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Chapter 11: Economies, Politics and Government

11.6 Types of Political Systems

Various states and governments obviously exist around the world. In this context, means the political unit within which power and authority reside. This unit can be a whole nation or a subdivision within a nation. Thus, the nations of the world are sometimes referred to as states (or nation-states), as are subdivisions within a nation, such as California, New York and Michigan in the United States. means the group of persons who direct the political affairs of a state, developing and enforcing state policy, but it can also mean the type of rule by which a state is run. Another term for this second meaning of government is , which we will use here along with government. The type of government under which people live has fundamental implications for their freedom, their welfare and even their lives. There are different ways to categorize the forms of government. In sociology, governments are typically categorized based upon the source of power. As such, there are three broad types of political systems, including democracies, oligarchies and autocracies. , as discussed below, means “rule by the people,” means “rule of the few,” while are systems of government in which power is held by one person, whose decisions are not subject to oversight. Below, we briefly review the major political systems in the world today.


Using Your Sociological Imagination

On May 26, 2020, Minneapolis police officers arrested George Floyd after a convenience store clerk called 911 to say Floyd had paid for his cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. Seventeen minutes after the first squad car arrived on the scene, George Floyd lay lifeless on the pavement; video from bystanders showed Officer Derek Chauvin had kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for over 8 minutes. The officer’s justification was that Floyd was resisting arrest. The release of film footage prompted outrage and protests, not only in Minneapolis, but throughout the U.S. and in numerous other countries.

One of the hallmarks of the state is that it is the only authority that has a monopoly over the use of violence (the police and the military). At the same time, once excessive force is used, authority is lost.

How do the events surrounding the death of George Floyd and subsequent protests illustrate this paradox?



A is a political system in which power resides in a single family that rules from one generation to the next generation. Monarchies rose in prominence once societies shifted from pastoral to agricultural societies, since this form of society allowed both the size of the population to increase and the concentration of power and resources in the hands of wealthy landowners. The landowners would become lords, and eventually one would be crowned king or queen. The power the family enjoys is traditional authority, and many monarchs command respect because their subjects bestow this type of authority on them. Other monarchs, however, have ensured respect through arbitrary power and even terror.

image of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip

Elizabeth II became Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in 1953, following the death of her father, King George VI. She holds a largely ceremonial position, but earlier English monarchs held much more power. Cecil Beaton – Public domain – Wikimedia Commons

As time passed there was an historical change in types of monarchies from absolute monarchies to constitutional monarchies (Finer, 1997). In absolute monarchies, the royal family claims a divine right to rule and exercises considerable power over their kingdom. Absolute monarchies were common in both ancient (e.g., Egypt) and medieval (e.g., England and China) times. In reality, the power of many absolute monarchs was not totally absolute, as kings and queens had to keep in mind the needs and desires of other powerful parties, including the clergy and nobility. Over time, absolute monarchies gave way to constitutional monarchies. In these monarchies, the royal family serves a symbolic and ceremonial role and enjoys little, if any, real power. Instead the executive and legislative branches of government—the prime minister and parliament in several nations—run the government, even if the royal family continues to command admiration and respect. As an example of cultural lag, today the Queen of England is a figurehead who holds a largely ceremonial position, though her predecessors on the throne wielded much more power. Constitutional monarchies exist today in several nations, including Japan, Cambodia, Thailand, Belgium, Luxembourg, Denmark, Great Britain, Norway, Spain, and Sweden.


The type of government with which we are most familiar is , or a political system in which citizens govern themselves either directly or indirectly. Democracies have existed since the earliest societies, but came into prominence after the decline of monarchies, particularly for countries which had industrialized. However, as Figure 11.4 “Number of Democratic and Autocratic Nation-States Worldwide,” the explosive growth of democratic countries did not occur until the 20th century. Surges in democratization were prompted by the ending of WWI, the decolonization process following WWII, and the fall of communism after 1989.

Figure 11.4 Number of Democratic and Autocratic Nation-States Worldwide

Graph showing Number of Democratic and Autocratic Nation-States Worldwide, with the number of democratic nations increasing since 1900, from close to 0 to around 100, an the number of autocracies declining from roughly 115 to about 85.

