Image of world leaders

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Goal of this resource: to build public abilities to

  • Recognize actions and conditions likely to promote autocracy
    • Put leaders’ statements and actions into context (vs. viewing them in isolation)
      • Understand roles and threats to independent media and other institutions that promote democracy

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      Key definitions and assumptions:

      • Autocracy – a system in which the leader holds absolute power and isn’t subject to
        • Legal accountability includes to a justice dept and other branches of government (can vary based on party control)
          • Public accountability includes to voters and independent media representatives
          • Democracy – a system of government with widespread voter input (e.g., to hold elected officials accountable) requiring work to maintain
            • Autocratic norms and structures tend to arise without consistent effort to maintain democratic ones (a global concern)
              • Unchecked power tends to have corrupting effects, although a strong executive branch can be useful in emergencies
                • Common autocratic outcomes include incompetent leadership and corruption (self-enrichment and cronyism)
                  • Conditions promoting autocracy include a populist leader, a party with weak democratic principles, vulnerable democratic institutions, and a base of frustrated and credulous voters
                    • This scale tells part of a larger story that requires consideration of historical and cultural contexts in which actions occur (i.e., qualitative analysis)

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                    The 7-point scale for assessing how much a leader’s actions promote or oppose autocracy

                    (scores are based on the estimated net effect of domestic and international actions related to each item)
                    Scale image

                    ValueExamples of Actions Meriting Each Score
                    -3Using multilateral force or sanctions (economic, diplomatic, or both) to discourage autocratic behaviors
                    -2Threatening to use lawful force or sanctions in response to human rights violations, passing new laws to protect rights
                    -1Sharing concerns publicly and discussing them with other leaders, using ethical practices
                    0Having a net effect that is neither encouraging nor discouraging of autocracy (or else not known)
                    +1Not criticizing or drawing attention to others' autocratic actions, normalizing relations with oppressive regimes
                    +2Publicly celebrating others' autocratic actions, providing weapons used to quell dissent, requesting more power
                    +3Using excessive (e.g., lethal) force to quell non-violent expressions of dissent in one's own country
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                    Scoring categories and actions (click each to expand):

                    Limiting public information access
                      1A. Using de facto or official state media/discouraging independent media
                        1B. Communicating misleading information directly to the public
                          1C. Restricting unflattering books, data, art, reports, etc.

                        Shifting norms and conversations to limit thought/public scrutiny
                          1D. Undermining the idea of objective truths/reality
                            1E. Glorifying nationalism, militarism, and physical aggression over liberal forms of international cooperation, diplomacy, or "soft power"
                              1F. Divisively framing issues to deflect attention from competence or ethics (underlying message: politics is dirty/corrupt/to be avoided)
                            Minimizing public and media criticism
                              2A. Restricting rights to assemble to protest or otherwise criticize the leader
                                2B. Othering protesters or political opponents
                                  2C. Seeking to intimidate or deny the legitimacy of critics in media and the public

                                Obstructing free and fair elections
                                  2D. Capturing support of elites by doing them favors
                                    2E. Restricting election access or votes for opposition voters or candidates
                                      2F. Avoiding transparency around campaign funding and operatives
                                    Altering roles to suit the leader’s interests
                                      3A. Weakening agencies' and directors' roles, autonomy, or scopes of influence
                                        3B. Reducing reliance on scientific, economic, legal, or diplomatic experts to guide policy
                                          3C. Using the military for personal purposes
                                            3D. Using other governments (especially autocratic ones) to help advance the leader's personal or political interests

                                          Focusing on loyalty to the leader (vs. a constitution or other laws)
                                            3E. Making loyalty to the leader a governmental job requirement (especially in law enforcement)
                                              3F. Minimizing accountability systems within the executive branch
                                            Manipulating legal systems for personal benefit
                                              4A. Using intimidation or manipulating court composition to increase loyalty
                                                4B. Using the justice system to intimidate political opponents or protect the leader or their allies

