Saving Democracy from Ourselves


Rukmini Banerjee discusses the psychological wiring of dictators and their followers.

On July 31, 2018, HasNa and Meta-Culture hosted their first event in a series of lectures and discussions on democracy and responsible citizenship under the banner of DemoSapiens. This event, titled Saving Democracy from Ourselves sought to examine the global shift towards more authoritarian and right-wing governments from two perspectives: first, the behavioral or psychological perspective, and second, the economic and political perspective.


Through her presentation, Rukmini Banerjee of HasNa, Inc. highlighted some of the implicit processes – guided by evolution – that create the context for a potential dictator to spring to power. She talked about the roles of carriers and narratives that can be both physical objects such as flags, uniforms, and statues, as well as psychological constructs such as stereotypes, that create, sustain, and propagate meaning. These carriers inform the needs, motivations, and attitudes of people and cultures, and often there is a continuity in our cultures and in leadership styles. Drawing from the works of Professor Fathali Moghaddam, Professor of Psychology at Georgetown University, she distinguished between within-systems change and between-systems change, and revealed how the slow pace of between-systems change proves to be a major stumbling block for pro-democracy movements. She concluded her presentation with ten specific characteristics recommended by Professor Moghaddam, that ordinary citizens ought to cultivate in order to be able to support and effectively participate in a democracy. 

William Staniland examines the economic and socio-political challenges to liberal democracy

William Staniland of Meta-Culture highlighted some of the socio-political and economic challenges facing liberal democracy. While the global economy has benefited the elite in developed countries, the working middle classes have been left behind. So the younger generation has not really seen economic growth in tandem with the spread of democracy. William brought a startling statistic to the forefront: today, 1 in 6 US citizens favor a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with parliament and elections as opposed to 1 in 16 in 1995. He also talked about the ease with which information is made accessible through the internet, and how social media taps into the addictive nature of its users and exploits our shortened attention spans. This leads to the dissemination of fake or inaccurate news and information, used by autocrats to deliberately disrupt democratic processes.

Ashok Panikkar facilitates the discussion following the presentations

The two presentations were followed by a lively discussion facilitated by Ashok Panikkar, Director of Meta-Culture. The discussion touched upon key concepts related to democracy and citizenship, and enabled the audience to reflect on and engage with all the information that was presented to them. Several participants disagreed with the general idea that millennials were less inclined toward democratic governance and also attempted to focus on key issues such as compromise, critical thinking, and the rapid shift toward illiberalism all over the world. This event was entitled ‘Saving Democracy from Ourselves’ because of the simple but powerful idea that we, the general population, comprise a democracy, and that our own attitudes, behaviors, motivations, and power relations support, sustain, or pose a threat to democracy. We hope that this is the beginning of a long series of discussions and dialogue at the community level, ultimately leading to learning and action.

All photographs taken by Brooke Cox of Citizen Demos.