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Authoritarianism is one of the three main types of political systems (or regimes ), democracy and totalitarianism being the other two. Social science scholars have identified a number of features of authoritarianism in its ideal type form. The ideal criteria may not be present in practice in actually existing authoritarian systems. Rather, descriptions of the ideal type provide a measuring stick for analysts to assess how authoritarian a particular system is. Scholars also increasingly recognize a hybrid between authoritarianism and democracy as forming its own ideal type regime, generally called either semi-authoritarian or semi-democratic systems (Ottaway 2003).


Defining features of authoritarianism include the existence of a single leader or small group of leaders with ultimate political authority. Believing in the supremacy of the authority of the state over all organizations in society, authoritarian leaders make all important government policy decisions. The states needs are paramount; individualism is encouraged only to the extent that it benefits the state. Ideal type authoritarianism lacks both official and unofficial limitations on its power, although Mark Hagopian (1984, p. 118) has argued that, in practice, powerful social groups can maintain unofficial, extralegal constraints over authoritarian leaders.

Whereas totalitarianism strongly emphasizes an official and overarching ideology serving as a blueprint for the remaking of society, authoritarianism is less concerned with ideology. When authoritarian leaders come to power, they often have a set of policy goalssuch as eliminating corruption or resurrecting the economyas well as what Juan Linz (1975) calls a mentality about the purpose of their rule. But this is quite different from the kind of ideology present in an ideal type totalitarian system.

Authoritarian systems commonly emerge in times of political, economic, and social instability, and thus, especially during the initial period of authoritarian rule, authoritarian systems may have broad public support. The stereotype of an authoritarian leader as uniformly despised by the general population is rarely accurate. In the majority of authoritarian systems, however, these public (and publicly supported) goals take a back seat to the maintenance of the regimes power if the latter is threatened. Over time, if the government fails to achieve its policy goals, the public may withdraw its support.

Because of the governments control of the states repressive mechanisms, declining support need not translate into popular unrest and antigovernment mobilization. Indeed, another of authoritarianisms defining features is the limiting of mass political participation. Democratic and totalitarian systems encourage the general publics political participation, although in the totalitarian case the state or ruling party controls all aspects of mass political mobilization. Authoritarian leaders typically prefer a population that is apathetic about politics, with no desire to participate in the political process. Authoritarian governments work to develop such attitudes, both by fostering a sense of a deep divide between society and government and by repressing expressions of dissent, violently if necessary. Consequently, authoritarian leaders view the rights of the individual, including those considered to be human rights by the international community, as subject to the needs of the government. Concern about the possible emergence of potential political opposition can become an obsession of authoritarian leaders, weakening their effectiveness as leaders and the policy performance of the government.


Just as social scientists identify various types of democratic systems, scholars highlight three types of authoritarianism. A military authoritarian system is one in which the military is not only privilegedas it typically is in all authoritarian systemsbut actually in control of all major aspects of government decision-making. The rule of Augusto Pinochet in Chile from 1973 to 1988 is the classic example of a military authoritarian regime.

In party authoritarian systems, on the other hand, a single political party dominates the system. Though this is also true of totalitarian systems (e.g., Stalins USSR or Hitlers Germany), party authoritarian systems penetrate into society less than totalitarian systems. Party authoritarian systems may even tolerate small opposition parties and use mechanisms of democracy like elections in an effort to increase their legitimacy with the public. Mexicos authoritarian system prior to the reforms of the 1990s and 2000s is an example of a party authoritarian system.

Bureaucratic authoritarian systems are run by the military but rely heavily on experts in the fields of economics and other policy areas, often allowing them significant autonomy to set and oversee government policy. Social scientists often label these officials technocrats. Military leaders point to the technical expertise of these bureaucrats as a key component of their economic modernization policies, which are introduced under harsh authoritarian conditions to prevent opposition to economic reforms. Guillermo ODonnell identifies Argentina from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s as the classic example of bureaucratic authoritarianism.

