Autocracy or Democracy~Time to Choose Part 2 of 4

The following four posts are the scripts of four podcasts focused on defining an Autocracy versus a Democracy with the intent of providing knowledge to citizens for their consideration before voting because these ideologies will be choices in each local and national election.

In short, an Autocracy refers to a form of government in which a single individual holds absolute power and authority, making all major decisions without significant input from citizens. The autocrat (authoritarian) ruler has unchecked control over the legislative, executive and judicial branches, leading to limited political freedoms and a lack of checks and balances.

A Democracy is a system of government in which power is vested in the people through elected representatives. It ensures citizens’ participation in decision-making, and provides mechanisms for accountability (rule of law) and the peaceful transfer of power. Democratic societies uphold principles of equality, justice and the protection of minority rights.

While the definitions seem simple, an Autocracy and Democracy are at opposite ends as to vision, mission and guiding principles. Each has the power to impact social-cultural-political outcomes, consequences and most crucial – the quality of life for generations.

Part 1 Provides the history and 20 major traits of an autocrat and autocracy and its ominous threat to American Democracy.
Part 2 Provides references focusing on the evolution of autocrats, regional autocracies, loss of identity as a grievance and how to mentor and defend Democracy.

Part 3: Deals with validating the truth versus conspiracy theories, hate metaphors, misinformation, radical acceptance of truth and the multigenerational trauma an autocracy leaves behind.

Part 4: Deals with the role of education in a democracy, marginally educated citizens, opportunities of worth, “Me Monster” narcissism, geopolitical implications and keeping democracy alive. 

Dr. Prosperi’s research and writings span some 50 years as an educator, workshop facilitator, consultant and researcher focusing on social-cultural-political constructs, agencies and multigenerational trauma with a focus on providing knowledge, historical context and, as he constantly emphasizes . . . trying to provide relevant language.  

GLORIA: Welcome Jorge

JORGE: It’s my pleasure 

GLORIA: Let’s begin by having you provide specific sources that are available to our listeners in order to expand their comprehension on the nature of an autocracy, its doctrine, ideological beliefs, strategies, and also describe autocratic personalities. 

JORGE: Let me first stress that there is a plethora of books and articles on the ideology of autocracy and autocrats that define, provide history of autocracy and autocrats and make connections to the rise of Republican Trumpism.
The most recent poignant source is a book by Rachel Maddow titled, PREQUEL: An American Fight Against Fascism.   Her book provides an historical window of the 1930s homegrown American fascists, Nazi agents and their political allies in search of an American Hitler. 
The book reveals how the American Facist movement was well under way before Hitler ever came into prominence.

GLORIA:  If I may interject, one of the movements you speak of is eugenics. Can you elaborate briefly on Eugenics?

JORGE:  You raise an important historical fact that provides perspective on the fascist movements in America.  The concept of a master race in America was fueled by Eugenics finding public support in America and Europe in the early 1900s. 
Since then, eugenics, has been discredited as being – fraudulent-racist-science, invalid and immoral that contributed to Hitlers delusions of a Master Race, White Supremacy and anti-Semitism. 
Eugenics fueled racism, segregation and used as a model by the Nazi regime.  
The relevance that Rachel Maddow provides is that the -isms and phobias that we often blame on others were home grown and part of the history of who were as Americans, relates to our current struggles and Maddow leaves it to us to answer in the present the critical question . . . “who do we aspire to be.” 

GLORIA:  What other sources can you share that citizens can depend on, not only historical evidence on autocrats but also connect with current autocratic movements? 

JORGE:  I recommend two books that are considered to be must-reads on by Ruth Ben-Ghiat – 
The first is Strongmen: How they Rise, Why They Succeed, How They Fall – and the second  Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present
Theses books describe roadmaps and strategies used by authoritarian demagogues – how they deploy their ideology and power building.
Ben-Ghiat explains how autocrats reshape countries around them, create cults that ultimately provide blind loyalty. She describes how current Autocrats draw on a playbook of behavior established by figures such as Benito Mussolini, Muammar Gaddafi and Adolf Hitler.

GLORIA:  My understanding of Ghiats research is that she uses history to draw on her analysis of everything from gender and sexuality to diplomatic strategies and explains the psychology of how autocrats create and use fear in order to obtain power at any cost.

