On Democracy: 20 Lessons from the 20th Century

Posted on September 30, 2020


Today’s Buzz is brought to you by Sarah E. O’Brien | Community Whisperer @ Collaborative Development Collective (Facebook, LinkedIn)

What I am reading?

On Tyranny: 20 Lessons from the 20th Century by Timothy Snyder

What I am listening to on repeat?

Civics 101 Podcast Episode, Founding Documents: The Constitution

Favorite Quote of the Moment?

“To be a citizen in a democracy is to understand you must take a certain amount of risk.” Unknown.

On Democracy:

20 Lessons from the 20th Century

(#localgov 2020 Edition)


George Bernard Shaw Quote

I was prepared to say, “Screw my twenty in 2020 theme!” that has guided all of my Morning Buzzes year to date. Why? Well, mostly because 2020 has been a total cluster; and perhaps shining a light on the number twenty is what one would call a poor choice given the available information I have on our current reality. In addition, I wasn’t sure I would be able to muster up the energy to pen another entirely too long Morning Buzz twenty list because frankly, I am tired, and somedays the littlest things seem overwhelming. Given the circumstances, I had mentally committed to leaving my top 20 in 2020 lists in the past.

Last week’s Nonprofit AF article (Democracy Hangs in the Balance. Nonprofit and Philanthropy Need to Stop Being Neutral) gave me the inspiration I needed to own my avoidance of another top 20 list, just like I want to avoid political rallies during a pandemic. The article was everything I had been thinking over the last few months. My thoughts were articulated flawlessly; something I struggle with. I could never in a million years put together a call to action so eloquent and brimming with such conviction. So my genius avoidance of all things Top Twenty was to credit the author and #nonprofitAF at the beginning of this Morning Buzz followed by hitting CTRL+C and then CTRL+P so that y’all could read the article in its entirety. (Confession: I was planning on replacing nonprofit and philanthropy with local government throughout the piece.) My Buzz would have been done and done; much like the federal stimulus relief efforts have become.

But as always, this strange kismet or catalytic intervention that follows me everywhere I go intervened once again. (My family calls it the ‘O’Brien Coincidence’. I call it the ‘O’Brien Curse’.) Over the weekend, I was recommending a little book, On Tyranny: 20 lessons from the 20th Century to a friend when the lightning bolt struck.

Crap. Really, Sarah Elizabeth?

20 Lessons in the 20th Century.

Dayum it!

The O’Brien Curse clearly didn’t like my avoidance plan,

so here we are yet again.

Words Matter

Before I dive into this edition of Top 20 in 2020, I want to let you all in on a little secret. I recently realized that I have learned more about local government since I left City Hall as an employee for the final time two years ago, than I did my entire public service career.  (Please note that I had some of the best city managers and was blessed with amazing mayors during my 15 years of public service, so this revelation has nothing to do with the lack of leadership available to me. And as someone who once had 7 job titles, I assure you it was not because I didn’t have the opportunity to learn and grow every step of the way.) In 2020, amidst a worldwide pandemic, economic crisis, and national recocking, I finally had the time to admit something to myself. I had gone from always being cognizant of my role as a public servant to remembering that I am always a citizen. It’s strange really, but I am a citizen first,  and a local government consultant second. It took almost a year of being just a regular Sarah Q Public Citizen, but finally, for the first time in my life, I was taking my personal civic responsibility and individual American duty seriously.


I had been so busy serving the citizens I forgot I was one. So over the last two years, I have spent time engaging,  listening, and learning about my local democracy and that of my state’s and my country’s from the resident perspective.  Having been a public servant for so many years with the insider’s perspective that I have, I will admit it has been tempting to walk away from the frustration. Because let me tell you, it is not an easy job to be an active citizen when you know what we know. Silence is indeed golden. But I haven’t let my unrealistic expectations of myself, and my governments get me down.  It’s no wonder civic engagement is so hard to come by. Having sat on the other side of the table I am somewhat disgusted with us, the government. Distrust runs rampant. Elitism truly does drive the most change. The government’s plate is too full and the citizen’s hunger so great.

