On Tyranny

by

Timothy Snyder

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Democracy Term Analysis

Democracy is a form of government in which the people have ultimate power to govern, either by voting directly or by electing representatives to make laws on their behalf. When Snyder talks about democracy in this book, he generally means contemporary Western liberal democracy, or a system of government composed of an assembly of representatives who belong to different political parties and are elected by the people. Snyder contrasts democracy, which he argues protects human rights and can put the interests of citizens first, with tyranny, which he defines as private government for private interests. However, he also notes that democracies often turn into tyrannical authoritarian or even totalitarian states, especially through the direct election of antidemocratic leaders, like Adolf Hitler in Germany.

Democracy Quotes in On Tyranny

The On Tyranny quotes below are all either spoken by Democracy or refer to Democracy. For each quote, you can also see the other terms and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
The Collapse of American Democracy Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Tim Duggan Books edition of On Tyranny published in 2017.
Prologue Quotes

The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.

Related Characters: Timothy Snyder (speaker)
Page Number: 11-12
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 3 Quotes

Does the history of tyranny apply to the United States? Certainly the early Americans who spoke of “eternal vigilance” would have thought so. The logic of the system they devised was to mitigate the consequences of our real imperfections, not to celebrate our imaginary perfection. We certainly face, as did the ancient Greeks, the problem of oligarchy—ever more threatening as globalization increases differences in wealth. The odd American idea that giving money to political campaigns is free speech means that the very rich have far more speech, and so in effect far more voting power, than other citizens. We believe that we have checks and balances, but have rarely faced a situation like the present, when the less popular of the two parties controls every lever of power at the federal level, as well as the majority of state houses. The party that exercises such control proposes few policies that are popular with the society at large, and several that are generally unpopular—and thus must either fear democracy or weaken it.

Related Characters: Timothy Snyder (speaker), Donald Trump, Adolf Hitler, Vladimir Putin
Page Number: 29-30
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 6 Quotes

Most governments, most of the time, seek to monopolize violence. If only the government can legitimately use force, and this use is constrained by law, then the forms of politics that we take for granted become possible. It is impossible to carry out democratic elections, try cases at court, design and enforce laws, or indeed manage any of the other quiet business of government when agencies beyond the state also have access to violence. For just this reason, people and parties who wish to undermine democracy and the rule of law create and fund violent organizations that involve themselves in politics. Such groups can take the form of a paramilitary wing of a political party, the personal bodyguard of a particular politician—or apparently spontaneous citizens' initiatives, which usually turn out to have been organized by a party or its leader.

Related Characters: Timothy Snyder (speaker)
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:
Epilogue Quotes

Until recently, we Americans had convinced ourselves that there was nothing in the future but more of the same. The seemingly distant traumas of fascism, Nazism, and communism seemed to be receding into irrelevance. We allowed ourselves to accept the politics of inevitability, the sense that history could move in only one direction: toward liberal democracy. After communism in eastern Europe came to an end in 1989-91, we imbibed the myth of an “end of history.” In doing so, we lowered our defenses, constrained our imagination, and opened the way for precisely the kinds of regimes we told ourselves could never return.

Related Characters: Timothy Snyder (speaker)
Page Number: 117-118
Explanation and Analysis:

Both of these positions, inevitability and eternity, are antihistorical. The only thing that stands between them is history itself.

Related Characters: Timothy Snyder (speaker)
Page Number: 124-125
Explanation and Analysis:
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Democracy Term Timeline in On Tyranny

The timeline below shows where the term Democracy appears in On Tyranny. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Prologue: History and Tyranny
The Collapse of American Democracy Theme Icon
Tyranny and the Consolidation of Power Theme Icon
History and Memory Theme Icon
...Founding Fathers looked at classical antiquity in Greece and Rome, Snyder will look at European democracies founded at three critical periods in the 20th century: 1918, 1945, and 1989. Many of... (full context)
Chapter 2: Defend institutions.
Tyranny and the Consolidation of Power Theme Icon
Political Action and Civic Responsibility Theme Icon
...do so. Less than a year after their election, the Nazis had already destroyed German democracy by banning all other parties and weakening all existing institutions. (full context)
Chapter 3: Beware the one-party state.
The Collapse of American Democracy Theme Icon
Tyranny and the Consolidation of Power Theme Icon
History and Memory Theme Icon
...is often misattributed to Thomas Jefferson and understood as meaning that Americans must protect their democracy from foreigners, but actually its author was the abolitionist activist Wendell Phillips, who wanted to... (full context)
Chapter 6: Be wary of paramilitaries.
The Collapse of American Democracy Theme Icon
Tyranny and the Consolidation of Power Theme Icon
...must follow its laws. But when armed paramilitary groups gain power, they threaten to help anti-democratic parties establish tyranny. In fact, the Nazis used a paramilitary force called the SS to... (full context)
Chapter 10: Believe in truth.
The Collapse of American Democracy Theme Icon
Tyranny and the Consolidation of Power Theme Icon
...turn politics into showmanship. While people might enjoy believing everything the government says, this destroys democracy. According to Klemperer, there are four ways that “truth dies.” First, tyrants ignore the truth... (full context)
Chapter 13: Practice corporeal politics.
Tyranny and the Consolidation of Power Theme Icon
Political Action and Civic Responsibility Theme Icon
...but when the government grew weak in 1989, the coalition gained power and helped establish democracy. This shows how people must “draw the line” separating the private and public spheres for... (full context)
Chapter 14: Establish a private life.
Tyranny and the Consolidation of Power Theme Icon
...in order to push conspiracy theories, but when people accept these theories, they help destroy democracy. People should not only protect their own privacy but also fight for collective privacy protections... (full context)
Chapter 17: Listen for dangerous words.
Tyranny and the Consolidation of Power Theme Icon
Some words—particularly “extremism,” “terrorism,” “emergency,” and “exception”—are dangerous propaganda tools. The Nazis undid democracy by declaring “a permanent emergency” that required citizens to give absolute trust and power to... (full context)
Chapter 18: Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.
Tyranny and the Consolidation of Power Theme Icon
Political Action and Civic Responsibility Theme Icon
Authoritarians love emergencies that provide them with an opportunity to seize power and destroy democratic institutions. Famously, after the Reichstag (Germany’s parliament building) mysteriously caught on fire in 1933, Hitler... (full context)
Chapter 19: Be a patriot.
The Collapse of American Democracy Theme Icon
Tyranny and the Consolidation of Power Theme Icon
...a patriot because he does not care about Americans’ actual lives or have any principles. Democracy is on the brink of collapse in the United States, and while nationalists like Trump... (full context)