Types Of Political Systems

Greek parliament in session. The parliament is one element in a broader set of institutions that make up a political system

Politics is the process through which a group of people make collectively binding agreements and act on them. A political system is a set of social institutions through which this process is conducted; including the electoral system, the law making institution, public administration, law enforcement, and judiciary. Governments make collective decisions that bind members of their community into agreements, in so doing they exercise power over people. A primary factor to consider in the analysis of any political system is then to ask on what is the exercise of power over people based. A government’s power is in its capacity to define people’s choices for them; people have to in some way give over their individual choices and agency to the collective organization. We can then ask why do the individuals do this? Why do individuals submit to the will of the combined organization and give over their individual agency to it? On what basis is the political system’s authority seen to be legitimate by the people? As the legitimacy of a political system is foundational to is construction it will shape its basic overall structure and workings.

Legitimacy is commonly defined in political science and sociology as the belief that a rule, institution, or leader has the right to govern.1 It is a judgment by an individual about the rightfulness of a hierarchy between rule or ruler and its subject and about the subordinate’s obligations toward the political system. Legitimacy is a value whereby something or someone is recognized and accepted as right and proper.2 Three types of political legitimacy have been identified by the German sociologist Max Weber, which he described as being traditional, charismatic, and rational-legal.3 Traditional legitimacy derives from societal custom and habit that emphasize the history of the authority of tradition. Traditionalists understand this form of rule as historically accepted, hence its continuity, because it is the way society has always been. Charismatic legitimacy derives from the ideas and personal charisma of the leader, a person whose authoritative persona charms and psychologically dominates the people of the society to agreement with the government’s régime and rule. Rational-legal legitimacy derives from a system of institutional procedure, wherein government institutions establish and enforce law and order in the public interest.4


On the most basic level, a political system can maintain power through the exercise of forceful coercion. Through the exercise of physical force or the threat of it, they can get people to give over their agency and choices to the political organization. In such a case the term “might makes right” defines the authority of the organization although this will likely be masqueraded in various forms. Such a political system may be defined as being autocratic, which is government by the few who are strong enough to seize power through forceful means.4 Autocratic means of or relating to a ruler who has absolute power and takes little account of other people’s wishes or opinions.

Autocracy is often termed the oldest form of government and it can be seen to be inherited from our closest ancestors in the primate group – where social order is often maintained through what is called a dominance hierarchy. A dominance hierarchy arises when members of a social group interact, often aggressively, to create a ranking system.6 In animal and human social systems, members are likely to compete for access to limited resources. Animal decisions regarding involvement in conflict are defined by the interplay between the costs and benefits of agonistic behavior. Rather than fighting each time they meet, relative relationships are formed between members. Based on repetitive interactions a social order is created that is subject to change each time a dominant member is challenged by a subordinate one.7

Quite simply the dominance hierarchy that defines autocratic systems means that those who are the strongest will rule others and have the power to determine their actions. In such a political system power ultimately rest on the fear of the individuals being ruled. The subordinates follow the actions decided by the rulers because of the fear that they have of the consequence of not doing so. Thus the system ultimately rests on the capacity, of the rulers to induce fear in the subordinates and thus control their actions towards the ends of the ruling members. Without this capacity, the subjects would not do what the rulers command and the political system would lose its control and power. Achieving power over others through the capacity to induce fear in them can come in many subtle forms and be mediated through many channels. For example, many authoritarian political regimes maintain power by creating some threat that is external to the group and posit their maintenance of power as the only means of avoiding that threat. For example, contemporary North Korea inculcates a sense of imminent threat from external aggressive nations in its people, thus validating the maintenance of a strong military rule by the regime.

Ostensibly autocracy is often difficult to distinguish from nonautocratic rule. As autocratic systems typically attempt to borrow legitimacy by adopting the language of the constitutions of nonautocratic regimes and creating similar institutions.

