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Forms of Government

Module by: OpenStax College. E-mail the author

Summary:

  • Define common forms of government, such as monarchy, oligarchy, dictatorship, and democracy
  • Compare common forms of government and identify real-life examples of each

Figure 1: Former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein used fear and intimidation to keep citizens in check. (Photo courtesy of Brian Hillegas/flickr)
A mosaic of Saddam Hussein and other tile decorations are shown on a wall.

Most people generally agree that anarchy, or the absence of organized government, does not facilitate a desirable living environment for society, but it is much harder for individuals to agree upon the particulars of how a population should be governed. Throughout history, various forms of government have evolved to suit the needs of changing populations and mindsets, each with pros and cons. Today, members of Western society hold that democracy is the most just and stable form of government, although former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once declared to the House of Commons, “Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time” (Shapiro 2006).

Monarchy

Even though people in the United States tend to be most aware of Great Britain’s royals, many other nations also recognize kings, queens, princes, princesses, and other figures with official royal titles. From one country to another, the power held by these positions varies. Strictly speaking, a monarchy is a government in which a single person (a monarch) rules until that individual dies or abdicates the throne. Usually, a monarch claims the rights to title by way of hereditary succession or as a result of some sort of divine appointment or calling. As mentioned previously, the monarchies of most modern nations are ceremonial remnants of tradition, and individuals who hold titles in such sovereignties are often aristocratic figureheads.

A few nations today, however, are run by governments wherein a monarch has absolute or unmitigated power. Such nations are called absolute monarchies. Although governments and regimes are constantly changing across the global landscape, it is generally safe to say that most modern absolute monarchies are concentrated in the Middle East and Africa. The small, oil-rich nation of Oman, for instance, is an example of an absolute monarchy. In this nation, Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said has ruled since the 1970s. Recently, living conditions and opportunities for Oman’s citizens have improved, but many citizens who live under the reign of an absolute ruler must contend with oppressive or unfair policies that are installed based on the unchecked whims or political agendas of that leader.

In today’s global political climate, monarchies far more often take the form of constitutional monarchies, governments of nations that recognize monarchs but require these figures to abide by the laws of a greater constitution. Many countries that are now constitutional monarchies evolved from governments that were once considered absolute monarchies. In most cases, constitutional monarchies, such as Great Britain and Canada, feature elected prime ministers whose leadership role is far more involved and significant than that of its titled monarchs. In spite of their limited authority, monarchs endure in such governments because people enjoy their ceremonial significance and the pageantry of their rites.

Figure 2: Queen Noor of Jordan is the dowager queen of this constitutional monarchy and has limited political authority. She is a noted global advocate for Arab-Western relations. (Photo courtesy of Skoll World Forum/flickr)
Queen Noor of Jordan.

Oligarchy

The power in an oligarchy is held by a small, elite group. Unlike in a monarchy, members of an oligarchy do not necessarily achieve their status based on ties to noble ancestry. Rather, they may ascend to positions of power because of military might, economic power, or similar circumstances.

The concept of oligarchy is somewhat elusive; rarely does a society openly define itself as an oligarchy. Generally, the word carries negative connotations and conjures notions of a corrupt group whose members make unfair policy decisions in order to maintain their privileged positions. Many modern nations that claim to be democracies are really oligarchies. In fact, some prominent journalists have labeled the United States an oligarchy, pointing to the influence of large corporations and Wall Street executives on American policy (Krugman 2011). Other political analysts assert that all democracies are really just “elected oligarchies,” or systems in which citizens must vote for an individual who is part of a pool of candidates who come from the society’s elite ruling class (Winters 2011).

Oligarchies have existed throughout history, and today many consider Russia an example of oligarchic political structure. After the fall of communism, groups of business owners captured control of this nation’s natural resources and have used the opportunity to expand their wealth and political influence. Once an oligarchic power structure is established, it can be very difficult for middle- and lower-class citizens to advance their socioeconomic status.

Is the United States an Oligarchy?:

During the famed Gilded Age of American history, prominent socialite Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish organized and hosted a lavish dinner party in honor of her pampered dog, who arrived at the function sporting a $15,000 diamond collar (PBS Online 1999). Such absurd luxuries were fairly commonplace among the ultra-rich during this era of American history, which saw the rise and dominance of such families as the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, and Carnegies. As the super-rich reveled in their wealth, however, most Americans scraped by, living below what was considered the poverty level.

