Types of Governments

Number of Independent Governments:

Chart of Twentieth Century governments

Definition of Terms:


There are always shades of gray in any government. Even the most liberal democracies limit rival political activity to one extent or another, and even the most tyrannical dictator must organize a broad base of support, so it is very difficult to pigeonhole every government of the Twentieth Century into seven narrow categories. In some extremely borderline cases, I have added icons to indicated alternate categories, but only if the icon will fit comfortably on the map.

Purists, of course, will howl in anguish at the sloppiness of my categories, but Internet's a big place. There's plenty of room for them to put their own classification systems out there. (If you'd like to see a few example of alternative classifications, click here.)


I'll try to head off a few questions by pointing out some categories of government I don't use in the main sequence of political maps.

Constitutional Monarchy

Classical political theory would divide the world something like this:

Rule of Law Rule by Whim
Monarchy Constitutional Monarchy Absolute Monarchy
Republic Democratic Republic Tyrant

This classification scheme was probably at its most valid between the American and Russian Revolutions, 1776-1917. Before that period, there were too few republics and constitutions to bother with, but after that period, monarchies went into precipitous decline. Also, during much of the twentieth century, a single category of tyranny is just too restrictive, ignoring as it does the way that oppressive republican governments exploded into a rich variety of fascists, communists, juntas, kleptocrats and sharia theocracies.


During the heyday of the Communist menace, 1917-1991, political theory tended to divide governments this way:

Property Rights
Low High
Personal Rights High Socialist Free Market Democracy
Low Totalitarian Authoritarian

In American political discourse of that era, it was generally agree that, yes, free market democracy was good and totalitarianism was bad, but the middle ground was not nearly as clear. The debate over which regimes were the second greatest threat to civilization seemed to snag on the importance of property rights. The right wing - the "haves" - considered both types of rights to be equal, bringing socialism and authoritarianism into moral equilibrium. Thus, a case like Chile, where a dictator overthrew a socialist in 1973, was seen as a lateral move rather than a step backward. On the other hand, the left wing -- the "have-nots" -- judged regimes more purely on personal rights, which meant that socialism was morally equal to democracy, and the difference between totalitarian and authoritarian dictators was negligible. Therefore, supporting capitalist dictators like Batista, Somoza and Thiêu as the antidote to communist rebels like Castro, Ortega and Ho made no moral sense whatsoever.

In any case, it has always struck me as rather artificial to bundle Communism and Fascism into a single category called "Totalitarianism" -- rather like bundling birds and bats into the category of "flying creatures". Despite a few superficial similarities, they have very different origins, histories, structures and goals. I have chosen to map communism as distinctly different from fascism.


Contemporary Context:



Well, most Americans anyway.


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Last Updated December 2002

Copyright © 1999-2002 Matthew White