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12 Types of Government

Learn about the different types of government so that you can feel appreciative the next time you exercise your right to vote.

Since Aristotle produced his comprehensive work Politics—Treatise on Government, things are different, but not by much. In the 4th century B.C., he laid out the distinguishing features for three types of government; namely, monarchy, aristocracy, and polity (enlightened democracy). The distinctive characteristic for each form of governance is the magnitude of distribution for political power—with one, a few, or many in power. Each system of government is also characterized by an ideology of socio-political attributes relating to how the rulers achieve their status, by birth right, wealth, or popular opinion. Reading through the different types of government, note how many rulers there are, and how those in control achieved their status.


Athenian Government - Source

The original ideals of democracy date backs to ancient Greece. The most famous example is Athens, a city state within Greece that practiced a form of democracy called direct democracy. In Athens, “Demos” roughly translated to the people or the people of Athens. Today’s definition of democracy is similar, yet somehow drastically different, from the Athenian perception. Thankfully, modern societies who adopted democracy have moved past a once male dominated arena and a reliance on a class of slaves. While critics of modern day democracy say slavery is still present in different forms, it is evident that progress has been made. The modern definition of democracy is a system of governance that guarantees the right of citizens to exercise their power to elect representatives whom advocate for their interests. The beauty of the democratic system of governance is that it processes conflict of differing interests and that no single actor or cause has the ability to control the outcome. A representative, liberal, and social-democracy are the most common iterations of the historic form of social organization.

Representative Democracy

A representative democracy, also known as a democratic republic, is where citizens exercise their right to elect a representative to create and implement policy in place of active participation. The days of direct democracy in Athens are long gone, people do not have the interest or time to spend hours debating their interests with fellow citizens.

Liberal Democracy

The liberal-democratic project has been in effect since some of the greatest political philosophers helped to define its values. It takes the foundation laid by ancient Athens and representative democracy by adding the ideals of liberalism to create the most dominant forms of political organization in the 20th century. Arguably one of the greatest philosophers of all time, John Stuart Mill became deeply inspired by the democratic process, and added value to its ethos with his seminal work, On Liberty. A Liberal Democracy refers to fair and free elections between distinct political parties, a separation of powers into decentralized branches of government, the rule of law applicable to everyone to maintain an open society, and the protection of human rights. These premises originate out of work first envisioned by Thomas Hobbes in his book The Leviathan, where citizens and a state enter into a hypothetical contract. The metaphor of the contract symbolized that if states break the contract guaranteeing certain rights for citizens, citizens then have a right to overthrow the government. There are many different forms of liberal democracies, including republics like the United States, France, Germany, and India, and constitutional monarchies such as Japan, Spain, and the United Kingdom. Today, liberal democracies are facing backlash from populist waves across North America and Europe. Academics claim that is the result of neoliberalism, and the unintended consequences of minimal state intervention.

Social Democracy

When Bernie Sanders brought to the Presidential campaign in 2016, social democracy/democratic socialism had a bad wrap in the United States. Bernie’s main claim was that the current economic and political system does not work for the average American, so he wanted to change that using social democratic reforms. In the rest of the world, there are many active social democratic parties. To quell any hysteria readers may be having at the moment, democratic socialism is not socialism or communism. It is a system whose birth rose out of the calamities of the industrial revolution in Europe during the 19th century. Today, it exists to strengthen capitalism—socialism cannot exist without capitalism. The ways that it strengthens capitalism are giving people extensive social rights; such as universal access to healthcare, education, public transport, child and elderly care, and rights for workers to unionize. Capitalism is the form of economic organization that allows market forces to determine wages and industry projection, democratic socialism is there to help soften the crushing nature of market forces. Did you just lose your job because it was outsourced to a developing country? Don't worry, because democratic socialism has your back with its social safety net.


Source: A Critique of Capitalism

Somewhere between many rulers and one, an oligarchy denotes a system of governance where the power rests in the hands of the few. An oligarchy starkly contrasts with the ideals of democracy—its not the “rule of the majority,” it is the rule by a small group of privileged people with no intervention by the citizens. The token elite are usually distinguished by wealth, familial ties, education, religious, or military association. One of the most famous examples of an oligarchy was the Roman republic, where only the nobility could run for office and only land owning men could vote. Critics of capitalism and representative democracies point out many similarities between the United States and the characteristics of an oligarchy. Compelling arguments for their critic is the lack of social mobility and the effect that expensive education has financial outcomes. The most common iterations of oligarchies throughout history are aristocracies and plutocracies.


