Types of Governments
Number of Independent 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
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.)
- Multiparty Democracy
- The first question that most people [n.1]
ask about a government is whether it's democratic -- that is, whether its
leaders are chosen by means of fair, competitive elections, and whether its
citizens are allowed basic civil rights. Therefore, my very first cut divides
the world into democratic and non-democratic nations. As far as this category
is concerned, it doesn't matter whether the ultimate head of state is a monarch
or president as long as the day-to-day policy decisions are in the hands of
- FAQ: These aren't "democracies";
they're "republics". By strict high school government class
definition, the citizens of a "democracy" exercise power directly,
whereas the citizens of a "republic" delegate power to elected
representatives. This, of course, is easily the stupidest thing that we were
taught in high school. They've taken a perfectly fine word like democracy and
defined it so narrowly that it applies to absolutely no working government
whatsoever. All they've left us is the word republic, which they've defined so
broadly that it encompasses such diverse nations as the US, France, China and
Iran -- and yet is still too narrow to include constitutional
monarchies like Japan and Sweden. In any case, since there is no mandatory
authority on the meaning of English words, I've chosen to use the common meaning
of democracy: any government which derives it's power through the consent of the
governed, regardless of how that power is structured.
- ALTERNATIVE NAMES: Some scholars prefer calling
these governments "polyarchic" or "parliamentary". The
first term, however, isn't even in the dictionary, while the second term implies
that the English legislature is the archetype -- which is a bit ironic
considering that the English parliament was generally opposed to the liberal
revolutions in American and France. If we're going to label these governments
after some specific legislature, lets call them Congressional or Assemblytarian
- Limited Democracy
- These are governments which come close to being full democracies, but they
fall short in one critical field. For my purposes, it doesn't really matter
how they fall short. It usually varies from country to country. Some
have freely elected legislatures subject to the veto power of a military junta,
a monarch or a strong president . Others are provisional governments run by
coalitions pending new elections. Many are fully tolerant democracies which
disenfranchise a substantial percentage of their adult population -- especially
women early in the century.
- COMMUNIST STATES:
- The economy of these nations is centrally planned and operated by fiat.
All industry is owned by the state. Power is monopolized by a centrally
organized party which supports its legitimacy by quoting Marxist dogma.
- FAQ: Communism is not the opposite of
democracy. The proper dichotomy is communism vs. capitalism. Yes,
technically, Communism is an economic system rather than a political system, but
we just can't escape the fact that the 20th Century has seen this big block of
countries that have had a lot in common with one another and less in common with
the rest of the world. In fact, this block has been one of the century's most
distinctive cluster of countries, so it seems rather evasive to not set up a
category to cover them.
- FAQ: These countries are not at all what Marx
envisioned, so they aren't really Communist. Maybe not, but a lot of what
passes for Christianity nowadays has nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus,
and a lot of what passes for constitutional has nothing to do with Madison.
Ideologies evolve, and I'd call any government Communist if it supports its
arguments by quoting chapter and verse from Marx (just as I'd call any
government Christian if it supports its arguments by quoting the Bible)
regardless of whether they quote correctly.
- ALTERNATIVE NAMES: Some scholars prefer to call
them "socialist republics" or "people's republics", but the
first alternative can sully the good name of real socialists, while the second
is just silly.
- AUTHORITARIAN REGIMES:
- These are regimes which severely limit who may participate in politics and
stifle dissent with varying degrees of brutality. I've split these into three
distinct categories, but they have so many similarities that I've used similar
colors to indicate them.
- Military Junta
- The regime came into power through force of arms, and policies are set by
one or more career military officers.
- Single Party State
- Power is restricted to a single faction with a unified goal.
- NOTE: For awhile, I classed Communism in this
category, but later I decided that Communism was distinctive enough to deserve
its own category. Even so, the difference between your average single-party
authoritarian regime and your typical communist state is not as great as you
- A single leader rules by decree.
- This is probably the trickiest category because all governments
have one person who wields more power than others. Generally I have categorized
a regime as autocratic if the civilian head of state has challenged the forces
that originally brought him into power -- for example, by purging of the ruling
party in a one-party state, or by declaring martial law in a democracy. I have
tried to avoid putting leaders of military coups into this category, but I have
labelled a few as autocrats if they survived long enough to centralize power
into their own hands, or if my research to date has only turned up the presence
of a "dictator" with no explanation of how he achieved and exercised
- ALTERNATIVE NAMES: dictatorship, despotism,
- TRADITIONAL MONARCHY:
- The state is considered the private estate of a single family. It is ruled
at the discretion of the monarch and passed down from father to son throughout
- NOTE: Often the monarch himself is not the real
ruler. Instead, power may be in the hands of courtiers, ministers, regents and
chamberlains, and allocated by means of palace intrigues. This sometime makes
it difficult to decide whether a nation with a personally weak (but legally
strong) monarch -- like, say, Willhelmine Germany or Imperial Japan -- is an
absolute monarchy or junta or limited democracy or what.
- ANOTHER NOTE: I used to call this category "absolute
monarchy", but this name implied that the king's word was unchallenged law,
so I changed it. Instead, I mean this category to include any system of
government where the monarchy (rather than, say, a parliament or a dictator) is
the center of the government apparatus.
- FAQ: Monarchy is not the opposite of
democracy. The proper dichotomy is monarchy vs. republic. In my system of
classification, the first cut is between democratic and non-democratic, but many
political scientists would make the first cut between monarchy and republic, and
then make a four-fold cut into democratic and non-democratic
monarchies, democratic and non-democratic republics. While this might have been
the best way to classify governments in the 19th Century -- when all the
monarchs of Europe were cousins who tended to stick together, and republics were
an aberration -- it would be a bit anachronistic to retain this system much past
the First World War. Nowadays the monarchies are the aberration, and
democracies tend to stick together.
- There are three categories for regimes which don't really have a
- No Self-Government
- The region is under the authority of an alien and geographically detached
- ALTERNATIVE NAMES: colonies, dependencies.
- No Government
- Because of widespread civil war, the authority of the central government
does not reach throughout the nation. Policy decisions are determined by
- ALTERNATIVE NAMES: anarchy, feudalism, tribalism.
- Category Uncertain
- I haven't yet been able to find enough information to even guess at what
kind of government these countries have.
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.
Classical political theory would divide the world something like this:
||Rule of Law
||Rule by Whim|
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:
||Free Market Democracy|
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.
- Pure fascism is rather rare. In fact, many scholars would call only
Mussolini, Hitler and a few of their contemporary satellites fascist. In this
case, it seems rather pointless to set up a whole category for a narrow subset
of autocratic regimes which existed in a handful of countries for less than a
- On the other hand, metaphorical fascism is quite common -- so common, in
fact, that I've heard just about every regime in history denounced as "fascist"
at one time or another. In this case, it's almost meaningless.
Well, most Americans anyway.
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Last Updated December 2002
Copyright © 1999-2002 Matthew White