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Disaster Democracy

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Simon: Is this what it's going to be like, in a post-apocalyptic scenario? You'll just take charge and start issuing orders?
Lewis: Well, I... We're more likely to survive that way, I think.
Simon: I don't like your attitude.
Um_Bongo: I didn't vote for you!
Simon: I didn't vote for you either! Let's have a vote, who wants Lewis to be in charge?
Duncan: I do.
Um_Bongo: Me.
Simon: I do too, actually. It was just the lack of democracy I didn't like.

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. Alternatively, 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.

Compare and contrast with Wasteland Warlord, who is usually the aforementioned oppressive autocrat the Disaster Democracy finds itself pitted against.

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


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    Anime & Manga 

    Comic Books 
  • In Marvel Comics' Secret Wars (1984), practically the first thing the heroes do after the Beyonder transports them to Battleworld is to elect a leader: Captain America.
    • That said, the X-Men have their own agenda to the point that when Spider-Man overhears them discussing their plans to ally with their fellow mutants, Professor X mindwipes the wall-crawler before he can tell the others.
  • In JLA/Avengers when the two teams team up Cap is once again chosen as the leader of all.
    • In this case, the united heroes need someone to coordinate and Cap realises that he's more useful commanding from the rear in this case because he's Overshadowed by Awesome. He even loans Superman his shield because he figures it'd be more useful in Supes' hands. Note that while Batman could have equally done the job, people actually like Cap over the Control Freak Batman.
  • In The Walking Dead, the survivors attempt multiple forms of governing themselves. They eventually settle on electing a triumvirate. It works. For a while.
  • In Inhumans vs. X-Men, after the Terrigen cloud is dispersed by Medusa and prevents any more Inhumans from being created by it, she proceeds to dismantle the monarchy and reorganizes Inhumanity into a democracy.
  • Following the restoration of Cybertron to a primeval state and the return of numerous neutral Cybertronians in The Transformers (IDW), both Autobots and Decepticons are kicked out (with many members of said factions rescinding their membership to join the neutrals). Elections are held... and won by Starscream.
    • In Screamer's defense, he does try to be a good leader if only for pragmatic reasons.
    • Later in the series following the formation of the Council Of Worlds (made up of Cybertron and their recently rediscovered lost colonies), another election is planned for leadership. Starscream as leader of Cybertron is initially a shoo-in, but after an unexpected crisis of conscience he confesses to his (many, many, many) crimes and is imprisoned. Windblade instead is elected in a landslide (helped by the fact her main opponent Elita-One is a known Blood Knight with We Have Reserves tendencies while Windblade herself is known to be a decent person).
      • Notably, the Combaticon Brawl meets her when she's canvassing and admits he'll vote for her because he's learned to fear death, and is afraid that if anyone other than Windblade wins, war will return.

  • 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 other absurdities. But then again their population consists entirely of hairdressers, marketing executives, and telephone sanitizers. They must have got their act together eventually, because they're humanity's ancestors. Unless, of course, the author's point was that we haven't gotten our act together, even millions of years later.
  • 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 staging 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 a disaster, 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 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 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.
  • Emberverse:
    • 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.
    • Although it starts off as an absolute monarchy, by the 2040s, the British Empire is shown to have restored a full Parliamentary system (although the King is a lot more powerful than before the Change). However, the new Britain is almost unique in-universe in being a continuation state of the original UK. Although briefly ruled absolutely by mad King Charles III, once his son inherited it was fairly easy to restore democracy as the institutional continuity had survived with the 200,000 who escaped to the Isle of Wight at the Change.
  • In Island in the Sea of Time, the election of a Chief Executive and development of a new government 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.
  • Both invoked and subverted in The Broken Earth Trilogy: In the first book; as Lerna left Tirimo, the com was holding an election for leadership after the accidental death of its headman. In the second book; Essun stops Castrima from voting on turning all of the Orogenes over to be killed by the Rennanis army by disintegrating the ballots and the ballot box into dust. "No voting on who gets to be people!".

    Live-Action TV 
  • Battlestar Galactica (2003) 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 where they elected Gilligan.
  • Jericho (2006) 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 (2010) 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.
  • An episode of My Name Is Earl flashes back to the gang's experience in Y2K: convinced the world has ended and they're the only surviving humans (not realizing that everybody is just at the parade), the gang decides to live in a Big Lots, and at first they try each living in their own isolationist area of the store, then after Randy resolves a conflict, they unanimously elect him President, which grants him absolutely no power or authority.
  • At the time of Defiance's pilot episode, the titular town maintains an electoral process in which all citizens, human and Votan, get to vote for Mayor. It's unstated whether there's any continuity between Defiance's democratic practices and those of old St. Louis, or if the town's founders re-instituted the elections in accordance with this trope. This pretty much flies out the window when the Earth Republic moves in and places their own official as mayor, using E-Rep soldiers to maintain their rule.
  • Jeremiah:
    • The main character and co. encounter a hidden remnant of the US government in season two. It seems they have kept this going in a bunker, with adults safe from the virus, duly voting on a President each election year. However, they turn out to be very dictatorial nonetheless, with the quality of the elections left unclear.
    • Markus shared some of his decision-making authority at Thunder Mountain with an eight-member council, although they rarely appear onscreen. A few times, it is mentioned there is a council election every year, although whether this means since the original pandemic or since they started reaching adulthood is unclear.
  • Falling Skies: The US government, or an offshoot, has held out from the aliens and they still have an elected leadership, though the chief of state's title is changed to Majority Leader instead of President.

