The attempted coup in Turkey on July 15, 2016, could have been a promising moment, one that encouraged President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to pursue a decidedly more democratic path. He could have used the opportunity to educate his citizens on the merits of electoral, rather than military, solutions to political conflict. After every major opposition party came out against the coup attempt, he could have seized the moment to build unity and emphasize that even amid partisan political differences, most Turks share a commitment to democratic practices. He could even have brought some other parties into his government to ensure their shared stake in preserving democracy. But this has not happened, and will not happen. And for good reason: Even if such moves would be good for Turkey, they’re not good for Erdogan himself.
For those committed to democratic ideals, it is tempting to think that political success is derived from appealing to the many and delivering the policies most people want—that is, from trying to make the world, or at least one’s own country, a better place. But if the chief goal of politics is, instead, to seize and remain in power, then democracy is not a politician’s friend. From this perspective, rather than appealing to the many, the truly successful politician devises means to be beholden to as few people as possible. The fewer the number of people whose loyalty is required, the easier it becomes to keep such supporters happy, even at the expense of society—and thus to keep control indefinitely.