AcademiaAgriculture & FarmingHumanitiesSocial SciencesSTEM

What Are the Various Forms of Governments?

Updated on April 12, 2017
CatherineGiordano profile image

Catherine Giordano is a writer and public speaker who often speaks out on political matters.

Throughout history, humans have devised many forms of government. Monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy. Fascism and communism. And more. The following is a brief explanation of these various types, plus a few others thrown in for good measure.

World Governments

Over the course of history and across the globe, there have been many different forms of government.
Over the course of history and across the globe, there have been many different forms of government. | Source

Monarchy

The word "monarch" comes from the Greek language: The Greek word monos, which means “one” is paired with the Greek word árkhō which means “to rule.”

In a monarchy, there is one supreme leader who often rules by “divine right.” Monarchy -- whether king, emperor or some other title--is one of the oldest forms of government, going back to prehistoric times when a chief was the tribal leader. The position of monarch is hereditary, usually passing from father to son. (Occasionally, if there were no sons, a daughter could become the ruling queen.)

Until the nineteenth century, an autocratic monarchy was the most common form of government—the sovereign had absolute power.

The modern monarchy is quite different from earlier ones. In some countries, the monarchy is only symbolic as in a crowned republic.

The most common form of modern monarchy is a constitutional monarchy, where the monarch retains only restricted power. The degree of power the monarch retains varies from country to country

  • In some countries, the real authority resides in a constitution and in an elected body of representatives of the people. The monarch may reign, but not rule.
  • In other countries, the constitutional part remains in theory, but the ruler has close to absolute power.

Today a person who rules with the power of an absolute monarch is often called a dictator.

Queen Elizabeth of England

Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Elizabeth II reigned over very different types of governments.
Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Elizabeth II reigned over very different types of governments. | Source

Oligarchy

The word oligarchy comes from the Greek word olígos which means “few.”

Oligarchy is government by the few for the few. Aristocracy and plutocracy are forms of oligarchy.

Aristocracy

The term comes from the Greek word aristos which means “superior” and kratos which means “rule.”

This form of government is based upon the belief that the aristocrats--the wealthy nobility who inherit titled positions such as duke, earl, baron, etc.--are the most fit to rule. It was the favored form of government in Europe (working together with monarchy) until most of those countries became constitutional monarchies during the eighteenth century.

Great Britain, although it is a constitutional monarchy, retains some aristocracy due to the House of Lords. Traditionally, some of the members of the House of Lords were hereditary peers (members of the nobility), some came from the Church of England (archbishops and bishops), and some came from the judiciary. However, today the House of Lords has very limited powers, and it has been steadily becoming democratized with more and more members chosen via elections. There are currently proposals to make the House of Lords totally elected.

Today the term aristocracy is usually used as a pejorative. It refers to a country being governed primarily by rich people for the benefit of rich people.

Plutocracy

The term plutocracy comes from the Greek word ploutos which means “wealth.”

Plutocracy is very similar to autocracy. It is government by a small group of the wealthiest citizens.

Plutocrats differ from aristocrats in that they need not come from noble or wealthy families. Nonetheless, they are the country’s mega-rich, and their wealth gives them power--power which they use to increase their own wealth.

A country does not designate itself a “plutocracy” in the same way it might designate itself a monarchy. The term is used as a pejorative when the moneyed class is effectively ruling the country no matter what the official form of government is.

Heads of Government

Many forms of government have an elite few ruling over the people.
Many forms of government have an elite few ruling over the people. | Source

Kakistocracy

The term also comes from Greek: Kakistos means “worst.” A kakistocracy is a government by the worst people in the country.

The term was first used in 1829 by the English author Thomas Love Peacock. It was meant to be the opposite of aristocracy. (Presumably, Peacock thought aristocracy was the best form of government.)

Kleptocracy

Kleptocracy is another pejorative term meaning a government of thieves. This word also comes from Greek: Klepto means “to steal.” This term, like kakistocracy, is a pejorative and not a name a country would bestow upon itself.

Theocracy

Theocracy is a form of government in which a particular religion (more correctly an individual or group of individuals who claim to speak for the religion’s deity) rules. The word theocracy comes from the Greek word theos which means “god.”

A theocracy can be a monarchy or an oligarchy or even a democracy (as the case in Israel). The laws of the country reflect the laws of the religion. People may be forced to observe the religious rituals.

