Political scientists refer to regimes using many different terms. Which term political scientists use often depends on two factors: the number of people with political power and the amount of power the government itself exerts.

The chart below organizes regimes by the number of people who hold political power.


Type of Regime

Number of People Who Hold Power


MonarchyOneNepal, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Brunei, medieval England
DictatorshipOneLibya, Cuba, North Korea, Nazi Germany
AristocracyA few (usually a small ruling class)Ancient Sparta
OligarchyA few (usually a small group of wealthy individuals)Renaissance Venice
DemocracyMany or all United States, ancient Athens

A wide variety of regime types exist. For example, the United Kingdom has a constitutional monarchy, in which Queen Elizabeth holds a limited amount of power. Theoretically, the queen is the English head of state, but over time the English monarchy has become largely ceremonial. Real governmental power now rests with the Parliament, the legislative, lawmaking body. In contrast, the Third Reich of World War II was a totalitarian dictatorship. Adolf Hitler controlled the government and the citizens of Nazi Germany.

The chart on the next page organizes regimes by the amount of power the government possesses. M

Regimes and Amount of Government Power

Type of Regime

Amount of Governmental Power


TotalitarianAbsolute power; controls every aspect of its citizens’ lives Soviet Union, North Korea, Nazi Germany
AutocraticLess powerful than a totalitarian regime but still controls most aspects of its citizens’ lives; often associated with a single ruler; often arbitraryIraq before the 2003 American invasion
AuthoritarianLess power than totalitarian regime but still controls most aspects of its citizens’ lives; often outlasts its rulersChina, Egypt
ConstitutionalLimited by specific rules, such as the citizens’ right to free speech or freedom of religionUnited States, United Kingdom, Germany, Japan
AnarchistNo power, or simply no government; can occur when a government loses its powerSomalia


The word democracy comes from the Greek words demos, which means “the people,” and cracy, which means “rule by.” Today, we call a regime a democracy when many or all of its people share political power. There are two types of democracies:

  • Direct democracy: Citizens make all the decisions. They gather frequently to vote on laws, regulations, and appointments. There are no elected representatives. Direct democracy was common in ancient Greece; today, it exists at a local level in town hall meetings held throughout the United States.
  • Representative democracy: Citizens elect officials to act on their behalf. If the officeholders disappoint or anger them, the citizens can choose new officials at the next election. A regime that runs by representative democracy is known as a republic. In a republic, citizens hold the power. There are two major types of representative democracies:
    • Parliamentary democracy: Citizens elect officials to act as legislators. The legislature then elects the executive (frequently called the prime minister) from its members

    Example: Many European democracies use a parliamentary system. One advantage of this type of democracy is its ability to quickly respond to public opinion. If the prime minister loses the confidence of voters, new elections can be held immediately. But parliamentary governments can be unstable. Perhaps the classic example is Italy, which changed governments about once a year for fifty years following World War II.

    • Presidential democracy: Citizens elect the legislators and executive separately. No one can be both a legislator and the executive at the same time.

    Example: The United States is a presidential democracy. Although a presidential system can be slow to respond to changes in public opinion, it is likely to be more stable than a parliamentary system.

Strengths and weaknesses of democracies

Direct Democracy

Representative Democracy

StrengthsMost purely democratic form of government because the people literally ruleCan take place in a much larger country; grants citizens much more time to pursue private interests
WeaknessesDifficult to form except in small communities; demands constant attention from its citizensCan be slow to respond to public opinion; sometimes defies public opinion

Key Features of a Democracy

All democracies, in theory, should provide four basic things:

  • Security: Like all governments, a democracy should protect its citizens from danger and threats, both national and abroad.
  • Liberty: A democracy bestows on its citizens the right to do certain things without interference. The most common liberties are freedom of speech, thought, religion, and assembly. Most democratic governments are limited—that is, there are fundamental rights that the government cannot take from its citizens.
  • Political equality: All citizens should be treated the same way. Each person gets one vote in elections, and the law is the same for all people.
  • Popular sovereignty: In a democracy, supreme power rests with the people. The people choose their government, and the people can change the government when they see fit. In return, the government should do what the people want.

In reality, these features do not always fit together well, and democracies must work to create a balance. But the balance changes as the people decide they want to emphasize one feature over another. Sometimes strengthening one feature causes another feature to decrease or to disappear.

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