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Disaster Democracy
"Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob."
James Madison

Humanity has seen better days. The End of the World as We Know It has wiped out a good chunk of people, and the government has been reduced to a post office worker and a marine. In this situation where survival is imperative, what do the survivors do? Hold elections!

This isn't as foolhardy as it seems at first, though it can potentially doom the survivors. If the group of survivors is small, they may decide that rather than pulling in different directions, electing a leader will give them better odds of survival. Alternately, they may decide to "mutiny" against a self imposed leader (or one from their pre-disaster times) who hasn't been doing a good job. They may hold an impromptu election with papers and a hat, or it may be as informal as everyone saying "I'm with The Hero". If they're replacing a Commander Contrarian or Pointy-Haired Boss with an Ignored Expert or Reasonable Authority Figure, they're far likelier to survive. If on the other hand, they boot the latter choices because they make pragmatic but unpopular choices, expect these voters to meet their doom.

If the group is much, much larger, then the survivors will band together and try to organize. It usually happens in a Cosy Catastrophe (or at least a slightly less hellish one), because the people have a need for a civil leader apart from the hero(es) who lead the "armed forces". The elected mayor or president can call upon the powers of Good Republic, Evil Empire to rally the people, as opposed to their enemy(ies) who use fear. Unless Democracy Is Bad, in which case this becomes a pointless waste of time that gets people killed for not simply letting the hero lead them.

Depending on the implementation, this trope usually helps prove Rousseau Was Right— even at our darkest moments, we can pull together into a democracy instead of devolving into an oppressive autocracy. Of course, since a Disaster Democracy is usually pitted against an oppressive autocracy, it becomes more of a cautionary aesop.

Not to be confused with democracy being portrayed as a disaster itself, which is Democracy Is Bad.


Examples:

Anime & Manga
  • In High School Of The Dead, Shidou stages an 'election' amongst the survivors fleeing by bus, after the bus is packed with his cult of personality.

Comic Books
  • In Marvel Comics' Secret Wars, practically the first thing the heroes do after the Beyonder transports them to Battleworld is to elect a leader (unsurprisingly, it turns out to be Captain America).
  • In JLA/Avengers when the two teams team up Cap is once again chosen as the leader of all.
  • In The Walking Dead, the survivors attempt multiple forms of governing themselves. They eventually settle on electing a triumvirate. It works. For a while.

Literature
  • The Restaurant at the End of the Universe subverts and parodies various aspects of this as the Golganfrinchan B Ark crew form committees to make fire, adopt the leaf as currency and then suggest burning down forests to avert inflation, and various others absurdities. But then again their population consists entirely of hair dressers, marketing executives, and telephone sanitizers. They must have got their act together eventually, because they're humanity's ancestors.
  • Lord of the Flies has an election between two of the boys. Despite the more level headed candidate getting in, ultimately things descend into chaos.
  • Similar to Lord of the Flies, the Gone series features a population of children coming together to survive after all the adults suddenly disappear and they find themselves trapped inside a giant ethereal dome. The first book features an Affably Evil young man stage a quasi-peaceful takeover of things only to be deposed when his corrupt "government"'s dirty secrets are exposed and things turn violent.
  • If you consider having your entire town abruptly transported back in time to 1632 in Europe, then 1632 has a fine example. The small mining town decides to uphold American ideals and holds impromptu elections to determine who has what responsibility. Once the immediate crisis has passed, they plan to hold much more far-reaching elections, including the native people from the time period.
  • In Robert A. Heinlein's Tunnel in the Sky the stranded students' mistake is NOT establishing a democracy but making their government too complicated to suit primitive survival conditions. In another book Starman Jones the stranded passengers turned colonists are advised to write out a Mayflower-like compact straight off or they are not likely to survive.
  • The Stand has a pretty lengthy scene dealing with this, as the new Boulder residents have their Crowning Moment of Heartwarming as they vote to reinstate the US Constitution. Then they actually have to get down to the nitty-gritty of running the place and the protagonists ultimately form a ruling council with Magical Negro Abagail at its head, because she's the reason everyone settled in Boulder in the first place.
  • Cory Doctorow's short story When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth starts with the main character in question (who survived the apocalypse by being inside a building with a bunch of servers and filtered air) running a campaign and then election for the Prime Minister of the Internet. It doesn't last long, although he is known as the Prime Minister forever after by geeks.
  • In the Novels Of The Change, just about everyone resorts to some variety of monarchy when gunpowder and electricity stop working, but Corvallis sticks to its American roots and has the university committee arbit all decisions. This makes it something of a Hidden Elf Village.
    • Which is ironic, considering that certain of the survivors have gone well out of their way to create a literal Hidden Elf Village, right down to calling themselves the Dúnedain and using Sindarin on a regular basis.
    • Corvallis is more of a city-state run by philosopher kings (the Faculty Senate) in the manner of Plato's Republic rather than true American democracy. That said, it's still one of the more desirable places to live in an otherwise Crapsack World. Iowa's state government is probably closer, but it falls prey to dictatorship, experiences at least two internal coups, and ultimately takes on the trappings of monarchy right down to having a hereditary dynasty in charge.
    • In Sword of the Lady it's suggested that even the Corvallans are eager to come under the rule of the region's High King.
    • Democracy appears to be alive and well in at least one of the Dominions of Canada, as there's a reference to a Governor, and at least one very minor character says she voted for the current incumbent.
    • In Island in the Sea of Time the election of a Chief Executive and development of a new goverment is a major plot.
  • In World War Z the ability to hold to the democratic process in the midst of a Zombie Apocalypse is a major part of one of the survivors' stories.

