What Is the Difference Between a Democracy & a Totalitarian Government?

Nazi Germany is perhaps the most infamous contemporary example of totalitarianism.
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Democracy and totalitarianism are diametrically opposed forms of government. Whereas democracy institutionalizes the political ideals of equal rights, popular participation and civic control, totalitarianism enshrines the idea that the will of the leader is law, that the power of the state must be total and that enemies of the people must be liquidated. Historically, although totalitarianism has depended on its capacity to mobilize huge masses of people, it has nevertheless been a form of dictatorship, since there are no guarantees for individual rights or for the masses to participate in the political process.

1 Origins

While democracy originated in ancient Greece, modern democracy became a universally recognized political ideal relatively recently. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, democracy coexisted with non-democratic modes of government such as monarchy, colonial rule and, beginning in the 1930s, totalitarianism. Totalitarianism is most closely associated with the Stalinist Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Its features include dictatorial power, mass mobilization, a personality cult of the leader, a secret or paramilitary police state and extraordinarily high levels of political violence directed at internal enemies or undesirable groups.

2 Public Opinion

In democracies, the will of the people is ultimately supposed to rule. In modern representative democracies, this means that all adult citizens have the right to elect representatives who govern in their name. In addition to elections, democracies ideally have a public sphere in which citizens can debate and deliberate about matters of public concern. Out of this deliberation process comes public opinion, which ideally influences the votes of representatives.

3 Law and Discretion

In contrast to democracy, in totalitarian systems the will of the leader is supreme. This does not necessarily mean that totalitarian dictatorships do not have any legal system at all. Rather, as political scientist Ernst Frankel explained, totalitarian states such as Nazi Germany could be characterized as a “double state,” entailing an ordinary legal framework for administrative functions, and a higher discretionary state characterized as "Führerprinzip," or the idea that the will of the Führer is law.

4 Minority Rights

Another important principle of democracy is that the rights of minorities are to be protected. As the legal theorist Hans Kelsen observed, democracies make decisions through majority rule. Majority rule logically entails the existence of not only a majority but a minority as well. Therefore, since a democracy cannot exist without minorities, their rights must be carefully protected. Unfortunately, many democracies have not always respected this principle. Even the United States has a long history of denying rights to certain minority groups. Nevertheless, minority rights remain a key aspect of the democratic ideal.

5 Internal Enemies

In contrast to democratic minority rights, totalitarian states characteristically identify certain unwanted or undesirable groups as internal enemies and mark them for liquidation. Some of the most infamous examples of this practice are the Nazi genocide of European Jewry, as well as Nazi persecution of homosexuals, the Gypsies and other groups. Some scholars who characterize the Soviet Union under Stalin as a totalitarian state point to the Soviet gulag and Stalin’s attempt to exterminate the kulaks (or wealthy peasantry) as another example of totalitarianism's genocidal tendencies.

Jason Cristiano Ramon holds a doctorate in political science and a master's degree in philosophy. He has taught political science in China.