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Introduction to Sociology

17.2 Forms of Government

Introduction to Sociology17.2 Forms of Government
  1. Preface to Introduction to Sociology
  2. 1 An Introduction to Sociology
    1. Introduction to Sociology
    2. 1.1 What Is Sociology?
    3. 1.2 The History of Sociology
    4. 1.3 Theoretical Perspectives
    5. 1.4 Why Study Sociology?
    6. Key Terms
    7. Section Summary
    8. Section Quiz
    9. Short Answer
    10. Further Research
    11. References
  3. 2 Sociological Research
    1. Introduction to Sociological Research
    2. 2.1 Approaches to Sociological Research
    3. 2.2 Research Methods
    4. 2.3 Ethical Concerns
    5. Key Terms
    6. Section Summary
    7. Section Quiz
    8. Short Answer
    9. Further Research
    10. References
  4. 3 Culture
    1. Introduction to Culture
    2. 3.1 What Is Culture?
    3. 3.2 Elements of Culture
    4. 3.3 Pop Culture, Subculture, and Cultural Change
    5. 3.4 Theoretical Perspectives on Culture
    6. Key Terms
    7. Section Summary
    8. Section Quiz
    9. Short Answer
    10. Further Research
    11. References
  5. 4 Society and Social Interaction
    1. Introduction to Society and Social Interaction
    2. 4.1 Types of Societies
    3. 4.2 Theoretical Perspectives on Society
    4. 4.3 Social Constructions of Reality
    5. Key Terms
    6. Section Summary
    7. Section Quiz
    8. Short Answer
    9. Further Research
    10. References
  6. 5 Socialization
    1. Introduction to Socialization
    2. 5.1 Theories of Self Development
    3. 5.2 Why Socialization Matters
    4. 5.3 Agents of Socialization
    5. 5.4 Socialization Across the Life Course
    6. Key Terms
    7. Section Summary
    8. Section Quiz
    9. Short Answer
    10. Further Research
    11. References
  7. 6 Groups and Organization
    1. Introduction to Groups and Organizations
    2. 6.1 Types of Groups
    3. 6.2 Group Size and Structure
    4. 6.3 Formal Organizations
    5. Key Terms
    6. Section Summary
    7. Section Quiz
    8. Short Answer
    9. Further Research
    10. References
  8. 7 Deviance, Crime, and Social Control
    1. Introduction to Deviance, Crime, and Social Control
    2. 7.1 Deviance and Control
    3. 7.2 Theoretical Perspectives on Deviance
    4. 7.3 Crime and the Law
    5. Key Terms
    6. Section Summary
    7. Section Quiz
    8. Short Answer
    9. Further Research
    10. References
  9. 8 Media and Technology
    1. Introduction to Media and Technology
    2. 8.1 Technology Today
    3. 8.2 Media and Technology in Society
    4. 8.3 Global Implications
    5. 8.4 Theoretical Perspectives on Media and Technology
    6. Key Terms
    7. Section Summary
    8. Section Quiz
    9. Short Answer
    10. Further Research
    11. References
  10. 9 Social Stratification in the United States
    1. Introduction to Social Stratification in the United States
    2. 9.1 What Is Social Stratification?
    3. 9.2 Social Stratification and Mobility in the United States
    4. 9.3 Global Stratification and Inequality
    5. 9.4 Theoretical Perspectives on Social Stratification
    6. Key Terms
    7. Section Summary
    8. Section Quiz
    9. Short Answer
    10. Further Research
    11. References
  11. 10 Global Inequality
    1. Introduction to Global Inequality
    2. 10.1 Global Stratification and Classification
    3. 10.2 Global Wealth and Poverty
    4. 10.3 Theoretical Perspectives on Global Stratification
    5. Key Terms
    6. Section Summary
    7. Section Quiz
    8. Short Answer
    9. Further Research
    10. References
  12. 11 Race and Ethnicity
    1. Introduction to Race and Ethnicity
    2. 11.1 Racial, Ethnic, and Minority Groups
    3. 11.2 Stereotypes, Prejudice, and Discrimination