SEE ALSO Bureaucracy; Democracy; Democratization; Dictatorship; Human Rights; Leadership; Military Regimes; Oligarchy; State, The; Technocrat; Totalitarianism


Hagopian, Mark N. 1984. Regimes, Movements, and Ideologies: A Comparative Introduction to Political Science. 2nd ed. New York: Longman.

Linz, Juan J. 1975. Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes. In Macropolitical Theory, Vol. 3 of Handbook of Political Science, eds. Fred I. Greenstein and Nelson W. Polsby, 175-411. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

ODonnell, Guillermo A. 1973. Modernization and Bureaucratic-Authoritarianism: Studies in South American Politics. Berkeley: University of California, Institute of International Studies.

Ottaway, Marina. 2003. Democracy Challenged: The Rise of Semi-Authoritarianism. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Lowell W. Barrington

Anne Mozena

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Along with totalitarianism and democracy, authoritarianism is one of the main types of political regimes or systems. Though different variants exist, all authoritarian systems share certain basic features that have significant implications for science, technology, and ethics. For instance, the easy flow of information that facilitates science and is promoted by communications technology creates both opportunities for and burdens on authoritarian leaders seeking to maintain their control over the political realm.

Prominent scholars of authoritarianism include Juan J. Linz and Guillermo A. O'Donnell. Linz (2000) highlights the differences between authoritarianism and totalitarianism, while also pointing out the possibility for authoritarianism to combine with the other two types of government in a hybrid form of political regime. O'Donnell (1973) emphasizes the importance of a bureaucratic form of authoritarianism, distinct from cases of traditional military regimes or authoritarian systems managed by a dominant political party,

Comparison of Democracy, Authoritarianism, and Totalitarianism
Democracy Authoritarianism Totalitarianism
SOURCE: Courtesy of Carl Mitcham and Lowell W. Barrington.
Political mobilization promotedPolitical mobilization generally discouragedPolitical mobilization promoted
Competing pro-democratic ideologiesNo state ideologyState ideology
Legitimacy based on ideology, rule of law, and performanceLegitimacy based on performanceLegitimacy based on ideology and performance
Official and unofficial limits on governmentNo official limits on governmentNo official or unofficial limits on government

while highlighting differences among authoritarian systems based on the degree of modernization in particular countries.

Features of Authoritarianism

In its ideal form, authoritarianism exhibits four defining features: a depoliticization or demobilization of the general population, the lack of a central governing ideology, legitimacy based on performance, and the general absence of official limitations on government action. These features distinguish authoritarian systems from democratic and totalitarian ones (see Table 1).

Because authoritarian governments do not seek to remake society in the way totalitarian systems do, there are fewer reasons to mobilize the masses compared to the other types of political systems. When it occurs, mobilization is generally designed to enhance the legitimacy of the system (the belief by the general public in the right to rule of the governmental institutions and individual leaders). As Samuel P. Huntington (1968) has argued, instability in any political system is often the result of political participation that is not channeled into regime-supportive activities. Thus, although authoritarian political systems may hold elections, the campaigns for such elections are devoid of significant discussions of issues in a form critical of the government, and the outcome is not in doubt. If necessary, ballot boxes will be stuffed or results falsified. Likewise, political parties may exist, but they are not used to organize the masses as in a totalitarian system nor to aggregate and articulate issue positions to allow the masses to choose in free and fair elections as in democracies. Opposition political organizations are either tightly controlled or not tolerated at all.

Partly because authoritarian systems do not seek the remaking of society, ideology is less important than in either totalitarian states or democracies. This is not to imply that authoritarian systems lack goals or a vision for change; they tend to focus on a particular vision, what Linz (1975) has called the "mentality" of authoritarian systems. In cases in which an authoritarian system is established through the overthrow of a democracy, the authoritarian leaders may concentrate on the need to institute policy changes to bring economic stability or otherwise restore order to a chaotic situation. This is often welcomed by the masses, who will, in many cases, prefer order to freedom. Thus, an important part of the legitimacy for an authoritarian system is based on its performance. As long as it achieves its goals, the general population may be quite willing to tolerate the absence of freedoms and the lack of a check on government power.

