Types of Government

What you’ll learn to do: describe forms of government and explain politics in the United States

Graphic illustration of a hand putting a ballot into a blue box labeled "VOTE"

Nations are governed by different political systems, including monarchies, oligarchies, dictatorships, and democracies. Generally speaking, citizens of nations wherein power is concentrated in one leader or a small group are more likely to suffer violations of civil liberties and experience economic inequality. Many nations that are today organized around democratic ideals started out as monarchies or dictatorships but have evolved into more egalitarian systems. Democratic ideals, although hard to implement and achieve, promote basic human rights and justice for all citizens. The success and validity of democracy in the U.S. hinges on free and fair elections that are characterized by the support and participation of diverse citizens. In this section, we’ll examine political systems and take a look at how politics work in the United States.

Learning outcomes

  • Compare and identify common forms of government (monarchy, oligarchy, dictatorship, democracy)
  • Discuss issues surrounding voter participation in the U.S.
  • Explore the influence of race, gender, and class issues on the voting process

Forms of Government

A mosaic of Saddam Hussein and other tile decorations are shown on a wall.

Figure 1. Former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein used fear and intimidation to keep citizens in check. (Photo courtesy of Brian Hillegas/flickr)

Most people generally agree that anarchy, or the absence of organized government, does not facilitate a desirable living environment for society, but it is much harder for individuals to agree upon the particulars of how a population should be governed. Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, three political philosophers that heavily influenced early sociologists and whose works are widely read across sociology classrooms today, all argued that the role of government is to facilitate a form of “social contract” among individuals living in a society. They presented different views on human nature, relationships, and governance, but they all agreed that government was a necessary mechanism in modern societies. 

Throughout history, various forms of government have evolved to suit the needs of changing populations and mindsets, each with pros and cons. Today, a majority of citizens in Western societies hold that democracy is the most just and stable form of government, although former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once declared to the House of Commons, “Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time” (Shapiro 2006).

Monarchy

Even though people in the United States tend to be most aware of Great Britain’s royals, many other nations also recognize kings, queens, princes, princesses, and other figures with official royal titles. The power held by these positions varies from one country to another. Strictly speaking, a monarchy is a government in which a single person (a monarch) rules until he or she dies or abdicates the throne. Usually, a monarch claims the rights to the title by way of hereditary succession or as a result of some sort of divine appointment or calling. As mentioned above, the monarchies of most modern nations are ceremonial remnants of tradition (traditional authority as opposed to charismatic or legal-rational authority), and individuals who hold titles in such sovereignties are often aristocratic figureheads.

Very few nations today, however, are run by governments wherein a monarch has absolute or unmitigated power. In other words, very few nations today are run by monarchies exercising legal-rational authority. Nations that are run by monarchs with absolute power are called absolute monarchies. Although governments and regimes are constantly changing across the global landscape, it is generally safe to say that most modern absolute monarchies are concentrated in the Middle East and Africa. The small, oil-rich nation of Oman, for instance, is an example of an absolute monarchy. In this nation, Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said has ruled since the 1970s. Recently, living conditions and opportunities for Oman’s citizens have improved, but many citizens who live under the reign of an absolute ruler must contend with oppressive or unfair policies that are installed based on the unchecked whims or political agendas of that leader.

In today’s global political climate, monarchies far more often take the form of constitutional monarchies, governments of nations that recognize monarchs but require these figures to abide by the laws of a greater constitution. Many countries that are now constitutional monarchies evolved from governments that were once considered absolute monarchies. In most cases, constitutional monarchies, such as Great Britain and Canada, feature elected prime ministers whose leadership role is far more involved and significant than that of its titled monarchs. In spite of their limited authority, monarchs endure in such governments because people enjoy their symbolic or ceremonial significance, as well as the pageantry of their weddings, funerals, and public performances of succession. 

Try It

Queen Noor of Jordan is shown speaking into mics on a podium

Figure 2. Queen Noor of Jordan is the dowager queen of this constitutional monarchy and has limited political authority. Queen Noor is American by birth, but relinquished her citizenship when she married. She is a noted global advocate for Arab-Western relations. (Photo courtesy of Skoll World Forum/flickr)

Oligarchy

The power in an oligarchy is held by a small, elite group. Unlike in a monarchy, members of an oligarchy do not necessarily achieve their statuses based on ties to noble ancestry. Rather, they may ascend to positions of power because of military might, economic power, or similar circumstances.

