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I recently read that China's constitution refers to it as "a socialist state under the people's democratic dictatorship led by the working class and based on the alliance of workers and peasants." It seems to me that a democracy and a dictatorship are polar opposites, the very first paragraph on Wikipedia's article on dictatorships explicitly says 'dictatorships are "not democracies"'.

Given that dictatorship is practically defined as not being a democracy how can a country be a democratic dictatorship? What does such a phrase mean and how does it work in practice?

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    Why are you surprised? North Korea calls itself the "Democratic People's Republic of Korea". East Germany called itself "German Democratic Republic". The full name of the Soviet Union was the "Union of Soviet Socialist Republics". – David Hammen Mar 25 at 21:00
  • There's a huge extent to which democracy is only the process of selecting the leaders and dictatorship merely a tool. I once asked an elected member of the UK parliament why he wasn't representing his constituents' views. He said "That's not the way it works. They elected me because they liked my views, and my views are what go to parliament." Is either outlook actually wrong? – Robbie Goodwin Mar 29 at 10:08

12 Answers 12

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I'm really surprised with so many answers (many of which that have no source whatsoever or simply irrelevant sources) no one has even asked what Chinese government actually claims it to mean, and only one had even mentioned the Marxist concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Mao Zedong first published the article On the People's Democratic Dictatorship in 1949 (there's even an English Wikipedia page!).

To cite

"You are dictatorial." My dear sirs, you are right, that is just what we are. All the experience the Chinese people have accumulated through several decades teaches us to enforce the people's democratic dictatorship, that is, to deprive the reactionaries of the right to speak and let the people alone have that right.

[...]

Who are the people? At the present stage in China, they are the working class, the peasantry, the urban petty bourgeoisie and the national bourgeoisie. These classes, led by the working class and the Communist Party, unite to form their own state and elect their own government; they enforce their dictatorship over the running dogs of imperialism -- the landlord class and bureaucrat-bourgeoisie, as well as the representatives of those classes, the Kuomintang reactionaries and their accomplices -- suppress them, allow them only to behave themselves and not to be unruly in word or deed. If they speak or act in an unruly way, they will be promptly stopped and punished.

Democracy is practiced within the ranks of the people, who enjoy the rights of freedom of speech, assembly, association and so on. The right to vote belongs only to the people, not to the reactionaries. The combination of these two aspects, democracy for the people and dictatorship over the reactionaries, is the people's democratic dictatorship.

[...]

As for the members of the reactionary classes and individual reactionaries, so long as they do not rebel, sabotage or create trouble after their political power has been overthrown, land and work will be given to them as well in order to allow them to live and remould themselves through labour into new people. If they are not willing to work, the people's state will compel them to work. Propaganda and educational work will be done among them too and will be done, moreover, with as much care and thoroughness as among the captured army officers in the past. This, too, may be called a "policy of benevolence" if you like, but it is imposed by us on the members of the enemy classes and cannot be mentioned in the same breath with the work of self-education which we carry on within the ranks of the revolutionary people.

As is the case in the dictatorship of the proletariat, the word dictatorship does not imply a single or small group of leaders. It means political monopoly that can be held either by a person or group of persons, or as is the case here, a class.

Dictatorship of the proletariat thus means a way to organize the society where the proletariat as a whole holds the sole political power. How the proletariat organizes this political power is out of scope for this concept.

In Chinese political theory, once the working class had achieved its liberation (through the Communist party), they would not longer be proletariat because they would be owning the means of production. So they are called people instead, the Chinese term 人民 for which has strong political connotations (it is not usually used to mean any group of humans). In the particular Chinese context, for United Front reasons, certain bourgeoisie classes are also included in the people (small businesses and businesses in favour of revolution and nationalism).

The question of how the political power of the working class is organized is described by democratic, that is, the individuals belonging to the people will democratically decide the laws of the new Communist state (PRC); but the franchise is limited to people and people alone. The reactionaries, as the capitalists/landlords/etc. and other opponents are called, are not part of the people.