Sources: Coppedge, Michael, John Gerring, Carl Henrik Knutsen, Staffan I. Lindberg, Jan Teorell, Nazifa Alizada, David Altman, Michael Bernhard, Agnes Cornell, M. Steven Fish, Lisa Gastaldi, Haaon, Gjerlow, Adam Glynn, Allen Hicken, Gary Hindle, Nina Ilchenko, Joshua Krusell, Anna Luhrmann, Seraphine F. Maercz, Kyle L. Marquardt, Kelly McMann, Valeriya Mechkova, Juraj Medzihorsky, Pamela Paxton, Daniel Pemstein, Josefine Pernes, Johannes von Romer,Brigitte Seim, Rachel Sigman, Svend-Erik Skaaning, Jeffrey Staton, Aksel Sundstrom, Eitan Tzelgov, Yi-Ting Wang, Tore Wig, Steven Wilson and Daniel Ziblatt. 2021. ”V-Dem [Country-Year/Country-Date] Dataset v 11” Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Project. https://doi.org/10.23696/vdemds21. Pemstein, Daniel, Kyle L. Marquardt, Eiten Tzelgov, Yi-Ting Wang, Juraj Medzihorsky, Joshua Krusell, Harhad Miri, and Johannes von Romer. 2021. “The V-Dem Measurement Model: Latent Variable Analysis for Cross-National and cross-Temporal Expert-Coded Data.” V-Dem Working Paper No. 21. 6th edition. University of Gothenburg: Varieties of Democracy Institute.

The term democracy comes from Greek and means “rule of the people.” In Lincoln’s stirring words from the Gettysburg Address, democracy is “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” In , people make their own decisions about the policies and distribution of resources that affect them directly. Many foraging groups, who do not have one official leader but instead share power amongst all the members, will practice this form of democracy. Another example of such a democracy in action is the New England town meeting, where the residents of a town meet once a year and vote on budgetary and other matters. However, such direct democracies are impractical when the number of people gets beyond a few hundred. are thus much more common. In these types of democracies, people elect officials to represent them in legislative votes on matters affecting the population.

Representative democracy is more practical than direct democracy in a society of any significant size, but political scientists cite another advantage of representative democracy. At least in theory, it ensures that the individuals who govern a society and in other ways help a society function are the individuals who have the appropriate talents, skills, and knowledge to do so. In this way of thinking, the masses of people are, overall, too uninformed, too uneducated, and too uninterested to run a society themselves. Representative democracy thus allows for “the cream to rise to the top” so that the people who actually govern a society are the most qualified to perform this essential task (Seward, 2010). Although this argument has much merit, it is also true that many of the individuals who do get elected to office come from the upper class, and turn out to be ineffective and/or corrupt. Regardless of our political orientations, Americans can think of many politicians to whom these labels apply, from presidents down to local officials. Elected officials may also be unduly influenced by campaign contributions from corporations and other special-interest groups. To the extent this influence occurs, representative democracy falls short of the ideals proclaimed by political theorists.

The defining feature of representative democracy is voting in elections. When the United States was established more than 240 years ago, most of the world’s governments were monarchies or other authoritarian regimes (discussed shortly). Like the colonists, people in these nations chafed under arbitrary power. The example of the American Revolution and the stirring words of its Declaration of Independence helped inspire the French Revolution of 1789 and other revolutions since, as people around the world have died in order to win the right to vote and to have political freedom.

Democracies are certainly not perfect. Their decision-making process can be quite slow and inefficient; as just mentioned, decisions may be made for special interests and not “for the people”; and, as we have seen in earlier chapters, pervasive inequalities of social class, race and ethnicity, gender, and age can exist. Moreover, not all democracies have extended the right to vote to all people who are part of their society. In the United States, for example, African Americans could not vote until after the Civil War, with the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870, and women did not win the right to vote until 1920, with the passage of the 19th Amendment.

Disappointingly, not even amending the constitution to ensure African Americans had the right to vote meant they were able to vote, thanks to practices during the Jim Crow era in the South that limited or even prohibited access. Literacy tests, poll taxes (where one had to pay a fee to be able to vote), fraud and intimidation were used to keep African Americans from exercising their right to vote. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 struck down the most discriminatory voting practices; within a year over 50% of African Americans in the affected states registered to vote.

In the current era, efforts are again being put forth to limit access to vote. Starting in 2013 when the U.S. Supreme Court rolled back some of the constraints placed on states, several states have enacted laws that restrict who can register to vote, require voter ID’s, limit early voting and voting by mail (ACLU, 2021). It is even against the law in some states (Georgia and Texas) to provide food or water to people waiting in line to vote (Sherman, 2021). This, in addition to limiting polling stations, have mostly impacted young people, people of color, people with disabilities and the elderly (ACLU, 2021). Go to this site to see how different states have created barriers to exercising the legal right to vote: https://www.aclu.org/news/civil-liberties/block-the-vote-voter-suppression-in-2020/.

11.5 Freedom Around the World (Based on Extent of Political Rights and Civil Liberties)

World map showing Freedom Around the World (Based on Extent of Political Rights and Civil Liberties), with most free countries in Europe, Oceania, North and South America and Oceania and the not free countries concentrated in Asia and Africa.

Source: Adapted from Freedom House (2018). Map of freedom in the world. Retrieved from https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/freedom-world-2018.

In addition to generally enjoying the right to vote, people in democracies also have more freedom than those in other types of governments. Figure 11.5 “Freedom Around the World (Based on Extent of Political Rights and Civil Liberties)” depicts the nations of the world according to the extent of their political rights and civil liberties. The freest nations are found in North and South America, Western Europe, and certain other parts of the world, while the least free lie in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.