But whose fault is all of this? Not my local governments, not your local governments, right? The blame isn’t mine, and it’s not yours, is it? For the people, by the people. It definitely has to be the people’s fault. It is their government after all. One can blame a myriad of factors when trying to determine just how we got here, but that’s irrelevant really because all that matters now is how in the hell do we save ourselves, from ourselves?

yard signs
My Smithville, Texas front yard, #ALLIN

It took me 38 years to engage in my government, truly and meaningfully. It was 38 years before I volunteered to help canvas my neighborhood and signed up to work the polls. 38 years to speak up publicly about my personal views, both online and at public meetings.  38 years to put up yard signs. First. Time. Ever. and We. Went. Big. (God, grant me grace for my multiple sign code violations this election season, and the serenity to accept my neighbors’ signage.) And finally, it took me 38 years to meaningfully contribute to political parties and campaigns both financially and through volunteerism. My democratic precinct folks don’t yet know that I am actually a registered Republican, they have let me participate in a variety of ways, no questions asked. And while I am making up for lost time, I can’t help but wonder, why did I wait so long?  I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that today is the end-of-quarter fundraising deadline, so consider taking a moment and donating to a candidate or party of your choice. (Did you know you can even donate to senatorial campaigns in other states? #savelindsey.com)


Democracy: ‘for the people, by the people,’ Until recently I wasn’t doing the work of  a citizen, I was too busy tolling away as a public servant to cultivate my contributions and live up to my obligations to my country,  We all know that one can’t get involved in the driving force of government when you’re a local government employee. You know, that little thing called politics is simply something we don’t discuss or publically participate in. Civic obligations be damned, someone has to run all of these government services around here. We can’t express our opinions without fear of alienating the citizenry in some form or fashion.

So what exactly are the American People obligated to? What is our civic duty?

Well, according to the US Citizenship & Immigration Bureau,

citizenship bears the following responsibilities:

Civic Responsibilities
From the US Citizenship & Immigration Bureau

#localgov is not for the weak of spirit or the faint of heart. Our citizens hold us accountable and demand we live up to the values and principles that define our institutions. And we hold them accountable to the laws of our lands. I know every local government has a gaggle of guiding policies from a community’s core value statements, codes of conduct, all the way to ethics ordinances. We know our roles as public servants, and when we don’t adhere to those, I assure you it isn’t long before a citizen lets us know. We don’t blatantly and intentionally violate our oaths, and we don’t dare disregard our responsibilities. We know what happens when we do. As local government leaders, we know and understand the expectations. And generally speaking, I think that those expectations are similar from coast to coast. We are to uphold and abide by a similar set of shared values like Truth. Transparency. Safety. Health. Fiscal Responsibility. Equity. Honor. Service. Democracy. Public servants are accountable to the public. And visa versa. Those same citizens, for the most part, adhere to the rules, or laws officially set by their governments.  And those who don’t, face consequences just like their public servants do. Why then do the citizens running local governments not hold their public servants accountable in the same way? We have an opportunity to collectively stand up and say enough is enough, we just aren’t bold enough to embrace it.

Crime is contagious

Public service is challenging, especially in 2020. But even tougher than serving your communities, is the challenge of owning citizenship and all the duties it entails. As an industry I don’t think we can largely ignore the other side of civic responsibility any longer,  We can’t quietly participate or uphold our duties only when no one is looking. The stakes are too high, maybe they’ve always been too high and we just didn’t see it. I know that it’s a lot to ask of tired, overworked, and probably underpaid public servants, to take the time to reflect on a role reversal such as ‘Citizens First, Public Servants Second.’ But that’s what I am doing – right here, right now. I am a citizen of this country, writing to local government officials across this nation (well at least the handful who read this) asking you to consider not just the life and safety of your citizens and the foundations of your institutions, but to consider putting your duty and responsibility as a United States Citizen first.

Dean Koontz Quote

Is it enough to serve your community from the public servant’s perspective? Isn’t that a greater contribution than most citizens could ever make? I thought it was, but in hindsight, I believe I couldn’t have been more wrong. I don’t think it’s adequate to serve just the citizenry any longer, we have to put our own citizenship and all that it entails above the needs of citizens. Needs can be always be met when there are structures and institutions and servants to meet them. But what happens when we don’t hold our governments accountable? What happens when we don’t publically defend the constitution? What will be left after the foundation of our democracy suffers a catastrophic earthquake and those same structures and institutions begin to unravel. How then will they be able to meet the needs of the people?

