A typical threat to democracy has been totalitarian ideologies like Fascism, Nazism, and Communism. To gain power, totalitarian ideologies use populism.
Both populism and totalitarian ideologies attract followers by appealing to people's emotions.
Populism comes from the Latin word "populus", which means people.
Populism means that politicians only address people's emotions and the lowest common denominator. They do this in order to win as many followers as possible, without regard to whether what they are saying is true or false.
Instead of acknowledging that problems like an economic crisis or high unemployment can have many causes and can only be understood by examining the complexities, they choose one scapegoat and focus completely on that. The Communists made Capitalism and capitalists the main culprits for every problem; the Nazis scapegoated the Jews, while Fascism targeted the left wing and immigrants.
Populism is both a left-wing and a right-wing phenomenon, and although populism is most often used by people with totalitarian ideologies, non-totalitarian populism also exists.
In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi has had many followers. He is not a Fascist, but it is probably not wrong to claim that he is a populist. The same applies to a number of right-wing parties in the rest of Europe.
Totalitarian ideologies want to decide everything, claim to encompass everything and have answers to everything; i.e. the totality, which is where the name comes from. They don't have all the answers, but they simplify the problems so it looks like they do. They use populism to stir up people's emotions so they forget to think and just blame the appointed scapegoats instead.
Furthermore, totalitarian ideologies claim that they are able to create a perfect world, so they usually claim the right to use violence to force through their seizure of power; if you can create the perfect world, the logic goes, then you have the right to punish or kill those who oppose you. This call to violence also helps to work people up so they forget to look for more complex explanations and solutions to problems.
Under a totalitarian ideologi, the individual has no right to act individually. The community is always more important than the individual and there is no respect for individual freedom. There is also no difference between the state and civil society. Totalitarian ideologies are not generally popular in western countries nowadays, but they have been in the past and it can't be ruled out that they will reemerge in new forms or gain momentum in other places.
The totalitarian right-wing
Fascism and Nazism are the extreme right wing of politics.
In Europe and Russia, Neo-Nazis are actively recruiting new members and harassing immigrants, refugees, foreigners, and Jews. Neo-Nazis are also active in the United States where they team up with private militias and the Ku Klux Klan. In Europe and the USA, these groups are being monitored by the police and, in some places, their symbols have been made illegal. This is actually undemocratic.
Fascist parties and their sympathisers still exist in Italy and Spain, but their following varies a lot.
The totalitarian left-wing
Communism and its off-shoots, Maoism and Stalinism, represent the extreme left-wing of politics. Europe had a very aggressive, but also very split, left-wing in the 1960s and 1970s. It consisted of Marxists, Communists, Stalinists, Maoists, and socialists of many kinds. The differences between the different left-wing ideologies were difficult to see, even for the groups themselves. Some of these groups were clearly totalitarian and wanted to use violent revolution to overthrow democracy. Others wanted Communism or Socialism implemented by peaceful, democratic means. Everybody who opposed the left-wing was considered an "enemy of the people", and these enemies would be the first to be punished, killed, or re-educated after the revolution.
Both Marxism and Communism, as well as their variants, Stalinism and Maoism, have outplayed themselves and their rhetoric and followers have more or less vanished in Western Europe.
In China, Communism has for the time being been replaced by a strange mixture of ideological, totalitarian power and the market economy.
Political conviction or fashion phenomenon?
The disappearance of totalitarian left-wing ideologi from Western Europe is in some senses strange. In the 1970s, most of the younger generation couldn't think or talk without expressing themselves in Marxist, Communist, or Maoist terms. This is never heard today. Nobody outlawed Marxist thinking or Marxist vocabulary. It just disappeared by itself. The same people are today fully paid-up members of the bourgeoisie with good jobs in private companies or in the government, many have expensive houses with a large equity (one of the most un-Marxist things you can have), and some are even active on the right wing.
And this may be the most frightening thing about totalitarian ideologies: Are they just fashion phenomena? A collective ecstasy which appeals to our emotions with its promise of simple solutions? Is the responsibility demanded by freedom and democracy simply too big a piece to swallow and too difficult to understand for some of us? Where does the ability to make up one's own mind disappear to when the spirit of the time grabs hold of us? How many of us will have the capacity to stand firm on our individual positions, and how many will just uncritically join the mass movement?
Every totalitarian ideology has failed, but the problem is that new generations are not born with this understanding. Every time the situation gets chaotic and change becomes difficult to understand, new generations will be lured by totalitarian ideologies, because they give the illusion of safety and having answers to all questions.
Next chapter: Totalitarian Religion