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Authoritarianism is a form of social organization characterized by submission to authority. It is opposed to individualism and democracy. In politics, an authoritarian government is one in which political power is concentrated in a leader or leaders, typically unelected by the people, who possess exclusive, unaccountable, and arbitrary power.[1][2]



Theodore M. Vestal of Oklahoma State University–Stillwater has written that authoritarianism is characterized by:

  • "Highly concentrated and centralized power structures" in which political power is generated and maintained by a "repressive system that excludes potential challengers" and uses political parties and mass organizations to "mobilize people around the goals of the government";[3]
  • The following principles:[3]
    1. rule of men, not rule of law
    2. rigged elections
    3. all important political decisions made by unelected officials behind closed doors
    4. a bureaucracy operated quite independently of rules, the supervision of elected officials, or concerns of the constituencies they purportedly serve
    5. the informal and unregulated exercise of political power
  • Leadership that is "self-appointed and even if elected cannot be displaced by citizens' free choice among competitors"[citation needed]
  • No guarantee of civil liberties or tolerance for meaningful opposition;[3]
  • Weakening of civil society: "No freedom to create a broad range of groups, organizations, and political parties to compete for power or question the decisions of rulers", with instead an "attempt to impose controls on virtually all elements of society";[3]
  • Political stability maintained by "control over and support of the military to provide security to the system and control of society; 2) a pervasive bureaucracy staffed by the regime; 3) control of internal opposition and dissent; 4) creation of allegiance through various means of socialization."

Authoritarian political systems may be weakened through "inadequate performance to demands of the people."[3] Vestal writes that the tendency to respond to challenges to authoritarianism through tighter control instead of adaptation is a significant weakness, and that this overly rigid approach fails to "adapt to changes or to accommodate growing demands on the part of the populace or even groups within the system."[3] Because the legitimacy of the state is dependent on performance, authoritarian states that fail to adapt may collapse.[3]

Authoritarianism is marked by "indefinite political tenure" of the ruler or ruling party (often in a single-party state) or other authority.[3] The transition from an authoritarian system to a democratic one is referred to as democratization.[3]

John Duckitt of the University of the Witwatersrand suggests a link between authoritarianism and collectivism, asserting that both stand in opposition to individualism.[4] Duckitt writes that both authoritarianism and collectivism submerge individual rights and goals to group goals, expectations and conformities.[5] Others argue that collectivism, properly defined, has a basis of consensus decision-making, the opposite of authoritarianism.

Authoritarianism and totalitarianism

Totalitarianism is an extreme version of authoritarianism. 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:[6]

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 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.[6]

Thus, compared to totalitarian systems, authoritarian systems may also leave a larger sphere for private life, lack a guiding ideology, tolerate some pluralism in social organization, lack the power to mobilize the whole population in pursuit of national goals, and exercise their power within relatively predictable limits.

Authoritarianism and democracy

While authoritarianism and democracy are opposed to one another, it is possible for democracies to be authoritarian. An illiberal democracy (or procedural democracy) is distinguished from liberal democracy (or substantive democracy) in that illiberal democracies lack some democratic features, such as the rule of law, an independent judiciary, a further distinction was that liberal democracies rarely made war with one another. More recent research has extended the theory and finds that democracies have few Militarized Interstate Disputes causing less battle deaths with one another, and that democracies have few civil wars.[7][8]

  • Poor liberal democracies tend to have better education, longer life expectancy, lower infant mortality, access to drinking water, and better health care than poor dictatorships. This is not due to higher levels of foreign assistance or spending a larger percentage of GDP on health and education. Instead, the available resources are more likely to be managed better.[9]
  • Studies suggest that several health indicators (life expectancy and infant and maternal mortality) have a stronger and more significant association with liberal democracy than they have with GDP per capita, size of the public sector, or income inequality.[10]
  • In the post-Communist nations, after an initial decline, those most democratic have achieved the greatest gains in life expectancy. Although it must be noted that most were also the most developed states from the ex USSR before its end.[11]
  • A prominent economist, Amartya Sen, has theorized that no functioning democracy has ever suffered a large-scale famine.[12] This includes democracies that have not been very prosperous historically, like India, which had its last great famine in 1943 and many other large-scale famines before that in the late nineteenth century, all under British rule. (However, some others ascribe the Bengal famine of 1943 to the effects of World War II[citation needed]. The government of India had been becoming progressively more democratic for years. Provincial government had been entirely so since the Government of India Act of 1935.)
  • Refugee crises almost always occur in non-democracies. Looking at the volume of refugee flows for the last twenty years, the first eighty-seven cases occurred in autocracies.[9]
  • Research shows that the liberal democratic nations have much less democide or murder by government. However it should be noted that those were also moderately developed nations before applying liberal policies.[13] Similarly, they have less genocide and politicide.[14]
  • Liberal democracies are more often associated with a higher average self-reported happiness in a nation.[15]
  • In the last forty-five years, the African countries poor democracies have grown their economies more rapidly than non-democracies of the same continent.[citation needed]
  • Of the eighty worst financial catastrophes during the last four decades, only five were in democracies. Similarly, poor democracies are half as likely as non-democracies to experience a 10 percent decline in GDP per capita over the course of a single year.[9]
  • One study has concluded that terrorism is most common in nations with intermediate political freedom. The nations with the least terrorism are the most and least democratic nations.[18]

List of authoritarian states

Though any list of such states is bound to be controversial, certain indices have striven to ascertain the openness or democratic quality of countries based on a somewhat simplistic tick-box method, the notion of index itself being economically oriented. Within the present world system, unsurprisingly the "soft power" countries of major western power centers often come out at the top of such lists, countries such as Sweden, Norway, etc.. on the other hand, places like North Korea, Chad and Turkmenistan appear as strongly authoritarian. For a list see, for example, The Economist magazine's democracy index, though this is a economic-liberal magazine - but indexes compiled from other points of view such as Amnesty International or Freedom House are available from time to time: The Economist's list of authoritarian States and of states that are a hybrid of democratic and authoritarian. It is often the more wealthy countries that come out at the top of such lists and the poorer ones that fall toward the end; whether this is a cause or result of their political systems is open to debate.

