Authoritarianism (20TH CENTURY)

A critical term for despotic regimes.

Authoritarianism is characterized by or favoring absolute obedience to authority, as against individual freedom, and expects unquestioning obedience.

Authoritarianism is a manner rather than a style of governing, which neither takes seriously nor tolerates the expression of dissenting opinion nor the pursuit of contrary policies. Sometimes used as an alternative to totalitarianism by conservatives who do not wish to use that designation for military or despotic regimes which sustain private industrial property.

David Robertson, The Penguin Dictionary of Politics (London, 1985)


Authoritarianism is characterized by highly concentrated and centralized government power maintained by political repression and the exclusion of potential challengers. It uses political parties and mass organizations to mobilize people around the goals of the regime.[11] Adam Przeworski has theorized that “authoritarian equilibrium rests mainly on lies, fear and economic prosperity”.[12]

Authoritarianism also tends to embrace the informal and unregulated exercise of political power, a leadership that is “self-appointed and even if elected cannot be displaced by citizens’ free choice among competitors”, the arbitrary deprivation of civil liberties and little tolerance for meaningful opposition.[11] A range of social controls also attempt to stifle civil society while political stability is maintained by control over and support of the armed forces, a bureaucracy staffed by the regime and creation of allegiance through various means of socialization and indoctrination.[11]

Authoritarianism is marked by “indefinite political tenure” of the ruler or ruling party (often in a one-party state) or other authority.[11] The transition from an authoritarian system to a more democratic form of government is referred to as democratization.[11]

Constitutions in authoritarian regimes

Authoritarian regimes often adopt “the institutional trappings” of democracies such as constitutions.[13] Constitutions in authoritarian states may serve a variety of roles, including “operating manual” (describing how the government is to function); “billboard” (signal of regime’s intent), “blueprint” (outline of future regime plans), and “window dressing” (material designed to obfuscate, such as provisions setting forth freedoms that are not honored in practice).[14] Authoritarian constitutions may help legitimize, strengthen, and consolidate regimes.[15] An authoritarian constitution “that successfully coordinates government action and defines popular expectations can also help consolidate the regime’s grip on power by inhibiting re coordination on a different set of arrangements”.[16] Unlike democratic constitutions, authoritarian constitutions do not set direct limits on executive authority; however, in some cases such documents may function as ways for elites to protect their own property rights or constrain autocrats’ behavior.[17]

The concept of “authoritarian constitutionalism” has been developed by legal scholar Mark Tushnet.[18] Tushnet distinguishes authoritarian constitutionalist regimes from “liberal constitutionalist” regimes (“the sort familiar in the modern West, with core commitments to human rights and self-governance implemented by means of varying institutional devices”) and from purely authoritarian regimes (which reject the idea of human rights or constraints on leaders’ power).[18] He describes authoritarian constitutionalist regimes as (1) authoritarian dominant-party states that (2) impose sanctions (such as libel judgments) against, but do not arbitrarily arrest, political dissidents; (3) permits “reasonably open discussion and criticism of its policies”; (4) hold “reasonably free and fair elections”, without systemic intimidation, but “with close attention to such matters as the drawing of election districts and the creation of party lists to ensure as best it can that it will prevail—and by a substantial margin”; (5) reflect at least occasional responsiveness to public opinion; and (6) create “mechanisms to ensure that the amount of dissent does not exceed the level it regards as desirable”.[18] Tushnet cites Singapore as an example of an authoritarian constitutionalist state, and connects the concept to that of hybrid regimes.[18]


Scholars such as Seymour Lipset,[19] Carles Boix, Susan Stokes,[20] Dietrich Rueschemeyer, Evelyne Stephens and John Stephens[21] argue that economic development increases the likelihood of democratization. Adam Przeworski and Fernando Limongi argue that while economic development makes democracies less likely to turn authoritarian, there is insufficient evidence to conclude that development causes democratization (turning an authoritarian state into a democracy).[22]

Eva Bellin argues that under certain circumstances the bourgeoise and labor are more likely to favor democratization, but less so under other circumstances.[23] Economic development can boost public support for authoritarian regimes in the short-to-medium term.[24]


Within authoritarian systems, there may be nominally democratic institutions such as political parties, legislatures[25] and elections, but they are managed in a way so as to entrench authoritarian regimes.[26][9] Within democracies, parties serve to coordinate the pursuit of interests for like-minded citizens, whereas in authoritarian systems, they are a way for authoritarian leaders to find capable elites for the regime.[9] In a democracy, a legislature is intended to represent the diversity of interests among citizens, whereas authoritarians use legislatures to signal their own restraint towards other elites as well as to monitor other elites who pose a challenge to the regime.[9]