JORGE:  That’s correct and the books show the blueprints that “strongmen” used to gain power.  She also finds correlations on the recent experience in America with the rise of Republican Trumpism.  Both books have become watershed studies on autocracy, authoritarianism, dictatorship, and despots. 

GLORIA:  Can you share sources that explain the engineering of the autocracy by media deception – known as spinning the truth or intentionally misleading citizens?

Jorge: A source that speaks to your question is by Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman titled Spin Dictators – The Changing Face of Tyranny in the 21st Century.  
This book explains the redesigning/reengineering of authoritarian rule that has become more sophisticated and globally connected.  The book describes the new breed of wannabe dictators and how they manipulate information and plot to sway voters to believe them.  

GLORIA:  The use of psychological tactics to sway citizens is often mentioned in your analysis of autocratic strategies. Specifically the use of misinformation and lies.  Can you comment on a source that speaks to this issue?

JORGE:  What you are referring to is American society under attack by autocrats weaponizing disinformation.  Barbara McQuade, a former U.S. District Attorney, University of Michigan law professor and analyst for NBC News and MSNBC, recently published a book titled Attack From Within – the psychological tactics autocrats use, why they work, and how the digital age is threatening the truth by supplanting misinformation.  McQuade also offers solutions and aims to inspire a much needed national conversation about renewing this country to a democracy.  

GLORIA:  When speaking on autocracy and autocrats we often point to historical global and national examples. But what about citizens that want to know about local autocratic influences? Is there such a thing as local autocracy?

JORGE:  Yes and a topic that is not often mentioned or studied. 

David Pepper wrote a book titled Laboratories of Autocracy: A Wake-up Call From Behind the Lines.
His book is revealing, and at the same time alarming, because it puts the spotlight on election results by way of digital maps that Steve Kornacki of MSNBC and John King of CNN use to show rural, urban and suburban distribution of votes cast per district. 
Aside from wiz-bang insights that Kornacki and King provide, David Pepper points out that there are backstories behind the splashes of blue and red districts.
Pepper explains that behind the numbers are the stories of local politicians that live in these districts holding on to the power and control of the political power without being challenged from generation to generation. 
Pepper explains that the autocratic control that exists in these districts is far more real than the high-profile antics of Washington politicians that get all of the headlines.  
Pepper sheds light on how politicians in statehouses pose the greatest danger to American democracy because some statehouses no longer operate as functioning democracies but mirror autocracies.  
These unknown politicians, often powerful local business men, have all the incentives to hold on to the status quo, obstructing, denying legislation that could result in enhancing the quality of life of all constituencies – even their own.  

GLORIA:  I would surmise, that once elected, they can’t be held accountable no matter how extreme they get, controlling and obstructing legislation from generation to generation. 

JORGE:  Furthermore, the power bestowed to local politicians has national implications  because local politics can be a pipeline to the United States Congress and Senate.
So when citizens ask, “How in heavens name did these charlatans ever end up in Washington – what were people thinking?”  The answers are in our own backyards. 

GLORIA:  If I can interject, recently there has been more awareness and motivation to expose what is called, “local-district-regional-autocracy”.  Particularly with the debacle of George Santos being elected to New York’s 3rd congressional district. 
That fiasco created a focus by local field offices to provide citizens with transparency on the credibility of candidates from verifying background to financial support.  

JORGE:  Excellent point and food for thought for donors and local grass roots organizations to focus on credibility and trustworthiness and not take any district for granted.  
I maintain that it has always been a mistake to define citizens as collective nouns of urban, rural and suburban, rather than respecting the issues and problems of individual zip codes.
Yes, there are differences, but each district deserves attention by candidates that can articulate clearly and honestly the concerns of their constituencies providing real answers to problems that linger from generation to generation. I believe that gerrymandering contributed to the isolation of districts denying the fruition of democratic outcomes.   

GLORIA:  Lest we forget that the political strategy of gerrymandering districts was constructed by republican legislators over many years.  It was a masterful strategy to gain and maintain control – which is a characteristic of an autocracy. 

