Authoritarianism is a form of government characterized by strong central power and limited political freedoms. Political scientists have created many typologies describing variations of authoritarian forms of government. Authoritarian regimes may be either autocratic or oligarchic in nature, and may be based upon the rule of a party or the military.

In an influential 1964 work, the political scientist Juan Linz defined authoritarianism as possessing four qualities:

  1. Limited political pluralism, realized with constraints on the legislature, political parties, and interest groups;
  2. Political legitimacy based upon appeals to emotion, and identification of the regime as a necessary evil to combat “easily recognizable societal problems, such as underdevelopment, and insurgency”;
  3. Minimal political mobilization and suppression of anti-regime activities;
  4. Ill-defined executive powers, often vague and shifting, which extends the power of the executive.

Minimally defined, an authoritarian government lacks free and competitive direct elections to legislatures, free and competitive direct or indirect elections for executives, or both. Broadly defined, authoritarian states include countries that lack the civil liberties such as freedom of religion, or countries in which the government and the opposition do not alternate in power at least once following free elections.

Authoritarian states might contain nominally democratic institutions, such as political parties, legislatures and elections, which are managed to entrench authoritarian rule; thus, a dictatorship can feature fraudulent, non-competitive elections. Since 1946, the share of authoritarian states in the international political system increased until the mid-1970s, but declined from then until the year 2000.



In general

Authoritarianism is characterized by highly concentrated and centralized power maintained by political repression and the exclusion of potential challengers. It uses political parties and mass organizations to mobilize people around the goals of the regime. Adam Przeworski has theorized that “authoritarian equilibrium rests mainly on lies, fear and economic prosperity”. Authoritarianism also tends to embrace the informal and unregulated exercise of political power, a leadership that is “self-appointed and even if elected cannot be displaced by citizens’ free choice among competitors”, the arbitrary deprivation of civil liberties and little tolerance for meaningful opposition. A range of social controls also attempt to stifle civil society, while political stability is maintained by control over and support of the armed forces, a bureaucracy staffed by the regime and creation of allegiance through various means of socialization and indoctrination. Authoritarianism is marked by “indefinite political tenure” of the ruler or ruling party (often in a one-party state) or other authority. The transition from an authoritarian system to a more democratic form of government is referred to as democratization.

Systemic weakness and resilience

Andrew J. Nathan notes that “regime theory holds that authoritarian systems are inherently fragile because of weak legitimacy, overreliance on coercion, overcentralization of decision making, and the predominance of personal power over institutional norms….Few authoritarian regimes—be they communist, fascist, corporatist, or personalist—have managed to conduct orderly, peaceful, timely, and stable successions”. Political scientist Theodore M. Vestal writes that authoritarian political systems may be weakened through inadequate responsiveness to either popular or elite demands, and that the authoritarian tendency to respond to challenges by exerting tighter control, instead of by adapting, may compromise the legitimacy of an authoritarian state and lead to its collapse. One exception to this general trend is the endurance of the authoritarian rule of the Chinese Communist Party, which has been unusually resilient among authoritarian regimes. Nathan posits that this can be attributed to four factors: (1) “the increasingly norm-bound nature of its succession politics”; (2) “the increase in meritocratic as opposed to factional considerations in the promotion of political elites”; (3) “the differentiation and functional specialization of institutions within the regime”; and (4) “the establishment of institutions for political participation and appeal that strengthen the CCP’s legitimacy among the public at large”.


Within authoritarian systems, there may be nominally democratic institutions such as political parties, legislatures and elections, but they are managed in a way so as to entrench authoritarian regimes. Within democracies, parties serve to coordinate the pursuit of interests for like-minded citizens, whereas in authoritarian systems, they are a way for authoritarian leaders to find capable elites for the regime. In a democracy, a legislature is intended to represent the diversity of interests among citizens, whereas authoritarians use legislatures to signal their own restraint towards other elites, as well as to monitor other elites who pose a challenge to the regime. Fraudulent elections may serve the role of signaling the strength of the regime, as well as force other elites to demonstrate their loyalty to the regime, whereas in democracies, free and fair elections are used to select representatives who represent the will of the citizens.