The concept of oligarchy is somewhat elusive; rarely does a society openly define itself as an oligarchy. Generally, the word carries negative connotations and conjures notions of a corrupt group whose members make unfair policy decisions in order to maintain their privileged positions. Many modern nations that claim to be democracies are really oligarchies. In fact, some prominent journalists, such as Paul Krugman, who won a Nobel Laureate Prize in economics, have labeled the United States an oligarchy, pointing to the influence of large corporations and Wall Street executives on U.S. policy (Krugman 2011). Other political analysts assert that all democracies are really just “elected oligarchies,” or systems in which citizens must vote for an individual who is part of a pool of candidates who come from the society’s elite ruling class (Winters 2011).

Oligarchies have existed throughout history, and today many consider Russia an example of oligarchic political structure. After the fall of communism, groups of business owners captured control of the nation’s natural resources and have used the opportunity to expand their wealth and political influence. Once an oligarchic power structure has been established, it can be very difficult for middle and lower-class citizens to advance their socioeconomic status. The line between oligarchies and democracies is grayer than we probably want it to be, and some would even argue that no nation is a true democracy, as it is impossible to have no interest groups, companies, or economically advantaged elites seeking to influence policy. 

Is the United States an Oligarchy?

A mansion with a large green field built during the Gilded Age.

Figure 3. The American Gilded Age was one of lavish parties hosted in the grand mansions of wealthy families. (Photo courtesy of Seniju/flickr)

The American Gilded Age saw the rise and dominance of ultra-rich families such as the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, and Carnegies, and the wealthy often indulged in absurd luxuries. One example is a lavish dinner party hosted for a pampered pet dog who attended wearing a $15,000 diamond collar (PBS Online 1999). At the same time, most Americans barely scraped by, living below what was considered the poverty level.

Some scholars believe that the United States has now embarked on a second gilded age, pointing out that the “400 wealthiest American families now own more than the ‘lower’ 150 million Americans put together” (Schultz 2011), and “the top 10% of earners took in more than half of the country’s overall income in 2012, the highest proportion recorded in a century of government record keeping” (Lowery 2014). Recent movements in the United States have drawn attention to the power and privilege of the extremely wealthy, often referred to as the 1%, and have sought to reform policy due to their lack of proportional contributions in taxes. In 2015, the 1% were those who earned over $480,930 annually, although this varies significantly based on location, with some areas being so costly that a person needs to earn nearly double that to be in the 1%. [1] 

Many of the super–rich use their economic clout to purchase more than luxury items; wealthy individuals and corporations are major political donors. Based on campaign finance reform legislation in 1971 and 2002, political campaign contributions were regulated and limited; however, the 2012 Supreme Court decision in the case of Citizen’s United versus the Federal Election Commission repealed many of those restrictions. The Court ruled that contributions of corporations and unions to Political Action Committees (PACs) are a form of free speech that cannot be abridged and so cannot be limited or disclosed. Opponents believe that this definition effectively promotes oligarchy in the United States. The ultra-wealthy and those who control the purse strings of large corporations and unions will, in effect, be able to elect their candidate of choice through their unlimited spending power, as well as influence policy decisions, appointments to non-elected government jobs, and other forms of political power. Krugman (2011) says, “We have a society in which money is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few people, and in which that concentration of income and wealth threatens to make us a democracy in name only.”

Dictatorship

Power in a dictatorship is held by a single person (or a very small group) that wields complete and absolute authority over a government and population. Like some absolute monarchies, dictatorships may be corrupt and seek to limit or even eradicate the liberties of the general population. Dictators use a variety of means to perpetuate their authority. Economic and military might, as well as intimidation and brutality, are often foremost among their tactics; individuals are less likely to rebel when they are starving and fearful. Many dictators start out as military leaders and are conditioned to the use of violence against opposition.

Some dictators also possess the personal appeal that Max Weber identified with a charismatic leader. Subjects of such a dictator may believe that the leader has special ability or authority and may be willing to submit to his or her authority. The late Kim Jong-Il, North Korean dictator, and his successor, Kim Jong-Un, exemplify this type of charismatic dictatorship.

WATCH IT

North Korea is the least democratic country in the world, and exemplifies a modern dictatorship. 

Some dictatorships do not align themselves with any particular belief system or ideology; the goal of this type of regime is usually limited to preserving the authority of the dictator. A totalitarian dictatorship is even more oppressive and attempts to control all aspects of its subjects’ lives, including occupation, religious beliefs, and number of children permitted to each family. Citizens may be forced to publicly demonstrate their faith in the regime by participating in marches and demonstrations.

