The deconsolidation of liberal democracy in horror gaming
No consolidated, wealthy democracy has ever collapsed into another form of government. In 1989, Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the end of history, declaring the inevitable victory of Western-style liberal democracy over its competitors. The failure of this dream is horrifying, and therefore useful in horror gaming.
The turn away from democracy in the developed world
In a 2016 paper, Robert Foa and Yascha Mounk challenged the association between liberal democracy and “regime legitimacy”, meaning popular approval of the general system of one’s government.
What we find is deeply concerning. Citizens in a number of supposedly consolidated democracies in North America and Western Europe have not only grown more critical of their political leaders. Rather, they have also become more cynical about the value of democracy as a political system, less hopeful that anything they do might influence public policy, and more willing to express support for authoritarian alternatives.1
After Trump’s surprise win in the 2016 US presidential election, new eyes fell on the paper. A brief overview in the New York Times2 included two of the salient facts Foa and Mounk derived from survey number-crunching:
- Just between extant US cohorts, strong support for the idea of living in a democracy dropped off almost linearly, from 72% among respondents born in the 1930s, to 30% among those born in the 1980s.3
- Between 1995 and the most recent data available to the authors, the share of US citizens who thought that it would be a good or very good thing for the “army to rule” jumped from one in sixteen respondents (6%) to one in six (17%).
I find it scary that such a broad section of people would be so willing to relinquish peaceful power over their own government. It’s the sort of development I don’t expect to happen spontaneously.
The actual causes are not well understood. Clearly, the phenomenon involves a loss of belief in the efficacy of what is relinquished, and there is a small rational part to this. The power of one vote does diminish as a population grows. For example, the staunchly pro-democracy cohort born in the interwar years came of age at a time when the US population was only 50% of its present size. Each of their votes is now only half as influential. The old are more likely than the young to have seen their votes matter, and matter more.
Partly, I suppose the phenomenon is the result of private power eclipsing and paralyzing democratically elected governments, influencing the legislators more than the other way around.4
The increasingly intimate nature of the threats to human happiness in the developed world is another likely cause. Perhaps the younger generation, growing up with problems like climate change and the need for global cooperation to avert them, have observed the science denial and corruption gripping the US government, delaying action where a benevolent dictator—a creature of fantasy—might have done more. Perhaps the rise of the religious right since 1980 has demoralized those who would prefer reason.
Though assuredly marginal, fiction may be another contributing cause. Both science fiction and horror cinema evolved from the 1960s to become overwhelmingly pessimistic about the future development of society and the possibility of improving it or protecting oneself by collective means.5
Whatever the true cause, I felt depressed. Whatever could be done about the true cause, I wanted catharsis too.
Cthulhu Mythos gaming applications
An overtly unrealistic cause of the authoritarian development could be dealt with in fiction, as it had been dealt with in science fiction for decades. For this I went to the Delta Green role-playing game, where “[d]emocratic government has been subverted”.6 The first paragraph of John Tynes’s introduction to the original sourcebook reads like the perfect fit:
It’s funny how no one seems to trust the American government these days. The rise of such mistrust is easy to plot, going back as it does to American’s foundations of civil liberty and decentralized power, and surfacing in modern times with the downing of the U-2 spy plane (when President Eisenhower was caught lying to the American people), the Bay of Pigs invasion, the assassination of JFK, the Vietnam war, the Tuskegee STD experiments, the Watergate incident, the energy crisis, the Iran-Contra scandal, the Waco fiasco, and so on. Thirty years ago, it was fashionable not to trust the government; today it’s pop culture. Conspiracy theories are a national pastime, and one of the most successful television series of the last several years has made a habit of portraying elements of the government as corrupt and as conspiratorial to the detriment of the public interest.
Yes, it’s funny, in a sick sort of way. Almost as if someone planned it.7
As the ultimate cause, Delta Green proposes literally non-human interests. These are godlike, intractable and closed to catharsis, but they have human agents and proxies who can be defeated. For instance, I thought of arranging a scenario using the Cult of Transcendence from Delta Green: Targets of Opportunity (2010), but the CoT is poorly written, being merely grotesque. I wanted something that would involve my players.
I thought of the Delta Green conspiracy itself struggling under increased workloads and political scrutiny since 9/11. DG would be tempted to reduce democratic public insight into government institutions, simply to regain its own freedom and reduce the chance of a Mythos “leak” akin to Tynes’s Watergate or the Pentagon Papers. In at least one DG author’s view, apathy helps DG. It is a form of insulation, causing people to shrug off even major revelations like PRISM.8
In this model, DG or an analogue of it would want to undermine public faith in democracy and its institutions. Though logical and consistent with Detwiller’s vision of apathy, this would be a reversal of the original thematic tension of the game, as Tynes laid it out.9
DG affecting public opinion is also diegetically difficult. The group is too small and secretive to do it in the manner of a major corporation. My idea was therefore that DG would use lesser conspiracy theories like Pizzagate. The climate of credulity surrounding the Trump administration would tempt individual agents, with their hands in law enforcement and intelligence, to give credence to such alt-right fantasies, drawing the attention of the media away from a DG operation happening somewhere else. This could be directly implemented by the players themselves as a subplot in a contemporary scenario. It’s a slightly updated form of a standard diversionary tactic.