Constitutions in authoritarian regimes

Authoritarian regimes often adopt “the institutional trappings” of democracies, such as constitutions. Constitutions in authoritarian states may serve a variety of roles, including “operating manual” (describing how the government is to function); “billboard” (signal of regime’s intent), “blueprint” (outline of future regime plans), and “window dressing” (material designed to obfuscate, such as provisions setting forth freedoms that are not honored in practice). Authoritarian constitutions may help legitimize, strengthen, and consolidate regimes. For example, an authoritarian constitution “that successfully coordinates government action and defines popular expectations can also help consolidate the regime’s grip on power by inhibiting re coordination on a different set of arrangements.” Unlike democratic constitutions, authoritarian constitutions do not set direct limits on executive authority; however, in some cases such documents may function as ways for elites to protect their own property rights or constrain autocrats’ behavior.

The concept of “authoritarian constitutionalism” has been developed by legal scholar Mark Tushnet. Tushnet distinguishes authoritarian constitutionalist regimes from “liberal constitutionalist” regimes (“the sort familiar in the modern West, with core commitments to human rights and self-governance implemented by means of varying institutional devices”) and from purely authoritarian regimes (which reject the idea of human rights or constraints on leaders’ power). He describes authoritarian constitutionalist regimes as (1) authoritarian dominant-party states that (2) impose sanctions (such as libel judgments) against, but do not arbitrarily arrest, political dissidents; (3) permits “reasonably open discussion and criticism of its policies”; (4) hold “reasonably free and fair elections,” without systemic intimidation, but “with close attention to such matters as the drawing of election districts and the creation of party lists to ensure as best it can that it will prevail—and by a substantial margin”; (5) reflect at least occasional responsiveness to public opinion; and (6) create “mechanisms to ensure that the amount of dissent does not exceed the level it regards as desirable.” Tushnet cites Singapore as an example of an authoritarian constitutionalism state, and connects the concept to that of hybrid regimes.


See also: Religious Violence

Yale University political scientist Milan Svolik argues that violence is a common characteristic of authoritarian systems. Violence tends to be common in authoritarian states because of a lack of independent third parties empowered to settle disputes between the dictator, regime allies, regime soldiers and the masses.

Authoritarians may resort to measures referred to as “coup-proofing” – structures that make it hard for any small group to seize power. These coup-proofing strategies may include the strategic placing of family, ethnic, and religious groups in the military; creation of an armed force parallel to the regular military; and development of multiple internal security agencies with overlapping jurisdiction that constantly monitor one another. Research shows that some coup-proofing strategies reduce the risk of coups occurring. However, coup-proofing reduces military effectiveness, and limits the rents that an incumbent can extract. A 2016 study shows that the implementation of succession rules reduce the occurrence of coup attempts. Succession rules are believed to hamper coordination efforts among coup plotters by assuaging elites who have more to gain by patience than by plotting. According to political scientists Curtis Bell and Jonathan Powell, coup attempts in neighbouring countries lead to greater coup-proofing and coup-related repression in a region. A 2017 study finds that countries’ coup-proofing strategies are heavily influenced by other countries with similar histories. A 2018 study in the Journal of Peace Research found that leaders who survive coup attempts and respond by purging known and potential rivals are likely to have longer tenures as leaders. A 2019 study in Conflict Management and Peace Science found that personalist dictatorships are more likely to take coup-proofing measures than other authoritarian regimes; the authors argue that this is because “personalists are characterized by weak institutions and narrow support bases, a lack of unifying ideologies and informal links to the ruler.”

According to a 2019 study, personalist dictatorships are more repressive than other forms of dictatorship.

Manipulation of information

According to a 2019 study by Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman, authoritarian regimes have over time become less reliant on violence and mass repression to maintain control. The study shows instead that authoritarians have increasingly resorted to manipulation of information as a means of control. Authoritarians increasingly seek to create an appearance of good performance, conceal state repression, and imitate democracy.

Interactions with other elites and the masses

The foundations of stable authoritarian rule are that the authoritarian prevents contestation from the masses and other elites. The authoritarian regime may use co-optation or repression (or carrots and sticks) to prevent revolts.