Mao recognized that the classes still existed in China and the proletariat cannot be the only class from day one. He also answered in the same paragraph to the apparent contradiction between the establishment of a state and the stateless ideal central to communism.

"Don't you want to abolish state power?" Yes, we do, but not right now; we cannot do it yet. Why? Because imperialism still exists, because domestic reaction still exists, because classes still exist in our country. Our present task is to strengthen the people's state apparatus -- mainly the people's army, the people's police and the people's courts -- in order to consolidate national defence and protect the people's interests. Given this condition, China can develop steadily, under the leadership of the working class and the Communist Party, from an agricultural into an industrial country and from a new-democratic into a socialist and communist society, can abolish classes and realize the Great Harmony. The state apparatus, including the army, the police and the courts, is the instrument by which one class oppresses another. It is an instrument for the oppression of antagonistic classes, it is violence and not "benevolence". "You are not benevolent!" Quite so. We definitely do not apply a policy of benevolence to the reactionaries and towards the reactionary activities of the reactionary classes. Our policy of benevolence is applied only within the ranks of the people, not beyond them to the reactionaries or to the reactionary activities of reactionary classes.

Now whether the ideal has been practiced as described is certainly answered in the negative. But here there is no contradiction on its face with the term as they are used in Chinese political theory.

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  • I did know of the term "dictatorship of the proletariat" and considered mentioning it, but I thought my answer was long enough as it was. – Mozibur Ullah Mar 27 at 19:43
  • I do mention, however, that it's important to understand how terms are translated with regards to Chinas constitution, given that it is in Chinese ... – Mozibur Ullah Mar 27 at 19:45
  • @MoziburUllah Sorry I didn't see your answer when I was composing mine. Yes your answer makes a great point about the connotations of translated words. – xngtng Mar 27 at 20:05
  • I really tried to get through that... and understand it. I'm 36 now, I shoud be interested in this stuff! I just read "Proletariat" and my brain said NO! UUUGGHHH. Nice answer though, I'm sure ;) – n00dles Mar 30 at 11:14
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    @n00dles I understand :p In simple terms, basically "good people (workers and peasants) are good and people, bad people (capitalists and reactionaries) are bad and not people; democracy for people, dictatorship for not-people." (Of course, in practice, the judgement of who's good and bad can be and was abused leading to suffering of many people.) – xngtng Mar 30 at 11:27
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The term 'democratic' literally means 'rule by the people'. In the West we normally associate that with a particular set of institutions — capitalist property rights, free and fair elections, open press, etc — but those are not the only form of rule that can be attributed to the people. Nations that derive from socialist principles are often predicated on the idea that state has taken control of productive forces as a proxy for the working class, uprooting the class-based oligarchy of entrenched capitalist systems. So long as power is ultimately vested in the citizenry as a whole, this is a valid claim, so a dictatorship of the proletariate could ideally be considered properly democratic.

Of course, it's easy to find examples of socialist states that do not live up to this democratic ideal (just as it's easy to find examples of capitalist republics that fail to live up to the ideal: Hussein's Iraq, Assad's Syria, Putin's Russia, etc). Finding valid institutions by which the citizenry can properly control the political apparatus is extremely difficult. But in the abstract philosophical sense, there's no real problem here.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – JJJ Mar 29 at 10:10
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"War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength."

A dictatorship can always manipulate terminology towards whatever they say it is. It's not like democracies can't manipulate opinion, as pointed out in Manufacturing Consent. It's just that a dictatorship can legislate it and punish dissent.

And in the case of China, it can pretend to be a "democracy", because it has a list of approved opposition parties.

In reality, the other parties of the United Front are satellites of the CCP with no autonomy of their own.

"democratic dictatorship led by the working class"

That is rich, when applied to a country with as many avoidable mining accidents as China has.

Or to take another example of doublespeak:

Asked to comment on The Post’s findings, specifically allegations of extralegal detention and torture, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent a short statement.

“I only want to emphasize that at the moment, the overall situation of Xinjiang society is stable, the momentum of its economic development is good and ethnic groups live in harmony,” the statement read.