JORGE:  I fully agree. Gerrymandering was an ingenious political strategy and a primary example of consequences of the electoral process and the power of each vote.   
President Obama and Eric Holder, several years ago, created an umbrella group focusing on these issues via legal challenges to gerrymandering. 
But once fairness and justice is established, there is still the challenge of mentoring and nurturing candidates. That is, leaders who understand local issues, provide a voice for their constituencies and establish credibility and trust.

GLORIA:  In your writings, you say that part of the solution is to also educate the public on “regional autocracies.” Given the attacks on local school boards to censor and revise history, what do you say to local school board members, teachers, students and parents that face alt-right conservative movements?   

JORGE: First of all, I would say that they reaffirm their belief of living in a democracy as a way of life as a priority and choice. Don’t just use the word democracy but understand it to the fullest.
Remain courageous, vigilant, persevere, but also mobilize and engage within the democratic process. 
I would say to parents to attend school board meetings, parent association meetings, teacher meetings, run for school board.  
Monitor the curriculum and mobilize against alt right parents professing “parental rights” to censure and ban literature, revise history, silence educators and limiting student accessibility to knowledge, critical thinking skills, and pursuit of the truth. 

GLORIA: As educators, what do you say to teachers who are on the front line of such attacks by autocratic forces?

JORGE:  As for teachers, do NOT remain neutral on promoting and defending democracy.  
Teachers should focus on the power of influence in the classroom – attend professional development workshops and conferences on diversity and inclusivity.  
Ask each day two key questions – “Why I am here? and “What legacy do I want to leave behind?”
Regardless of the grade or the subject matter being taught – do the critical research you ask your students to do. 
Continue to expand personal and professional knowledge and methods – this is what our noble profession requires all educators to do.
I recommend three books for consideration for all novice and experienced teachers and administrators. The first is, “The Courage to Teach” by Parker J. Palmer, the second “We Can’t Teach What We Don’t Know” by Gary R. Howard” and thirdly, “Teacher’s as Intellectuals” by Henry A. Giroux – with an introduction by Paulo Freire and foreword by Peter McLaren. 
To members of school boards and administration – provide your students with experiential learning, promote school wide assemblies and debates on democracy vs. autocracy.  Institute inclusivity, equity, justice, democracy and critical thinking across the curriculum from pre-k through high school. 
Review the curriculum not only vertically per departments but also horizontally by way of interdisciplinary connections and collaboration. 

GLORIA: What is your message to students – the reason we enter the teaching profession?

JORGE:  As for students, run for class office and student council. If you don’t make it, don’t give up. Promote affinity groups and clubs that include all students. 
Join community service projects. Find the teachers, counselors and administrators that will work and guide you by providing access. 
Partner and collaborate with other schools within the district and across town.
Use technology to collaborate with other students. Become aware of the similar and different problems faced by students living in different zip codes and work collaboratively to find solutions.
Do not become discouraged and hopeless. 
Most important, use social media responsibly. Remain vigilant of hate groups that try to recruit high school and college students and follow the protocols of your school regarding school violence and bullying – if you see something say something as regrets and consequences can be avoided.  
Lastly, I would remind high school students that upon graduating, each of you will have the power of the vote – therefore find your voice – find  your power of influence in order to change our world for the better.  

GLORIA:  Is there one specific source that you would recommend to parents, teachers and students?

JORGE:  Yes, the book is titled On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the 20th century by Timothy Snyder – that should be required reading for high school students before graduating and citizens before voting. The book is a quick read of only 126 pages. 
Snyder stresses to not look away and normalize hearing lies, seeing swastikas, rebel flags and other signs of violence, bitterness and hate. 
The book stresses that we should pursue the truth, remain ethical and introspective. 
On the last page, Snyder makes a plea to young people to reject the traps that older generations have laid before them and break away from that vortex of negativism, divisionism, and nihilism.  
Snyder emphasizes that “young people need to make history – and to make history, young Americans will have to KNOW some history. This is not the end, but a beginning.” and I would add, such advocacy must begin not only in our schools, but our homes, our workplaces and of course at the voting booth.

GLORIA:  Do you feel that these sources  you’ve cited have a common thread – a unifying message by which to contrast an autocracy to a democracy.