Scholars such as Seymour Lipset, Carles Boix, Susan Stokes, Dietrich Rueschemeyer, Evelyne Stephens, and John Stephens argue that economic development increases the likelihood of democratization. Adam Przeworski and Fernando Limongi argue that while economic development makes democracies less likely to turn authoritarian, there is insufficient evidence to conclude that development causes democratization (turning an authoritarian state into a democracy). Eva Bellin argues that under certain circumstances, the bourgeoise and labor are more likely to favor democratization, but less so under other circumstances. Economic development can boost public support for authoritarian regimes in the short-to-medium term.



Several subtypes of authoritarian regimes have been identified by Linz and others. Linz identified the two most basic subtypes as traditional authoritarian regimes and bureaucratic-military authoritarian regimes:

  • Traditional authoritarian regimes are those “in which the ruling authority (generally a single person)” is maintained in power “through a combination of appeals to traditional legitimacy, patron-client ties and repression, which is carried out by an apparatus bound to the ruling authority through personal loyalties”. An example is Ethiopia under Haile Selassie I.
  • Bureaucratic-military authoritarian regimes are those “governed by a coalition of military officers and technocrats who act pragmatically (rather than ideologically) within the limits of their bureaucratic mentality.” Mark J. Gasiorowski suggests that it is best to distinguish “simple military authoritarian regimes” from “bureaucratic authoritarian regimes” in which “a powerful group of technocrats uses the state apparatus to try to rationalize and develop the economy” such as South Korea under Park Chung-hee.

Subtypes of authoritarian regime identified by Linz are: corporatist or organic-statistic, racial and ethnic “democracy” and post-totalitarian.

  • Corporatist authoritarian regimes “are those in which corporatism institutions are used extensively by the state to coopt and demobilize powerful interest groups”. This type has been studied most extensively in Latin America.
  • Racial and ethnic “democracies” are those in which “certain racial or ethnic groups enjoy full democratic rights while others are largely or entirely denied those rights”, such as in South Africa under apartheid.
  • Post-totalitarian authoritarian regimes are those in which totalitarian institutions (such as the party, secret police and state-controlled mass media) remain, but where “ideological orthodoxy has declined in favor of routinization, repression has declined, the state’s top leadership is less personalized and more secure, and the level of mass mobilization has declined substantially”. Examples include the Russian Federation and Soviet Eastern bloc states in the mid-1980s. The post-Mao People’s Republic of China was viewed as post-totalitarian in the 1990s and early 2000s, with a limited degree of increase in pluralism and civil society. however, in the 2010s, particularly after Xi Jinping succeeded as General Secretary of the Communist Party of China and rose to power in 2012, Chinese state repression sharply increased, aided by digital control and mass surveillance.

Authoritarian regimes are also sometimes subcategorized by whether they are personalistic or populist. Personalistic authoritarian regimes are characterized by arbitrary rule and authority exercised “mainly through patronage networks and coercion rather than through institutions and formal rules”. Personalistic authoritarian regimes have been seen in post-colonial Africa. By contrast, populist authoritarian regimes “are mobilizational regimes in which a strong, charismatic, manipulative leader rules through a coalition involving key lower-class groups”. Examples include Argentina under Perón, Egypt under Nasser and Venezuela under Chávez and Maduro.

A typology of authoritarian regimes by political scientists Brian Lai and Dan Slater includes four categories: machine (oligarchic party dictatorships); bossism (autocratic party dictatorships); juntas (oligarchic military dictatorships); and strongman (autocratic military dictatorships). Lai and Slater argue that single‐party regimes are better than military regimes at developing institutions (e.g., mass mobilization, patronage networks, coordination of elites) that are effective at continuing the regime’s incumbency and diminishing domestic challengers; Lai and Slater also argue that military regimes more often initiate military conflicts or undertake other “desperate measures” to maintain control, as compared to single‐party regimes.

John Duckitt suggests a link between authoritarianism and collectivism, asserting that both stand in opposition to individualism. Duckitt writes that both authoritarianism and collectivism submerge individual rights and goals to group goals, expectations and conformities.

