What Is Authoritarianism? Authoritarianism Defined

(Last Updated On: April 19, 2019)

What Is Authoritarianism? Authoritarianism Defined

What is authoritarianism? Are there different types of authoritarianism? And how do authoritarian regimes function?

What Is Authoritarianism?

Broadly, an authoritarian regime can be simplistically characterized as extreme centralization of power compounded with the limitation of civil liberties. Individualism is often subjugated in favor of the ruling state’s interest, creating the image of oppression. And there is often no constitutional accountability or rule of law under an authoritarian regime.

We’ll get into the nitty-gritty in a second, but according to Spanish sociologist Juan José Linz, an authoritarian regime can be roughly outlined like so:

  • Political institutions, think political parties and legislative bodies, are limited in power. (This often limits opposition against the ruling party).
  • The regime gains legitimacy through the emotions of the people, often referred to as “charismatic legitimacy.” The head of state often points to easily recognizable issues that they want to fix, like state enemies, to sway the people.
  • Civil society is difficult, ergo the people have issues mobilizing to form protests or parades, etc.
  • The power held by the centralized body is often ill-defined, but it’s accepted that the body has a lot of it.

Types of Authoritarianism

We touched on it a little bit, but an authoritarian regime is not synonymous with an autocratic one. That is to say, an authoritarian regime does not always have a single leader. Sometimes, the centralized power of an authoritarian government might be spread out between multiple people or institutions.

Nowadays we can see authoritarian monarchies, wherein an authoritarian leader is put into power based on their bloodline – essentially forming a dynasty. We also have authoritarian regimes based on oligarchies, wherein small families can hold almost all the power over economic welfare. Of course, there are authoritarian regimes that come from the military as well. These often take rise after a coup.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of authoritarian regime types, but hopefully you have a better idea of how the term is more diverse than it seems at face value.

How Do Authoritarian Regimes Function?

If you think back to the bullet points Juan José Linz gave us, you might be wondering (generally) how an authoritarian regime maintains this status? Most of the power from an authoritarian regime stems from control and perception.

The head of state in an authoritarian regime often holds power because the people believe that the party will solve some major problem for the people. As a result, as long as the people continue to believe that the party is serving that purpose, the regime tends to stay in power. As a result, you see a lot of control over information flow and the press, and large scale propaganda issued to the people. We can see examples of this sort of control in countries like North Korea today.

More on North Korea from us here.

Furthermore, sometimes a regime might manipulate people through fear. A prime example is China during the 1980s. Their government used its military to shut down protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 with the aim of de-incentivizing civil society and civil mobilization.

Authoritarian Trends

Despite efforts for worldwide democratization (whether you agree with out-of-state intervention to install a new form of government or not), it turns out that there’s a global trend away from democracy. From 2006 to 2016, far more countries saw losses in civil liberties than gains. Some refer to this period as the “Decade of Decline.”

There are probably a handful of reasons for this. One being that currently installed authoritarian regimes are seeing their parties grow more powerful (as their opposition is eroded and/or destroyed over time).

Even previously democratic nations are moving in authoritarian directions. As nationalistic tendencies rise and nations around the globe begin to isolate themselves, we are seeing “post-truth” ideology become more and more common. That is to say, it is becoming more common for facts to be considered opinions and subsequently disregarded. Such an ideology makes it extremely easy to slip into an authoritarian regime, so long as the state leader is charismatic enough to swing the opinions of the people in their favor.

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About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.