One of the odd features of the Nazis’ rise to power in Germany was that Hitler was made chancellor in an antidemocratic process, by elite leaders of the old regime, just when the Nazi Party was starting to lose popular support. Why? The eminent political scientist Nancy Bermeo argued, in a pattern that recurred in many times and places since, that Germany’s leaders overestimated the true level of support that Hitler enjoyed—because Nazi street violence and protests, taking place in the very narrow range of places frequented by the old elite, conveyed the impression that the Nazis were gaining strength. By contrast, the growing opposition to the Nazis was quieter, and completely escaped the notice of Hindenburg and the others in the old guard.
Similarly, many have noted that modern American journalists are almost all on Twitter, and spend most of their time talking to each other. As a result, more and more news stories are mere lazy stenography of whatever new trend is going viral on Twitter, a domain dominated by a relatively small cohort of young urbanized people that poorly reflects what is going on in the country as a whole. It is easy to convince a handful of cloistered journalists that some new rarified issue is a serious problem, even as the populace at large thinks it ridiculous and a distraction from more crucial concerns. Then the politicians read the news stories, and similarly think that they reflect actual problems, and so on.
If you want to change society, there appears to be the right way and the easy way. The right way is via a true popular grassroots movement. The easy way is by carefully constructing a Potemkin movement to scare existing elites with and make them think that they need to make concessions to you, well before you have the actual support to back up such a perception.
If you are an author trying to come up with a nefarious scheme for your heroes to thwart, Option 2 seems like a good one.
How might it work? The key is to understand how your setting’s elites get their news of the world, and then systematically subvert those channels. Do they work in a particular office building? Hire a handful of unemployed drifters to protest in front of the office every day. Do they read the same newspapers? Influence the journalists and editors to print what you want the elites to read—via persuasion, ideological appeals, manipulation of gullible journalists, or naked bribery. Create crises for politicians to panic over; carefully recruit friendly elites by hook or by crook, who can then work on their colleagues.
Above all, do your best to isolate the targeted elites from the “common people” who disagree with you. Wherever possible, create the appearance of popular support; stigmatize your opponents as out of touch, or actively disloyal to the society. Create time pressure; give the appearance that normal deliberation would take too long in the face of whatever crisis you choose to focus on; don’t give legitimate democratic mechanisms a chance to work against you.
This works in autocratic settings as well, and is easier. If your setting is a monarchy, how do you influence the king? Through his advisors, his queen, his mistresses or harem. Subvert each of them in turn, and you can gain control of the realm without any support at all from the people. The same principle is at work: understand how information flows to the leadership, and target those flows.
How can such a scheme be thwarted? By breaking through with other information flows, that better reflect reality. Perhaps the captain of the guard breaks protocol and speaks directly to the king, charging the corrupt advisors with treason. Perhaps a democratic populace starts holding voter referenda well before the next scheduled election, revealing the plotters’ lack of support. Perhaps a hacker replaces the falsified news reports in the elite newspaper with a hefty dose of the truth.
(That is one of the relative advantages of democracy, compared to autocratic systems. Information wants to be free, and helps the elites better govern. It is harder to convince elites to panic over a crisis, or to choose a harmful response based on falsified information, in a free society. Harder, but hardly impossible.)
This type of scheming can produce really compelling fiction. Give it a try.
(This post is part of Politics for Worldbuilders, an occasional series. Many of the previous posts in this series eventually became grist for my handbook for authors and game designers, Beyond Kings and Princesses: Governments for Worldbuilders. The topic of this post belongs in the planned second book in this series, working title Tyranny for Worldbuilders. No idea when it will be finished, but it should be fun!)