Authoritarianism and totalitarianism

Linz distinguished new forms of authoritarianism from personalistic dictatorships and totalitarian states, taking Francoist Spain as an example. Unlike personalistic dictatorships, new forms of authoritarianism have institutionalized representation of a variety of actors (in Spain’s case, including the military, the Catholic Church, Falange, monarchists, technocrats and others). Unlike totalitarian states, the regime relies on passive mass acceptance rather than popular support. Totalitarianism is an extreme version of authoritarianism. Authoritarianism primarily differs from totalitarianism in that social and economic institutions exist that are not under governmental control. Building on the work of Yale political scientist Juan Linz, Paul C. Sondrol of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs has examined the characteristics of authoritarian and totalitarian dictators and organized them in a chart:

Totalitarianism Authoritarianism
Charisma High Low
Role conception Leader as function Leader as individual
Ends of power Public Private
Corruption Low High
Official ideology Yes No
Limited pluralism No Yes
Legitimacy Yes No

Sondrol argues that while both authoritarianism and totalitarianism are forms of autocracy, they differ in “key dichotomies”:

(1) Unlike their bland and generally unpopular authoritarian brethren, totalitarian dictators develop a charismatic “mystique” and a mass-based, pseudo-democratic interdependence with their followers via the conscious manipulation of a prophetic image.

(2) Concomitant role conceptions differentiate totalitarians from authoritarians. Authoritarians view themselves as individual beings largely content to control and often maintain the status quo. Totalitarian self-conceptions are largely teleological. The tyrant is less a person than an indispensable function to guide and reshape the universe.

(3) Consequently, the utilisation of power for personal aggrandizement is more evident among authoritarians than totalitarians. Lacking the binding appeal of ideology, authoritarians support their rule by a mixture of instilling fear and granting rewards to loyal collaborators, engendering a kleptocracy.

Compared to totalitarianism, “the authoritarian state still maintains a certain distinction between state and society. It is only concerned with political power and as long as that is not contested it gives society a certain degree of liberty. Totalitarianism, on the other hand, invades private life and asphyxiates it”. Another distinction is that “authoritarianism is not animated by utopian ideals in the way totalitarianism is. It does not attempt to change the world and human nature”. Carl Joachim Friedrich writes that “a totalist ideology, a party reinforced by a secret police, and monopoly control of … industrial mass society” are the three features of totalitarian regimes that distinguish them from other autocracies.

Competitive authoritarian regimes

Another type of authoritarian regime is the competitive authoritarian regime, a type of civilian regime that arose in the post-Cold War era. In a competitive authoritarian regime, “formal democratic institutions exist and are widely viewed as the primary means of gaining power, but … incumbents’ abuse of the state places them at a significant advantage vis-à-vis their opponents.” The term was coined by Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way in their 2010 book of the same name to discuss a type of hybrid regime that emerged during and after the Cold War. Competitive authoritarian regimes differ from fully authoritarian regimes in that elections are regularly held, the opposition can openly operate without a high risk of exile or imprisonment, and “democratic procedures are sufficiently meaningful for opposition groups to take them seriously as arenas through which to contest for power.” However, competitive authoritarian regimes lack one or more of the three characteristics of democracies: free elections (i.e., elections untainted by substantial fraud or voter intimidation); protection of civil liberties (i.e., the freedom of speech, press, and association), and an even playing field (in terms of access to resources, the media, and legal recourse).

Authoritarianism and democracy

Authoritarianism and democracy are not necessarily fundamental opposites, as it is possible for some democracies to possess authoritarian elements, and for an authoritarian system to have democratic elements. An illiberal democracy (or procedural democracy) is distinguished from liberal democracy (or substantive democracy) in that illiberal democracies lack features such as the rule of law, protections for minority groups and an independent judiciary.

A further distinction that liberal democracies have rarely made war with one another; research has extended the theory and finds that more democratic countries tend to have few wars (sometimes called militarized interstate disputes) causing fewer battle deaths with one another and that democracies have far fewer civil wars.

Studies suggest that several health indicators (life expectancy and infant and maternal mortality) have a stronger and more significant association with democracy than they have with GDP per capita, size of the public sector or income inequality. Prominent economist Amartya Sen has theorized that no functioning liberal democracy has ever suffered a large-scale famine.

