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What is a Dictatorship? - Definition, Facts, Characteristics & Examples

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  • 0:00 What Is A Dictator?
  • 0:20 Dictators And Control
  • 2:10 Life In A Dictatorship
  • 4:05 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Kasza
Learn what a dictatorship is and discover some countries you may not have known are ruled by dictators. Learn what makes a dictatorship and then test your knowledge with a quiz.

What is a Dictator?

A dictatorship is a form of government characterized by the absolute rule of one person or a very small group of people who hold all political power. While a dictatorship is a form of government in some nations, just as monarchy or representative democracy is the form of government in others, dictatorships are seen by non-dictatorships as dangerous and cruel because of the way they tend to treat their citizens.

Dictators and Control

You won't find a dictator who calls himself a dictator. Instead, dictators have ordinary titles such as president, emperor, great leader and similar monikers. That's because 'dictator' is a pejorative term assigned to certain rulers by other nations, particularly the developed nations of the West - that is, countries with thriving economies - such as the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and many others.

To be considered a dictatorship means that a country is known to be run by one person without any checks and balances on his power. Dictators make unilateral decisions that affect their countries without having to consult any other branch of government. That's because there's no other branch of government that is not controlled by the dictator. Human nature being what it is, dictators don't rise to power for the good of their nations (though they usually claim otherwise). They seize power to benefit themselves, their families and their close political allies.

Dictators usually come to power through some kind of violent struggle, rather than the peaceful passage of power that we take for granted in the United States. In modern times, it's not unusual to hear news stories about dictators being elected by their citizens, when in fact the elections are manipulated through intimidation of voters to ensure the dictator's victory. A cult of personality often surrounds a dictator, driven by myths - typically perpetuated by the government-controlled media - about the ruler that are designed to build him up in the minds of the citizens as an all-knowing divine being who is the only one capable of bringing prosperity to the nation. In cases such as the late Kim Jong-il in North Korea, the ruler is even worshiped as a god.

Life in a Dictatorship

Unfortunately, dictatorships seldom usher in a nation's prosperity. In the most brutal dictatorships, the citizens live in extreme poverty because the government withholds food and supplies in order to keep the people under control. One of the more dramatic examples of this kind of human rights abuse occurred in Myanmar in 2008. When a cyclone swept over the country, killing hundreds of thousands and leaving millions without food or shelter, the country's military dictatorship blocked humanitarian aid from reaching the people until it could hold a sham election.

The rigging of elections is just one example of how citizens in a dictatorship have little to no personal freedom. Unlike in the United States and other similar nations, the people living in a dictatorship have no rights of free speech, freedom of religion, a free press or even the right to hold an opinion in opposition to the ruler and ruling party.

The most notorious dictatorships are characterized by a culture of violence, terror and death. Dictators use psychological manipulation, imprisonment, torture and murder to intimidate the citizens into complete obedience. Under presidents Fidel Castro and Raul Castro, Cuba has been known for its routine use of false imprisonment, forced separation of families and public beatings to suppress political opposition.

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