Alright back to the reason for today’s Morning Buzz. (Don’t worry we are almost done here, but then let the real work begins.) History has a way of instructing us. We must learn from the past and embrace the change needed to avoid the same mistakes. I think that public service comes with great privilege and obligates us to do more than those who do not have the same privilege. Enough isn’t enough. Democracy is not guaranteed, history tells us that. We are facing threats of the likes that countless other democracies have crumbled under. A certain Yale historian believes Democracy is under attack, that tyranny has taken its foothold, fascism is the enemy we face. His 2017 book 20 Lessons from the 20th Century provides some poignant historical lessons and meaningful strategies to overcome the realities that failed citizens of past democracies that we are facing across this nation today. I hope you will take the time to consider these lessons. But more importantly, I hope for the courage and political will to allow public servants, especially those in local government,  to collectively remember and demonstrate that you are all ‘Citizens First, Public Servants Second.’ For the people, by the people.

Below is the short version verbiage from a 2016 Facebook post written by author and historian, Timothy Snyder. This post on his personal page outlines the 20 lessons I have been dancing around all night. They eventually led to his 2017 Book, On Tyranny: 20 Lessons from the 20th Century. I encourage you to pick up a copy, it can easily be consumed in one sitting. However, once you put your citizen’s hat on, I think you’ll find the book and the lessons within are a continuous journey that you can’t but down. A journey that we are responsible for taking and being present for again and again. After all, even if our greatest responsibility is to our citizens and not as citizens, then don’t we owe them, at the very least, democracy? 

Quote from Canadian Mayor

1. Do not obey in advance. Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then start to do it without being asked. You’ve already done this, haven’t you? Stop. Anticipatory obedience teaches authorities what is possible and accelerates unfreedom.

2. Defend an institution. Follow the courts or the media, or a court or a newspaper. Do not speak of “our institutions” unless you are making them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions don’t protect themselves. They go down like dominoes unless each is defended from the beginning.

3.Recall professional ethics. When the leaders of the state set a negative example, professional commitments to just practice become much more important. It is hard to break a rule-of-law state without lawyers, and it is hard to have show trials without judges.

4.When listening to politicians, distinguish certain words. Look out for the expansive use of “terrorism” and “extremism.” Be alive to the fatal notions of “exception” and “emergency.” Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary.

5.Be calm when the unthinkable arrives. When the terrorist attack comes, remember that all authoritarians at all times either await or plan such events in order to consolidate power. Think of the Reichstag fire. The sudden disaster that requires the end of the balance of power, the end of opposition parties, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Don’t fall for it.

6.Be kind to our language. Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. Don’t use the internet before bed. Charge your gadgets away from your bedroom, and read. What to read? Perhaps “The Power of the Powerless” by Václav Havel, “1984” by George Orwell, “The Captive Mind” by Czesław Milosz, “The Rebel” by Albert Camus, “The Origins of Totalitarianism” by Hannah Arendt, or “Nothing is True and Everything is Possible” by Peter Pomerantsev.

7.Stand out. Someone has to. It is easy, in words and deeds, to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. And the moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow.

8.Believe in truth. To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is a spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.

9.nvestigate. Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media. Realize that some of what is on your screen is there to harm you. Learn about sites that investigate foreign propaganda pushes.

10.Practice corporeal politics. Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them.

11.Make eye contact and small talk. This is not just polite. It is a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down unnecessary social barriers, and come to understand whom you should and should not trust. If we enter a culture of denunciation, you will want to know the psychological landscape of your daily life.

12.Take responsibility for the face of the world. Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.

13.Hinder the one-party state. The parties that took over states were once something else. They exploited a historical moment to make political life impossible for their rivals. Vote in local and state elections while you can.

14.Give regularly to good causes, if you can. Pick a charity and set up autopay. Then you will know that you have made a free choice that is supporting civil society helping others doing something good.

15.Establish a private life. Nastier rulers will use what they know about you to push you around. Scrub your computer of malware. Remember that email is skywriting. Consider using alternative forms of the internet, or simply using it less. Have personal exchanges in person. For the same reason, resolve any legal trouble. Authoritarianism works as a blackmail state, looking for the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have too many hooks.

16.Learn from others in other countries. Keep up your friendships abroad, or make new friends abroad. The present difficulties here are an element of a general trend. And no country is going to find a solution by itself. Make sure you and your family have passports.

17.Watch out for the paramilitaries. When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching around with torches and pictures of a Leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-Leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the game is over.

18.Be reflective if you must be armed. If you carry a weapon in public service, God bless you and keep you. But know that evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things. Be ready to say no. (If you do not know what this means, contact the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and ask about training in professional ethics.)

19.Be as courageous as you can. If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die in unfreedom.

20.Be a patriot. The incoming president is not. Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it.


We are ALL living in a future history lesson.

Remember that.

And act accordingly.



Sarah Beth

#lincolnvoter 2020




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