When Political Mobilization is Undemocratic

Political Mobilization
“Nasha Army” youth military troops in Smolensk, near Belarus.

by Justin Kempf

Undemocratic Political Mobilization

Nothing is more democratic than the popular participation of its citizens. Indeed, democratic regimes institutionalize political mobilization through elections where popular participation is widespread and encouraged. However, political mobilization is not always democratic. Some politicians mobilize their supporters to instill fear in their opponents. People may mobilize against other groups or to commit acts of violence. White Southerners mobilized communities to lynch African Americans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Other forms of undemocratic mobilization include mob violence, riots, and rebellions.

Sometimes the line between democratic and undemocratic political mobilization is difficult to distinguish. A protest may begin as a demand for greater political accountability, but transform into insurrectionary violence. Traditional authoritarian regimes seek to avoid the mobilization of its people. They turn the people away from political concerns. However, totalitarian regimes thrived on high levels of political mobilization. Fascists encouraged popular participation through youth leagues and other clubs and organizations. Benito Mussolini came to power through the March on Rome and the Nazis rose to power through participation in civic organizations.

The mobilization of citizens in authoritarian regimes challenges some common assumptions about democracy. For starters democracy requires more than mere political participation. Totalitarian regimes from Hitler’s Germany to Mao’s China encouraged the popular participation of their supporters. However, political participation in authoritarian regimes stifles opposition voices rather than elevates them. Still, many authoritarian leaders use political mobilization to claim democratic legitimacy, so it’s necessary to explain why some forms of popular participation are not democratic.

Faux Democracy

The French Revolution brought about a modern age of political mobilization. Monarchs had long sought to avoid political mobilization in their efforts to consolidate power. Rather than mobilize their people in times of war, they relied on mercenary armies. Nobles had held great sway over monarchs during times of war because they had the ability to recruit serfs and vassals into armies. The use of mercenaries liberated monarchs from the influence of their nobles. The French Revolution erased aristocratic privilege, however it established a direct link between the people and the central government. This unlocked the potential for widespread military mobilization. In other words, military mobilization began to depend upon political mobilization.

Naturally, autocratic regimes found ways to allow for political mobilization without genuine democratization. Napoleon held numerous plebiscites to legitimize his political decisions. It’s not clear whether people genuinely supported his rule or merely acquiesced to decisions already made. Either way he found a way to encourage political mobilization without the creation of participatory institutions with actual influence on governance. Today’s authoritarian regimes continue to use elections to provide an outlet for the mobilization of its people even though the elections are neither free nor fair.

Autocrats often portray political mobilization as demonstrations of genuine democracy. For many it is hard to tell the difference. Casual observers see protests even thought the only ones allowed are those in support of the regime. They see elections regularly held even though the regime engineers the rules so they cannot lose. Autocrats permit a phony form of political mobilization that lacks any influence on governance. It’s a faux democracy. We must learn to tell the difference.

Justin Kempf manages this blog and hosts the podcast Democracy Paradox. He lives with his family in Carmel, Indiana.

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