Government Systems: Authoritarianism Research Paper Starter

Government Systems: Authoritarianism

Authoritarian regimes have existed throughout history in countries around the world and continue to exist in the modern state system. This paper will take an in-depth look at the nature of authoritarian regimes and discuss examples from the post-industrial international community.

Keywords Authoritarian; Legitimization; PAP; Regime; SPDC; Totalitarian



In the sixteenth century, the Spanish conquistador, Lope de Aguirre, wrote to King Philip II, criticizing the Spanish monarch for his totalitarian regime's oppression of the lower classes. "Look here, King of Spain!" he said. "Do not be cruel and ungrateful to your vassals, because while your father and you stayed in Spain without the slightest bother, your vassals, at the price of their blood and fortune, have given you all the kingdoms and holding you have in these parts" (Mabry, 2008, ¶6).

Four centuries later, Spain was ravaged by civil wars and revolutions, each designed to meet Aguirre's demands by empowering the poor. However, none of the successive regimes ventured far from Philip's manner of governance. Following the Spanish Civil War, Francisco Franco came to power in Spain. Like many before him, Franco embraced his power at the expense of the Spanish people. He created a regime whose control permeated every facet of Spanish life. "I am responsible," he said, "only to God and history." (, 2008).

Authority, Dominance

In the late nineteenth century, Max Weber, the eminent German sociologist, economist and political scientist, offered his view of what he termed the "three types of legitimate authority": rational-legal, traditional, and charismatic rule. The important point that he made was each of these forms of government is legitimized by the people who serve under their regimes. Legitimacy comes through democratic means (such as an election), a traditional transfer of power, or a coup.

Throughout history, coups have often served as the nucleus of authoritarian regimes. In an authoritarian system, the government is run by a single person, or select group of people, who manage the levers of state power without deference to citizens or the sentiments of the international community. Authoritarian leaders often come to power in destabilized nations, filling a power vacuum left by the fall of a previous regime.

In authoritarian governments, legitimacy is a moot point. Upon assuming the mantle of leadership, an authoritarian leader holds onto power by any means at his or her disposal, including violence. Doing so means blocking out all opposition and dissent, sometimes through brutal and oppressive action. As part of their quest for total control (and the repression of their enemies), authoritarians will seek to be involved in virtually every part of society including all levels of government, media and communications, and business and economics.

In many cases, authoritarian governments gain legitimacy on the promise that the chaos that previously existed will be eliminated, i.e. that a "new order" will emerge in place of the previous ineffectual regime. Thereafter, legitimacy is often based on fear: an authoritarian leader may be returned to power out of concern that he or she will create a violent backlash against those who stand opposed to his or her regime.

Then again, some societies, whether because of weariness from longtime strife or ineffectual rule, embrace authoritarian regimes. Further, though they may eventually eject such leadership in favor of democratic governments, some societies may also return to authoritarian rule if they come to perceive democracy as incapable of addressing the nation's issues, or as necessarily plagued by corruption and malfeasance.

Latin America provides a number of examples of such situations. In 2004, tens of thousands of Bolivians took to the streets to call for the democratically elected president, Carlos Mesa, to resign due to corruption and his government's failure to attend to the needs of the poor. Similarly, in the 1990s Peruvians ousted the authoritarian government of Alberto Fujimori, but his successor, Alejandro Toledo, had an 8% approval rating in 2004 as his administration was faced with charges of corruption and negligence. Many observers fear that Bolivia and Peru will continue to turn to authoritarian (Smith, 2004). Others see the fledgling infrastructures that were built after the fall of such figures as Fujimori and Chile's Augusto Pinochet as incapable of dealing with unrest that comes governmental transition. In these circumstances, authoritarian governments, under which law and order are considered paramount, may pose attractive alternatives (Blanco, 2006). In such cases, authoritarian governments may not only be installed legitimately, they may be welcomed, at least in the short term.

Authoritarianism vs. Totalitarianism

An ongoing debate in political science is a question of whether the concept of an authoritarian regime is different from a totalitarian system. Indeed, the two share a number of similarities: centralized leadership, control over media and other non-governmental institutions, and dominance over all facets of government. These types of systems even go beyond the political sphere in attempting to either win the loyalties of the population or wipe out their opponents.

However, there are notable differences between the totalitarian and authoritarian governmental systems. For example, as stated earlier, both seek to gain total control over the hearts and minds of their constituents. However, a number of studies indicate that totalitarian regimes tend to allow greater degrees of political participation than do authoritarian systems. The key in this comparison is the fact that a totalitarian regime is focused not only on total control but also on ensuring that the populace is working toward its continuation. Authoritarian systems, on the other hand, consolidate power at the head of the regime and generally do not seek to involve the citizenry in the political processes, though they may give their citizens some political and social freedoms as long as they are not seen as threatening toward the stability of the governing regime (Democracy Building, 2004).

The differences between the two forms of government can also been seen in the legacies they leave on the citizenry that emerge from them. In one analysis, Riley and Fernandez (2005) compared a formerly authoritarian state, Franco's Spain, with a formerly fascist totalitarian nation, Mussolini's Italy. Before these regimes came into power, Italy and Spain had relatively similar histories of political participation. After the regimes were dismantled, however, the citizens' level of political involvement changed: Italy had significantly higher levels of political participation and voter turnout than did Spain.

The main reason for such a disparity between two seemingly similar cultures and policies (both of which had fallen under the control of repressive, domineering governments) seems to have been the nature of dominating governments which ruled them. In the totalitarian state of Italy, party involvement was a critical element of the regime's efforts to ensure loyalty among the people. Hence, although Mussolini ruled with an iron fist, his commitment to keeping the Italian citizenry in line with his fascist endeavors made the Italian people savvier in political activity. Conversely, Franco's Spanish government was more focused on consolidating leadership...

(The entire section is 3305 words.)