Acton Institute Powerblog

Why we should learn how to ‘kill American democracy’

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During the Cold War, the U.S. military would conduct wargaming simulations in which some units would act as the United States (the blue team) and some would pretend to be Soviet troops (the red team). Through such exercises the military discover the weak points in their strategy before they were exposed in combat situations.

Over the years, the term “red teaming” came to be used to describe this practice of viewing a problem from an adversary or competitor’s perspective. The military and corporations frequently use red teaming to expose and protect against vulnerabilities. But can it also be used to protect our political system?

Ozan Varol, a law professor at Lewis & Clark Law School, applies red teaming to get his students to think about how to protect our country against stealth authoritarian threats:

I threw away my lecture notes and instead asked my students to do something they had never done before: Play the role of an aspiring dictator and come up with ways to decimate democracy in the United States. The students studied the playbook of modern authoritarian governments and adapted it to the United States. They then switched roles and devised measures to guard against the most serious threats.

Varol believes this “kill American democracy” exercise should be should be happening in town halls and at dinner tables across the United States:

When we talk in the abstract about protecting American democracy, the urgency to do so isn’t clear. After all, the democratic system in the United States has shown tremendous resilience. Although we might lament the influence of big money, the Russians, and the special interests, we don’t seriously think that a regime change can happen here.

But when we put ourselves in the shoes of a dictator, and actually devise strategies to decimate American democracy, the weak points in the system reveal themselves. The exercise conditions participants to look for subtle ways in which democratic erosion can occur. It’s only when we realize the fragility of the system do we recognize the imperative to protect it.

What’s more, conversations on the decay of American democracy tend to regurgitate the same 140-character talking points. By asking the participants to switch perspectives, and play an active role as the antagonist, the exercise requires them to radically rethink their approach, deploy new neural pathways, and come up with original ideas that move beyond mere platitudes. It’s one thing to say “let’s think outside of the box.” It’s another to actually step outside and examine the system from the viewpoint of someone seeking to destroy it.

His students realized that if you want to cripple the media and create a culture of self-censorship, you don’t need to throw journalists in jail. You can achieve the same effect with regulation and cronyism:

Six companies own 90% of the media in the United States. If the government can bend those six companies to its will, it would also control 90% of the information the American public consumes. The students applied a carrot-and-stick approach to get these media companies to toe the line: They rewarded friendly media companies and punished the disloyal ones through tax audits and building inspections that appeared legitimate on the surface. When these strategies didn’t work, the students outright purchased, or had their cronies purchase, the media giants to establish control over them.

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Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).