The final central feature of authoritarian political systems—the lack of official limitations on government action—is one that these systems share with totalitarian regimes. As Mark Hagopian (1984) has argued, the lack of legal restraints helps define both totalitarian and authoritarian systems as dictatorships and allows one easily to distinguish them from constitutional democracies. There are differences, however, between authoritarian and totalitarian systems in this regard. One could argue that authoritarian systems have even fewer institutional constraints than do their totalitarian counterparts (because of the comparatively limited role of a ruling political party in most authoritarian regimes). On the other hand, totalitarian regimes lack the informal—or, to use Hagopian's (1984, p. 118) term, "extralegal"—limits on power found in most authoritarian systems. The lack of official constraints does not imply the absence of ruling institutions or an official constitution, nor does it mean that society is completely controlled or powerless. Instead, the official rules of the game are subordinate to the will of the authoritarian ruler or rulers. Checks and balances (including judicial review) and the rule of law, both of which are familiar to citizens of many democratic countries, are unusual in authoritarian states. To the extent that constraints exist, they tend to be informal or based on connections between the government and powerful figures in society such as the wealthy. Such figures, or social institutions such as the church, can have a degree of autonomy from the state—and in some cases even a degree of influence over it.

Types of Authoritarianism

There are as many variations of authoritarianism as there are of democracy. The three main forms, however, are: military, bureaucratic, and party. A military authoritarian system (such as Pinochet's Chile) is one in which the military actually controls the policymaking institutions. Military authoritarian systems can arise for several reasons: an external threat to the security of the country, instability within the country, or threats to the autonomy of the military and/or the degree of military spending by the government. A bureaucratic authoritarian system (for example, Brazil following the military coup in 1964, Argentina in 1966–1974) usually involves an uneasy relationship between the military and the bureaucracy. Experts in their fields hold important political positions, and the bureaucracy becomes a central actor in the creation and implementation of policy. This policy is designed to facilitate internal stability, foster economic development, and maintain a modern society (O'Donnell 1973). The goal of modernization helps justify the power of "technocrats" in this form of authoritarianism.

A party authoritarian system (such as Mexico during much of the twentieth century) uses an existing or newly created political party to organize political activity and enhance the legitimacy of the system. The party is less important than in totalitarian systems, though it can play a role in facilitating elite–mass linkages. During the long period of dominance of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in Mexico in the twentieth century, connections between government officials and interests within society were maintained through the party rather than the state. Even the party authoritarian type can be dissected. Huntington (1970), for example, lists three forms of party authoritarianism. If control through a political party is combined with a broader effort to remake society, the result is a hybrid form of government bridging authoritarianism and totalitarianism.

A hybrid between authoritarianism and democracy is also possible. Some call this semi-democracy, while others have termed it semi-authoritarianism (Ottaway 2003). In these systems, certain aspects of democracy exist, though others—most commonly freedoms such as of speech and the press—are curtailed by government control and/or intimidation. Thus, elections may exist without significant fraud, but the range of opinions expressed during the campaign is limited; media coverage of the government leadership is uniformly favorable. Since the election (and reelection) of Vladimir Putin, Russia has moved more and more in this direction. In some countries, this semi-authoritarianism can act as a bridge to democracy. In others, as is arguably the case in Putin's Russia, it may signal a move away from liberal democracy and toward a more classic authoritarian system. But semi-authoritarianism can also be quite persistent and need not be a transition to something else.

Science, Technology, and Ethics

The impact of authoritarianism on science, technology, and ethics is significant. For authoritarian leaders, ethical considerations are usually secondary to the goals of maintaining power, fostering stability, and facilitating economic performance. The concept of the rule of law has no place in the ideal authoritarian system. Human rights violations are common, as those whom the government perceives to be potential political threats are harassed, arrested, or killed. As in totalitarian systems, scientists in authoritarian states face ethical dilemmas working with such governments. On the one hand, cooperation with the state may provide an essential opportunity to conduct research. On the other, such cooperation both sanctions the actions of the government and opens the door to government use of the research in ways scientists may find morally objectionable.

