The United States has often the case used the justification of removing a dictator as a reason to go to war. This has inflicted untold suffering onto the peoples of many nations. This brings into question as to whether or not the citizens in a democracy are responsible for the actions of their democratic government, and if those of a dictatorship are not.

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    This is more of a philosophical than a practical/political Q. And the answers will probably vary somewhat with the philosopher. Apr 10 at 8:27
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    TBH, I took a look at plato.stanford.edu/entries/collective-responsibility but it seems not a topic I'm confy summarizing. Much that's been written about it is... seems so convoluted. Apr 10 at 9:07
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    Political questions often contain quite a number of philosophical/ethical considerations. Otherwise all questions about fairness would be moot. However, this question could maybe come up with better (or more balanced) examples and definitely use more research. Apr 10 at 10:47
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    What do you mean by "responsible" or "held responsible"? What would it mean to hold citizens responsible for the acts of their government? It seems a vague question.
    – Lag
    Apr 10 at 12:53
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    @Lag Good point. This question should clarify that. Probably it means by some higher moral authority, possibly some international law. Like for example even if Putin dies, could Ukrainians sue every single Russian who voted for him for damages. Just an example. Apr 10 at 12:56

5 Answers 5


I can understand the temptation to say "well, you voted for these people, so you're responsible for anything and everything they do", but like most things in politics, it's just not that simple. In any representative democracy, and particularly the United States, there are various mitigating factors at play:

  • Things like voter eligibility restrictions and voter turnout mean that, while a politician may be elected by a majority of voters, they are rarely elected by a majority of citizens. For example, in the 2020 US election, Joe Biden received 51.3% of the popular vote, but only 24.5% of US citizens actually voted for him (81.28 million votes / 331.4 million US population).
  • Voters may engage in strategic voting, voting for a candidate not because they agree with their policies, but because they have the best chance of beating another candidate whose policies they strongly disagree with. (This is the entire crux of the American two-party system - many people vote for Trump or Biden not because they actually like one of them, but simply because they dislike the other one more.)
  • Politicians frequently implement policies that weren't in their manifestos, or that directly contradict them, due to either unforeseen circumstances, realising that what they promised isn't feasible, realising (ironically) a certain promise isn't popular, or of course, straight-up dishonesty. Can the people who voted George W. Bush into power be held responsible for the Iraq War when they couldn't possibly have known that such a war would happen when they voted for him? Or to use a more benign example, can the people who voted Bush Sr into power be held responsible for him raising taxes, when he explicitly promised them he wouldn't do that?
  • If a government, even an elected one, does something its citizens don't like - such as invading another country - there's not an awful lot those citizens can actually do about it in the short term. Hold protests? The government doesn't have to listen to them. Vote them out? The next election might still be a while off. Overthrow them? Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn't.
  • There is, of course, the possibility of a democratically-elected leader proceeding to subvert democracy and turn a country into a dictatorship, at which point the lines become blurred. If I vote someone into power, and they then abolish elections and become dictator for life, can I be blamed for anything they do from that point forward? It circles back round to my earlier points: I can't have known that they'd do that, and now that they have, there's not much I can do to stop them.
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    Nice answer, although it kind of raises more questions than the question itself. Maybe it should be added that in the other way around when you don't vote but tolerate bad stuff you can still bear responsibility, otherwise Germans after WW2 could have simply said, sorry, didn't vote for the war or the Holocaust, not my responsibility. On a more individual level, in many countries it's for example a crime to not help others in emergencies if one can. Simply doing nothing doesn't mean to be free of responsibility. Apr 10 at 12:52
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    @NoDataDumpNoContribution Germans were not punished because of a generic objective and universal law that "when you don't vote but tolerate bad stuff you can still bear responsibility", but because they were defeated in a war and occupied, so the occupying powers had the power to decide whatever they wanted, for whatever justifications. The Soviets killed even more people in forced labor camps than the Germans did, but they were never conquered and occupied, so there was never any "bearing of responsibility". Arguably China does it right now but there is no reaction of any significant level.
    – vsz
    Apr 11 at 10:19

TBH I'm not inclined to dive into the philosophical arguments on this because they seem so fruitless. Regardless of what one thinks of how exactly collective responsibility is to be distributed in a population (and there are a lot of theories about this), few practical means have been devised. War reparations, whether explicitly called that or just 'post-war aid' are implicitly paid by the taxpayers in the country sending them, if they're a state effort, which in many cases they are. A more practical question would be how are these determined.

There certainly are proponents of the philosophy you suggest, e.g. Michael Walzer:

The greater the possibility of free action in the communal sphere, the greater the degree of guilt for evil deeds done in the name of everyone.