JORGE:  They do.  The authors, mentioned in these podcasts, provide validated historical evidence, examples, but more importantly, they warn Americans that  there is a real danger when elections are dismissed or taken for granted. 
They warn that an autocracy does not just happen – it is engineered by choice and design and is present at the local level.
They warn that autocrats rely on citizen ignorance, disengagement and casualness.  
They emphasize verifying, validating information, becoming knowledgable astute citizens.
They stress that autocracies leave cataclysmic multigenerational trauma behind that takes generations to recover.  
They urge citizens to remain vigilant, listen to the language and evaluate the actions of candidates.  
Lastly, they promote voting with knowledge of candidates who are credible, trustworthy and to vote with emotional intelligence and moral clarity.

GLORIA: It’s interesting to me that dictators survive in the 21st century.  What is the convergence of thought between autocrats and their supporters?  
It seems that there is a segment of society firmly embedded in absolute thinking wanting to only hear what they already have been pre-disposed to believing.  How much is generational and perhaps impossible to change? 

JORGE:  A great deal is generational and we know that psychologically, absolute ingrained beliefs are most difficult to change. The process of dealing with the roots of absolute thinking, also described as “black and white thinking” – “binary thinking” – can take years of therapy to analyze and here I am not being condescending or sarcastic. 
Absolute beliefs are deeply rooted – implanted over years by a host of influences – also known as our social curriculum that takes place during our developmental years taught by family members, environment, local influences, region, friends, schooling, religion, politics – even profession. 

GLORIA:  What you are emphasizing is that who we are, in large measure, is learned, constructed and therefore, can be unlearned and unconstructed?

JORGE:  I would say that psychologists would agree that the process of human development is highly complex.  My point is that autocrats know the psychology of the curriculum of human development and use it to create binary thinking.
For example, promoting the delusion that the good old days of the 20th century will somehow miraculously return and that all highly complex current problems, such as the economy, jobs, environment, immigration will be solved magically by one man. This is a fantasy.  
The tragedy is that autocratic deceptions leave supporters with the trauma of self-oppression – feeding on itself from generation to generation with its members unwilling to learn and change at their own expense – and at the expense of their fellow citizens, their children, their country. 

GLORIA: You also stress that an autocracy is based on supporters fearing, and I quote, “the loss of identity” – That seems to be a crucial characteristic.

JORGE:  Yes, a major fear of supporters of an autocracy is the loss of the power of their identity. That is, the fear of being replaced by shifts in demographics of the social – culturual – racial mix of the country. 
Many autocratic beliefs are based historically on the status of racial superiority, the belief of a master race and white supremacy. 
These -isms and phobias promote the belief of an inherited right to dominate – the justification of superiority to rule over others. 

GLORIA:  When you mention “based historically on the status of racial superiority”, can you explain what you mean?

JORGE:  Yes, racial superiority was a central premise for justifying and rationalizing slavery, subjugating and displacing indigenous people, creating generational prejudice against immigrants and a core belief of anti-Semitic Nazism.  
These conscious and unconscious ingrained beliefs keep citizens from growing and changing from generation to generation. 
I cannot be more clear – To believe in an autocracy, and in an autocrat is to ask citizens to stand on quicksand.  And for what Gloria – for what?  We always come back to the same critical question – for what?  

GLORIA:  So what are the defenses and protections we can use to fight against autocrats?

JORGE:  What autocrats and their supporters fear the most is the rule of law that leads to facing consequences of accountability, liability, proof of culpability, – validated guilt, imprisonment, the loss of financial gain and the loss of power.  
They fear the loss of followers. 
The game plan by autocrats when caught, is to lawyer up, deny guilt, disregard subpoenas, avoid testifying under oath, take the fifth amendment, deflect guilt on others, intimidate judges, lawyers and witnesses, delay outcomes, and if given an opportunity, pardon those found guilty. 

GLORIA: How have other countries dealt with politicians who were found guilty of crimes and misdemeanors?

