Sorites Authoritarianism

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Most of the demagogues in developed countries around the world are sorites authoritarians. We need to understand this form of political erosion if we’re going to be able to stop it.

Here’s an example of a sorites paradox: Take a million grains of sand and put them into a pile. That’s a heap. Remove a single grain of sand and that won’t transform that heap into a non-heap. Remove a single grain of sand one million separate times and you no longer have a heap. But no particular removal of a sand grain appears to constitute the move from there being a heap to there not being a heap. So when did there stop being a heap?

The answer is that the label ‘heap’ is vague. Heapness, so to speak, is something that comes in degrees. The pile made up of one million grains of sand is quintessentially a heap. A pile comprised of ten thousand grains of sand may be a borderline case whose status as a heap is debatable. A single grain of sand surely is not a heap. A heap can never be transformed into a non-heap by the removal of just one grain of sand. Yet the million-grain heap can be transformed into a mere single grain of sand by simply removing one grain at a time. This is because a pile can lose its “heapness” in degrees.

Imagine a village, Heapville. In the center of Heapville is a golden heap comprised of a million pieces of gold, each roughly the size of a grain of sand. This golden heap is the pride and joy of the town. One day the mayor of Heapville comes and takes a single grain of gold from the heap. Some of Heapville’s citizens are alarmed, but others say there’s nothing to worry about. After all, it’s just a single grain. They still have a whole heap of golden grains. Later in the day the mayor comes and takes another grain. Once again, some citizens are concerned, but this time they are brushed off even more quickly by others who consider them to be overreacting.

Over the course of the next few days, the mayor begins taking a couple hundred grains of gold from the heap each day, but always only one grain at a time. More citizens grow concerned, but these concerned citizens are fiercely opposed by other citizens of Heapville who want them to stop being such whiners and alarmists. “When your heap is as large as ours, removing individual grains is nothing to worry about,” they tell the concerned citizens. “We have the greatest golden heap in all the world,” they say.

The mayor continues to remove individual grains day after day, year after year. For those living in Heapville who pass by the heap daily, the changes in the golden heap are imperceptible, but to outsiders who visit only every now and again, the change is clear. This continues for twelve years until there are no golden grains left in the center of the city. There is no more golden heap. The mayor skips town leaving the citizens of Heapville with nothing; all because they continued to let the mayor take a single grain of gold at a time.

Of course, this particular sad fate of the golden heap doesn’t mean that there couldn’t have been other circumstances where alarm would have been an overreaction. If the mayor had taken a single golden grain once and never again and if he otherwise did his job as mayor well, it would indeed be petty and alarmist to fixate on the mayor’s peccadillo and to ignore his other praiseworthy accomplishments.

But alarm is warranted when bad acts can be easily deciphered as part of a pattern; especially a pattern that is designed to desensitize us to changing boundaries in the same way that the citizens of Heapville failed to notice the changing size of their golden heap due to its slow rate of change in its size. Noticing and identifying such patterns of bad action requires good judgment. In contrast, failure to notice such patterns or failure to call such patterns out for what they are typically shows bad judgment.

The citizens who defended the mayor on the ground that the heap was very large exhibited bad judgment by underestimating the significance of the cumulative effect of many small actions over time. Citizens who defended the mayor on the ground that the removal of an individual grain could never stop the pile from being a heap exhibited bad judgment by failing to recognize that heapness is something that comes in degrees; they failed to understand that heapness ought to be viewed as being on a continuum rather than as a fixed in-or-out category.

Many forms of government, such as democracy and autocracy, are in this way like heaps. That is to say, political orders like democracy and autocracy are best viewed as coming in degrees or as on a continuum, but they are often erroneously treated as fixed all-or-nothing states instead.

In the face of what Larry Diamond has referred to as a global democratic recession, the tendency to view democracies and dictatorships alike as all-or-nothing categories may lead us to fail to notice the ways in which certain democracies are eroding, grain by grain, into more autocratic forms of government.

Democracy is more valuable than gold, but if we’re not careful, its removal can happen even more subtly than the elimination of a gold heap that is stolen one grain at a time. For the citizens of Heapville, the removal of their gold paved the way for financial ruin. For the citizens of a democracy, the removal of democracy paves the way for demagoguery and authoritarianism.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright explains in her new book, Fascism: A Warning, how Mussolini capitalized on this fact in order to install a fascist regime in Italy. Albright writes that “Mussolini observed that in seeking to accumulate power it is wise to do so in the manner of one plucking a chicken — feather by feather — so each squawk is heard apart from every other and the whole process is kept as muted as possible.”

This phenomenon of destroying democracy, feather by feather, applies not only to the fascism of World War II Italy but to the German Third Reich. In Milton Mayer’s They Thought They Were Free, a German citizen who lived through Nazi Germany describes the slow move towards totalitarianism as follows.

“To live in this process is absolutely not to be able to notice it — please try to believe me — unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us had ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted,’ that, unless one were detached from the whole process from the beginning, unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these ‘little measures’ that no ‘patriotic German’ could resent must some day lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. One day it is over his head.”

While authoritarian states can sometimes arise via conquests and coups, history shows us that they can also develop gradually over time. They develop via subtle manipulations of democratic power structures and via incremental consolidation of power. They destroy democracies in the manner of a thief’s acquisition of a golden heap one grain of gold at a time. Autocratic regimes that arise in this latter mode are instances of what I’ll call sorites authoritarianism.

For those of us living in countries that have long been relatively stable democracies, it’s easy to think that sorites authoritarianism “can’t happen here.” But as Timothy Snyder, a Professor of History at Yale, points out in his pithy and powerful book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, Americans “are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism” in the 1930s and 1940s. But Snyder points out that we have an “advantage,” namely, that “we might learn from their experience.”

We can take steps to maximize the advantage that experience affords us in preventing sorites authoritarianism.

First, we can identify and reject the kind of continuum fallacies that undergird failures to take seriously small erosions to democratic systems. When people dismiss individual demagogic actions as inconsequential, we can reframe the issue in terms of the risk of losing democracy by degree, and we can highlight the significance of the cumulative impact of many small actions.

Second, we can study and publicize wisdom from the history as a way of contributing to the task of learning from experience. Many figures in the history of political philosophy, for example, from Plato and Mencius to Hannah Arendt and James Baldwin have valuable insight to provide about how tyrants try to collect power and what people should do in response. If there is nothing new under the sun, those of us acquainted with the history of ideas ought to bring insights from the past into the light of today.

Third, we can engage in fresh investigation of and discussion about political systems; investigation and discussion that acknowledges the specific circumstances in which today’s nations and governments find themselves. We can study and think through the impact that things like globalization and the internet have had on the operation of government and on the means by which autocrats seek to accumulate power. And we can seek to identify and reject prejudices commonly found in the political philosophy of previous eras and to expand our understanding of what constitutes a just society.

Recognizing the pernicious influence of sorites authoritarianism can be disheartening. But perhaps the silver lining is that while the many small acts of aspiring tyrants can denigrate democracy, so too the many good acts of people committed to just and free societies can prop democracy up.

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