No, but the removal of the provisional government in February 1917 that replaced the Tsar didn’t take place in secret either.
The fall of the Reichstag and the rise of the Nazis happened in plain sight. There were of course conditions that had to be met, a secret conspiracy or plan to remove the government, usually but not always a foreign element is blamed, an increasingly widening social divide or inequality and the despot claims to speak for the marginalized or victimized, supporters willing to use violence, a press that is restricted from reporting and being open and free, and weakened state institutions among other things. In the case of Hitler, as with Stalin, the rise to power was a slow climb. Many Germans thought dictatorship in Germany was impossible, its diversity wouldn’t allow it. The conservatives who helped Hitler achieve power thought he could be tamed and kept under control. The burning of the German Parliament, the Reichstag, cemented his rise to power with the passage of the Enabling Act which gave Hitler temporary emergency powers to operate outside the constitution and suspend civil liberties. In the case of Nazi Germany, democracy never actually “died.” The Holocaust and Hitler’s atrocities were completely legal. Democracy didn’t die, it was “temporarily” and legally suspended.
There are many other examples in recent memory. Castro’s victory in Cuba was the result of an openly fought revolution to replace a dictator and his consolidation of power was assisted by his open feud with the US. The continual erosion of democracy in Turkey came about gradually as Erdogan blamed a coup attempt on a secret conspiracy and used it as a pretext to wipe out opposition, and stifle the press and he continues to do so. Putin’s power grab in Russia began with a war against a “foreign” enemy, Chechnya, his consolidation of power was achieved by jailing or forcing the exile of opponents and limiting the powers of the press.
None of these examples, and there are many, happened in secret. Everything was done in plain sight with populations that often willingly agreed with the measures taken. The build up was slow, a population divided and angry and ready to accept a charismatic speaker to lead, a conspiracy against the leader by a perceived foreign element (the leader and their movement is victimized), a muzzled press, institutions that bowed to the leader and/or were gutted, and so on. All of this is also well known and has been studied and discussed openly for years. Take for instance this well-known video warning Americans of dictatorship:
None of this relies on darkness. If anything, dictators often rely on and benefit from democracy. Dictators benefit from democracy because they need to use all the legal measures at their disposal (to support their victimization narrative) and the right to free speech to get their message out. It is often the dictators that know democracy better than the democratic citizen. Democracy doesn’t die in darkness, it dies when you’re not paying attention.