    4. 11.3 Theories of Race and Ethnicity
    5. 11.4 Intergroup Relationships
    6. 11.5 Race and Ethnicity in the United States
    7. Key Terms
    8. Section Summary
    9. Section Quiz
    10. Short Answer
    11. Further Research
    12. References
  13. 12 Gender, Sex, and Sexuality
    1. Introduction to Gender, Sex, and Sexuality
    2. 12.1 The Difference Between Sex and Gender
    3. 12.2 Gender
    4. 12.3 Sex and Sexuality
    5. Key Terms
    6. Section Summary
    7. Section Quiz
    8. Short Answer
    9. Further Research
    10. References
  14. 13 Aging and the Elderly
    1. Introduction to Aging and the Elderly
    2. 13.1 Who Are the Elderly? Aging in Society
    3. 13.2 The Process of Aging
    4. 13.3 Challenges Facing the Elderly
    5. 13.4 Theoretical Perspectives on Aging
    6. Key Terms
    7. Section Summary
    8. Section Quiz
    9. Short Answer
    10. Further Research
    11. References
  15. 14 Marriage and Family
    1. Introduction to Marriage and Family
    2. 14.1 What Is Marriage? What Is a Family?
    3. 14.2 Variations in Family Life
    4. 14.3 Challenges Families Face
    5. Key Terms
    6. Section Summary
    7. Section Quiz
    8. Short Answer
    9. Further Research
    10. References
  16. 15 Religion
    1. Introduction to Religion
    2. 15.1 The Sociological Approach to Religion
    3. 15.2 World Religions
    4. 15.3 Religion in the United States
    5. Key Terms
    6. Section Summary
    7. Section Quiz
    8. Short Answer
    9. Further Research
    10. References
  17. 16 Education
    1. Introduction to Education
    2. 16.1 Education around the World
    3. 16.2 Theoretical Perspectives on Education
    4. 16.3 Issues in Education
    5. Key Terms
    6. Section Summary
    7. Section Quiz
    8. Short Answer
    9. Further Research
    10. References
  18. 17 Government and Politics
    1. Introduction to Government and Politics
    2. 17.1 Power and Authority
    3. 17.2 Forms of Government
    4. 17.3 Politics in the United States
    5. 17.4 Theoretical Perspectives on Government and Power
    6. Key Terms
    7. Section Summary
    8. Section Quiz
    9. Short Answer
    10. Further Research
    11. References
  19. 18 Work and the Economy
    1. Introduction to Work and the Economy
    2. 18.1 Economic Systems
    3. 18.2 Globalization and the Economy
    4. 18.3 Work in the United States
    5. Key Terms
    6. Section Summary
    7. Section Quiz
    8. Short Answer
    9. Further Research
    10. References
  20. 19 Health and Medicine
    1. Introduction to Health and Medicine
    2. 19.1 The Social Construction of Health
    3. 19.2 Global Health
    4. 19.3 Health in the United States
    5. 19.4 Comparative Health and Medicine
    6. 19.5 Theoretical Perspectives on Health and Medicine
    7. Key Terms
    8. Section Summary
    9. Section Quiz
    10. Short Answer
    11. Further Research
    12. References
  21. 20 Population, Urbanization, and the Environment
    1. Introduction to Population, Urbanization, and the Environment
    2. 20.1 Demography and Population
    3. 20.2 Urbanization
    4. 20.3 The Environment and Society
    5. Key Terms
    6. Section Summary
    7. Section Quiz
    8. Short Answer
    9. Further Research
    10. References
  22. 21 Social Movements and Social Change
    1. Introduction to Social Movements and Social Change
    2. 21.1 Collective Behavior
    3. 21.2 Social Movements
    4. 21.3 Social Change
    5. Key Terms
    6. Section Summary
    7. Section Quiz
    8. Short Answer
    9. References
  23. Index
A mosaic of Saddam Hussein and other tile decorations are shown on a wall.
Figure 17.5 Former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein used fear and intimidation to keep citizens in check. (Photo courtesy of Brian Hillegas/flickr)