Figure 3: The Breakers, the famous Newport, Rhode Island, home of the Vanderbilts, is a powerful symbol of the extravagant wealth that characterized the Gilded Age. (Photo courtesy of ckramer/flickr)
A mansion built during the Gilded Age.

Interestingly, some scholars now believe that the United States has embarked on a second Gilded Age and have offered hard data to back up their assertions. Such camps point to the fact that the “400 wealthiest American families now own more than the ‘lower’ 150 million Americans put together” (Schulz 2011). Much of this current generation’s wealth is concentrated among corporate executives and Wall Street tycoons.

Many of the super-rich use their economic clout to purchase more than luxury items. Specifically, wealthy individuals and corporations are major political donors. Because their campaign contributions have the potential to influence policy decisions and the election of candidates, the economic power of this segment of society is used for acquiring political power. As this dynamic continues, it supports the view that the concentration of wealth in the United States has contributed to making it like an oligarchy (Krugman 2011).

These patterns of wealth distribution and political contributions have spurred lively debate in recent years. Some see great wealth as a fair reward for hard work and talent, believing that political contributions are part of free expression in a democratic society. Others maintain that the concentration of wealth is a signal that too many people’s economic opportunities are limited. Another concern is that lack of equal power in making monetary donations will translate into an uneven distribution of political power—a situation that raises questions of the fairness of a “representational” system. These viewpoints underlay many of the recent political debates about tax policy, campaign finance reform, and government budgets in the United States.

Figure 4: Support from prominent Russian oligarchs propelled leader Vladimir Putin to power. (Photo courtesy of Kremlin.ru/Wikimedia Commons)
Vladimir Putin.

Dictatorship

Power in a dictatorship is held by a single person (or a very small group) that wields complete and absolute authority over a government or populace after the dictator rises to power, usually through economic or military might. Similar to many absolute monarchies, dictatorships may often be corrupt and seek to limit and even eradicate the liberties of the general population. Many dictators start out as military leaders and are more conditioned to violence if they face opposition than non-military figureheads.

Dictators use a variety of means to perpetuate their authority. Intimidation and brutality are often foremost among their tactics; individuals are not likely to rebel against a regime if they know they will be hurt. Some dictators also possess the personal appeal that Max Weber identified with a charismatic leader. Subjects of such a dictator may believe that the leader has special ability or authority and may be willing to submit to his or her authority. Popular images of the late Kim Jong-Il, as well as his successor, Kim Jong-Un, exemplify this type of charismatic dictatorship.

Many dictatorships do not align themselves strictly with any particular belief system or ideology; the goal of this type of regime is usually limited to preserving the authority of the dictator at its helm. The totalitarian dictatorship describes a more ambitious and oppressive style of dictatorship that attempts to control all aspects of its subjects’ lives. Communist regimes, for instance, are often totalitarian in nature. They may attempt to regulate how many children citizens bear, what religious beliefs they hold, and so forth. They may also demand that citizens publicly demonstrate their faith in the regime by participating in public marches and demonstrations.

Some “benevolent” dictators, such as Napoleon and Anwar Sadat, are credited with advancing their people or exercising a modest level of evenhandedness, but many end up grossly abusing their power. Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Kim Jong-Il, Saddam Hussein, and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, for instance, are heads of state who earned a reputation for leading through fear and intimidation. Hitler, for example, is responsible for the genocide of millions of Jews and other groups, while Mugabe has been accused of ruthless land acquisition.

Figure 5: Dictator Kim Jong-Il of North Korea was a charismatic leader of an absolute dictatorship. His followers responded emotionally to the death of their leader in 2011. (Photo courtesy of babeltrave/flickr)
Kim Jong-Il of North Korea is shown wearing sunglasses amid a group of uniformed North Korean soldiers.

Democracy

A democracy is a form of government that strives to provide all citizens with an equal voice, or vote, in determining state policy, regardless of their level of socioeconomic status. Another important fundamental of the democratic state is the establishment and governance of a just and comprehensive constitution that delineates the roles and responsibilities of leaders and citizens alike.

Democracies, in general, assure certain basic rights to their citizens. First and foremost, citizens are free to organize political parties and hold elections. Leaders, once elected, must abide by the terms of the given nation’s constitution and are limited in the powers they can exercise, as well as in the length of the duration of their terms. Most democratic societies also champion freedom of individual speech, the press, and assembly, and they prohibit unlawful imprisonment. Of course, even in a democratic society, the government constrains citizens from total freedom to act however they wish. A democratically elected government does this by passing laws and writing regulations that, at least ideally, reflect the will of the majority of its people.

