It can get confusing. As Democrats battle each other for the chance to take on incumbent Republican President Donald Trump, a lot of comparisons are being made to different types of government and who supports whatf. It’s easy to lose focus on it all. To address that, here are the most common forms and what’s good, bad or indifferent can be your decision.
Anarchism refers to the absence of government, a condition in which a nation or state operates without a central governing body. This denotes an absence of public utilities or services, a lack of regulatory control, limited diplomatic relations with other nation-states, and in most instances, a society divided into different, locally-ruled settlements
Aristocracy refers to a form of government in which wealthy nobles are given power over those in lower socioeconomic strata. Positions of leadership are reserved for those of an elite ruling class, a status which is typically hereditary. The privileged ruling class is viewed, in this system, as possessing the education, upbringing, and genetic traits required for rulership. Aristocracy promotes an inherent class system that connects wealth and ethnicity with both the ability and right to rule.
Bureaucracy refers to a form of government in which non-elected government officials carry out public responsibilities as dictated by administrative policy-making groups. In a bureaucracy, rules, regulations, procedures, and outcomes are formulated to maintain order, achieve efficiency, and prevent favoritism within the system. Bureaucracies rarely serve as forms of government on their own but are instead often used as mechanisms to underlie and strengthen overarching forms of government. Indeed, bureaucratic streamlining of policy implementation can take place under the rule of a dictator or a democracy.
Capitalism refers to a form of economy in which production is driven by private ownership. Capitalism promotes the idea of open competition and extends from the belief that a free market economy — one with limited regulatory control — is the most efficient form of economic organization. Its advocates argue that capitalism promotes economic growth, improved standards of living, higher productivity, and broader prosperity, whereas critics argue that capitalism inherently promotes inequality, exploitation of the labor class, and unsustainable use of resources and land.
Colonialism is a form of governance in which a nation will seek to extend its sovereignty over other territories. In practical terms, colonialism involves the expansion of a nation’s rule beyond its borders. This often entails occupation of indigenous populations and exploitation of resources to the benefit of the ruling nation. The colonizer will also often impose its own economy, culture, religious order, and form of government on an occupied people to strengthen its own authority.
In its purest form, Communism refers to the idea of common, public ownership of the economy, including infrastructure, utilities, and means of production. Communism, as idealized by thinkers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, denotes an absence of class divisions, which inherently requires the subversion of the ruling class by the working class. As such, communism often incorporates the idea of revolutionary action against unequal rule. Communism often positions itself as a counterpoint to the economic stratification underlying capitalism. This resistance to stratification sometimes also takes the form of a single-state authority, one in which political opposition or dissidence may be restricted. This may manifest in some communist states as a more authoritarian form of governance, as typified by the Soviet brand of communism that swept the globe during the mid-20th century.
Democracy refers to a form of government in which the people are given a direct role in choosing their leadership. Its primary goal is governance through fair representation, a system in which no single force or entity can exercise unchecked control or authority. The result is a system which requires discourse, debate, and compromise to satisfy the broadest possible number of public interests. Democracy is typified by fair and free elections, civic participation, protection of human rights, and the rule of law.
Federalism is a form of government that both combines and divides powers between a centralized federal authority and an array of regional and local authorities. This is typically a system in which a set of states, territories, or provinces are both self-governing and beholden to the authority of a broad, unifying government structure. This is considered a balance in approach that provides roughly equal status of authority to two distinct levels of government.
A dictatorship is a nation ruled with absolute power, in the absence of a democratic process, and typically under the thumb of a single authority figure. In a military dictatorship, this authority usually heads the nation’s armed forces. A military dictatorship often comes to power by subverting the existing seat of government — sometimes though claims of corruption, weakness, or ineffectiveness — and which subsequently uses the military to establish its own brand of law and order. Military dictatorships will frequently prioritize law and order over due process, civil liberties, or political freedoms. Dissent or political opposition can be dangerous or even deadly for those living under a military dictatorship.
Monarchy refers to a form of rule in which absolute power and authority are held by a single member of a royal bloodline. In a monarchy, the individual in the seat of power is often believed to have been placed there by “divine right,” or the will of God. In a monarchical society, power is inherited within a line of succession that relates to one’s bloodline and birth-order within the ruling royal family. Though the monarchy has historically indicated absolute power, the concept has become increasingly diluted with the evolution of democratic principles. Today, some monarchies exist but are merely symbolic, whereas others coexist within constitutional structures. However, until the 19th century, monarchy was the most common form of government in the world.
Oligarchy refers to a form of government in which a smattering of individuals rule over a nation. In many ways, oligarchy is a catch-all for any number of other forms of governance in which a specific set of qualities — wealth, heredity, race — are used to vest power in a small group of individuals. So, forms of government regarded as aristocratic, plutocratic, or totalitarian, for instance, can be referred to as oligarchic. Oligarchies are often characterized by tyrannical or authoritarian rule and an absence of democratic practices or individual rights.
Republicanism, the form of government — not to be conflated with the Republican political party specific to U.S. politics — refers to a system in which power is vested in the citizenry. In technical definition, a republic is a nation in which the people hold popular sovereignty through the electoral and legislative processes as well as through participation in public and civic life. In its earliest form, the republic was perceived as a counterbalance to monarchy, an approach which merged monarchy and aristocracy with some trappings of democracy.
Socialism refers to a form of government in which the people own the primary means of production. A counterpoint to the competitive nature and unequal proclivities of capitalism, socialism has existed in many forms and to widely variant degrees of strictness throughout history and around the world. From small communal societies to state-level governments that provide encompassing public services such as universal healthcare, the concept of socialism permeates governments the world over. By contrast to the less compromising and often more authoritarian nature of communism, socialism tends to be a malleable concept. Some adherents view socialism as referring to a strict policy of shared ownership and equal distribution of resources, while others believe free market capitalism can coexist with socialist forms of public administration. To wit, the Social Security system of the declaratively capitalist United States is inherently socialist in nature.
Of course, this is just a quick overview of a vast subject. Each of these forms of government carries an array of complex philosophical, ethical, and practical questions. May this summary serve as a starting point as you plunge into your research.
The deeper dive is up to you!