Fraudulent elections may serve the role of signaling the strength of the regime (to deter elites from challenging the regime), as well as force other elites to demonstrate their loyalty to the regime, whereas in democracies, free and fair elections are used to select representatives who represent the will of the citizens.[9][26] Elections may also motivate authoritarian party members to strengthen patron–client and information-gathering networks, which strengthens the authoritarian regime.[26] Elections may also motivate members of the ruling class to engage in public goods provision.[27]

According to one study, “most dictatorships led by parties have regular popular elections”. Prior to the 1990s, most of these elections had no alternative parties or candidates for voters to vote on. Since the end of the Cold War, about two-thirds of elections in authoritarian systems allow for some opposition, but the elections are structured in a way to heavily favor the incumbent authoritarian regime.[26]

Hindrances to free and fair elections in authoritarian systems may include:[26]

  • Control of the media by the authoritarian incumbents.
  • Interference with opposition campaigning.
  • Electoral fraud.
  • Violence against opposition.
  • Large-scale spending by the state in favor of the incumbents.
  • Permitting of some parties, but not others.
  • Prohibitions on opposition parties, but not independent candidates.
  • Allowing competition between candidates within the incumbent party, but not those who are not in the incumbent party.

Interactions with other elites and the masses

The foundations of stable authoritarian rule are that the authoritarian prevents contestation from the masses and other elites. The authoritarian regime may use co-optation or repression (or carrots and sticks) to prevent revolts.[28][29] In the 2010s, Kazakhstan has unsuccessfully tried to mobilize citizens and police to cooperate through the zero tolerance policing of petty crimes.[30]

Manipulation of information

According to a 2019 study by Sergei Guriev and Daniel Treisman, authoritarian regimes have over time become less reliant on violence and mass repression to maintain control. The study shows instead that authoritarians have increasingly resorted to manipulation of information as a means of control. Authoritarians increasingly seek to create an appearance of good performance, conceal state repression, and imitate democracy.[31]

Systemic weakness and resilience

Andrew J. Nathan notes that “regime theory holds that authoritarian systems are inherently fragile because of weak legitimacy, overreliance on coercion, over-centralization of decision making, and the predominance of personal power over institutional norms. […] Few authoritarian regimes—be they communist, fascist, corporatist, or personalist—have managed to conduct orderly, peaceful, timely, and stable successions”.[32]

Political scientist Theodore M. Vestal writes that authoritarian political systems may be weakened through inadequate responsiveness to either popular or elite demands and that the authoritarian tendency to respond to challenges by exerting tighter control, instead of by adapting, may compromise the legitimacy of an authoritarian state and lead to its collapse.[11]

One exception to this general trend is the endurance of the authoritarian rule of the Chinese Communist Party which has been unusually resilient among authoritarian regimes. Nathan posits that this can be attributed to four factors such as (1) “the increasingly norm-bound nature of its succession politics”; (2) “the increase in meritocratic as opposed to factional considerations in the promotion of political elites”; (3) “the differentiation and functional specialization of institutions within the regime”; and (4) “the establishment of institutions for political participation and appeal that strengthen the CCP’s legitimacy among the public at large”.[32]


Yale University political scientist Milan Svolik argues that violence is a common characteristic of authoritarian systems. Violence tends to be common in authoritarian states because of a lack of independent third parties empowered to settle disputes between the dictator, regime allies, regime soldiers and the masses.[28]

Authoritarians may resort to measures referred to as “coup-proofing”, i.e. structures that make it hard for any small group to seize power. These coup-proofing strategies may include the strategic placing of family, ethnic, and religious groups in the military; creation of an armed force parallel to the regular military; and development of multiple internal security agencies with overlapping jurisdiction that constantly monitor one another.[33] Research shows that some coup-proofing strategies reduce the risk of coups occurring.[34][35] However, coup-proofing reduces military effectiveness,[36][37][38] and limits the rents that an incumbent can extract.[39] A 2016 study shows that the implementation of succession rules reduce the occurrence of coup attempts.[40] Succession rules are believed to hamper coordination efforts among coup plotters by assuaging elites who have more to gain by patience than by plotting.[40] According to political scientists Curtis Bell and Jonathan Powell, coup attempts in neighbouring countries lead to greater coup-proofing and coup-related repression in a region.[41] A 2017 study finds that countries’ coup-proofing strategies are heavily influenced by other countries with similar histories.[42] A 2018 study in the Journal of Peace Research found that leaders who survive coup attempts and respond by purging known and potential rivals are likely to have longer tenures as leaders.[43] A 2019 study in Conflict Management and Peace Science found that personalist dictatorships are more likely to take coup-proofing measures than other authoritarian regimes; the authors argue that this is because “personalists are characterized by weak institutions and narrow support bases, a lack of unifying ideologies and informal links to the ruler”.[44]

According to a 2019 study, personalist dictatorships are more repressive than other forms of dictatorship

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