Autocracy is characterized by the concentration of power in a central organization, be it an individual dictator or a group of power holders such as a committee or a party leadership. This center relies on force to suppress opposition and to limit social developments that might eventuate in opposition. The power of the center is not subject to effective controls or limited by genuine sanctions: it is often absolute power. Autocracies attempt to borrow legitimacy by adopting the language of the constitutions of non-autocratic regimes or by establishing similar institutions. It is a common practice, for example, in many modern totalitarian states to establish institutions such as parliaments, courts, legal codes, elections etc. that appear to have the institutional structures of democratic republics. Similarly, the language of totalitarian constitutions is often couched in terms of the doctrines of popular rule or democracy. The difference is that in totalitarian regimes neither the institutions nor the constitutional provisions act as effective checks on the power of those at the top of the political hierarchy.8


The first form of political system that may be thought of as being legitimate in the sense identified by Max Weber is that of legitimacy based on tradition. Traditional legitimacy derives from societal custom and habit that emphasize the history of the authority of tradition.9 In many premodern societies, some religion, social or political order that was laid down in the past comes to be accepted without question and in a conservative system, it is the function of the present organization to uphold and perpetuate that order. This can be seen to come both from some veneration of the past, a desire for continuity and a recognition that what has stood the test of time must in some way work. The institutions of traditional government usually are historically continuous, as in monarchy and tribalism where the system is typically organized to perpetuate the rule of a particular family that ruled in the past.9

In a political context, this may be call conservatism. Conservatism is a political and social philosophy that promotes retaining traditional social institutions; conservatism emphasizes stability and continuity in the sociopolitical order.10 There is no single set of policies that are universally regarded as conservative because the meaning of conservatism depends on what is considered traditional in a given place and time. Thus conservatives from different parts of the world – each upholding their respective traditions – may disagree on a wide range of specific issues.11 However at the heart of conservatism is the philosophy of communitarianism; conservatism aims to preserve the unity and integrity of a given community and to resist change that may threaten, destabilize or disintegrate the existing institutions that form the sense of community and shared heritage of a given people.

Communitarianism is a philosophy that emphasizes the connection between the individual and the community.13 Its overriding philosophy is based upon the belief that a person’s social identity and personality are largely molded by community relationships, with a smaller degree of development being placed on individualism. A core tenet of conservatism is the rejection of the application of abstract reasoning towards remaking society based upon theoretical principles, instead asserting that political reality is an embedded phenomenon; embedded within existing social cultural and political institutions that conservatism desires to retain. From this perspective, politics should be about using existing institutions to respond to current changes while maintaining them.14

Conservatism is nontheoretical in nature, it can only be understood from within the context of the community whose integrity it wishes to preserve. From a conservative perspective, reason is not a basis for the judging of authority.14 Traditional practices, actions and ways of acting should not be open to reason-based inquiry in order to determine their validity. Their validity is determined within the context of upholding and maintaining the integrity of the existing community. That reason is fundamentally limited in scope and as a modality for the construction of culture and political organization is a new and relatively untested innovation compared to the tried and tested historical religious and social arrangements.14 Authority in the form of tradition and power and people’s’ unquestioned respect and fear of them are required to maintain social stability and order.

Traditionalist conservatism is a political philosophy emphasizing organic unity based on a common territory often coupled with one dominant faith system. This combination creates a sphere of loyalties and responsibilities that the individual is bound to; a modern expression of this is often found in nationalism, where the nation is the identified community.14 Political conservatism emphasizes the need for the principles of natural law. Natural law begins with the premise that all of our rights come from God or nature and are inherent to our being. It is sometimes defined as “the law above the law.” Natural law is a vital part of the conservative intellectual heritage where it is generally assumed to be the proper basis for legislation, above positive law that is constructed through the application of reason alone.15

The conservative far right was originally based around the authority of the king church and landed aristocracy, but this gradually disappeared as modernity developed and it became increasingly unviable within a capitalist economy,

Instead of appealing to reason as a foundation to political organization, conservatism is more inclined to search for its foundation in what we might call “human nature”. According to Quintin Hogg, a former chairman of the British Conservative Party  “Conservatism is not so much a philosophy as an attitude, a constant force, performing a timeless function in the development of a free society, and corresponding to a deep and permanent requirement of human nature itself.”16 Conservatism in general defends the idea of social and economic inequality which can be seen to derive from the conception of “human nature” as in some way akin to that of the construct of “man in a state of nature” where there is seen to be a natural struggle for resources between communities and people; where the strong survive and we get the formation of a natural hierarchical structure to society.