Religion may be more or less supreme. In a monarchy or oligarchy, religious laws will be more prominent; in a democracy like Israel, the religious demands may be fewer and there will be more tolerance for non-observance.

Fascism

The dictionary defines fascism as “a governmental system led by a dictator having complete power, forcibly suppressing opposition and criticism, regimenting all industry, commerce, etc., and emphasizing an aggressive nationalism and often racism.”

In a fascist regime, a strong, authoritarian leader gains power and then uses the police force and army to maintain “law and order.” Sadly, the dictator often begins his political career and gains power because he is admired by the people who expect him to make things better for them.

The prime examples of fascism are Italy under Mussolini and Germany under Hitler in the years after WW I until the end of WW II. Other countries such as Spain, Japan, and Argentina have also had fascist regimes.

Today, too many people use the term fascist primarily as an insult to describe anyone whose political views they do not like—they apparently do not understand the actual meaning of the word.

Communism

Communism (from Latin communis which means “universal”) is the nominal system of government in Russia. (In actuality, Russia is a fascist-like dictatorship.)

Communism is the philosophical belief in a socioeconomic order based on common ownership of the means of production and the abolishment of social classes. In its pure form it is idealistic. No working class and capitalist class—everyone will give according to his ability and take according to his need.

It works great for a family unit and maybe even for small hunting-and-gathering tribes. It falls apart when a leader tries to impose it upon a whole nation. Human nature being what it is, people will cheat to maximize the benefits for themselves. The oligarchs in Russia are immensely wealthy.

The Hammer and Sickle

Symbols of communism often include the hammer to represent industrial labor and the sickle to represent peasants.
Symbols of communism often include the hammer to represent industrial labor and the sickle to represent peasants. | Source

Capitalism

Capitalism is not, strictly speaking, a form of government—it is a system of commerce—but it is included here to contrast with communism.

Capitalism is a better system than communism and is the one employed by most nations. Each person works to maximize his own benefit and in the process everyone benefits. However, there is no country which practices unfettered capitalism.

Human nature being what it is, greed distorts the system. The workers, because they have less power, get exploited. There must be regulations to keep some kind of balance between capitalists and labor.

Democracy

The word is derived from the Greek word demos which means “the common people.” It has flaws, but it may be the best form of government humans can devise.

A line attributed to Winston Churchill sums it up: “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others.”

The United States was founded as a democracy. (Technically, the United States is a "democratic republic"—a government in which the citizens elect representatives who rule for the people. Strict democracy works only in small groups; it is unwieldy to have the entire population vote on every single thing.)

Democracy is supposed to be a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” as Abraham Lincoln famously said in his Gettysburg Address. The problem with a democracy is that it is hard to meet those ideals.

A demagogue can sway the people to vote against their own interests by exploiting prejudice and ignorance to whip up the passions of the masses and to shut down reasoned deliberation. Benjamin Franklin warned against demagogues when he was asked what form of government the United States has. He replied, “A republic if you can keep it.”

Democracy Requires Voting

Every person must be an informed voter in order for democracy to work.
Every person must be an informed voter in order for democracy to work. | Source

What Do You Think

How often do you vote?

See results

© 2017 Catherine Giordano

I welcome your comments.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 2 weeks ago from Oklahoma

      Interesting overview.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 weeks ago from Orlando Florida

      Larry Rankin: I'm pleased to know that you found it interesting. I found it very interesting to write.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 2 weeks ago from USA

      In college I took an honors seminar on Fascist governments throughout history and because of that I can see the danger in Trump and his politics. I'm so afraid for us.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 2 weeks ago from Orlando Florida

      FlourishAnyway: I too feel that the United States, and the world (because the U.S. is such a major world power) is in grave danger.

      Trump has alienated our allies, and our enemies are testing him. All except Russia, of course, who is using him. Fascism we all believed, was defeated in WW II. But like the monster in a horror movie, it won't stay dead.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Isaac Weithers 12 days ago from The Caribbean

      Thanks for the lesson in Forms of Government. Such articles help to keep us sharp, or at least introduce to the facts. Useful!

    • CatherineGiordano profile image
      Author

      Catherine Giordano 12 days ago from Orlando Florida

      Thank you Ms. Dora. I started off just wanting to understand what fascism actually was and one thing led to another. I'm glad you liked it.

    Click to Rate This Article