Some “benevolent” dictators, such as Napoleon and Anwar Sadat, are credited with advancing their people’s standard of living or exercising a moderate amount of evenhandedness. Others grossly abuse their power. Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Cambodia’s Pol Pot, and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, for instance, are heads of state who earned a reputation for leading through fear, violence, and intimidation.

Kim Jong-Il of North Korea is shown wearing sunglasses, standing among a group of uniformed North Korean soldiers.

Figure 4. Dictator Kim Jong-Il of North Korea was a charismatic leader of an absolute dictatorship. His followers responded emotionally to the death of their leader in 2011. (Photo courtesy of babeltrave/flickr)

Democracy

A democracy is a form of government that strives to provide all citizens with an equal voice, or vote, in determining state policy, regardless of their level of socioeconomic status or other attributes. Another important fundamental of the democratic state is the establishment and governance of a just and comprehensive constitution-like document that delineates the roles and responsibilities of leaders and citizens alike.

Democracies, in general, ensure certain basic rights for their citizens. First and foremost, citizens are free to organize political parties and hold elections. Leaders, once elected, must abide by the terms of the given nation’s constitution and are limited in the powers they can exercise, as well as in the length of the duration of their terms. Most democratic societies also champion freedom of individual speech, the press, and assembly, and they prohibit unlawful imprisonment. Of course, even in a democratic society, the government constrains citizens’ total freedom to act however they wish—a sacrifice that individuals must make in order to have other rights protected, as the social contract theorists first posited. A democratically elected government does this by passing laws and writing regulations that, at least ideally, reflect the will of the majority of its people.

Although the United States champions the democratic ideology, it is not a “pure” democracy. In a purely democratic society, all citizens would vote on all proposed legislation, and this is not how laws are passed in the United States. There is a practical reason for this: a pure democracy would be hard to implement. Thus, the United States is a constitution-based federal republic in which citizens elect representatives to make policy decisions on their behalf. The term representative democracy, which is virtually synonymous with republic, can also be used to describe a government in which citizens elect representatives to promote policies that favor their interests. In the United States, representatives are elected at local and state levels, and the votes of the Electoral College determine who will hold the office of president. Each of the three branches of the U.S. government—the executive, judicial, and legislative—is held in check by the other branches.

WATCH IT

The Electoral College is one of the hotly debated topics in today’s political arena, and a rather complicated system to untangle. It has benefits and drawbacks, but watch this video to better understand its role in our democracy. 

Further Research

The Tea Party is among the highest-profile grassroots organizations active in U.S. politics today. What is its official platform? Examine the Tea Party website to find out more information.

Think It Over

  • Do you feel the United States has become an oligarchy? Why, or why not?
  • Explain how an absolute monarchy differs from a dictatorship.
  • In which form of government do average citizens have the least political power? What options might they have for exerting political power under this type of regime?

Try It

Politics in the United States

People are shown standing outside a building in line. Signs on the building read “vote here” in various languages.

Figure 5. Americans’ voting rights are a fundamental element of the U.S. democratic structure. (Photo courtesy of David Goehring/flickr)

When discussing a nation’s government, we should also define the word “politics.” We may have associated the term with freedom, power, corruption, or rhetoric. Political science looks at politics as the interaction between citizens and their government. Sociology studies politics as a means to understand the underlying social norms and values of a group. A society’s political structure and practices provide insight into the distribution of power and wealth, as well as larger philosophical and cultural beliefs. A cursory sociological analysis of U.S. politics might suggest that Americans’ desire to promote equality and democracy on a theoretical level is at odds with the nation’s real-life capitalist orientation.

Lincoln’s famous phrase “of the people, by the people, for the people” is at the heart of the U.S. system and sums up its most essential aspect: that citizens willingly and freely elect representatives they believe will look out for their best interests. Although many Americans take free elections for granted, it is a vital foundation of any democracy. When the U.S. government was formed, however, African Americans and women were denied the right to vote. Democratic ideals and giving people a voice, which partially caused the American revolution and were fundamental ideals of American politics, initially failed specific groups and placed them at a further disadvantage than they were already in. Each of these groups struggled to secure the same suffrage rights as their white male counterparts, yet this history fails to inspire some Americans to show up at the polls and cast their ballots. Problems with the democratic process, including limited voter turnout, require us to more closely examine complex social issues that influence political participation.