Most people generally agree that anarchy, or the absence of organized government, does not facilitate a desirable living environment for society, but it is much harder for individuals to agree upon the particulars of how a population should be governed. Throughout history, various forms of government have evolved to suit the needs of changing populations and mindsets, each with pros and cons. Today, members of Western society hold that democracy is the most just and stable form of government, although former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once declared to the House of Commons, “Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time” (Shapiro 2006).

Monarchy

Even though people in the United States tend to be most aware of Great Britain’s royals, many other nations also recognize kings, queens, princes, princesses, and other figures with official royal titles. From one country to another, the power held by these positions varies. Strictly speaking, a monarchy is a government in which a single person (a monarch) rules until that individual dies or abdicates the throne. Usually, a monarch claims the rights to title by way of hereditary succession or as a result of some sort of divine appointment or calling. As mentioned previously, the monarchies of most modern nations are ceremonial remnants of tradition, and individuals who hold titles in such sovereignties are often aristocratic figureheads.

A few nations today, however, are run by governments wherein a monarch has absolute or unmitigated power. Such nations are called absolute monarchies. Although governments and regimes are constantly changing across the global landscape, it is generally safe to say that most modern absolute monarchies are concentrated in the Middle East and Africa. The small, oil-rich nation of Oman, for instance, is an example of an absolute monarchy. In this nation, Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said has ruled since the 1970s. Recently, living conditions and opportunities for Oman’s citizens have improved, but many citizens who live under the reign of an absolute ruler must contend with oppressive or unfair policies that are installed based on the unchecked whims or political agendas of that leader.

In today’s global political climate, monarchies far more often take the form of constitutional monarchies, governments of nations that recognize monarchs but require these figures to abide by the laws of a greater constitution. Many countries that are now constitutional monarchies evolved from governments that were once considered absolute monarchies. In most cases, constitutional monarchies, such as Great Britain and Canada, feature elected prime ministers whose leadership role is far more involved and significant than that of its titled monarchs. In spite of their limited authority, monarchs endure in such governments because people enjoy their ceremonial significance and the pageantry of their rites.

Queen Noor of Jordan.
Figure 17.6 Queen Noor of Jordan is the dowager queen of this constitutional monarchy and has limited political authority. She is a noted global advocate for Arab-Western relations. (Photo courtesy of Skoll World Forum/flickr)

Oligarchy

The power in an oligarchy is held by a small, elite group. Unlike in a monarchy, members of an oligarchy do not necessarily achieve their status based on ties to noble ancestry. Rather, they may ascend to positions of power because of military might, economic power, or similar circumstances.

The concept of oligarchy is somewhat elusive; rarely does a society openly define itself as an oligarchy. Generally, the word carries negative connotations and conjures notions of a corrupt group whose members make unfair policy decisions in order to maintain their privileged positions. Many modern nations that claim to be democracies are really oligarchies. In fact, some prominent journalists have labeled the United States an oligarchy, pointing to the influence of large corporations and Wall Street executives on American policy (Krugman 2011). Other political analysts assert that all democracies are really just “elected oligarchies,” or systems in which citizens must vote for an individual who is part of a pool of candidates who come from the society’s elite ruling class (Winters 2011).

Oligarchies have existed throughout history, and today many consider Russia an example of oligarchic political structure. After the fall of communism, groups of business owners captured control of this nation’s natural resources and have used the opportunity to expand their wealth and political influence. Once an oligarchic power structure is established, it can be very difficult for middle- and lower-class citizens to advance their socioeconomic status.

Is the United States an Oligarchy?

During the famed Gilded Age of American history, prominent socialite Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish organized and hosted a lavish dinner party in honor of her pampered dog, who arrived at the function sporting a $15,000 diamond collar (PBS Online 1999). Such absurd luxuries were fairly commonplace among the ultra-rich during this era of American history, which saw the rise and dominance of such families as the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, and Carnegies. As the super-rich reveled in their wealth, however, most Americans scraped by, living below what was considered the poverty level.

A mansion built during the Gilded Age.
Figure 17.7 The Breakers, the famous Newport, Rhode Island, home of the Vanderbilts, is a powerful symbol of the extravagant wealth that characterized the Gilded Age. (Photo courtesy of ckramer/flickr)

Interestingly, some scholars now believe that the United States has embarked on a second Gilded Age and have offered hard data to back up their assertions. Such camps point to the fact that the “400 wealthiest American families now own more than the ‘lower’ 150 million Americans put together” (Schulz 2011). Much of this current generation’s wealth is concentrated among corporate executives and Wall Street tycoons.

Many of the super-rich use their economic clout to purchase more than luxury items. Specifically, wealthy individuals and corporations are major political donors. Because their campaign contributions have the potential to influence policy decisions and the election of candidates, the economic power of this segment of society is used for acquiring political power. As this dynamic continues, it supports the view that the concentration of wealth in the United States has contributed to making it like an oligarchy (Krugman 2011).