Although the United States champions the democratic ideology, it is not a “pure” democracy. In a purely democratic society, all citizens would vote on all proposed legislation, and this is not how laws are passed in the United States. There is a practical reason for this: a pure democracy would be hard to implement. Thus, the United States is a constitution-based federal republic in which citizens elect representatives to make policy decisions on their behalf. The term representative democracy, which is virtually synonymous with republic, can also be used to describe a government in which citizens elect representatives to promote policies that favor their interests. In the United States, representatives are elected at local and state levels, and the votes of the Electoral College determine who will hold the office of president. Each of the three branches of the United States government—the executive, judicial, and legislative—is held in check by the other branches.

Summary

Nations are governed by different political systems, including monarchies, oligarchies, dictatorships, and democracies. Generally speaking, citizens of nations wherein power is concentrated in one leader or a small group are more likely to suffer violations of civil liberties and experience economic inequality. Many nations that are today organized around democratic ideals started out as monarchies or dictatorships but have evolved into more egalitarian systems. Democratic ideals, although hard to implement and achieve, promote basic human rights and justice for all citizens.

Section Quiz

Exercise 1

Many constitutional monarchies started out as:

  1. oligarchies
  2. absolute monarchies
  3. dictatorships
  4. democracies

Answer

B

Exercise 2

Which nation is an absolute monarchy?

  1. Oman
  2. Great Britain
  3. Denmark
  4. Australia

Answer

A

Exercise 3

Which of the following present and former government leaders is generally considered a dictator?

  1. David Cameron
  2. Barack Obama
  3. Qaboos bin Said Al Said
  4. Kim Jong-Un

Answer

D

Exercise 4

A(n) _________________ is an extremely oppressive government that seeks to control all aspects of its citizens’ lives.

  1. oligarchy
  2. totalitarian dictatorship
  3. anarchy
  4. absolute monarchy

Answer

B

Exercise 5

Which is not a characteristic of a democracy?

  1. People vote to elect officials.
  2. A king or queen holds the majority of governmental control.
  3. One goal of this type of government is to protect citizens’ basic rights.
  4. A constitution typically outlines the foundational ideas of how this government should operate.

Answer

B

Exercise 6

Which statement best expresses why the United States is not a “true” democracy?

  1. Many politicians are corrupt.
  2. Special-interest groups fund political campaigns.
  3. Citizens elect representatives who vote on their behalf to make policy.
  4. Ancient Greece was the only true democracy.

Answer

C

Short Answer

Exercise 1

Do you feel that the United States has become an oligarchy? Why or why not?

Exercise 2

Explain how an absolute monarchy differs from a dictatorship.

Exercise 3

In which form of government do the average citizens have the least political power? What options might they have for exerting political power under this type of regime?

Further Research

The Occupy Wall Street movement has addressed the policy debate about oligarchy by claiming that the United States is becoming more oriented toward serving the rich than the general population. Visit this group’s website to find out more about its activities and agenda: http://openstaxcollege.org/l/occupy_wall_st

References

Krugman, Paul. 2011. “Oligarchy, American Style.” New York Times, November 3. Retrieved February 14, 2012 (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/04/opinion/oligarchy-american-style.html).

PBS Online. “Gilded Age.” 1999. The American Experience. Retrieved February 14, 2012 (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/carnegie/gildedage.html).

Schulz, Thomas. 2011. “The Second Gilded Age: Has America Become an Oligarchy?” Spiegel Online International, October 28. Retrieved February 14, 2012 (http://www.spiegel.de/international/spiegel/0,1518,793896,00.html).

Winters, Jeffrey. 2011. “Oligarchy and Democracy.” American Interest, November/December. Retrieved February 17, 2012 (http://www.the-american-interest.com/article.cfm?piece=1048).

Glossary

absolute monarchies:
governments wherein a monarch has absolute or unmitigated power
anarchy:
the absence of any organized government
constitutional monarchies:
national governments that recognize monarchs but require these figures to abide by the laws of a greater constitution
democracy:
a form of government that provides all citizens with an equal voice or vote in determining state policy
dictatorship:
a form of government in which a single person (or a very small group) wields complete and absolute authority over a government or populace after the dictator rises to power, usually through economic or military might
monarchy:
a form of government in which a single person (a monarch) rules until that individual dies or abdicates the throne
oligarchy:
a form of government in which power is held by a small, elite group
representative democracy:
a government wherein citizens elect officials to represent their interests
totalitarian dictatorship:
an extremely oppressive form of dictatorship in which most aspects of citizens’ lives are controlled by the leader

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