‘If we look back over the last eleven and a half thousand years, roughly the period where we have had larger settlements gradually, most of our history we’ve lived in dictatorships. Most of our behaviors have been learned in dictatorships. These ideas that everybody should have a vote, everybody should have a voice, that men and women and ethnic minorities have equality. All these are new, and they are fragile ideas. They are fragile because it is much easier to go back to dictatorship.’
Back in 2013, Turkey’s then Prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s wife, Emine Erdoğan, who was accompanying her husband on his official visit to the United States, has received a warm welcome at Washington’s Georgetown University.
Professor Fathali M. Moghaddam, one of the most well-known scholars in the field of Social Psychology at Georgetown, presented Erdoğan with one of his books, titled “The Psychology of Dictatorship.”
Since then, I had a close interest of Professor Fathali’s articles and books which mainly focus on psychological foundations democracy and dictatorships.
His recent publications include The Threat to Democracy: The Appeal of Authoritarianism in an Age of Uncertainty, 2020, The Psychology of Democracy, 2015, The Psychology of Dictatorship, 2013, Psychology for the Third Millennium, 2012, with British psychologist Ron Harry. The New Global Insecurity, 2010, and Multiculturalism and Intergroup Relations: Psychological Implications for Democracy in Global Context, 2008, as well as numerous other books and journal articles and book chapters.
I had a chance to have an interview and talk about psychological foundations of dictatorship and recent global tendency towards authoritarianism. The importance of leadership during the formation a dictatorship is an undeniable fact. ‘However, individuals matter much less than context.’ Says Moghaddam. ‘The context is all-powerful. And when you have a dictatorship, such as we had in Iran under the Shah, or when you have a dictatorship as the Soviet Union had, or when you had a dictatorship as China had under Mao, it does not depend on one leader. There is a social structure. There is a culture of behavior. There are styles of thinking. There is what I call a springboard to dictatorship, in other words, in that society, there is what I have called a springboard to dictatorship that is in place. And what it requires to actually move from a potential to an actual dictatorship, is a leader who is pro-dictatorship.’
You grew up in Iran after having your Ph.D. in the United Kingdom in the 70s, and you started teaching at Tehran University. So, did you see the revolution was in the making, or in other words, a dictatorship based on religion was coming? And in your book titled “Psychology of Dictatorships”, you are referring to a new concept, a springboard moment which makes a potential dictator an actual one. Can you also elaborate on this concept as well?
Thank you very much for these questions. Like many people who end up in the United States, I’ve had quite a changing history in the sense that I’ve lived in many different countries now. I lived my first eight years in Iran as a child and then my family moved to England and I was educated and stayed in England until I finished my formal education and I was trained as an experimental social psychologist to study human behavior in laboratories and during my student days, of course, I would go back to Iran, my country of birth, and my hope was that I would be like many thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of other people contributing to a new Iran which would be hopefully more open and democratic. And of course, we did not predict the outcome of the revolution in that, it would lead from a dictatorship of the Shah to the dictatorship of the Mullahs. When I went back with the revolution in 79, like many others, I actually drove back from the West to Iran, I would drive through Turkey, and I remember talking to Turkish people about the revolution. Some of them, particularly in the large cities, were worried about the revolution because it seemed to be flavored with religion. But at that time, I was perhaps naive, perhaps too young to understand, perhaps too inexperienced but I thought that we would be able to help move the country towards a more open democratic system. What I had not predicted were two things. One, the fanaticism of the followers of Khomeini and Khomeini himself. Leadership is extremely important in these kinds of circumstances. For example, Mandela in South Africa was an extraordinary man who, when he had the opportunity to take power and extend his own leadership, he declined. He was not interested in extending his own leadership. He wanted a more open democratic South Africa. But unfortunately, there are very few Mandelas in history.
And most leaders like Khomeini, once you give them power, they will not relinquish power. So, he remained in power forever until his death and that’s what I had not predicted. A second thing I had not predicted is how slow the population changes towards democracy. When you have a population that has been used to living in a dictatorship, the social skills, the cognitive style, and their behavior generally is adjusted to living and functioning and surviving and succeeding in a dictatorship. And it turns out that something I call political plasticity. Political plasticity is how much you change people’s behavior in politics and how fast. It turns out that political plasticity is very important that when you can have a revolution that changes the government in one day, that changes the constitution in two days and the constitution may be quite progressive. But changing the behavior of the people to support a democracy, that takes a very long time and it’s a very important step and necessary step. But it can’ be achieved in the short term. And in order to achieve it, it helps a great deal to have leadership that is pro-democracy and not pro-dictatorship. And so these are things that I have learned over the last four decades. Unfortunately, when as a young man I rushed back to help the revolution and try to rebuild Iran as a democracy. I did not understand these things at that time.