                                              Assuming judicial roles
                                                4C. Creating/deploying unaccountable law enforcement agencies
                                                  4D. Declaring authority (e.g., due to emergency) to detain or use violence against critics or a group based on religion, ethnicity, or sexuality

                                                Avoiding legal obstacles and accountability
                                                  4E. Ignoring court rulings on personal or policy matters unfavorable to the leader
                                                    4F. Preventing investigations into the leader's potentially criminal activities
                                                  Assuming legislative roles
                                                    5A. Blocking or redirecting government spending to suit the leader's interests
                                                      5B. Making laws or taking military actions without legislative approval
                                                        5C. Not enforcing or delaying enforcement of laws disliked by the leader
                                                          5D. Changing or reinforcing election laws to suit the leader's own political interests

                                                        Avoiding legislative accountability
                                                          5E. Aoviding legislative confirmation for appointments
                                                            5F. Preventing legislative investigations from occurring

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                                                          Interpreting scores

                                                          For each category, average scores also range from -3 to +3. Scores greater than 0 indicate a leader’s actions promoting autocracy over democracy:

                                                          • Between 0 and 1 = slightly promoting autocracy
                                                            • Between 1 and 2 = significantly promoting autocracy
                                                              • Between 2 and 3 = aggressively promoting autocracy

                                                              Note: Actual conditions in different countries with pro-autocratic leaders can vary depending on the strength of democratic institutions and norms

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                                                              We’re in the process of recruiting an international group of historians and other experts to produce the most accurate scores possible. Stay tuned!

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                                                              Table of scores of foreign leaders and U.S. presidents (additions coming)

                                                                Donald Trump scored demo

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                                                                Further exploration

                                                                Grade 9 and up
                                                                • Examine a given autocratic action and how one or more leaders use or avoid it
                                                                  • Interview a political reporter about why they chose that profession as well as their experiences covering protests or a specific leader
                                                                    • Pick an action, category, or total score (once available) and compare any two leaders

                                                                    Grade 11 and up
                                                                    • Class project: fill out a scale for a leader and discuss the results, with smaller groups researching autocracy-related actions for each category
                                                                      • Debate about certain actions or categories being especially relevant or important in the US (or another country) right now
                                                                        • Discuss emergencies likely to require somewhat autocratic approaches and how to navigate them without undermining democracy in the long term (e.g., using Lincoln or FDR)

                                                                        • Pick a country and consider times when autocratic leaders scored higher or lower on the scale (once available) and consider leadership styles and other factors
                                                                          • Look at a theme like violence or loyalty and explore ways they impact governments or countries
                                                                            • Have different groups score a leader and debate differences in their assessments
                                                                            Grade 9 and up
                                                                            • Create a lesson plan to teach younger learners about leadership styles and autocracy
                                                                              • Advocate for stronger democratic institutions (e.g., independent media) Create a resource (e.g., PSA) to promote distinguishing between independent and state-influenced or run media
                                                                                • Interview political candidates about their positions on one or more autocracy-related actions and publicly share the findings

                                                                                Grade 11 and up
                                                                                • For a database contribute examples of actions by a leader related to autocracy

                                                                                • Build a searchable database to house data of autocracy-related actions by a leader
                                                                                  • Interview an expert on a given leader, have them submit a score using the scale, and share the findings with
                                                                                  In order of expected complexity:
                                                                                  • How do different leaders' autocracy-related actions compare?
                                                                                    • How do different political parties (current or historical, in the U.S. or elsewhere) temper greed for power? Which ones are enabling (or have enabled) autocracy?
                                                                                      • How free is the U.S. compared to other countries or itself at an earlier point in history? (see the Freedom Index or other resources)
                                                                                        • How might a leader's management style impact their autocracy score?
                                                                                          • How can defenders of democracy effectively respond to undemocratic actions taken by leaders (executive, legislative, justice, etc.)?
                                                                                            • How might cultural, historical, and political contexts influence a leader's autocracy scores?