The Origins of Totalitarianism

by Hannah Arendt

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Student Question

How does totalitarianism differ from democracy?

Quick answer:

Totalitarianism and democracy are significantly different in their leadership and citizens' freedoms. In totalitarianism, leaders gain power often through force or manipulation and maintain it indefinitely, with limited or no elections. Citizens have few freedoms, with restrictions on speech and religion. Conversely, in a democracy, leaders are elected by the people and serve limited terms. Citizens enjoy numerous freedoms, including the freedom of speech and religion, safeguarded by the government.

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Totalitarianism differs from democracy in several ways. One difference deals with the leaders. In a totalitarian system, the leaders may come to power by force or by manipulation. They will stay in power for as long as they want. There are no free elections if there are elections at all. The leaders in a totalitarian system can basically do whatever they want to do. In a democracy, the people elect their leaders. The leaders remain in power until their term is up, and then they may run for reelection unless there is a limit on the number of terms they can serve. The power of the leaders is limited by the plan of government.

The people who live in a totalitarian system have very few freedoms. They aren’t able to speak freely about their leaders or about the government policies. The people are often punished if they do this. The people may also not be able to freely practice their religion. In a democracy, the people have many freedoms. One of the jobs of the government is to protect the freedoms and the rights of the people. The people may speak openly about their government and their leaders.  They may also practice whatever religion they choose. The people in a democracy have many freedoms that are usually guaranteed by the plan of government in effect at the time.

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