In contrast to Deng Xiaoping, Xi Jinping has deliberately tied his image and achievements to Mao, something rather unsettling considering the millions of deaths that can be directly attributed to Mao's leadership.

Definition of democracy (from Webster's)

1a: government by the people especially : rule of the majority

b: a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections

So a democracy presupposes that the people can change governments via electoral choice. Without that the government is not running a democracy. A democracy does not need to mean nice and fluffy and likes kittens. It only means that the people get to choose their government.

Things that are not guaranteed in a democracy:

  • equal rights for everyone. For example, it took the US Supreme Court to override the majority's view and rule that separate but equal was in fact not equal.

  • guaranteed voting rights for everyone. The good citizens of Appenzell Innerhoden, in the poster child for democracy had to forced to grant women the right to vote, in 1991.

  • Good behavior. Many will agree that neither Modi in India, nor Duterte in the Philippines, are running particularly nice governments, with one inciting ethnic hatred and the other approving of summary executions by the police. Both are still, unless an election is rigged, robust democracies.

  • Any guarantee that your views and preferences will be put in place.

China does not practice democracy:

Let's see who the "democracy" applies to:

  • Total population: 1398M. Did they vote for Xi? No.

  • Membership CCP: 91M. Did they vote for Xi? No.

  • National People's Congress. 3000. Did they vote for Xi. Yes, Xi was re-elected by them in March 2018. Let's look at election stats:

On March 11, 2018, the National People's Congress, by a vote of 2,958 in favor, two opposed and three abstaining, passed a constitutional amendment that allowed the President to serve an unlimited number of five-year terms. This was widely interpreted as part of an expansion of Xi's power, effectively making him paramount leader and president for life.8 Xi explained the decision in terms of needing to align the presidency with his more powerful posts of General Secretary of the Party and CMC Chairman, which do not have term limits.

2958 Yays vs 5 Nays, for something as contentious as removing constitutional term limits???

That look like any kind of "democracy", at any level, to you?

Even Iran or Russia, which have run somewhat flawed elections, at least pretend to give the people choices.

Could a Communist government be democratic?

Yes, in theory, there is nothing that says it can't. After all, if Marxism-Leninism is correct and its scientific approach economics can better the mass's well-being, then people should gladly choose to be governed under its premises.

So claims that "democracy means capitalism" are specious. There are sufficient shortcomings in most free market/capitalistic systems that a genuinely superior way to run a country, such as that claimed by Communism, ought to be able to compete for votes if they were so inclined.

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    When was the constitution written? Was it always just propaganda, or is there any evidence that some people involved in creating it had some aspiration of the country running differently from what did happen, in a way that would make it less empty words? – Peter Cordes Mar 26 at 3:05
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    A democracy can also legislate and punish dissent. The current Police and Crime bill in the UK would be an example. Though obviously there are differences in degrees. – Jontia Mar 26 at 5:50
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    @Jontia Your point? My claim is not that democratic countries always do exactly what you want. Only that the government is up for reassessment and choice by the voters every 4-5 years. Don't like your current Police and Crime bill? Vote someone else into office. Or consider that, perhaps, your preferences do not represent the preferences of a majority of your fellow citizens. – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Mar 26 at 15:20
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    This seems more like a diatribe against the Chinese government (which isn't undeserved) than an answer to the question. The real answer is that they're using different definitions or interpretations of 'dictatorship' and 'democracy' than we're used to. Also, part b of the quoted definition of democracy says usually involving free elections, it doesn't support your assertion that free elections are an essential element of all democracies. – llama Mar 26 at 16:40
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    While not an expert on China, the section "who votes" feels specious. The National Peoples Congress is said to be elected from lower more.local groups every 5 years. So in China the population elect local representatives and the local representatives together (NPC) elect the leader of state. Theoretically isn't that as democratic as the USA? Citizens don't directly vote for president, their votes produce local representatives, and the local representatives together (Electoral College) vote for the leader of the state. In China its rubber stamp, but structurally aren't they similar – Stilez Mar 27 at 8:32
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I don't know anything about the Chinese constitution, but the original meaning of the word dictator came from the Roman republic. The idea was that the democratic assembly was good for peacetime leadership, but in states of emergency where decisive action was needed, there would be no time for debate, compromise and consensus, and so the assembly should appoint a dictator.