What about the springboard moment that you have developed in your book? What I want to understand regarding the Iranian revolution is how you link that concept of springboard moment to the Iranian revolution which actually led the country to a dictatorship?
Yes, that’s a great question and again, one thing I did not understand and have now come to appreciate a great deal more is that dictatorships do not rely on individual leaders. Of course, the individual leader is very important. So, Germany becoming a dictatorship in the 1930s a great deal depended on Hitler. Iran continuing as a dictatorship after 79 a great deal depended on Khomeini. The Arab Spring countries continuing as dictatorships a great deal depended on the kind of leadership that arose. However, individuals matter much less than context. The context is all-powerful. And when you have a dictatorship, such as we had in Iran under the Shah, or when you have a dictatorship as the Soviet Union had, or when you had a dictatorship as China had under Mao, it does not depend on one leader. There is a social structure. There is a culture of behavior. There are styles of thinking. There is what I call a springboard to dictatorship, in other words, in that society, there is what I have called a springboard to dictatorship that is in place. And what it requires to actually move from a potential to an actual dictatorship, is a leader who is pro-dictatorship. Now, the springboard, it was in place with the Shah in Iran. So, it was already ready for a dictator. The revolution did not mean to manage to dismantle the springboard. The springboard was kept in place. And once again, a potential dictator stepped forward and took the country back to dictatorship. The same happened during the Arab Spring and the revolutions there. Actually, the same happened in the great French Revolution, when they killed the king, and Bonaparte, Napoleon Bonaparte stepped forward as a potential dictator and became the next emperor. The same happened in 1917 in Russia, when they killed the Tsar but did not dismantle the springboard to dictatorship. So, we have had in Russia one dictator after another from Lenin to Stalin on and on and now we have Tsar Putin basically. So, this very important lesson to learn about political systems; political systems do depend on individuals. Particularly the political system of dictatorship does rely on the dictator leader. But that is not enough. Much more important is the context and what I call the springboard to dictatorship. Let me make two more points about this. One is that in any human group, there are potential dictators. We know this from our work, we know this from our families. There are potential dictators in terms of personality style.
These potential dictators are dogmatic. They are categorical thinkers. They are self-centered and narcissistic. They are authoritarian in terms of personality. So, they have a profile in terms of psychological personality. These potential dictators are always available. Potential Hitlers are always available but the reason why they do not always come to power is because the springboard to dictatorship is not always available. The potential dictator can try to make the springboard dictatorship available. He can try to bring it to life, and I say he because it is always a he, unfortunately.
Do you think that sometimes leaders can try to create their own springboard moment like false flags? I mean when you look at Germany, what was the springboard moment for Hitler? How did he use that springboard moment as a pretext?
Hitler was very cunning and extremely effective at creating the springboard moment or crisis moment for himself. We don’t know the full details of this story yet, but apparently, a left-wing agitator set fire to an important government building and Hitler used this as an excuse. He used this as an excuse to end civil liberties because he said the communists are trying to take over the government. And they are trying to take over our society. So, he ended civil liberties. The springboard moment for Iran after the revolution was the invasion of the American embassy that was used by Khomeini to basically attack all his competitors and either kill them or send them out of the country or imprison them. Now, very recently in the US, Donald Trump attempted to create a springboard moment on January 6th.
His goal was to prevent the counting of the electoral votes so that he would create chaos and, in that chaos, out of that chaos he would declare martial law and end civil liberties in the United States. We know these springboard moments can be very effective, but they are part of an effort by the potential dictator to use the springboard to spring to power.
I remember that in 2013 when your book titled Psychology of Dictatorships came out, then Prime Minister Erdogan’s wife, the first lady of Turkey, was in your university as a guest speaker and I remember that you presented your book to her. So, at that time, did you predict that one day Turkey might turn into a dictatorship? So, did you have such an intention when you gave that book to her, and do you think that July 15th coup attempt was used as a springboard moment by Erdogan?
Well, these are two different questions, so I’ll answer them separately. It was a complete accident that the book was given to Mrs. Erdogan.