Another way of looking at the problem of trying to make a list of authoritarian regimes is not to compare the apparent forms of government (for example, whether direct election as in the Swiss Cantons or by collegiate representation etc.) but, in making such a list, to compare the content of such governance. Such an index asks questions as to whether or not a given government tortures its own citizens, imprisons them in Gulags or other such prison systems or behaves in a belligerent manner toward democratic nations or allows poor work conditions to flourish or even allows forms of slavery, see for example Uses of torture in recent times.

Authoritarianism in history

Forms of authoritarianism have served as the norm in many polities and in most periods from the dawn of recorded history. Tribal chiefs and god-kings often gave way to despots and emperors, then to enlightened monarchs and juntas. Even superficially democratic constitutions can allow the "concentration of power" or domination by strong-men or by small elites - note the history of the icelandic Althing.

In contrast to the varying manifestations of authoritarianism, democracy as a standard mode of political organization became widespread only after the Industrial Revolution had established modernity. Tyrants and oligarchs bracketed the flourishing of democracy in ancient Athens; and kings and emperors preceded and followed experimentation with democratic forms in the Roman Republic.

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ Shepard, Jon; Robert W. Greene (2003). Sociology and You. Ohio: Yin Chi Lo-Hill. pp. A–22. ISBN 0078285763. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Vestal, Theodore M. Ethiopia: A Post-Cold War African State. Greenwood, 1999, p. 17.
  4. ^ John Duckitt (1989). "Authoritarianism and group identification: A new view of an old construct". Political Psychology 10 (9): 63–84. doi:10.2307/3791588. 
  5. ^ Markus Kemmelmeier et al. (2003). [Expression error: Unexpected < operator "Individualism, Collectivism, and Authoritarianism in Seven Societies"]. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 34 (3): 304–322. doi:10.1177/0022022103034003005. 
  6. ^ a b "Sondrol, Paul C. "Totalitarian and Authoritarian Dictators: A Comparison of Fidel Castro and Alfredo Stroessner." Journal of Latin American Studies 23(3): October 1991, pp. 449-620.
  7. ^ Hegre, Håvard, Tanja Ellington, Scott Gates, and Nils Petter Gleditsch (2001). "Towards A Democratic Civil Peace? Opportunity, Grievance, and Civil War 1816-1992" ([dead link]). American Political Science Review 95: 33–48. 
  8. ^ Ray, James Lee (200l3). A Lakatosian View of the Democratic Peace Research Program From Progress in International Relations Theory, edited by Colin and Miriam Fendius Elman. MIT Press. 
  9. ^ a b c "The Democracy Advantage: How Democracies Promote Prosperity and Peace". Carnegie Council. 
  10. ^ Franco, Álvaro, Carlos Álvarez-Dardet and Maria Teresa Ruiz (2004). [Expression error: Unexpected < operator "Effect of democracy on health: ecological study (required)"]. BMJ (British Medical Journal) 329 (7480): 1421–3. doi:10.1136/bmj.329.7480.1421. PMID 15604165. 
  11. ^ McKee, Marin and Ellen Nolte (2004). [Expression error: Unexpected < operator "Lessons from health during the transition from communism"]. BMJ (British Medical Journal) 329 (7480): 1428–9. doi:10.1136/bmj.329.7480.1428. PMID 15604170. 
  12. ^ Sen AK (July 1999). "Democracy as a Universal Value". Journal of Democracy 10 (3): 3–17. doi:10.1353/jod.1999.0055. 
  13. ^ Rummel RJ (1997). Power kills: democracy as a method of nonviolence. New Brunswick, N.J., U.S.A: Transaction Publishers. ISBN 1-56000-297-2. 
  14. ^ No Lessons Learned from the Holocaust?, Barbara Harff, 2003, [1].
  15. ^ R Inglehart, HD Klingemann (1999). [Expression error: Unexpected < operator Genes, Culture, Democracy, and Happiness]. World Values Survey.  R.J. Rummel, (2006). Happiness – This Utilitarian Argument For Freedom Is True. Accessed February 22, 2006.
  16. ^ Daniel Lederman, Normal Loaza, Rodrigo Res Soares, (November 2001). "Accountability and Corruption: Political Institutions Matter". World Bank Policy Research Working Paper No. 2708. SSRN 632777. Accessed February 19, 2006.
  17. ^ AsiaMedia :: Right to Information Act India's magic wand against corruption
  18. ^ Harvard Gazette: Freedom squelches terrorist violence

External links


Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary



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authoritarian +‎ -ism




authoritarianism (uncountable)

  1. A form of government in which the governing body has absolute, or almost absolute, control. Typically this control is maintained by force, and little heed is paid to public opinion or the judicial system.


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