This person would seize full executive power within a given sphere of of authority, and would in principle give up their powers once the emergency had passed, or whatever task they were supposed to do was completed. Famously, when Julius Caesar refused to give up his position as dictator, the democratic assembly expressed their opinion on the matter through a large number of stab wounds.

In that sense, a democratic dictatorship could be said to be a system where the democratic assembly has willingly empowered a dictator "temporarily" to guide the country through turbulent times. Of course, as with Caesar, this idea hinges on who decides what is "temporary", i.e. when the "turbulent times" are over. The concept has been popular in communist regimes, where the story typically is that a dictator is needed to guide the country from the revolution and into the new world of fully implemented socialism, which somehow takes a very long time.

The concept also persists in the "West" in modern times. An example is the political thinker (and actual nazi) Carl Schmitt, who criticized the liberal democracy as a flawed concept without possibility of appointing a dictator to handle crises. Indeed, many liberal democracies have systems similar to the Roman dictator system, including the United States, where the President is granted immense power in times of emergency.

Famous cases of this system being abused include the rise of Hitler in Germany, and of course the rise of Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars.

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    Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus would be the ideal example of the Roman dictator working as intended. – divibisan Mar 26 at 13:47
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    "where the President is granted immense power in times of emergency" and in times of completely imaginary emergency also. – Sod Almighty Mar 28 at 21:28
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This is possibly a vestige of the term "dictatorship of proletariat", re-assessed.

The Marxist-Leninists believe that any form of state (government) is the dictatorship of the ruling class. Thus, any capitalist regime is the dictatorship of bourgeoisie, any feudal regime is the dictatorship of the nobility, any slave-owning society is the dictatorship of slave-owners, etc.

Thus, they famously declare the aim to build a socialist society - the dictatorship of proletariat, which they declare the highest form of democracy (proletariat constituted the majority at the beginning of 20th century, so that it would be rule by the majority for the majority).

The formula possibly was adopted in this form by the Chinese communists from Russian sources.

The Soviet constitution declared the USSR "dictatorship of proletariat" till 1977. Thereafter the formula was removed and replaced with something that claimed the USSR had succeeded to build a classless society, and now on it was "all-people's state".

So, the Chinese formula seems similar, but instead of "dictatorship of proletariat" they proclaim "dictatorship led by proletariat".

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    This is literally the only thing close to the right answer here. Though the Chinese formulation had existed since 1949 and by no means a compromise; it's simply a reformulation of dictatorship of the proletariat (with certain Chinese characteristics). – xngtng Mar 27 at 18:34
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    This is the answer, and while I think the others are great additions, this is to the point. One could also add what "dictatorship of the proletariat" means, i.e., landlords, owners of corporations, etc. would not get a vote (if they exist at all). – ljrk Mar 28 at 12:10
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    @ljrk this was the initial idea. The whole idea of "soviets" (councils) was that the workers at their councils would elect their representatives. There were 1st and 2nd congres of councils (soviets), which started even before the October revolution and the bolsheviks even did not have the majority there initially. The councils and congresses of councils of workers and peasants' deputies were multi-party. For some time the power was shared between the councils and the provisional (capitalist) government. Then happened the October revolution that gave all power to the councils. – Anixx Mar 28 at 12:16
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    @ljrk so, the Republic was renamed "Soviet republic", meaning, the republic of the councils of workers and peasants... But the idea was dropped in 1936 with Stalin's constitution. This constitution was formally like any other democratic constitution: universal suffrage, equal voting rights and territorial electoral districts (as opposed to working collective representatives). Thus "dictatorship of proletariat" idea was effectively dropped in 1936. – Anixx Mar 28 at 12:19
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    Yes, this is exactly correct. From the official translation of the constitution: "The people’s democratic dictatorship led by the working class and based on an alliance of workers and peasants, which in essence is a dictatorship of the proletariat, has been consolidated and developed." "The People’s Republic of China is a socialist state governed by a people’s democratic dictatorship that is led by the working class and based on an alliance of workers and peasants." – gormadoc Mar 29 at 2:30
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Here is the best example I can think of: The Vatican elect a dictator for life.