Authoritarianism and Totalitarianism

Authoritarianism and totalitarianism are general terms for non democratic political systems ruled by an individual or a group of individuals who are not freely elected by their populations and who often exercise arbitrary power. To be more specific, refers to political systems in which an individual or a group of individuals holds power, restricts or prohibits popular participation in governance, and represses dissent. refers to political systems that include all the features of authoritarianism but are even more repressive as they try to regulate and control all aspects of citizens’ lives and fortunes. These forms of political systems are found primarily in the 20th and 21st centuries since the technology required to monitor citizens extensively had to be invented. People can be imprisoned for deviating from acceptable practices or may even be killed if they dissent in the mildest of ways. Many of the nations in purple in Figure 11.5 “Freedom Around the World (Based on Extent of Political Rights and Civil Liberties)” are totalitarian regimes, while some of the nations in yellow are authoritarian.


Think Like a Sociologist

Go to the Freedom House Map site: Freedom House Maps

Looking at the Global Freedom Status map, where does the U.S. fall compared to Sweden, Canada and Mongolia? What factors do you think contribute to these different ranks?

Next, take a look at the Internet Freedom Map. Where does the U.S. fall compared to Argentina, Mexico and South Africa? Click on one of the countries and outline the factors associated with these ranks.

Finally, take a look at the Democracy Status Map. The countries in purple have authoritarian governments and are the least democratic. Click on one of these countries and review its report. What factors cause them to rank so low?


Compared to democracies and monarchies, authoritarian and totalitarian governments are more unstable politically. The major reason for this is that these governments enjoy no legitimate authority. Instead their power rests on fear and repression. (Recall the earlier question about the use of violence by the state.) The populations of these governments do not willingly lend their obedience to their leaders and realize that their leaders are treating them very poorly; for both these reasons, they are more likely than populations in democratic states to want to rebel. Sometimes they do rebel, and if the rebellion becomes sufficiently massive and widespread, a revolution occurs. In contrast, populations in democratic states usually perceive that they are treated more or less fairly and, further, that they can change things they do not like through the electoral process. Seeing no need for revolution, they tend not to revolt.


Watch and Reflect

In the video below, Hyeonseo Lee discusses her escape from North Korea.  As you watch, consider the traits of authoritarian governments.

Based on what you’ve learned, why do you think authoritarian governments are prone to political unrest and limited economic growth?


Since World War II, which helped make the United States an international power, the United States has opposed some authoritarian and totalitarian regimes while supporting others. The Cold War pitted the United States and its allies against Communist nations, primarily the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, and North Korea. But at the same time the United States opposed these authoritarian governments, it supported many others, including those in Chile, Guatemala, and South Vietnam, that repressed and even murdered their own citizens who dared to engage in the kind of dissent constitutionally protected in the United States (Sullivan, 2008). Earlier in U.S. history, the federal and state governments repressed dissent by passing legislation that prohibited criticism of World War I and then by imprisoning citizens who criticized that war (Goldstein, 2001). During the 1960s and 1970s, the FBI, the CIA, and other federal agencies spied on tens of thousands of citizens who engaged in dissent protected by the First Amendment (Cunningham, 2004). While the United States remains a beacon of freedom and hope to many of the world’s peoples, its own support for repression in the recent and more distant past suggests that eternal vigilance is needed to ensure that “liberty and justice for all” is not just an empty slogan.

Test Yourself


Section 11.6 References

ACLU News & Commentary. (2021, August 17). American Civil Liberties Union. Retrieved from https://www.aclu.org/news/civil-liberties/block-the-vote-voter-suppression-in-2020/

Cunningham, D. (2004). There’s something happening here: The new left, the Klan, and FBI counterintelligence. Berkeley: University of California Press. 

Explore the map. (n.d.). Freedom House. Retrieved from https://freedomhouse.org/explore-the-map?type=fiw&year=2021.

Finer, S. E. (1997). The history of government from the earliest times. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 

Freedom House (2018).  Map of freedom in the world. Retrieved from https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/freedom-world-2018.

Goldstein, R. J. (2001). Political repression in modern America from 1870 to 1976 (Rev. ed.). Urbana: University of Illinois Press. 

Lee, H. (n.d.). My escape from North Korea. TED. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/hyeonseo_lee_my_escape_from_north_korea?utm_campaign=tedspread&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=tedcomshare.

Sherman, A. (2021). Fact-check: Do new state laws ban food and water in voting lines? Statesman. Retrieved from https://www.statesman.com/story/news/politics/politifact/2021/07/16/kamala-harris-exaggerates-food-and-water-laws-voters/7989665002/

Seward, M. (2010). The representative claim. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. 

Sullivan, M. (2008). American adventurism abroad: Invasions, interventions, and regime changes since World War II (Rev. and expanded ed.). Malden, MA: Blackwell.

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