Live-Action TV
  • Battlestar Galactica has two such elections, for vice president and president. Let's just say that the colonials got what they voted for when they elected Baltar.
  • Gilligan's Island had an election, they elected Gilligan.
  • Jericho legally elected a new, (and less competent) mayor not long after the catastrophe.
  • In The Tribe, Ebony, an authoritarian manipulative bitch was elected as city leader.
  • Stargate Universe doesn't really have an election. But that doesn't prevent them from having similar petty power struggles.
  • Despite LOST's major theme of leadership, there's never any talk of elections. Leaders arise within the camp, leaders are chosen through a complex process within the Others, and the island's Protector gets picked from a long list of "candidates" - but no, no elections. In season 3, when one character hears rumors of a vote to exile him, another scoffs at this, saying "Vote? Since when did anyone around here vote?"
  • Survivor has this sort of politicking in spades, though it works a bit differently since elections don't decide the leader, they decide who's Voted Off The Island. The nature of the game plus casts full of strong-willed personalities means it's almost never simple.
  • There's a messed up version at the end of The Walking Dead season 2. Rick is being heavily questioned and generally the butt of everyone's frustration when they're forced to flee the farm and he reveals a secret he'd been hiding from the end of season 1. Feeling that he wasn't getting any credit for keeping them alive despite all odds, he basically pulls a "vote of no confidence" on himself! He dared all the other survivors to either band with him or, if they were as angry and convinced that he was incompetent as they said, go their own way. The season ends with everyone mutely staying in their makeshift camp.

