This pamphlet-sized book has some sensible advice about confronting threats to democracy. The advice generally boils down to: don’t give up without a fight, and use all the legal means you can to impede and (ahem) resist the drive towards authoritarian rule.

Sadly, the book is deeply flawed owing to the author’s clear identification with the Democratic party establishment. and his uncritical faith in the institutions of power. As one ridiculous example, in the chapter on “maintaining a private life” he tells us that “whether you know it or not” we took a step towards totalitarianism when wikileaks released the DNC and Podesta emails. So he conflates the desire of private individuals to keep their correspondence private with the desire of powerful institutions to hide their inner workings. This is a valuable lesson in the theory and practice of authoritarian followership, but surely not a lesson that was intended by the author.

His faith in institutions is laudable, but misplaced. He calls on us to rely on the institutions of power as a countervailing force against authoritarian rule.. That’s a pretty hard sell for most of us, given that we perceive those very institutions as being controlled by a ruling elite. Shall we rely on the Supreme Court, which in the Citizens United case opened the door to ever greater control of the political process by unaccountable corporations? Or perhaps people of color should stand behind the justice system that routinely allows unarmed people to be killed by police, with no consequences. And perhaps women should have great faith in institutions that for decades have allowed them to be the victims of domestic abuse with little or no recourse. Or perhaps the author is referring to other institutions - legislatures, city councils, school boards. If so, it is a major omission to claim that we should rely on such institutions without also calling for a movement to make those institutions more democratic and more in line with the needs of ordinary people.

Perhaps these are minor points. Perhaps the book can be read as an inspiring call to resist authoritarian rule, and perhaps the book presents some valuable and non-obvious insights. But I don’t think so.



Book cover

Metadata Info

  • Title: On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
  • Author: Timothy Snyder
  • Published: ****
  • ISBN: ****
  • Buy: Amazon search
  • Check out: Seattle library
  • Rating: 3.0 stars