These patterns of wealth distribution and political contributions have spurred lively debate in recent years. Some see great wealth as a fair reward for hard work and talent, believing that political contributions are part of free expression in a democratic society. Others maintain that the concentration of wealth is a signal that too many people’s economic opportunities are limited. Another concern is that lack of equal power in making monetary donations will translate into an uneven distribution of political power—a situation that raises questions of the fairness of a “representational” system. These viewpoints underlay many of the recent political debates about tax policy, campaign finance reform, and government budgets in the United States.

Vladimir Putin.
Figure 17.8 Support from prominent Russian oligarchs propelled leader Vladimir Putin to power. (Photo courtesy of Kremlin.ru/Wikimedia Commons)

Dictatorship

Power in a dictatorship is held by a single person (or a very small group) that wields complete and absolute authority over a government or populace after the dictator rises to power, usually through economic or military might. Similar to many absolute monarchies, dictatorships may often be corrupt and seek to limit and even eradicate the liberties of the general population. Many dictators start out as military leaders and are more conditioned to violence if they face opposition than non-military figureheads.

Dictators use a variety of means to perpetuate their authority. Intimidation and brutality are often foremost among their tactics; individuals are not likely to rebel against a regime if they know they will be hurt. Some dictators also possess the personal appeal that Max Weber identified with a charismatic leader. Subjects of such a dictator may believe that the leader has special ability or authority and may be willing to submit to his or her authority. Popular images of the late Kim Jong-Il, as well as his successor, Kim Jong-Un, exemplify this type of charismatic dictatorship.

Many dictatorships do not align themselves strictly with any particular belief system or ideology; the goal of this type of regime is usually limited to preserving the authority of the dictator at its helm. The totalitarian dictatorship describes a more ambitious and oppressive style of dictatorship that attempts to control all aspects of its subjects’ lives. Communist regimes, for instance, are often totalitarian in nature. They may attempt to regulate how many children citizens bear, what religious beliefs they hold, and so forth. They may also demand that citizens publicly demonstrate their faith in the regime by participating in public marches and demonstrations.

Some “benevolent” dictators, such as Napoleon and Anwar Sadat, are credited with advancing their people or exercising a modest level of evenhandedness, but many end up grossly abusing their power. Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Kim Jong-Il, Saddam Hussein, and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, for instance, are heads of state who earned a reputation for leading through fear and intimidation. Hitler, for example, is responsible for the genocide of millions of Jews and other groups, while Mugabe has been accused of ruthless land acquisition.

Kim Jong-Il of North Korea is shown wearing sunglasses amid a group of uniformed North Korean soldiers.
Figure 17.9 Dictator Kim Jong-Il of North Korea was a charismatic leader of an absolute dictatorship. His followers responded emotionally to the death of their leader in 2011. (Photo courtesy of babeltrave/flickr)

Democracy

A democracy is a form of government that strives to provide all citizens with an equal voice, or vote, in determining state policy, regardless of their level of socioeconomic status. Another important fundamental of the democratic state is the establishment and governance of a just and comprehensive constitution that delineates the roles and responsibilities of leaders and citizens alike.

Democracies, in general, assure certain basic rights to their citizens. First and foremost, citizens are free to organize political parties and hold elections. Leaders, once elected, must abide by the terms of the given nation’s constitution and are limited in the powers they can exercise, as well as in the length of the duration of their terms. Most democratic societies also champion freedom of individual speech, the press, and assembly, and they prohibit unlawful imprisonment. Of course, even in a democratic society, the government constrains citizens from total freedom to act however they wish. A democratically elected government does this by passing laws and writing regulations that, at least ideally, reflect the will of the majority of its people.

Although the United States champions the democratic ideology, it is not a “pure” democracy. In a purely democratic society, all citizens would vote on all proposed legislation, and this is not how laws are passed in the United States. There is a practical reason for this: a pure democracy would be hard to implement. Thus, the United States is a constitution-based federal republic in which citizens elect representatives to make policy decisions on their behalf. The term representative democracy, which is virtually synonymous with republic, can also be used to describe a government in which citizens elect representatives to promote policies that favor their interests. In the United States, representatives are elected at local and state levels, and the votes of the Electoral College determine who will hold the office of president. Each of the three branches of the United States government—the executive, judicial, and legislative—is held in check by the other branches.

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