Agreeing to that can, in an extreme interpretation, have some unexpected consequences though. E.g. that would imply that almost no sanctions can be imposed on dictatorships because those are mostly passed on the population. And if the dictator is dead and didn't have a (personal) piggy bank in Switzerland (in a generic sense), everyone is sorry out of luck in recovering any war damages a dictator caused. So, it's not exactly uncontroversial to adopt that, even if it may sound reasonable on a first reading.

This discussion is less than purely academic. Some countries have [later] rejected paying debts accumulated while they were governed by dictators--the so-called "odious debt". But then, the only reasonable way to prevent that situation is to not lend to dictators to begin with

If odiousness were declared in advance, banks would avoid lending to odious regimes and would have no fear that a successful popular debt-relief campaign would arise to nullify their outstanding loans.

But how's that different from sanctioning a country run by a dictator?


History is written by the victors. While vanquished on many occasions were made responsible for the crimes committed by non-democratic regimes, democracies, dictatorships and totalitarian regimes alike often manage to shrug the responsibility for their crimes.

German collective guilt for WW2 and Holocaust is the most manifest example. It is perhaps less well-known that the same applies to Austrians and Italians, who are taught that they bear responsibility for the past crimes of their countries, even if they had little say or even were not born at the time. In Germany and Austria this responsibility is enshrined in law and the official government policies.

On the other hand, the Armenian genocide has little recognition in Turkey, and was only recently officially acknowledged by the US Congress, although some Turks privately feel guilty about it.

Communist regimes
Likewise, the crimes committed by the Communist states remain largely attributed to regimes or particular persons in power, but not viewed as a national responsibility.

There is some effort in western democracies to recognize the crimes associated with Nazi collaboration and their colonial past. E.g., Vel d'Hiv roundup or the atrocities committed in Algeria and Indochina by France.

Britain and the US
I am less aware of national guilt in English-speaking countries. The colonial past of the British Empire and the genocide of the native Americans are well documented, and affect government policies, but there is little official statements in terms of accepting self-guilt. Likewise, being the winners inn WW2 seems to have absolved the British and Americans from atoning for the bombings of Hiroshima&Nagasaki and Dresden or the inaction in response to extermination of Jews (which was known to allies as early as 1942 - not 1945, after the US army liberated death camps, as commonly believed; see also Witold's report).

There is also little recognition of the crimes committed by the US in Vietnam, even for well-publicized events like My Lai massacre, which involved cover-up but such later well-known politicians as Colin Powell (at the time he was an officer charged with investigating the incident.)

Wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya are largely seen as justified - never mind more than a million victims. During the period of 2000-2008 one could indeed meet abroad many Americans trying in private conversations to dissociate them from George W. Bush policies.

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    @alamar the question aims at democracies, where supposedly all citizens (or at least the majority) share the responsibility. So I prefer not to focus on the Communists (although they have many sympathizers in the west.) Apr 10 at 9:33
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    It kind of was, but it's almost impossible to peg it on ethnic Turks. For starters, directly attacking an ethnicity or religion is not tolerated in modern discourse so it would be easy to counter such claims and often put the claimaint in a bad light themself.
    – alamar
    Apr 10 at 9:57
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    @Lag we are talking not about legal responsibility, but about guilt/shame. So why not? - People do take pride in the military glory, scientific achievements, economic prosperity, football victories, etc. of their country - most of them achieved without their participation and often before their birth. Why shouldn't they similarly share the guilt/shame? Apr 10 at 11:38
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    @Lag You can say that both of these are part of your "legacy", though.
    – alamar
    Apr 10 at 12:23
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    @Lag What happened from 1933 to 1945 is a part of German culture, and a German should accept it alongside all the beautiful/fascinating/wonderful parts of it. Somebody who waxes about German philosophers and poets, but fails to acknowledge that these very people and their work contributed to the genocide, is paving a way to a new one. Apr 11 at 11:20

Democratic processes in a country like USA work with significant delay. Federal elections are held every two years, presidential elections every four years. It may take more time before independent press digs out enough information and analysis for the society to become aware the state is doing something clearly wrong.

Hence the nation likely should only be held responsible for activities that continue over multiple elections for decades, because in such cases activities are likely popular between the voters. Many military actions as taken by USA were way too short for democratic processes to have effect on them.


This is the logic of terrorists and war criminals.

One of the most depressing parts of the history of WWII was how the Soviets treated German civilians once the tide had turned and the counter-invasion of Germany had begun. I won't go into the details here, but the record is clear that Stalin received reports of these atrocities with complete indifference.

And how do modern-day terrorists justify their indiscriminate slaughter of non-combatants? By pointing to the actions of their government, over which the victims have no meaningful level of control.

As others have pointed out, the common citizen rarely has any meaningful degree of power over the government, even in a functioning republic.

Making the accountability into a formal process, with all of the niceties of trials, only adds a layer of hypocrisy onto the malice behind this thinking. Yes, the victorious allies put the architects of the Nazi war machine on trial, but this was limited to officials who held real power.

Blaming one person for the actions of another is fundamentally unjust.

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