Likewise, science and technology in general are double-edged swords for authoritarian officials. Authoritarian leaders who emphasize economic development as a central goal must foster technological advancements. In addition, science and technology may be put to use in assisting the maintenance of authoritarian power. Though less so than in totalitarian systems, authoritarian governments monitor the actions of individuals who might threaten their political power. In China, leaders have sought to harness the power of new technology to spread regime-supportive propaganda.

But technology can also threaten authoritarian rule. Those leaders who emphasize as their defining goal the protection of national culture rather than economic development often see technology as a transmission belt for "foreign" (especially Western) values. Those leaders who seek to use technology to monitor the actions of individuals also find that the technology allows those individuals to hide from this monitoring. The information-enhancing capacity of the Internet can be harnessed by opponents as well as government officials. The Chinese government works diligently to shut down Internet sites of regime opponents. But as quickly as these sites are removed, others spring up. Simply put, the more advanced and complex the society, the more difficult it is to keep it under surveillance. Thus, some authoritarian leaders may actively discourage certain types of technological advancements in their country.


SEE ALSO Expertise; Fascism; Technocracy; Totalitarianism.


Hagopian, Mark N. (1984). Regimes, Movements, And Ideologies: A Comparative Introduction To Political Science, 2nd edition. New York: Longman.

Huntington, Samuel P. (1968). Political Order in Changing Societies. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Huntington, Samuel P. (1970). "Social and Institutional Dynamics of One-Party Systems." In Authoritarian Politics in Modern Society: The Dynamics of Established One-Party Systems, ed. Samuel P. Huntington and Clement H. Moore. New York: Basic.

Linz, Juan J. (1975). "Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes." In Handbook of Political Science, Vol. 3: Macro-political Theory, ed. Fred I. Greenstein and Nelson W. Polsby. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Linz, Juan J. (2000). Totalitarian and Authoritarian Regimes. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

O'Donnell, Guillermo A. (1973). Modernization and Bureaucratic-Authoritarianism: Studies in South American Politics. Berkeley: University of California, Institute of International Studies.

Ottaway, Marina. (2003). Democracy Challenged: The Rise of Semi-authoritarianism. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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Personality, Authoritarian


The rise of fascist ideology and virulent anti-Semitism in Europe during the 1930s posed important questions for social scientists. Psychologists suggested explanations that drew on both psychoanalysis and Marxism. Wilhelm Reich (18971957) proposed that capitalism and sexual repression produced sadomasochistic personalities blending aggression toward the weak and vulnerable with deferential submission to power and authority. Abraham Maslow (19081970) and Erich Fromm (19001980) also described broadly similar authoritarian personalities whose basic needs attracted them to fascism. The most theoretically developed and empirically based of these explanations was proposed in 1950 by Theodor Adorno (19031969), Else Frenkel-Brunswik (19081958), Daniel Levinson (19201994), and R. Nevitt Sanford (19091995) in a monumental book, The Authoritarian Personality (1950). This book reported a program of research that began with the aim of explaining anti-Semitism, but culminated in a far more ambitious theory, which for a time dominated social scientific inquiry into the psychological bases of prejudice and ethnocentrism.

Their first major finding was that anti-Semitic attitudes were not held in isolation, but were part of a broader ethnocentric pattern involving a generalized dislike of out-groups and minorities, excessive and uncritical patriotism, and politically conservative attitudes. Their research suggested that this pattern of attitudes seemed to be an expression of a particular personality syndrome consisting of nine tightly covarying traits. These were:

  1. Conventionalism (rigid adherence to conventional middle-class values).
  2. Authoritarian submission (submissive, uncritical attitudes toward authorities).
  3. Authoritarian aggression (the tendency to be on the lookout for, condemn, reject, and punish people who violate conventional values).
  4. Anti-intraception (opposition to the subjective, imaginative, and tender-minded).
  5. Superstition and stereotypy (belief in mystical determinants of the individuals fate, and a disposition to think in rigid categories).
  6. Power and toughness (preoccupation with the dominance-submission, strong-weak, leader-follower dimension; identification with power; exaggerated assertion of strength and toughness).
  7. Destructiveness and cynicism (generalized hostility, vilification of the human).
  8. Projectivity (a disposition to believe that wild and dangerous things go on in the world; the projection outward of unconscious emotional impulses).
  9. Sex (exaggerated concern with sexual goings-on).

