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US Citizenship - Free online Course on US Citizenship

Lesson 9



In a dictatorship, one individual has managed to accumulate power and authority to the extent that he or she is the voice and will of the government and, therefore, the people. Dictators are sometimes called totalitarians because all political life is centered on a single individual. The totality of everything the government does revolves around the dictator.

A dictator’s source of power is almost always fear, usually engendered by a loyal paramilitary force that keeps political opponents and uprisings in check. All government officials serve at the will of the dictator. If there is a hint of disloyalty, these people are routinely removed from their positions and, in many instances, executed. Totalitarian economies are almost uniformly command and control economies. Some free market activities exist, but nothing is free from the grasp of the dictator. The structures and functions of government can be altered in any way the dictator pleases. The only redeeming aspect of a totalitarian regime is that it might be slightly better than outright anarchy.


In an oligarchy, a small group of individuals possess and exercise political power. At its peak, the former Soviet Union was an oligarchy, ruled by the Politburo, the Communist Party central committee. While there was always a chairman of the Politburo, other members of the group wielded significant political authority, and the chairman could not dictate to other committee members.

In an oligarchy, power is often acquired and maintained in much the same way power is acquired and maintained in a totalitarian regime. In fact, an oligarchy can be totalitarian. In terms of accountability, citizen participation, and the structure and function of government, an oligarchy also resembles a totalitarian regime.


Monarchies are based on the notion that a particular family line is entitled to govern a nation. Rules of succession are generally such that when the king or queen dies, the oldest living direct descendent assumes the throne. Few monarchies remain in the world today and those that do are generally mixed systems in which the monarch (king or queen) shares power with a popularly elected legislative branch of government.

As noted, the source of power in a monarchy is heredity. Most monarchies have traditions or stories that validate the ruling family’s position by hearkening back to the first ruler in the family line and the circumstances under which he or she came to power. Depending on the disposition of the monarch, life under a king or queen can be pleasant or painful. If the monarch is ill-tempered, he or she might be as bad or worse than any totalitarian dictator. The roles of citizens and the structure of the government in monarchies evolve over time, but the monarch maintains a special role separate and distinct from any democratic, representative institutions, or processes that emerge.


A theocracy is much like a monarchy except that political leaders are chosen not on the basis of the blood in their veins but because of their religious status. Theocracies are only sustainable where a very large percentage of the population adheres to the same religion. In fact, religious beliefs are so homogenous in most theocratic systems that there is little or no distinction between the religious sphere and the political sphere. Religious leaders are also political leaders and religious codes or rules are the law of the land.

People of faith support theocratic regimes because they believe their religious and political leaders were selected and endorsed by God. Because cultural values often forbid criticism of the leader of a theocracy, there are generally no means for the people to hold their leaders accountable. Participation in religious rites and the political process are intermingled and the structure of the government mirrors or at least complements religious organization.


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