    Video Games 
  • Advance Wars: Days of Ruin: Early in the game, Brenner's Wolves encounter at least two villages whose leaders were chosen by the people. This is discussed, with Will wondering why people try to establish order in a post-apocalyptic anarchistic world. Brenner reasons that it is out of virtue and create their own laws, while Lin counters the argument by stating that it is out of instinct that they establish laws so that they don't kill each other.
  • Dragon Age: Origins: Despite being all monarchies, the Player Character can 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. This is justified by the fact that both candidates have some claim to the throne: one is the father of the Queen and thus father-in-law of the recently deceased King in addition to being a hero who fought alongside the deceased king's father in freeing their country. The other is the bastard brother to the deceased king who has no experience at actually ruling.
  • Fallout:
    • 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 minuscule and definitely not representative of the will of the American people.
    • 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. Most of the voters (who are all Dave's relatives; it's more of a family homestead than a country) are inclined to vote for Dave, but the player can perform some election fraud to get somebody else elected,note  causing Dave to throw a hissy fit and leave.
    • There's also the New California Republic. Starting out as a small hamlet called Shady Sands, led by Wasteland Elder Aradesh, by Fallout 2, the Republic holds dominion over a decent chunk of SoCal and is looking at expanding into the north. By New Vegas, it has grown exponentially, having taken all of California through aggressive expansion and is looking to colonize the Mojave Wasteland. They're generally well-regarded for hunting down raiders, outlawing slavery, and stabilizing the region. However, both Aradesh and his daughter Tandi were Presidents-for-Life (mainly owing to their outstanding popularity; they held regular elections). The only reason the Presidency didn't become hereditary is Tandi's son being dumb as rocks. The legislative branch is openly dominated by business interests, and corruption and red tape are an increasingly major issue, but they're still far better than both the pre-war United States and their wasteland contemporaries.
    • 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."
    • Fallout 4: Deconstructed, as different characters will inform you that, decades ago, the various settlements of the Commonwealth at the time attempted to form a provisional government, much like the aforementioned New California Republic. But unlike the NCR, the negotiations became a squabbling match that ended in tragedy when an Institute Synth murdered all of the delegates. The CPG Massacre has left settlements sour to the idea of unifying into the present day, with even those interested believing that the Institute will murder anyone who dares to try. To further add to the tragedy logs inside the Institute show that at the time they had been trying to encourage the formation of the provisional government, but when the situation turned violent their Synth was the only one who made it out. Since then, the Institute has also given up on helping the surface settlements.
  • Zigzagged and very vaguely mentioned in Jak 3: Wastelander. Right at the beginning of the game Ashelin mentions that the council (which has Veger in it) has overcome her vote on the matter of keeping Jak in Haven City and thus banishing him in Wasteland for life, implying that at least some limited voting within the council takes place. But later, when decision about critical mission takes place and Veger tries to interfere with the planning, she single-handedly dissolves the whole council and strips Veger of the whole power. Add to it that the previous game establishes her as the governor of the city and makes no mention of the council whatsoever and it gets even vaguer.
  • The Last of Us: Every human settlement. Yes, even the winter resort cannibals; you can overhear some of them talking about putting the leader up to a vote.
  • Rebuild: One of the possible victory conditions is reclaiming the city hall from the zombies and drafting a new Constitution. In Rebuild 3: Gangs of Deadsville, doing that is an intermediate goal for any level. During the process of drafting the Constitution, you can decide on how your "nation" will be run. This has pros and cons and can attract or repel various survivors. Additionally, rival "nations" will treat you differently depending on how you formed your Constitution. Strangely, all of them get angry at you for even daring to form your own government without asking them for permission first. You can usually placate them, though.
  • The New Order: Last Days of Europe:
    • Tomsk, in the middle of the massive warlord-infested mess that is the remains of Russia post-WWII, is one populated by former Soviet Intelligentsia members that aim to make a truly free republic, without the USSR's despotic measures. They have a fairly good selection of leaders with different democratic methodologies, though with a bit of Ivory Tower syndrome that can bite them later on if they don't take care.
    • Komi is another Russian wasteland democracy, aiming to be even more free in terms of expression and welcoming than Tomsk... with the problem being, they are too welcoming, and thus the remnants that got kicked out of every other territory for extremism have flocked here. As a result, Komi is an absolute clusterfuck, with huge instability issues and constant coups coming and going from the Democratic, Communist, and Far-Right groups, and can only settle down if one leader manages to hold on for more than two months and clean out the rest. Komi has the most potential leaders out of any other Russian warlord territory, ranging from some of the very best for Russia (Bukharina's Socialist government, the Democratic leaders even if Stalina's a bit dubious) to the single absolute worst (Sergey Taboritsky's wild Esoteric Nazi ride to hell).

  • 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.

    Western Animation 
  • Transformers: Robots in Disguise (2015): following the defeat of the false Autobot High Council (who turned out to be Decepticons), Optimus Prime is offered leadership of Cybertron. Considering his Heroic Sacrifice in the previous series is what allowed new life to be born on Cybertron and the fact that as one of the Thirteen he's a literal demigod, this is unsurprising. However, Optimus instead installs a temporary council made up of his most trusted subordinates and followers, entrusting them to lead until proper elections can be held. Then he just wants to take a ship and travel the stars for a while, without The Chains of Commanding that have weighed him down for most of his life.

    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 re-elected (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).
  • 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.
  • 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, until it was abolished by Trotsky.

Alternative Title(s): Emergency Democracy