How did it happen?
She was receiving a gift and this book was placed as of many gifts. And it was certainly not my intention, so, I didn’t predict that at all, and it wasn’t my plan. With respect to the situation of Turkey, it is very unfortunate, I believe that Turkey has become one of a number of countries that have gone backward from being more open and democratic to less open and less democratic. And I think this is very unfortunate because I am very fond of Turkey, I am an admirer of Turkish culture. I’ve been to Turkey many times and I believe that Turkey is a country that should become more open and democratic. And I think it’s extremely unfortunate that Mr. Erdogan has taken Turkey in another direction. However, there are two points we need to keep in mind.
The road to democracy or what I call actualized democracy, actualized democracy – fully developed democracy is not inevitable and it is not a straight road.
If we go back to what I believe is the beginnings of western democracy, at least Athens 2500 years ago, there have been many ups and downs. There have been many democracies that have failed and turned into dictatorships, and we have to keep in mind that historically there is no inevitability to democracy. Some years ago, when the Soviet Union collapsed, a book came out, The End of History.
And unfortunately, this end of history thesis, which is completely incorrect,
Right. Francis Fukuyama’s thesis.
Yes, that’s where we are going to end up all in some kind of democratic capitalism that this is inevitable. This thesis, although it has been shown to be incorrect is still an assumption among many people.
They don’t realize that democracy is not inevitable. There is no inevitable ending to history. I believe that Marx was wrong when he said that we will be going towards a classless society.
Prof. Fathali Moghaddam
No, there is no inevitable classless society. We make our own history. We can change the direction of development, but we have to fight if we want to get democracy. Getting to democracy is difficult. Getting to democracy is challenging. It is not inevitable, and it will not happen automatically or naturally. Most of our history, we have lived in dictatorships, and this is the second point I want to make.
If we look back over the last eleven and a half thousand years, roughly the period where we have had larger settlements gradually, most of our history we’ve lived in dictatorships.
Most of our behaviors have been learned in dictatorships. These ideas that everybody should have a vote, everybody should have a voice, that men and women and ethnic minorities have equality. All these are new, and they are fragile ideas. They are fragile because it is much easier to go back to dictatorship.
So, we have to keep this in mind when we consider Turkey.
Well, we consider India, we consider Brazil when we consider Russia. All of these countries where the opportunity for democracy is there but particular leaders are taking the country backward.
What about the United States? Do you think that Trump can come back, and do you think United States, a country like the United States can go backward as well?
Prof. Fathali Moghaddam
Oh, absolutely yes. The United States can certainly go backward as can any other country. When we have to back to Rome, the Roman Empire, where they had a form of democracy for a while. The republic was semi-democratic. It was certainly elitist, but it was still it had democratic tendencies. We have to keep in mind that the Roman Empire collapsed, went into a dictatorship, and then collapsed. There is no doubt that the American system will decline. No power can stay on top of the world forever. The British lasted about a hundred years but they came out that experienced as a strong democracy. And the question is, will the United States come out of its supremacy still being a democracy now, it is not a fully developed democracy, but it is moving towards a better democracy. It could become more open; however, the danger is certainly there that the United States will collapse and become a dictatorship. Trump has made that danger very visible, but he is not the only sign. There are all other signs of anti-democratic movements in the United States.
What are these signs?
Well, first of all, let’s go back to the history of the United States and remind ourselves of what has happened. First of all, the Great American Revolution which was a great revolution. What did it achieve? Well, the revolution gave the vote to free men. Not women and not slaves.
It took until 1920 before women got the vote in the United States and it took until the 1960s when gradually minorities began voting again and having the right to vote. And even now, voter suppression is very strong, and, in most elections, barely half of the people vote. Now we have to go back to the revolution in the United States. They gave the vote to free men. Well, 2500 years ago in Athens, the vote was given to free men, not women, not slaves. So, we have to remind ourselves that, first of all, in their revolution, the Americans came full circle back to Athens 2500 years ago in many respects. The political system they set up, they were aware, very much aware of the Romans and the Greeks and very much thinking of them. Now, what are the signs of anti-democratic sentiments in the United States today? Well, take the major party, the Republican Party where many of its members deny that the 2020 election was legitimate.
And look at the influence of Donald Trump around the world right now. He is influencing people like Bolsonaro in Brazil to declare that he may have to cancel the next election because of fraud, of cheating. The influence of the United States around the world with Trump has been to strengthen dictatorships to encourage authoritarian strongmen so that all over the world, democracy has become weaker and authoritarian strongmen feel more committed and more confident.