Such a hierarchy is seen to be both natural and the correct order of things and thus interventions by the state based on theories of equality between people are seen as detrimental and at times deeply offensive to those who hold a conservative philosophy. Conservatism today often takes the form of a desire for limited state intervention. In a contemporary context, the market system can be seen to replace the more traditional domains within which peoples and groups compete and prove their merit within the hierarchy. As such both economic, political and social inequality are seen to follow naturally from this premise of human nature.  


The third form of legitimacy for governance that Max Weber outline was that of rational-legal legitimacy. This form of legitimacy is derived from the rational self-interest of the members of the community. That is to say, the people do what the government tells them to do because ultimately it is in their collective interest. This idea is formalized in the construct of the social contract. The basic intuition of social contract theory is that people have rights and they give over these writes to a single governing organization in exchange for the protection of their life, liberty, and property.17

In such a formulation of government, power is seen to come from the individual members of the community; they give up some of their freedom and invest it in a centralized authority, ultimately because they see it as in their best interest. The government is then formalized in terms of contracts where in freely consenting individuals give over their actions and submit to follow a centralized authority out of their own interest. There are a number of key elements in this model to note. Firstly that power is seen to derive from the people; it derives from the inalienable rights of the individual. Secondly, that the system is one based on reason and rationality as encoded in contracts and laws. Thirdly, that the ultimate aim of the system is that of personal fulfillment and the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people.

In this form of political system, power is seen to derive from the people. A political organization wherein ultimate power is seen to rest not with some governing organization but instead, with the people, is called a republic. A republic is a state in which supreme power is held by the people, but is typically exercised by some set of elected representatives. The term republic is the broader term for rule by the people, which must include some democratic elements within it. Theoretically, power and freedom reside with the individual citizen but they freely consent to give over this to form governing institutions. Government institutions are then designed to establish and enforce law and order in the public interest. If the government fails to act in the common interest then the people have the right to replace them with a new government.

The theoretical construct of the social contract and republics is expressed in constitutions which often start with the implicit or explicit statement that the constitution is an expression of the people’s will and rights. In the modern world, constitutional democracy is the chief type of nonautocratic government. The minimal definition in institutional terms of a constitutional democracy is that it should provide for a regularized system of periodic elections with a free choice of candidates, the opportunity to organize competing political parties, adult suffrage, decisions by majority vote with protection of minority rights, an independent judiciary, constitutional safeguards for basic civil liberties, and the opportunity to change any aspect of the governmental system through agreed procedures.18

The move towards liberal republican political organization that has taken place during the modern era has been underpinned by the underlying cultural transformation from a religious-based to a reason-based form of culture. The rise of reason and rational social institutions throughout the modern era has, within the political realm, been translated into a huge rise in liberal republicanism. Whereas a premodern conception of governance is based upon natural law. Natural law is a philosophy asserting that certain rights are inherent by virtue of human nature and are typically seen to be given by some religious tradition or a transcendent source. Good governance is then largely equated to what the moral code deems to be correct, good or right. Traditional political philosophy believed that political society required virtuous rulers.19

In the modern era social institutions come to be designed around rational self-interest and the role of natural law, human nature and virtue are diminished. This break from tradition was most famously expressed in the work of Niccolò Machiavelli, who was one of the first political theorists to decouple ideas of human virtue from practical matters of exercising political power. After Machiavelli, modern political philosophy tried to design procedures that would lead to a just outcome without presuming the presence of virtue in the system. Political society was to be based only on rational self-interest as was found expressed in the work of Adam Smith who tried to illustrate how overall beneficial outcomes for society could be achieved even when people followed only there self-interested ends.20

