Guest Blog: Democracy and Dictatorship 101

August 27th, 2014 by CIVIX

During my graduate degree in political science, I took a bunch of courses about international relations (now more often called “global affairs”). Talking about global governance, global affairs, or international relations unfortunately usually involves talking about war, conflict, and inequality, not peace and harmony.

People have different motivations for getting involved in academia, but my understanding is that the goal of the social sciences is to understand, and then advocate for positive change. For something like politics or the global economy, I figure that if the factors at play are difficult to understand objectively anyway (thanks to an inability, for example, to study and measure society in perfect laboratory conditions), why not use the knowledge we do have to try to achieve things that lessen the suffering in the world?

But first, the understanding part. It may not be perfect, but we have to do what we can to understand the behaviour of human beings in large groups, taking into consideration countries’ socio-economic and historical realities, leadership inclinations, and relationship with other nations with whom we share this planet.

One of the courses I took was called “Democracy and Dictatorship.” In it, we discussed the incredibly broad themes of the two ends of the modern political spectrum, with the obvious assumption that one system of government is better than the other. Either concept could easily make up several year-long courses on its own so we stuck to the basics and looked at some of the most well-known dictatorships from the last hundred years or so and asked ourselves what caused them. We looked at that more than the causes of democracy.

We analyzed different dictatorships and debated their causality. One memorable debate we had was about the success of the Nazi Party in 1930s Germany and Adolf Hitler’s rise to power as that country’s chancellor-turned-dictator, which resulted in a massive global war and one of largest human death tolls in the world’s history. We split ourselves into teams and debated the causes we thought were the best explanations. Were the primary causes structural (i.e. national economy doing poorly, divisive politics, damaged public institutions, remarkably strong civil society)? What role did the stratified economic and labour class system play? Or was Hitler’s charismatic personality and individual agency the unique explanation?

One hopes that if we truly isolate and understand causes, together we can get better at recognizing and maybe even preventing the development of dictatorships and authoritarian regimes in the first place. How hard can it be?

Gilleen Witkowski

Gilleen has a Master’s degree in political science, specializing in international relations, from the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. She works in communications, doing media relations and campaign organizing in the health and human rights non-profit sector. Gilleen also blogged for us last year.

Want to learn more about democracy, dictatorships and the Canadian electoral system? Check out our series of four educational videos created for the 2014 Ontario provincial election.

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