Once the pope is elected there is nothing that can remove him again unless he choose it himself or dies.

I don't know if I would call it a democratic dictatorship though. Demos means the people, and only cardinals can vote.

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  • Another interesting example is the constitutional monarchies. – Codename 47 Mar 26 at 12:59
  • Does this count? I thought God was supposed to be selecting the Pope, acting through the Cardinals. – divibisan Mar 27 at 20:37
  • In the Chinese constitution they definitely mean dictatorship of a class, not dictatorship by a person. – Anixx Mar 28 at 8:05
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In the West, the term dictatorship is pejorative for very good reasons. Nevertheless, it is the case that a government, even in a democratic country, is a kind of dictatorship - not in the sense of a tyrannical and violent rule by one man, which the term conventionally means; but simply that all parties that contest against each other in a democracy accept the larger governing framework. We don't obviously call it a dictatorship since the terms are accepted by the people at large and by parties contesting the governance of the country. We call it good governance instead.

Nevertheless, the good governance rules are a ruling ideology and hence, in the abstract, can be thought of as a 'dictatorship'. I put this in quotes as it should be distinguished from the conventional use of the term.

Not all parties do this. For example, during the last USA presidential election we saw Trump's Republican party contest the validity of the electoral framework alleging widespread fraud without any evidence

  • completely contrary to normal procedure in the democratic West. It's for this reason that some alleged that the Republican party was turning into a proto-fascist party, harking back to the fascist parties of Italy & Germany.

Given that you're quoting China's constitution, obviously in translation, and without attribution, it's important to clarify how terms ate translated. For example, is 'dictatorship' the correct translation of the Chinese term, especially given the pejorative terms in English of the word 'dictatorship'. It might be the case that a better term is governance.

For ecample, Britain's government, no matter which hovernment is installed - be it labour, conserbative or liberal democratic - is called Her Majesty's Government. This suggests that Britain is not actually a democratic state but a Monarchy, and since dictatorships are rule by one man, we could feasibly think of this as a government under the dictatorship of of the Royal Family. But of course for anyone who knows the British constitution this is not feasible at all. Britain is a constitutional monarchy, and here whilst the Queen is the head of state, she wields no official political power. In essemce, it was a face-saving device to protect the prestige of the former ruling class, the feudal aristocrats after a long running bourgeois revolution, dating back from the Magna Carta and the gradual but inevitable assertion of the sovereignty of parliament - the voice of the people. It's no coincidence that parliament comes from the French word parler, to speak, because is the people speaking.

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  • Obviously, the Chinese term comes from Western Marxist sources, so, it should be properly translated as "dictatorship", the same way the Marxists originally used it. – Anixx Mar 28 at 8:20
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Democracy is about how you distribute power.

Being a Democracy means that the power is originally distributed evenly among the people. But afterwards, the people can decide to delegate this power to fewer people.
Of course, the more you delegate, the less democratic a system is... but it remains a Democracy.

Dictatorship is about who you can distribute the power to.

A dictatorship is a system where the separation of the powers is not respected : meaning that Justice, Legislative Power and Executive Power are not all independent from each other. (Press is also often considered the fourth Power that must remain independent).

Democratic Dictatorship

So a country that would, let's say, run elections every 5 years to elect a small oligarchy that will concentrate at least 2 of the 3 powers, would be a democratic dictatorship:
Yes, the people still have the power to decide who to distribute the power to. But only every 5 years and this is an absolute power over the country with little to no counter-power. (as owning at least 2 of the 3 main powers means you have indirect control over all 3).

This kind of system is a lot more insidious than pure authoritarian dictatorships, since it is undeniable that people do still have some power. It is just so ridiculously small compared to the one obtained by the dictator that they only have the illusion of choice.