A key feature of the development of the modern era has been the decoupling of social institutions from the spiritual dimension of the community. The spiritual dimension became increasingly seen as something personal while the realm of the public comes to be seen as the realm of the rational. Politics becomes increasingly decoupled from ethics as political institutions became decoupled from religious institutions. Prior to the modern era, we searched for the ideal political system as being one that was ruled by virtuous people, the solution to politics was in putting the wises most virtuous people in power, with the modern era this changed as we now stopped concerning ourselves so much with the virtue of the individuals but look more at the structure of the system’s design. The work of Machiavelli marked the birth of modern political theory in that it departs from a traditional conception of politics by searching for the best political system as one ruled by the virtuous and looks simply at the nature of political systems and how power operates – how a ruler can operate most effectively within such a system and how through the use of reason alone we could design better outcomes.20

The modern era has seen a huge rise in liberal republican forms of government based upon rational law that has resulted in an expansion of the personal freedom of citizens; general freedom of speech and association

The rise of reason as the dominant modality for cultural production within modern societies displaced the idea of natural law as the foundations of governance and replaced it with rational secular law. This secular or positive law is made by human beings, for human beings, with limited reference to any transcendental sources – it is constructed out of reason instead of revelation. Positive law attempts to create a rule based framework for governance through the application of reason where all are equal before the legal system. Since the Enlightenment, the cosmopolitan ideal attached to liberal republicanism and capitalism has been that individuals from different races, ethnicities, cultures, and civilizations can adopt a set of culturally neutral practices, allowing them to interact to one another’s advantage being equal before the impersonal apparatus of the law. Part of the legitimacy of rational forms of political organization derives from their equal application to all; the constraint of processes to logic and the transparency of that logic to all. As Tom Tyler, writes in his book The Psychology of Legitimacy: “the roots of legitimacy lie in people’s assessments of the fairness of the decision-making procedures used by authorities and institutions” (Tyler 2001, 416).

A third major dimension to the legitimacy of rational political institutions is that of utility. Utilitarianism became a highly influential philosophy during the formation of the modern political system. Simply put it sees the legitimacy of rational institutions to lay in their capacity to provide the greatest good to the greatest number of people. Within the rational formulation to the legitimacy of authority, the government is seen to derive its legitimacy from its utility. The government is a rational instrument designed to express the communities interests and provide certain services in the most efficient manner possible. its capacity to fulfill this function and provide the desired services is a basis for its reason for being, and a primary metric for an assessment of its validity. Instrumental legitimacy rests on the rational assessment of the usefulness of an authority and describing to what extent that authority responds to shared needs. Instrumental legitimacy is very much based on the perceived effectiveness of service delivery. Thus governments become rule-bound bureaucratic systems similar to other forms of rational institutions such as corporations, which are measured according to their efficiency in delivering the desired results.20

Normative Organizations

Finally, we can identify one last source of legitimacy to the foundations of a political system as that of normative values. Political order and the foundations to political action can be created through the use of forceful coercion, through reference to tradition and continuity, to self-interest within rational institutions but people can also be moved into action by normative motives. Normative organizations are those organizations in which membership is voluntary and which are joined in order for members to pursue a common interest. A normative organization is one that shows a strong commitment toward supporting a particular cause. People voluntarily join a normative organization because they identify with the organization’s goals and view these goals as socially or morally worthwhile.21

A normative organization differs from the other forms of organization, in that the individual is not coerced, nor are they bound by tradition to take action, nor is there any immediate tangible reward for joining such an organization – they do it out of their own volition to full fill some normative value that they believe in. People join normative organizations to pursue goals they consider morally worthwhile. The interests of such organizations can be, for example, community services, social action, or environmental protection. They are concerned with specific social issues. One example of a voluntary normative political organization would be Green Peace or Amnesty International, in both organizations members combine their political resources towards a common end that is not given by tradition, enforced or gives immediate remuneration, but they do it because they believe in the value of the environment or that of freedom. Other examples would include Edhi Trust, Red Crescent, The Lions Club. Voluntary organizations typically strive for participatory democracy, in which all members have an equal opportunity to discuss and decide important questions affecting the organization.22

Of course, virtually all political systems will be a combination of all these bases for legitimacy. Virtually all forms of government will use forceful coercion in some way, they will base their legitimacy on some cultural and social heritage that they purport to maintain and develop; virtually all governments today employ rational institutions and the language of reason based governance and many will appeal to normative aspect within their citizens.

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