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13.1 Contemporary Government Regimes: Power, Legitimacy, and Authority

A government can be defined as a set of organizations, with their associated rules and procedures, that has the authority to exercise the widest scope of power—the ability to impose its will on others to secure desired outcomes—over a defined area. Governments usually assert that they possess the final say on when the use of force is acceptable within the area over which they rule. Governments have an incentive to structure their exercises of power in the form of clearly authorized rules found in statutes, constitutions, or both, and most governments seek to legitimate their rule—that is, they seek to have their rule seen as rightful. Following Weber, many political scientists distinguish between broad legitimacy, or the fact of a state being seen as legitimate by a wide percentage of the population, and judgments about a government’s legitimacy made by individuals or groups. Governments sometimes suspend the authorized rules to respond to crises and sometimes do not enforce authorized rules; in both cases, it is possible that doing so can be seen as legitimate. Weber identified three major ways by which regimes can develop legitimacy: by ruling in accordance with tradition; by ruling through charismatic magnetism; or by ruling through rational laws. Governments can also attempt to manufacture popular support though the use of blatant or subtle forms of political propaganda. If either a government’s clearly authorized exercises of power or its exercise of vaguely defined emergency powers comes to be seen as illegitimate, the government can be exposed to civil disobedience or revolution.

13.2 Categorizing Contemporary Regimes

Regimes represent a wide variety of institutional forms. In authoritarian regimes, political power is consolidated in a group that is not accountable to the people through elections. Authoritarianism can be divided into soft and hard versions based largely on the degree to which the government consults with the people and aspires to uphold the people’s genuine interests and rights. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, known as North Korea, is an example of hard authoritarianism, and the Kingdom of Morocco can be seen as an example of soft authoritarianism. A regime can also blend elements of soft and hard authoritarianism, which is arguably the case in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Representative democratic government constitutes an additional kind of regime. Representative governments take a variety of forms. Some are federalist, where power is divided between national and regional governments, and others are unitary systems, where governmental power is held almost exclusively at the national level. Further, representative democracies can have a parliament, where the executive branch is selected by the legislative branch. Some parliamentary systems, such as in the State of Israel, confer seats in the legislature based on a party’s proportion of the popular vote rather than having elections among candidates in a set number of electoral districts. Systems that have a separation of power and a congressional system of government have an independently elected executive branch and usually elect legislators from set electoral districts, although some representative governments, such as the government of Mexico, blend selection of legislators by district elections and by proportional representation determined by the percentage of the vote parties in large sections of the country receive. Regimes across the world seek to legitimize their rule in a variety of ways, including by reference to tradition or the religious status and charisma of the leadership, or by claims to be protecting the rights of the citizens and/or advancing ambitious goals for establishing social justice.

13.3 Recent Trends: Illiberal Representative Regimes

One important global trend among political regimes is the popularity of illiberal representative governments. In Hungary, the people have democratically elected to the largest number of political offices a political party that espouses nationalism and values that stand in opposition to global human rights standards. In Pakistan, the people have elected Hindu nationalists who have advanced laws supporting Hinduism that many human rights organizations criticize. Representative regimes, therefore, do not always embrace the conceptions of individual rights and human equality that are increasingly central in many representative governments.

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