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Democracy and dictatorship may both be political tools, but they occupy two entirely different positions in politics, democracy being one of the ways to enforce rule and dictatorship being one of the ways to create it.

Politics under any circumstance is the process that allows the effort of a small portion of a society to generate uniformity in the conduct of the bulk of that society. Democracy and dictatorship are merely passive tools in that process and do not determine its outcome.

It is therefore actually quite common for dictatorship to be enforced by democracy, simply because it works. Keep in mind that dictators don't always call themselves that. Not only is the tendency of dictatorship to 'hide' behind democracy very strong, democracy is also very open to abuse, thereby attracting dictators. Another thing democracy and dictatorship have in common in connection to that, is obscurity in their reputation.

Democracy tends to be presented as something positive, which it doesn't deserve, since it may enforce and confirm a policy, but deserves no credit for creating its decisions and therefore for the merit they bring. Democracy neither invents, nor chooses, nor decides. It merely confirms and enforces.

Dictatorship on the other hand, has a negative ring to it, which it doesn't deserve either, because the way choices are made, doesn't give any guarantee about the quality of those choices, good or bad. Sometimes the best choices are controversial choices and those are very hard to turn in to decisions by means of anything other than dictatorship. I hope this answers your question.

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    Can you give an example of a "dictatorship to be enforced by democracy"? I can think of several different ways to interpret this and I'm not sure exactly what you mean – divibisan Mar 26 at 19:46
  • There are the obvious varieties, such as in former eastern Germany or North Korea, where it really is no more than an excuse. There are also the incidental varieties, such as in the way some countries tackle the Covid situation and the recent mortgage collapse and then of course there are the hidden varieties, like in the way the USA gets itself into its military endeavors. Mind you, this is not criticism. I merely point out occasions in which clearly dictatorial decisions or policies rely on democracy to be successful. – Berend Mar 27 at 13:00
  • My post is intended to answer the question by explaining democracy and dictatorship, thus revealing their differences and the possibility of combined use. I do not favor or advocate for either one of them. – Berend Mar 27 at 19:01
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Democratic dictatorship is like asking your children what they want for dinner. Allowing them to choose is the democratic part. Setting the options is the dictator part. If you tell them what to eat, the will eventually rebel. If you don't set them options that make them grow big and strong, you will end up feeding them fat, salt and sugar in no time at all.

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Julius Ceaser had himself named Dictator for Life, even though Rome was supposedly a Republic. Andrew Jackson was considered an elected dictator by his detractors. Much of the constitution written down in 1787 was directed towards preventing a democracy from deteriorating into a dictatorship.

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I would guess "dictatorship" in this case means totalitarianism, i.e. there are no individual rights that the state must respect. Such a totalitarian state could be democratic in the sense that the voters decide whether Socrates should be put to death, but totalitarian in that it doesn't recognize any rights of Socrates that are binding upon the voters.

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  • -1: Plato was no fan of democratic Athens, but after the tyranny of the oligarchy took over, he mourned what he recalled Athens golden years. Whilst democratic Athens did put Socrates to death; after his death, they regretted the deed. This is why more mature democracies have checks and balances and why they also have, generally speaking, banned the death penalty - although the USA is an outlier on this, as it is also in many other things - like gun control. – Mozibur Ullah Mar 27 at 21:00
  • @MoziburUllah : Are your comments intended as an explanation of why you down-voted this answer? – Michael Hardy Mar 27 at 21:09
  • Yes, I thought that was obvious. – Mozibur Ullah Mar 27 at 21:10
  • @MoziburUllah : It's still not obvious now. Why would any of that be a reason to down-vote this answer? – Michael Hardy Mar 27 at 21:38
  • Well, for a start there is a lot of 'guessing'. Totalitarianism is a technical term and distinct from dictatorship. The locus classical of the former term is Hannah Arendt's On the Origins of Totalitarianism and where she identifies Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union as the only two candidates. She predicates this not on 'there are no individual rights that the state must respect' but on how the totalitarian project embodies a world-view ... – Mozibur Ullah Mar 27 at 21:58

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