What Is Authoritarianism?

Authoritarian government is a system in which political power condenses into one or more figures of authority. Authoritarian governments are created by democratic means, in which a particular leader or party is elected and power is centralized to a point where there is little resistance to their rule.

Authoritarian systems have democratic institutions, such as political parties, parliaments, and elections, but they are administered in ways that cement the authoritarian regime. Some argue that authoritarian systems have fewer institutional constraints than their totalitarian counterparts, owing to the ruling political party’s limited role in most authoritarian regimes. A final key feature of authoritarian political systems is the absence of official restrictions on state action, one that they share with totalitarian regimes.

Not all illiberal authoritarian practices occur because a political actor (s) gets into a political position (s), and authoritarianism is not defined by a lack of free and fair elections. Competitive authoritarian regimes differ from authoritarian regimes in that elections are held and the opposition can function freely and without high risk of exile or imprisonment, and democratic procedures only make sense if opposition groups take them seriously as arenas for power struggles.

Government authoritarianism refers to a political system that concentrates power in the hands of a leader or small elite not in the hands of a responsible people. An authoritarian government is a government where one person acts as an absolute ruler, whereas in totalitarianism the government consists of a certain group of people such as a political party. Authoritarian governments are governments that are not elected by the people but have absolute power to govern at will without consulting the people during their rule.

Authoritarianism is a form of government characterized by the rejection of political plurality, the use of powerful centralized power to maintain the political status quo, and the dismantling of the rule of law, separation of powers, and democratic voting. Various types of authoritarian governments include absolute monarchies, military dictatorships, and one-party ideological regimes. All of humanity has existed before, and authoritarian forms of government have existed before.

Authoritarianism and populism have become common terms for power-maker like Trump, Duterte, Erdogan, and Modi. Authoritarianism suggests that a combination of demographic, economic, and political forces awakened an authoritarian electorate that rallied around Donald Trump and created a new political party, the Republican Party, a phenomenon that burst into public view after the 2016 election and continued afterward. It is understood as a form of government or political policy that concentrates power, minimizes political pluralism, and suppresses civil society in the name of confrontation with a supposed enemy.

Political scientists studying authoritarianism have gathered a wealth of data on who exhibits these tendencies, and how they correspond to demographic profiles and political preferences. What they have found is impossible to ignore and is beginning to change our understanding of the American electorate. In the early 2000s, researchers began using the National Election Study, the largest survey of American voters conducted each national election year, as data to better understand how authoritarianism influences US politics, and their work has uncovered three insights that help explain not only the rise of Trump but also a half-century of political dynamism in America.

When conditions are not ripe for democracy, authoritarianism has a relative advantage. For many American political scientists, the Cold War-era distinguished between authoritarian and totalitarian governments. In the post-war period, “authoritarian” referred to unelected or elected governments, such as military dictatorships in many parts of the South and communist regimes in Eastern Europe.

Authoritarianism tends to accept the informal and unregulated exercise of political power by a leadership – self-appointed or elected – that does not supplant citizens with, arbitrary disenfranchisement of civil liberties and a low tolerance for meaningful opposition.

Authoritarian governments do not seek to transform society the way totalitarian systems do and have fewer motives to mobilize the masses than other kinds of political systems. Authoritarian political systems often hold elections without campaigns, and such elections lack any meaningful discussion of issues or forms of critical governance, so the outcome cannot be called into question. Control of political parties, combined with broader efforts to reshape society, can lead to a hybrid form of government that bridges authoritarianism and totalitarianism.

Authoritarian states’ constitutions fulfill a variety of functions, including operating manuals describing government functions, signaling the regime’s intention, drafts of future regime plans, window dressing and material intended to disguise such provisions, and a range of freedoms that may or may not be respected in practice. The Common Governance Framework should be transparent, flexible, responsive, and trustworthy, providing an opportunity to practice a democracy that counters authoritarian abuses of power. The movement needs critical thinking about how power functions and is exercised in the state in order to construct anti-authoritarian practices. Political scientists often find it useful to distinguish between simple democracy and liberal democracy, but rarely between authoritarian and illiberal practices.

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