King George III
Source: Allan Ramsay (1713–1784); National Portrait Gallery: American public domain
The 4th of July is traditionally a day when Americans celebrate their independence from an autocratic king and reflect on democracy, the constitution, and America’s continued aspiration to form “a more perfect Union.” . Martin Luther King, Jr., reassured us that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” What can psychology teach us about the historical tensions between autocracy and democracy?
Kurt Lewin, a pioneering social psychologist, published famous research in 1938 designed to better understand the rise of authoritarianism. Lewin examined different types of leaders and the “atmospheres” they create. His research focused on three of these atmospheres: autocratic, democratic and laissez-faire. In the autocratic group, all policies are made by the leader; in the Democratic group, all policies are subject to group discussion; and in the “laissez-faire” group, there was complete freedom for group or individual decisions without any participation of the leader.
In one of Lewin’s experiments with school children, he found that the autocratic style engenders more aggression and apathy than the democratic style. Aggression, defined as ‘turning on’, was directed against members of the group or against an external group. The proof of apathy was “the absence of a smile or a joke”. The paradox he discovered was that some school children became more passive and withdrawn and others more aggressive in the autocratic group.
Whether in politics, business, academia, or family life, people want their contribution to be counted, even if it is not counted. Top-down decision-making, on the other hand, can create a less friendly and less trusting environment.
In family life
In practicing psychotherapy for over 30 years, I have also observed differences in the “atmospheres” (to use Lewin’s term) of more “autocratic” versus more “democratic” family life. The psychology of autocratic leadership and control produces one-sided family dynamics based on dominance and submission. The psychology of democratic leadership, on the other hand, is more cooperative and gives more consideration to the needs and autonomy of each individual.
All relationships combine elements of love, like how we care for ourselves and others, and power, like how we try to go our own way. In autocratic relationships, which often become coercive, there is more power play than love. In the extreme, the common ground between people disappears in these relationships. Mutual understanding is lost. The street only goes one way.
In politics, autocrats, like Vladimir Putin, have historically given themselves an exalted role. It is a defining characteristic of autocracy and has been called the “cult of personality”. The term was first used to describe the deification of Joseph Stalin, who ruled Russia from 1922 to 1952. Similarly, Putin also portrays himself with carefully cultivated and reassuring strongman imagery, including at the exterior with guns, fishing and horses.
Vulnerability to authoritarianism
Social psychologist and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm described the problem of authoritarianism in his classic 1941 book escape to freedom. Fromm was writing in a time of great anxiety and existential uncertainty, a time of rapid change, middle-class economic insecurity, and world war. Democratic norms were shattered and authoritarian regimes established. Fromm posed the following question: Why are some people more willing than others to submit to a reassuring authority figure?
What Fromm observed is that those most vulnerable to authoritarianism are likely to lose their place, status, or prestige in a changing social order. Society becomes more competitive when previously excluded groups, such as African Americans in the United States, for example, or women in most societies, are free to compete. This can put stress on those who previously enjoyed a competitive advantage. But it also allows the company to expand its opportunities and benefit from the talents of its most capable people.
Roots of Democratic Thought
The roots of democratic thought, which were applied to the American foundation, were influenced by John Locke’s critique of a theological and hierarchical view of power conferred by a heavenly father on kings and their heirs. Locke’s opposing view of the divine right of kings was that citizens have “natural rights” to life, liberty, and property. Individuals can then unite in a “social contract” with a civil government to protect these rights. “Natural rights have become fundamental to the American experience of democracy.
As the cult of personality of Russian leaders such as Stalin and Putin shows, autocracy, unlike democracy, creates a hierarchical system imposed by force and violence. Autocracies, like Putin’s, are also often called “kleptocracies” and provide cover for what are, in effect, corrupt criminal financial enterprises.
The American creed of equal citizens with inalienable rights has human rights implications and remains a radical proposition by modern Western historical standards. However, to fully realize Locke’s theory of a functioning social contract may require more than just a legal framework for the sharing of power between different branches of government that can check and balance each other. How can a society best achieve an interpersonal culture of power sharing? Or, to use the words of the American Declaration of Independence, how can we best build a society based both on individual equality and on inalienable rights, such as the right to life, liberty and in the pursuit of happiness ?
While the American experiment in democracy has been ongoing for almost 250 years, there is a much older example of sustainable democracy. Melissa Heckler is a teacher who spent the years from 1990 to 2019 taking notes on her summer vacation with the Jul’hoansi, who have occupied the northeastern region of the Kalahari Desert in Namibia, Africa, for at least 35,000 years old and have the oldest human DNA.
According to Heckler, author of a study titled “Democracy from the Scratch: Learning to Teach in the Kalahari,” the roots of human rights and democracy must be learned in a family and community that provide role models. creative problem solving and decision making. do it by consensus. She writes the following:
Jul’hoansi offers a non-hierarchical educational model that provides a foundation for successful democracy. Jul’hoansi offers this wisdom to modern democracies: the degree to which a democratic culture will succeed is the degree to which it nurtures and educates its children and preserves its environment.