One of the tricky things about recognizing a country that is becoming dysfunctional or tyrannical is that many tyrannical practices are the same as the normal practices one would find in a “healthy” country, but amplified to unhealthy levels.
A key example is patriotism/nationalism on one hand, and conflict between groups on the other.
For a community to work, its members need to feel a sense of shared fate. A selfish attitude of “I got mine, you can go to Hell” must be seen not only as immoral, but actually against your interests—because if members of the community are harmed, the community as a whole is harmed as well, and therefore the community is less able to advance the interests of any of its members.
A state, trying to create a sense of political community among many, many people who have never even met, does this by fostering patriotism. That is, the welfare of other Americans (for example) would be important to me because they are Americans, even if they are richer than me or poorer than me or a different skin color or a different religion. To create a sense of patriotism usually requires creating a national myth (loosely based on the truth) about our shared mission on the planet, our creed, the heroic circumstances of our founding. Citizens must be proud of the nation before they can be proud of the state, which (ideally) is an expression of the political values of that nation.
But a national myth fostering patriotism can very easily shade into a state ideology justifying compliance, and finally become sheer propaganda justifying whatever acts of tyranny the state chooses to carry out.
One waypoint in this direction is when political disagreement with the ruling ideology is condemned as disloyalty to the nation. This might not be tyrannical, depending on the nature of the disagreement (anyone agitating for blacks to be returned to slavery, for example, gets little sympathy from me if the cops break down his door), but it should perk up one’s ears at the very least. Political opponents can be reasoned with, bargained with, compromised with. Traitors are hanged.
For a nation to avoid tyranny, it must preserve the ability of its members to disagree about political things, without jeopardizing the larger sense of shared fate that unites them. This is tricky, since we have a tendency for policy disputes to become partisan chasms. Seymour Lipset argued that for a democracy to work well, it must feature cross-cutting cleavages: the same people who disagree with each other on Issue A might be allies on Issue B, and so continue to see each other as people and potential comrades. By contrast, for every dispute to map itself along an existing party cleavage was extremely dangerous, as political disputes harden into cultural enmities. (Obvious analogies to the present situation omitted.) (See a fairly abstract discussion here.)
On the other hand, if political disputes rage without end or without moderating tendencies, to the point that the sense of shared fate is lost or never existed, this can also lead to a form of tyranny that has become proverbial: divide and conquer. In short, if a state rules over a collection of groups in endless conflict with each other (policy conflict, ethnic conflict, etc.), then it can credibly claim that only the power of the state can protect each group from the others. Thus, the people must acquiesce to whatever injustices the state chooses to perpetrate, because facing the wrath of their neighbors without the state’s protection would be worse. Yugoslavia, before its catastrophic breakup, would be a good example of this.
More diabolical would be for the state to deliberately encourage conflicts between its communities, to encourage dependency on itself and make a broad alliance of oppressed peoples unlikely. In then-Zaire, for example, Mobutu put in place policies designed to foment conflict within each province between its “autochthons” (so-called indigenous peoples) and those other communities arbitrarily decided to be foreign intruders. Those policies allowed Mobutu to maintain his grip on power, but after his eventual overthrow they culminated in horrible civil wars.
(Relatedly, a political leader might foment conflict between two communities even if he only leads one of them, in order to make cooperation impossible or even to drive the other community away and thus ensure that no one can challenge his power.)
Worst of all, perhaps, would be a state that manages to do both: enforce a suffocating official ideology, while at the same time turning all of its people against each other. The Soviet Union is probably the most terrible example we have of this so far; children were turned against parents, neighbors gleefully betrayed each other for a better apartment, and preserving one’s ethnic and religious identities was made tantamount to treason.
A tyrant might demand conformity and compliance. But the tyrant might also turn neighbors into enemies, cynically using social conflict as a lever to maintain power. Or both. As citizens and authors both, we should keep this in mind. Political conflict needs a way to be concluded, and for opponents to reconcile, or the social fabric will fray.
(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!)