JORGE:  In some countries, autocrats and their ideology are disqualified, barred or imprisoned for their crimes and misdemeanors.
This happened in Germany after the war.  A residue of Nazis continued to promote Hitler’s ideology through candidates. They failed and were banned from running for office. 
It happened in Italy with Berlusconi, who was a media tycoon. He was banned from holding public office due to dozens of indictments.  
Another example is the ex president of Brazil, Bolsonaro, who is banned from holding office until 2030. 
The crimes committed were similar involving spreading lies about the electoral process, not accepting the will of the people, inciting riots, and indictments for crimes and misdemeanors.  Sound familiar?

GLORIA:  I’ll leave it to our audience to answer that question. So what are some of the positive outcomes when autocrats face consequences?

JORGE:  Autocrats losing power and control can have a sobering effect on a nation – like having a toxic cloud lifted. Some supporters feel betrayed, deceived, some feeling liberated, no longer fearing revenge or retaliation. Often, there is resurgence by the will of the people to reboot the vision, mission and guiding principles of democracy – as Germany has done.

GLORIA: So what is a lesson to be learned by way of history and also current realities of the influence and forces of autocracy and autocrats?

JORGE:  It’s a matter of dealing with reality, actual facts, the real world. 
What American citizens need to comprehend and remember is that the insurrection on the Capitol and the plot of using fake electors was a coup on American Democracy. 
The attack on January 6, 2021 was unprecedented and did not occur by happenstance.  
It was engineered within and outside of Washington. 
It now remains as an historical marker that indelibly scarred America. 
But, future regrets and consequences can be avoided by the power of our choice our vote – where it all begins.

GLORIA: As we approach the end of the podcast, can you provide a source that leaves us with some hope and helps us come to terms with what is exactly at stake and help us realize our obligations as citizens?

JORGE:  Richard Haass, an American diplomat published a book in 2023 called the Bill of Obligations: Ten Habits of Good Citizens that I believe crosses all generations and that should be read in high school before graduating and by citizens before voting. It seems as if I’m always giving homework to our listeners. Well, the first part of the book is devoted to the history of American democracy. 
The second part of the book introduces ten obligations for good citizenship that if adopted, would go a long way toward focusing with awareness and comprehending the complex issues of our times. These obligations are:

  1. Be informed – make the time to remain current on issues and candidates – fact check your sources and references
  2. Get involved – find your power of influence regardless of status and zip code
  3. Remain open minded – believe in compromise, collaboration and consensus 
  4. Remain civil with language, tone and actions 
  5. Reject violence 
  6. Value and respect norms – particularly the truth – follow it
  7. Promote the common good that can enhance the quality of life for all
  8. Respect government service – get involved as problem solvers 
  9. Support the teaching of civics – I would add schools to map citizenship and democracy into the curriculum from elementary school through high school
  10. Put country first – in front of candidate and party 

The historian Jon Meacham recently shared his perspective on this subject. And here I am paraphrasing – He said that, while it is important for historians to study and try to fathom America’s political landscape, given the complex reasons for our current status, he emphasized that once all is said and done, it will be the individual choice we make, the individual ballot, that will determine whether America chooses to live under the rule of a Democracy or an Autocracy – based on that simple-complex choice. We must own that choice as American citizens. 
And lastly I would add – vote with the future of our children in mind. The children who have no voice and depend on us as adult citizens to do the right thing – to change the world for the better. 

GLORIA:  Thanks Dr. Prosperi for emphasizing this most important point that in a democracy, change and hope is in the hands of the people, and at the same time, we each have a responsibility to remain knowledgable citizens. 

I urge our listeners to listen to podcast # 12 – Autocracy versus a Democracy – Time to Choose – Part III that deals with validating the truth versus conspiracy theories, hate metaphors, misinformation, radical acceptance of the truth and the multigenerational trauma an autocracy leaves behind.

It’s been a sincere pleasure to extend the conversation on this subject.  I urge our audience to go to to become familiar with the complex dimensions of Diversity, Inclusion and Equity. On the website there are articles specifically focusing on autocracy and democracy.  

As always, sincere thanks to Alan Contino Executive Producer and Chief Engineer of Delirium Networks and to Nancy Gage and Anthony Baez for the graphic designs on the website and podcast — and lastly our thanks to each of you for joining us —  I am Gloria Lopata Prosperi and you have been listening to Counter-Voices.

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