Source: America's New Aristocracy

A government ruled by an aristocracy dates back to the feudal age, where those with the power legitimized their reign by their noble status. While the notion that birth from a particular family gives divine right to rule is no longer in favor, its legacy still lives on. Recent research demonstrates that place of birth and familial wealth can have a substantial effect on educational outcomes and financial success—rich kids stay rich, and poor kids stay poor.


More advanced than its counterpart, aristocracy, plutocracy is rule by the wealthy. From a historical perspective, it is actually a fundamental transformation in perceptions of fairness and equality. A plutocracy strikes the middle ground between an aristocracy and a meritocracy. In this system of governance, the state's resources are used to service the needs of the rich and are allocated by the desire of the rich in control. States where the success of a elected official depend on the support from wealthy sources closely mirror the characteristics of a plutocracy. Trump claimed that he would, "Drain the Swamp," in Washington by extricating money's influence on politics. Depending on which side of the aisle you support, he is either doing swimmingly or increasing the muck. Famous linguist and author Noam Chomsky has long been a critic of the American electorate system’s reliance on funding from wealthy donors and calls America a, “plutocracy masquerading as a democracy.”


Source: Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution

Autarkic regimes fill history books with valuable lessons that the world hopes to never relive. However, they still proliferate news headlines today for all the wrong reasons. Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and Mao Zedong's Communist Party are phenomenal examples to learn from—lessons that have stained history books with blood of innocent people. Decisions by autocratic rulers are not subject to external legal restraints or checks by popular opinion. The decision maker can either be a single person or a one-party system. The most infamous implementations of autocratic rulers are single dictators, military dictatorships, and absolute monarchies.

Single Dictators

Source:  Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, And Mao Zedong

The most infamous implementations of autocratic rulers are by civilian dictatorships. Names commonly associated with autocratic rule are Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Muammar Gaddafi. Centralization of authority and unquestionable power, uncheckable by rules of law, characterize the rule of a autocratic leaders.

Thanks to the lovely benefits of living in a liberal-democracy with freedom of speech, we are able to mock the most prominent example of a dictator in today's world, Supreme Leader of North Korea Kim Jong-un. While Trump is quite brash, check out these more artistic approaches trolling Kim Jong-un.

Military Dictatorship

Source: Military Dictatorship in Burma

A military dictatorship is a system of governance enforced by the threat of violence enacted by the military. They often come to power under the guise of trying to save the nation from an unjust ruler and justifies their rule by being a “neutral” arbiter. However, few military dictatorships have helped liberate people. Unfortunately, their reigns are often associated with political and social repression, resulting in the death of many civilians. The developed world has much to be blamed for, military dictatorships that arose in Africa and South America were often the result of power vacuums created by decolonization. European colonizers left countries without any strategic planning, and caused many fragile societies to erupt after their departure.


Source: United Kingdom's Royal Family

Monarchies proliferated in the feudal age, well into the 17th century, while some still exist today. One family usually controls the dynastic rule of a country, and their idiosyncrasies come to embody the characteristics of the national identity. Countries like the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Japan practice a constitutional monarchy, and believe in the succession of a ruling family. In the case of the United Kingdom, the Royal family’s role is mostly symbolic, with little to no political power at their disposal. They belong in the category of a liberal-democracy because their government is restrained by the rule of law or a constitution.

Absolute Monarchies

Source: Louis the XIV

Louis the XIV, in 17th century France, to Saudi Arabia today, absolute monarchies are usually characterized with dazzling wealth and power, and a right to rule due to their connection to a divine being. A famous line from Louis the XIV is, "L'etat c'est moi," which roughly translates to, "I am the state." He meant it as well, amassing a collection of expensive clothes and erecting one of the most lavish estates in the world, Versailles Palace. The House of Saud from Saudi Arabia is the modern equivalent of Louis the XIV; the royal family has an estimated net worth of $1.4 trillion. Absolute monarchies concentrate the power and wealth of a country into the hands of a few, and eliminate the chance for any outsiders to share in on the spoils. Thankfully, the industrialized world has moved past ideology.

The Importance

The mentioned systems of governance should not be confused with forms of economic organization such as capitalism, feudalism, communism, or socialism. The historical failures of communist states and the Cold War has contaminated the perception of redistributive systems in the West. On the other hand, communism and socialism give the West an interesting lens to view its own society through. Maybe these forms of economic organization have something to teach. A specter is haunting Europe and North America, a specter of populism—democracy is under threat. Wage stagnation and lack of social mobility has left a large portion of the United States and Europe aggravated and wanting change. Hopefully, the world that once praised liberal-democratic values will not succumb to the forces of populism, and not cause the once great institutions to switch to some other form of government. Take the knowledge learned about the different types of government and put it to practice. How much power should governments have? Only you can answer that.

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