Voter Participation

Voter participation is essential to the success of the U.S. political system. Although many Americans are quick to complain about laws and political leadership, a substantial portion of individuals do not vote. Likely the result of more polarized elections and partisan politics, voter turnout has actually increased dramatically in the past 12 years. In 2016, 61.4% of the qualifying population voted; in 2008, 63.3% did.[2] Even mid-term elections (the ones that do not encompass a presidential election) have seen an increase in voter turnout—in 2018, 47% of the voting-eligible population participated.[3] Even with recent increases in voter turnout, poor turnout can skew election results, particularly if one age or socioeconomic group is more diligent in its efforts to make it to the polls. Consequently, election outcomes can seem disconnected from substantial parts of the population they ostensibly represent.

Link to Learning

Want to better understand voter turnout? Watch this Khan Academy video, which explains how voter turnout in the United States is related to political participation.

Certain voting advocacy groups work to improve turnout. Rock the Vote, for example, targets and reaches out to America’s youngest potential voters to educate and equip them to share their voice at the polls. Public service promos from celebrity musicians support their cause. Native Vote is an organization that strives to inform American Indians about upcoming elections and encourages their participation. America’s Hispanic population is reached out to by the National Council of La Raza, which strives to improve voter turnout among the Latino population. William Frey, author of Diversity Explosion, points out that Hispanics, Asians, and multiracial populations is expected to double in the next forty years (Balz 2014), and they are therefore likely to increasingly influence elections.

Race, Gender, and Class Issues

Although recent records have shown more minorities voting now than ever before, this trend is still fairly new. Historically, African Americans and other minorities have been underrepresented at the polls. Black men were not allowed to vote at all until after the Civil War, and black women gained the right to vote along with other women only with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. For years, African Americans who were brave enough to vote were discouraged by discriminatory legislation, passed in many southern states, which required poll taxes and literacy tests of prospective voters. While voting was legal for African Americans, additional barriers kept them from reaching the polls. Literacy tests were not outlawed until 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act.

Further Research

The 1965 Voting Rights Act was preceded by Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Both articles were instrumental in establishing equal rights for African Americans. Check out Cornell University’s website on this topic to learn more about this civil rights legislation.

The 1960s saw other important reforms in U.S. voting. Shortly before the Voting Rights Act was passed, the 1964 U.S. Supreme Court case Reynolds v. Sims changed the nature of elections. This landmark decision reaffirmed the notion of “one person, one vote,” a concept holding that all people’s votes should be counted equally. Before this decision, unequal distributions of population enabled small groups of people in sparsely populated rural areas to have as much voting power as the denser populations of urban areas. After Reynolds v. Sims, districts were redrawn so that they would include equal numbers of voters.

Unfortunately, in June 2013, the Supreme Court repealed several important aspects of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, ruling that southern states no longer need the stricter scrutiny that was once required to prohibit racial discrimination in voting practices in the South. Following this decision, several states moved forward with voter identification laws that had previously been banned by federal courts. Officials in Texas, Mississippi, and Alabama claim that new identification (ID) laws are needed to reduce voter fraud. Opponents point to the Department of Justice statistics indicating that only twenty-six voters, of 197 million voters in federal elections, were found guilty of voter fraud between 2002 and 2005. “Contemporary voter identification laws are trying to solve a problem that hasn’t existed in over a century” (Campbell 2012). Opponents further note that new voter ID laws disproportionately affect minorities and the poor, potentially prohibiting them from exercising their right to vote. As such, modern forms of informal discrimination continue to exist, despite institutional policies that allow Americans to vote.

Evidence suggests that legal protection of voting rights does not directly translate into equal voting power. Relative to their presence in the U.S. population, women and racial/ethnic minorities are underrepresented in the U.S. Congress. Even though we had a record-breaking election in 2018, with 127 women elected to serve in the 116th Congress, women still remain far from having equal representation in Congress. White males still dominate both houses. And until the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009, all U.S. presidents had been white men.