Research shows that the democratic nations have much less democide or murder by government. Those were also moderately developed nations before applying liberal democratic policies. Research by the World Bank suggests that political institutions are extremely important in determining the prevalence of corruption and that parliamentary systems, political stability and freedom of the press are all associated with lower corruption. A study by economist Alberto Abadie has concluded that terrorism is most common in nations with intermediate political freedom. The nations with the least amount of terrorism are the most and least democratic nations, and that “transitions from an authoritarian regime to a democracy may be accompanied by temporary increases in terrorism.”

Historical trends


Both World War II (ending in 1945) and the Cold War (ending in 1991) resulted in the replacement of authoritarian regimes by either democratic regimes or regimes that were less authoritarian.

World War II saw the defeat of the Axis powers by the Allied powers. All the Axis powers — Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan — had totalitarian or authoritarian governments, and two of the three were replaced by governments based on democratic constitutions. The Allied powers were an alliance of Democratic states and (later) the Communist Soviet Union. At least in Western Europe the initial post-war era embraced pluralism and freedom of expression in areas that had been under control of authoritarian regimes. The memory of fascism and Nazism was denigrated. The new Federal Republic of Germany banned its expression. In reaction to the centralism of the Nazi state, for example, the new constitution of West Germany (Federal Republic of Germany) exercised “separation of powers” and placed “law enforcement firmly in the hands” of the sixteen Länder or states of the republic, not with the federal German government (at least not at first).

Culturally there was also a strong sense of anti-authoritarianism based on anti-fascism in Western Europe. This was attributed to the active resistance from occupation and to fears arising from the development of superpowers. Anti-authoritarianism also became associated with countercultural and bohemian movements such as the Beat Generation in the 1950s, the hippies in the 1960s and punks in the 1970s.

In South America, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, Chile and Uruguay moved away from dictatorships to democracy between 1982 and 1990.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the Soviet Union in 1991, the other authoritarian/totalitarian “half” of the Allied Powers of World War II collapsed. This led not so much to revolt against authority in general, but to the belief that authoritarian states (and state control of economies) were outdated. The idea that “liberal democracy was the final form toward which all political striving was directed”, became very popular in Western countries and was celebrated in Francis Fukuyama’s book The End of History and the Last Man. According to Charles H. Fairbanks, Jr., “all the new states that stumbled out of the ruins of the Soviet bloc, except Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, seemed indeed to be moving toward democracy in the early 1990s,” as where the countries of East Central Europe and the Balkans.

In late 2010, the “Arab Spring” arose in response to unrest over economic stagnation but also in opposition to oppressive authoritarian regimes, first in Tunisia and spreading to Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain, and elsewhere. Regimes were toppled in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and partially in Yemen, and other countries saw riots, civil wars or insurgencies.

Authoritarian revival

From 2005 to 2015 observers noted what some called a “democratic recession” (although some — Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way — have disputed this theory). In 2018 Freedom House declared that from 2006 to 2018, “113 countries” around the world showed “a net decline” in “political rights and civil liberties” while “only 62” experienced “a net improvement.”

Writing in 2018, U.S. political journalist David Frum stated:

The hopeful world of the very late 20th century—the world of NAFTA and an expanding NATO; of the World Wide Web 1.0 and liberal interventionism; of the global spread of democracy under leaders such as Václav Havel and Nelson Mandela—now looks battered and delusive.”

Michael Ignatieff wrote that Fukuyama’s idea of liberalism vanquishing authoritarianism “now looks like a quaint artifact of a vanished unipolar moment”, and Fukuyama himself expressed concern. By 2018 only one Arab Spring uprising — in Tunisia — resulted in a transition to constitutional democratic governance, and a “resurgence of authoritarianism and Islamic extremism” in the region was dubbed the “Arab Winter”.

Various explanations have been offered for the new spread of authoritarianism, including the downside of globalization, and the success of the Beijing Consensus, i.e. the authoritarian model of the People’s Republic of China. In at least one country, (the U.S.) factors blamed for the growth of authoritarianism include the Financial crisis of 2007–2008 and slower real wage growth; and social media’s elimination of “gatekeepers” of knowledge, so that a large fraction of the population considers to be opinion what were once “viewed as verifiable facts” – everything from the danger of global warming to the preventing the spread of disease through vaccination.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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