Video Games
  • Despite being all monarchies, Dragon Age: Origins has the Player Character able to influence (or dictate) two elections for King during the oncoming Blight apocalypse. While just placing a new monarch guarantees soldiers, depending on the choices made beforehand is whether the kings (and/or queen) do well in the resulting peacetime.
  • In Fallout 2 the United States government, which lives inside an abandoned oil rig and is thus called "The Enclave", holds presidential elections just like in the times before the nuclear war. However, it is hinted that there is only one candidate who would rule for years. In any case, only about a thousand people lived on the rig, and so the franchise is miniscule and definitely not representative of the will of the American people.
    • In Fallout 3 John Henry Eden didn't even try this and he can be talked into killing himself because of it.
      • Likewise Dave, of the Republic of Dave, asks that you help with the election. The five voters are inclined to vote for Dave, but the player can perform some election fraud to get somebody else elected, who immediately declares himself dictator for life.
      • How about The Republic Of Player?
      • Or you can rig the election for Rosie to win, since she has a much clearer head than anyone else in the republic.
    • There's also the New California Republic, which is a tribal village made up of Vault 15 survivors turned US expy. By New Vegas it has grown exponentially, having taken all of California through aggressive expansion and is looking to colonise the Mojave Wasteland. Generally, its government mostly resembles the United States, but is probably a little more corrupt (and currently trending towards authoritarianism).
      • Specifically, a little more corrupt and currently trending towards authoritarianism compared to our United States. They've a long, long way to go before they reach the corruption and authoritarianism of the pre-War USA of Fallout (for one thing, they don't use peaceful protestors for human experimentation).
    • Not to mention the detailed story of Vault 11, which involved holding elections for a sacrifice, although to be fair, that was kind of doomed for disaster from the start, and didn't need much prodding to descend into madness.
    • When talking with Mr. House in New Vegas, if you object to his plans to rule over humanity as a benevolent but authoritarian dictator, he'll respond by telling you that if you want to see where democracy leads, then you just need to "look out the window."
  • Every human settlement in The Last of Us. Yes, even the winter resort cannibals; you can overhear some of them talking about putting the leader up to a vote.
  • In Rebuild, one of the possible victory conditions is reclaiming the city hall from the zombies and drafting a new Constitution.

Web Comics
  • In All Manner Of Bad, the survivors are led by competent and benevolent 'dictator' Raul. When Heller is dissatisfied with being ordered around by a former employee without a green card, he calls for elections. Raul wins, of course. It helps to point out that most all of their human antagonists are part of "kingdoms'' led by psychotic madmen and women.

Real Life
  • Mere trifles like World War II or The American Civil War do not stop the US from holding presidential elections, though in both cases the incumbent was reelected (in the Civil War at least, that was not a foregone conclusion: Lincoln was extremely unpopular for most of the campaign, until the tide began to turn late in 1864).
    • The Confederacy's government during the final days of the Civil War follows this. Jefferson Davis and the remains of his administration fled from city to city with much of their records trying to maintain some semblance of authority until they were finally captured. However, there were two different Confederate Congresses elected, the first being elected in 1861, and the second in 1863 and 1864. For reference, currently, the 112th United States Congress sits.
  • Great Britain went one better: it held a general election towards the end of World War II (between the defeat of Germany and the defeat of Japan) in which Winston Churchill was swept out of office.
    • Although this was a shock to Churchill and the rest of the Conservatives, it wasn't all that surprising in hindsight. The British people had just been through a six-year ordeal demonstrating what tremendous feats their country was capable of when a strong government was calling the shots. They decided they'd rather let Atlee and Labour put that power to work rebuilding the country than let Churchill and the Conservatives dismantle it after Japan was defeated.
    • To explain: the British parliamentary session is required to last up to 5 years, though elections have often been held earlier. An election was due in 1940, but when WWII broke out, elections were suspended, leaving a ten year gap with no elections from 1935-1945 (the longest since the Civil War). The reason this could be done is that in Britain, parliament can basically amend the "constitution" at will. In recent years, signing up to the European Convention of Human Rights has introduced some limitations on this power.
    • One of the larger communal bunkers in London during the Blitz held elections under the command of their most popular resident; a three foot high entertainer. Oddly inspiring in its way.
  • Averted for military personnel in most captivity situations or where a group is cut off from outside contact for any serious length of time. In such a case, authority automatically goes to the highest ranked line officer or senior enlisted, who has authority over all subordinate military personnel in the group. He can then delegate tasks to certain people, place them in charge of certain areas of responsibility, and so on. The military being what is it, this usually works out rather well for them. Civilians in the captive or disaster-struck group are welcome to take part in the process by taking direction from the officer in charge, or pooling resources and tasks with the military-led group, but it is generally accepted that a civilian will not be placed in charge of the military subgroup as a whole. Unless s/he is already an elected official of some sort, which complicates things a bit.
  • In the chaos that ushered in the Russian Civil War, Red Army units nonetheless elected their commanders (never "officers") by popular vote. This practice declined as the conflict wore on, however.

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alternative title(s): Emergency Democracy
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