Psychometric questionnaire items were developed in order to assess each of these traits, and these culminated in the famous F (fascist) scale, which was used to measure this authoritarian personality dimension. Research did indeed show that that the F scale was powerfully correlated with measures of prejudice, ethnocentrism, conservative attitudes, and extremist right-wing politics.

Adorno and his colleagues theorized that authoritarian personalities originated from childhood socialization characterized by strict, punitive parental discipline and conditional affection. This creates an inner conflict between resentment and hostility toward parental authority and a fearful need to submit to that authority, which culminates in identification with, and submissive idealization of, parental authority, and by extension all authority. This aggression is repressed and displaced onto targets sanctioned by authority. These psychodynamics are expressed in the nine surface traits of the authoritarian personality, the pattern of ethnocentric, conservative, chauvinistic social attitudes, deference to established authority, and pervasive hostility and prejudice against out-groups, minorities, and other socially deviant targets.

This theory attracted enormous attention initially, and the F scale became widely used. Critics, however, noted methodological flaws in the research, and pointed out that the theory ignored authoritarianism of the Left. The F scale was found to have serious psychometric flaws, most notably the all positive formulation of its items so that scores were heavily contaminated by the response style of acquiescence (the general tendency for people to agree rather than disagree). When this was corrected, the items of balanced versions of the F scale lacked internal consistency, and so could not be measuring a single unitary syndrome or dimension. As a result of this, and other nonsupportive findings, interest in the theory and the F scale largely collapsed during the 1960s.

Since the mid-1980s, however, interest in the issue has revived with the identification of two distinct authoritarian individual difference dimensions that seem to underlie prejudice, intolerance, and ethnocentrism. First, in the 1980s Bob Altemeyer showed that three of Adorno and colleagues original traitsconventionalism, authoritarian aggression, and authoritarian submissiondid constitute a unitary individual difference dimension, which he named right-wing authoritarianism and characterized as submissive authoritarianism. Second, in the 1990s Jim Sidanius and Felicia Pratto identified a second, dominant, authoritarian dimension, seemingly relating to Adorno and colleagues original traits of power, toughness, destructiveness, and cynicism, which they called social dominance orientation. The idea that these might be personality dimensions, however, has been challenged, and it has been argued that they seem better viewed as ideological attitude or value dimensions that are influenced by personality, but are not in themselves personality dimensions.

SEE ALSO Anti-Semitism; Dictatorship; Fascism; Frankfurt School; Fromm, Erich; Jingoism; Leadership; Marxism; Maslow, Abraham; Nativism; Patriotism; Personality; Personality, Cult of; Psychoanalytic Theory; Scales; Social Dominance Orientation; Social Psychology


Adorno, Theodor W., Else Frenkel-Brunswik, Daniel J. Levinson, and R. Nevitt Sanford. 1950. The Authoritarian Personality. New York: Harper.

Altemeyer, Bob. 1998. The Other Authoritarian Personality. In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 30, ed. Mark P. Zanna, 4792. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Duckitt, John. 2001. A Dual-process Cognitive Motivational Theory of Ideology and Prejudice. In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 33, ed. Mark P. Zanna, 41113. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

John Duckitt

Chris G. Sibley

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authoritarian personality A term coined by Theodor Adorno and his associates through a book of the same name first published in 1950, to describe a personality type characterized by (among other things) extreme conformity, submissiveness to authority, rigidity, and arrogance towards those considered inferior.