In the long term, the tactic could backfire. Authority figures promoting conspiracy theories could lead people to investigate DG or take Mythos revelations more seriously. More problematically, decreased political engagement is the work and goal of some of DG’s enemies. In effect, DG would be threatening to turn sides. The natural dramatic arc of the subplot would be for the player characters to realize the danger and resist further temptation.
On 2016-12-11, I went to the Delta Green Mailing List (DGML) to float my idea. I got some good input:
The thing is, by playing DG agents you are assuming the characters want to maintain their way of life despite the threat and inherent meaninglessness. Free democracy may be a quaint interlude before the rise of Tsan-Chan and hive mind beetles, but maintaining that false sense keeps at least this section of the human population sane. It may be that ethnic nationalism or religious extremism are actually more effective psychological barriers against Mythos infiltration.
Some responders went off topic, assuming I was simply mad about Trump. Others weren’t happy with democracy:
If the system is working for you, I could see how it would be horrifying that things are changing. If, on the other hand, the system has not been working out in your best interest (not measured in iPhone pricing) then you would not only see this as inevitable but a welcome turn of events. Perhaps I am in the minority here, but I fail to find the eventual end state of democracy all that horrifying. Considering the short-sighted and self-destructive policies of democracies the world round, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to you unless you only recently started paying attention to it.
Yeah, this is a part of our reality. So is human trafficking. So is spirit cooking.
“Spirit cooking” is an art project mentioned in one of the emails stolen from Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign office by Russian hackers. Marginal news outlets like Conservative Review and We Are Change reported as “disturbing” that an artist had invited the brother of Clinton’s campaign manager to dinner on one occasion.10
The poster mentions the art project with human trafficking, as if it were a heinous occult crime appropriate for investigation by the fictional Delta Green. I was intrigued by this blurring of the lines, but wanted to stay on topic. Another poster wrote:
Some people like to say or pretend that the U.S. was a democracy at some point so they can make hay of the idea that it is ceasing to be one or might cease to be one; if anything is a new turn of events, it is the idea that democracy ought to be encouraged or tolerated.
This is abject denial. Foa and Mounk’s data, the very data I used to start the conversation, disproves this poster’s position.
At this point the email thread was closed by list moderators, who are Delta Green authors. They didn’t explain why, merely implying it to be off topic. They expressed no support for democracy or the historical facts that were denied. As far as I know, this type of moderation is unprecedented on the DGML.
I don’t attach an anti-democratic agenda to the banning of the discussion, since some of the posts did go off the topic of my idea for the game. Unlike the US, the DGML has never been billed as a democracy. However, the existence of fora for the non-political discussion of otherwise politicized issues, in this case the decline of democratic regimes worldwide, is important for getting around biases.11 List moderators could help to reduce political gulfs, by guiding rather than banning.
Inadvertently, my post about DG abusing and exacerbating the growing mistrust had revealed some people who approved of that mistrust. These were supporters of the very development that Tynes ascribed to non-human interests in the original sourcebook.
Specifically, these are the percentages of people who checked a 10 on 10-point scale in rating their agreement with the statement that it is “essential” to live in a democracy, in Wave 5 (2005–2009) and Wave 6 (2010–14) of the World Values Survey. ↩
See for instance Diana Crane, The Production of Culture: Media and the Urban Arts (1992), 103ff. Her brief summary builds on H. Bruce Franklin, Don’t Look Where We’re Going: Visions of the Future in Science-Fiction Films, 1970-82 (1983) and Jonathan Lake Crane, Terror and Everyday Life (1988) which became a 1994 book. ↩
Dennis Detwiller and Adam Scott Glancy, “PX Poker Night”, 2002, page 3. ↩
John Tynes, “Introduction”, Delta Green, 1997. ↩
Dennis Detwiller, email thread “Public knowledge in the update”, Delta Green Mailing List, thread started 2015-09-28. ↩
DG leader Reginald Fairfield, as written by Tynes, celebrates democracy, saying of a hostile organization: “They betray our highest ideals, our loftiest principals [sic]. They’ve lost sight of who they serve–the people who vote them and their kind into power.” Excerpted from John Tynes, “Final Report”, 1994. Reproduced in Delta Green (1997). See also the scenario “Dead Letter” in Delta Green: Countdown, where DG agents battle an anti-democratic hate group, including the racist variety of skinhead. ↩