Like race and ethnicity, social class has also influenced voting practices. Voting rates among less-educated, lower-paid workers are lower than for people with comparatively higher socioeconomic status, which results in people with more power and access to resources having the means to perpetuate their political power. Several explanations have been offered to account for this difference (Raymond 2010). Workers in low-paying service jobs might find it harder to get to the polls because they lack flexibility in their work hours and quality daycare to look after children while they vote. Because a larger share of racial and ethnic minorities is employed in such positions, social class may be linked to race and ethnicity influencing voting rates. New requirements for specific types of voter identification in some states are likely to compound these issues, because it may take additional time away from work, as well as additional child care or transportation, for voters to get the needed IDs. The impact on minorities and the impoverished may cause a decrease in voter participation. Attitudes play a role as well. Some people of low socioeconomic status or minority race/ethnicity doubt their vote will count or voice will be heard because they have seen no evidence of their political power in their communities. Many believe that what they already have is all they can achieve. Furthermore, these individual characteristics (race, social class, gender), beyond influencing voting turnout and political activity, are linked to varying party voting patterns and preferences.[4]

As suggested earlier, money can carry a lot of influence in U.S. democracy, which has led some to argue that the U.S. is an informal oligarchy. But there are other means to make one’s voice heard. Free speech can be influential, and people can participate in the democratic system through volunteering with political advocacy groups, writing to elected officials, sharing views in a public forum such as a blog or letter to the editor, forming or joining cause-related political organizations and interest groups, participating in public demonstrations, and even running for a local office.

The Judicial System

The third branch of the U.S. government is the judicial system, which consists of local, state, and federal courts. The U.S. Supreme Court is the highest court in the United States, and it has the final say on decisions about the constitutionality of laws that citizens and businesses challenge. As noted earlier, some rulings have a direct impact on the political system, such as recent decisions about voter identification and campaign financing. Other Supreme Court decisions affect different aspects of society, and they are useful for sociological study because they help us understand cultural changes, as Supreme Court rulings are often a reflection of shifts in popular ideas (which is actually often a critique of the Supreme Court, as it was meant to be independent of and external to public opinion). One example is a recent and highly controversial case that dealt with the religious opposition of Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. to providing employees with specific kinds of insurance mandated by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Another example was found same-sex marriage cases. In 2015, the Supreme Court overruled its previous decisions on same-sex marriage by a 5-4 vote, ruling that same-sex marriage is to be recognized across all 50 states in accordance with the Fourteenth Amendment.[5]

link to Learning

Watch the video “How a Case Gets to the Supreme Court” to learn about how only a small number of cases even reach the highest court in the land.

Think It Over

  • If the percentage of Asian Americans in Congress is far below the percentage of Asian Americans in the United States, does that mean Asian Americans lack political power? Why or why not?
  • Explain how a voter’s social position (race, class, gender) can affect their voting practices.
  • Besides voting, how can U.S. citizens influence political processes and outcomes? Which of these strategies have you personally used?

Try It

glossary

absolute monarchies:
governments wherein a monarch has absolute or unmitigated power
anarchy:
the absence of any organized government
constitutional monarchies:
national governments that recognize monarchs but require these figures to abide by the laws of a greater constitution
democracy:
a form of government that provides all citizens with an equal voice or vote in determining state policy
dictatorship:
a form of government in which a single person (or a very small group) wields complete and absolute authority over a government or populace after the dictator rises to power, usually through economic or military might
monarchy:
a form of government in which a single person (a monarch) rules until that individual dies or abdicates the throne
oligarchy:
a form of government in which power is held by a small, elite group
one person, one vote:
a concept holding that each person’s vote should be counted equally
politics:
a means of studying a nation’s or group’s underlying social norms as values as evidenced through its political structure and practices
representative democracy:
a government wherein citizens elect officials to represent their interests
totalitarian dictatorship:
an extremely oppressive form of dictatorship in which most aspects of citizens’ lives are controlled by the leader

  1. Konish, Lorie (July 2018) "Here’s how much money those 1 percenters really make." CNBC. Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2018/07/10/heres-how-much-money-the-1-percent-really-make.html.
  2. Manuel Krogsted, Jens and Mark Hugo Lopez (May 2017). Black voter turnout fell in 2016, even as a record number of Americans cast ballots. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/05/12/black-voter-turnout-fell-in-2016-even-as-a-record-number-of-americans-cast-ballots/.
  3. Domonoske, Camila (November 2018). A Boatload Of Ballots: Midterm Voter Turnout Hit 50-Year High. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2018/11/08/665197690/a-boatload-of-ballots-midterm-voter-turnout-hit-50-year-high.
  4. Tyson, Alec (November 2018). The 2018 midterm vote: Divisions by race, gender, education. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/11/08/the-2018-midterm-vote-divisions-by-race-gender-education/.
  5. Chappell, Bill (June 2015). Supreme Court Declares Same-Sex Marriage Legal In All 50 States. NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/06/26/417717613/supreme-court-rules-all-states-must-allow-same-sex-marriages