It is said that the pen is mightier than the sword. The pen determines why men will pick up a sword and the cause for which they will fight. Ideas motivate man to action, and it is ideas that determine the cause and nature of those actions. This is true of a nation, it is true of a city, and it is true of individuals.
America's Founding Fathers upheld the principles of individual liberty, and they picked up the sword in its defense. Stalin, Hitler, and every dictator in history held a different set of ideas, and they picked up the sword to enslave other men. But neither freedom nor dictatorship arise in a vacuum-- both depend upon specific ideas within a culture.
At the time of America's founding the culture was dominated by reason. The rights of individuals were held sacrosanct, not just by the Founders, but by the culture at large. The soldiers of the Revolution picked up their muskets in defense of their own freedom. They believed in the right of each individual to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness". They believed that each individual had a moral right to pursue his own happiness without interference from the government, so long as he respected the mutual rights of others.
During the reign of the communists in the Soviet Union, the culture was dominated by a different set of ideas. The individual had no rights, and was regarded as a servant to the State. The Red Army picked up its weapons in defense of this idea, because the soldiers believed themselves mere pawns of the ruling elite. They believed that the individual had no moral right to anything-- not property, not happiness, not even his life. The same held true in Nazi Germany and every other dictatorship.
Tyranny cannot rise, nor survive, without some level of complacency on the part of the citizenry. Individuals who uphold their moral right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" will not embrace or tolerate a dictator. A culture dominated by the principles of individual freedom will not allow a despot to rise to power. In such a culture, would-be dictators are nothing more than street thugs. The number of their victims is limited, and they are quickly hunted down and jailed.
However, in a culture that allows government to violate the rights of individuals, that allows some individuals to impose their values upon the citizenry, that allows politicians to dictate what actions individual may take, street thugs can rise to positions of political prominence. Then, the street thug can don a suit and tie, speak to crowds of thousands, and proclaim himself the representative of the people. But neither the number of adoring fans nor his attire change the essential nature of his methods and principles. He will use force to dictate how others may live. He will use force to seize the property of others. He will use force to implement his will.
The street thug and the dictator believe that might makes right. Both believe that he has a right to demand that others sacrifice their values to satisfy his desires. Both believe that those who defy him should be eliminated.
A culture that embraces sacrifice and service to others will embrace a dictator. They are made for one another-- in such a culture individuals seek a master to serve, and the dictator is only too happy to comply. When individuals seek to serve others, the dictator will declare that he represents the "others".
The rise of tyranny is seldom a dramatic process. It occurs in increments, as the rights of individuals are slowly eroded and the calls for sacrifice gradually increase in volume and frequency. Today the rights of taco vendors will be violated, and tomorrow those of companies that display "attention-getting devices". Today the government will impose restrictions on what type of gasoline can be produced, and tomorrow it will impose restrictions on where citizens can drive. Today the government will tax "the rich", and tomorrow the government will tax everyone.
When the citizenry demands that the rights of some be violated, it sets the stage for the rights of all to be violated. In such a culture, the political process is nothing more than a battle over who will be the victims, over who will sacrifice and who will benefit from those sacrifices. In the end, someone will put an end to that bickering and declare that all must sacrifice to him.