What is Autocracy? - Totalitarianism vs. Authoritarianism

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  • 0:01 Power in One Person
  • 0:35 Autocracy
  • 1:45 Authoritarianism
  • 2:45 Totalitarianism
  • 4:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies, the study of American history/society/culture. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer.

In this lesson, you'll imagine living in an autocracy. You will consider what would change if you went from an authoritarian society to a more totalitarian approach to government.

Power in One Person

Bridget and those in her community are fed up with their current government. Frustration is widespread. The government controls a great deal of their lives, including the whole economy and most forms of news media. Even more disturbing to Bridget is the fact that this government has only one main leader and political party. There is no method for the wishes of the public to get expressed in decision-making. In this lesson, you'll follow Bridget as she examines the nature of this autocracy, including both authoritarian and totalitarian approaches to government.


In an autocracy, political power is held by one person who can control most or all aspects of people's lives. This is the case for Bridget's society in which the people have little or no say over what happens politically. Autocrats may be called dictators, emperors, and other names. In the past, Egyptian pharaohs were a type of autocrat for that society.

Others may play a role in helping maintain the power of an autocrat, such as elite members of society who benefit from the leader staying in power. For instance, Bridget has heard that the current dictator has promised to funnel money to a particular powerful industry in exchange for that industry's support of her rule. This helps the leader come to and stay in power, even if the elite citizens do not themselves hold official positions in government.

Bridget notices that the autocrat may make decisions that turn out well for the public at times and other times makes decisions that turn out poorly. In either case, the decision did not come from the votes of the public.


To maintain control, an autocratic government may use force and the repression of individual rights. Autocracies are authoritarian in this way, meaning that an authority has most of the control over people's lives. Authoritarian leaders may employ a variety of means to prevent a loss of power, including threats of violence to those speaking up in opposition.

In some cases, having one strong leader can unite groups that were in conflict in the past or had been divided. This may help create one functioning society. Yet the trade-off includes a lack of freedom or path to express dissatisfaction. Authoritarian governments are often unpopular due to this repression, as Bridget has discovered in her own society.

As an artist, Bridget has to be careful about how far she goes with her use of criticism of the government in her artwork. There is a danger of being seen as a threat to the authority in power.


One day, Bridget's society undergoes a massive change. The dictator has been violently removed from power, and a new leader has taken control. Many of her friends and neighbors are enthusiastic, quoting lines from this new leader's speeches and chastising her when she questions his motives.

Bridget knows that this is another autocrat, one individual taking political control, but this time things are a bit different. The leader has a certain perspective that resonates with the people. Although he is known for being brutal in his use of violence, there are still those who are willing to follow his lead.

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