In my classes on authoritarian regimes, I used to lecture my students on how modern authoritarians have abandoned the openly repressive tactics of their predecessors. Today’s authoritarians frequently come to power by democratic elections and then erode democracy through seemingly legitimate means. They have adopted a new playbook that borrows the trappings of democracy without its functionality.
Although I would warn my students that no country is immune to these stealth authoritarian threats, these lectures, I could tell, never really resonated. My students assumed that authoritarian takeovers happen only in backward, faraway lands, in countries riddled with corruption and incompetence, and in nations that end with -stan.
So I decided to go rogue.
I threw away my lecture notes and instead asked my students to do something they had never done before: Play the role of an aspiring dictator and come up with ways to decimate democracy in the United States. The students studied the playbook of modern authoritarian governments and adapted it to the United States. They then switched roles and devised measures to guard against the most serious threats.
In creating this exercise, I followed the lead of Merck’s CEO, Kenneth Frazier. Like most executives, Frazier wanted to promote innovation at Merck. But unlike most executives who simply ask their employees “to innovate,” Frazier asked them to generate ideas to destroy Merck and figure out how to put Merck out of business. The executives then reversed their roles and crafted strategies to avert these threats.
The “kill American democracy” exercise, an adaptation of Frazier’s “kill the company,” should be happening—not just in my law school classroom—but in town halls and at dinner tables across the United States.
When we talk in the abstract about protecting American democracy, the urgency to do so isn’t clear. After all, the democratic system in the United States has shown tremendous resilience. Although we might lament the influence of big money, the Russians, and the special interests, we don’t seriously think that a regime change can happen here.
But when we put ourselves in the shoes of a dictator, and actually devise strategies to decimate American democracy, the weak points in the system reveal themselves. The exercise conditions participants to look for subtle ways in which democratic erosion can occur. It’s only when we realize the fragility of the system do we recognize the imperative to protect it.
What’s more, conversations on the decay of American democracy tend to regurgitate the same 140-character talking points. By asking the participants to switch perspectives, and play an active role as the antagonist, the exercise requires them to radically rethink their approach, deploy new neural pathways, and come up with original ideas that move beyond mere platitudes. It’s one thing to say “let’s think outside of the box.” It’s another to actually step outside and examine the system from the viewpoint of someone seeking to destroy it.
For many of my students, breaking American democracy was hard, but doable.
For example, the students figured out ways to cripple the media and create a culture of self-censorship. Six companies own 90% of the media in the United States. If the government can bend those six companies to its will, it would also control 90% of the information the American public consumes. The students applied a carrot-and-stick approach to get these media companies to toe the line: They rewarded friendly media companies and punished the disloyal ones through tax audits and building inspections that appeared legitimate on the surface. When these strategies didn’t work, the students outright purchased, or had their cronies purchase, the media giants to establish control over them.
Instead of the transparently repressive act of jailing journalists or shutting down media outlets, the students sued them for libel. This was a tactic used during the civil rights movement, when Southern officials used libel lawsuits to silence critics and curb media coverage of the civil-rights struggle. These libel suits would force journalists to burn through funds they don’t have and promote self-censorship.
The students also developed plans to exploit free speech as a machine of demagoguery and filled the media with falsehoods that, once reported and retweeted, became the truth. They created troll armies to dominate digital media with misinformation. They formed and financed their own civil society groups and channeled funding to them at the expense of independent non-governmental organizations. They created bogeymen to unify their base and make public enemies out of the opposition. They manufactured domestic and foreign conflicts to bolster the public approval of the executive. They ramped up surveillance efforts ostensibly to combat organized crime and terrorism, but used those laws to blackmail or discredit political opponents by selectively leaking information about them. They distracted the public with government handouts, tax cuts, and amplified social-welfare programs.
Through this exercise, the students realized that a potential plunge into dictatorship wouldn’t happen overnight. There wouldn’t be tanks on the ground to enforce a violent transition to tyranny. The strength of these strategies lay in their sustained accumulation in a “drip, drip, drip” fashion. Over time, the pressure on democratic institutions would build up, like increased hydraulic pressure on a water pipe. These measures slowly, but surely, would corrode the foundations of liberal democracy until the pipe eventually bursts.
The exercise made the urgency of action clear. In this century, the threat to democracy will come, not from military coups or openly repressive dictators, but from elected politicians in seemingly democratic countries who gradually roll out an authoritarian agenda. The students realized the importance of remaining vigilant against these strategies and actively resisting them through legal, political, and social means.
Counterintuitively, the best way to protect American democracy might be to figure out ways to destroy it first.