Adorno was a member of the Frankfurt School who fled the Third Reich, first to Britain and then to the United States, where he conducted extensive empirical research on the anti-semitic, ethnocentric, and fascist personalities. In attempting to explain why some people are more susceptible to fascism and authoritarian belief-systems than are others, Adorno devised several Likert attitude scales which revealed a clustering of traits which he termed authoritarianism. Several scales were constructed (ethnocentric, anti-semitic, fascist) and part of the interest in the study came from examining these scales. During interviews with more than 2,000 respondents, a close association was found between such factors as ethnocentrism, rigid adherence to conventional values, a submissive attitude towards the moral authority of the in-group, a readiness to punish, opposition to the imaginative and tender-minded, belief in fatalistic theories, and an unwillingness to tolerate ambiguity. These authoritarian attitude clusters were subsequently linked, using Freudian theory, to family patterns. Intensive interviewing and the use of Thematic Apperception Tests identified the authoritarian personality with a family pattern of rigidity, discipline, external rules, and fearful subservience to the demands of parents.

The Authoritarian Personality is a classic study of prejudice, defence mechanisms, and scapegoating. The term itself has entered everyday language, even though the original research has attracted considerable criticism. Among other weaknesses, critics have suggested that the Adorno study measures only an authoritarianism of the right, and fails to consider the wider ‘closed mind’ of both left and right alike; that it tends, like all theories of scapegoating, to reduce complex historical processes to psychological needs; and is based on flawed scales and samples. For a detailed exposition and critique see John Madge , The Origins of Scientific Sociology (1962)

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Authoritarian personality

A personality pattern described in detail in the 1950 book of the same name that grew out of a study of anti-Semitism.

Theodor Adorno (1903-1969) led a team of researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, to determine whether there was a correlation between anti-Semitism and certain personality traits . While the original goal had been the identification of an "anti-Semitic" personality, the scope was widened, first from anti-Semitic to "Fascist" then to "authoritarian," when the study found that people prejudiced against one ethnic or racial group were likely to be prejudiced against others as well.

A major determining factor in the formation of the authoritarian personality was found to be a pattern of strict and rigid parenting, in which obedience is instilled through physical punishment and harsh verbal discipline. Little parental praise or affection is shown, independence is discouraged, and the child's behavior is expected to meet a set standard. Significantly, such parents instill in children not only obedience to themselves but also a deeply entrenched sense of social hierarchy which entails obedience to all persons of higher status. When they reach adulthood, people with this personality structure discharge the hostility accumulated by their harsh upbringing against those whom they perceive to be of lower status by forming negative stereotypes of them and discriminating against or overtly persecuting them. It is also thought that they may be projecting their own weaknesses and fears onto the groups they denigrate as inferior. Other traits associated with this personality type include dependence on authority and rigid rules, conformity to group values, admiration of powerful figures, compulsiveness, concreteness, and intolerance of ambiguity.

Further Reading

Eiser, J. Richard Social Psychology: Attitudes, Cognition, and Social Behaviour. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Stone, William F., Gerda Lederer, and Richard Christie, eds. Strength and Weakness: the Authoritarian Personality Today. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1993.

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au·thor·i·tar·i·an / əˌ[unvoicedth]ôriˈte(ə)rēən; ôˌ[unvoicedth]är-/ • adj. favoring or enforcing strict obedience to authority, esp. that of the government, at the expense of personal freedom: the transition from an authoritarian to a democratic regime. ∎  showing a lack of concern for the wishes or opinions of others; domineering; dictatorial. • n. an authoritarian person. DERIVATIVES: au·thor·i·tar·i·an·ism n.

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authoritarianism System of government that concentrates power in the hands of one person or small group of people not responsible to the population as a whole. Freedom of the press and of political organization are suppressed. Many authoritarian regimes arise from military takeovers.

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authoritarian, authoritarianism See AUTHORITARIAN PERSONALITY.

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This entry includes three subentries:

East Asia
Latin America