In your most recent book, ‘Threat to Democracy: The Appeal of Authoritarianism in an Age of Uncertainty’, you’re arguing that democracy isn’t declining all over the world. So, what do you think the most important reasons are for this decline?
Thank you. First of all, I am basing my argument on the picture of democracy presented by Freedom House, by Journalists Without Borders, as well as a lot of empirical evidence about sentiments around the world polling around the world so when I say freedom and democracy have declined, it is on a factual basis. Well, there are several different reasons but as a psychologist, I want to focus on psychological foundations and particularly I want to focus on the increasing perceptions of threat. We know from psychological research that when people feel threatened, for example, by terrorism, their support for civil liberties declines. And we know from psychological research that when a group feels they are being attacked, several consequences arise. For example, groups that feel threatened, when they feel they are being attacked, they typically become more supportive of strong aggressive centralized leadership. They become less open to criticism within the group, and they become more supportive of conformity. They become more obedient. In such circumstances, authoritarian personalities come to rise. Authoritarian personality is a topic that has been studied by psychologists at least since the 2nd World War. Authoritarian personalities are the type of people who are more prone to support dictatorship if a potential dictator arises, they will support that dictator. They are repressive towards minorities and everyone who is dissimilar to them. But they are supportive of an obedient to strongmen leaders. So, what I am seeing at the moment is a number of threats around the world.
What kind of threats are these, sir?
Well, that’s a great question. First threat I mentioned was terrorism. Radical Islamic terrorism was what started this in the recent times. But now we have other threats that are mobilizing. One is the threat represented by refugees and immigrants. I have discussed this process whereby in the 21st century, large groups of people are able to very rapidly move from one country to another. For example, a million people can move from the Middle East because of the Syrian war and other wars and end up as refugees in Europe within a few months. Large numbers of Mexicans and other South Americans can move up across the U.S. border in a matter of months. These massive movements of people represent for the nationalists, for the nationalists in the U.K., for the nationalists in the U.S., for nationalists in Germany, for nationalists in Turkey; they can represent threats because they are saying we are being invaded.
In Europe, they are saying “These Muslims are invading us.”. There are now 40 million perhaps more Muslims in Europe. “They are invading us in the United States.” The Hispanics now number around 56-57 million people and many white anglophones are threatened by this. They see this as a threat. They go to restaurants where everybody is speaking Spanish. So, they are threatened by the presence of dissimilar others. In psychology, one of the basic principles in relationships is similarity attraction. People are attracted to others who they see to be similar to themselves. When you want to interact with another person, when that other person is very similar to you, you like that. They endorse your views; they agree with you. They agree with your taste. But, what the populations in North America, Europe, and other places are seeing is these huge invasions by dissimilar others. Now, this is a threat to them, and certain types of leadership is exaggerating this threat. For example, in India, Modi is exaggerating the threat of Muslims for Hindus. He is creating this threat and exaggerating it just as in the United States, Trump and his allies keep exaggerating the threat of Hispanics. You know he said he would rather have immigrants from Norway. Why? because he sees them as more similar.
He also used China as a threat.
China is a threat and of course China uses the United States as a threat as well.
So, what you find is the rise of different types of threats such as terrorism, such as these enormous numbers of people suddenly showing up at your borders. And this is new because of course there was immigration before but not able to move at such a rapid pace in such large numbers. Another threat that is becoming more and more relevant to more people is global warming. As global warming becomes more of a threat, there will be greater competition for resources and because of this greater competition for resources, immigrants and refugees and other people who are dissimilar, ethnic minorities will become targets. They will become targets. They become victims. So, when I say that there are increasing number of threats around the world, and these are impacting our support for democracy. These are the kinds of threats I mean.
Prof. Moghaddam, thank you so much for this wonderful conversation. Would like to add anything else?
Yes, I would like to add that all those who are pro-democracy, all those who wat to live in a more open, free society, we have to remember that it is necessary to fight for democracy. Democracy is not inevitable. Democracy is not natural. Democracy will not come to us in a way that is automatic. We have to fight for democracy and an open society. If we don’t do that, then the countries that are going backwards will drag us back with them and there will be more and more dictatorships in the world. This is the century where the fight between dictatorship and democracy will become absolutely crucial and definitive. Thank you.