This is my first question here... If authoritarian regimes are so bad, why do we see so many of them? I don't understand why they are so prevalent in the world. It can't be because people are gullible and don't recognize the situation. They have to have some knowledge.

  • 2
    This is a good first approach to the issue and, although reality is always more complicated, the "No man rules alone" rule is very useful for understanding politics: youtube.com/watch?v=rStL7niR7gs&t=1031s
    – SJuan76
    Nov 21 '16 at 0:37
  • "bad" is a very very debatable term. Arguably, authoritarian regimes are good for some people, or from certain points of view, in certain circumstances. Intelligence Squared held a debate on the topic, with some examples raised.
    – user4012
    Nov 21 '16 at 3:36
  • They're not bad for the guy in charge.
    – Mark
    Nov 22 '16 at 0:19

Once you have an authoritarian regime, it can be difficult to get rid of it.

Consider what happens if you divide the populace into three groups:

  1. Those who benefit from the current regime;
  2. Those who might not be crazy about the current regime but don't trust potential alternatives either;
  3. Those who actively oppose the current regime.

You need the third group of people to be larger and more powerful than the first group to institute a regime change. Note that the first group almost always includes the military and the police (which may be part of the same organization).

Regime change usually happens when the regime does so badly that parts of the military move from the first to the third group. Also, it can help if things are exceptionally hard for the second group so that it's easy to move them into the third group.

Another problem is that even if a revolution occurs, it doesn't necessarily result in a non-authoritarian government. The nature of the beast is that an armed force that just successfully resisted the armed forces of an authoritarian government is as likely to replace the government with another authoritarian government as with a democracy.

One of the more famous would be the Russian Revolution. The Czars were gone, but the Soviet government replaced them. The King of Libya was replaced by Muammar Gaddafi. Hafez al-Assad consolidated power less than a decade after helping to push out the previous authoritarian government, and his son Bashar would later replace him.

If George Washington had been a different kind of person, the United States could be a kingdom. He chose to be president rather than King George the First. Now, we don't know what would have happened if he pursued that course. But it was at least a possibility at the time.

Revolutionary leaders are often popular. If they aggrandize power after the revolution, they can simply move in as authoritarian leader. They usually kill off or convert the supporters of the previous regime. If they can address some of the problems of the previous regime, they can even get a measure of popular support.

  • 3
    Also keep in mind that other countries and international corporations may prefer a stable dictatorship to a democracy. In a democracy the rulers and laws may change unpredictably and create uncertainty.
    – liftarn
    Nov 21 '16 at 10:54

People don't always make rational, intelligent choices, and they don't always have the critical thinking abilities to recognize those choices, or manipulation of their emotions when it happens.

If you look at the times when authoritarian rulers or regimes are ascendant, they are often in times of change, turmoil, uncertainty or insecurity.

When people feel threatened or fearful (and what causes greater fear than the unknown?), they tend to react based on emotion instead of cold reason. Furthermore, beyond reacting based on emotion, authoritarian platforms/promises/appeals are based on dead-solid, simple certainty, which directly speaks to the very things causing uncertainty, even if, in the light of a more rational assessment, they really aren't solutions.

If you read John Dean's excellent Conservatives Without Conscience, which talks about the rise of authoritarianism in the GOP, he talks about how authoritarians aren't just the ones who demand fealty and obedience, there are also authoritarian followers, who crave that certainty and want a leader to follow.


First of all, if you've heard that authoritarian regimes are 'so bad', it was some popular press, not serious scientific source. No scientist source would say something is 'so bad'. Authoritarian regimes might be worse or less efficient under some criteria. If you compare how the given regime asserts economic and social equality and personal freedom, authoritarian regimes indeed do perform badly.

However, the stability of given regime is the outcome of internal and external balance of power, and not some arbitrarily chosen comparison criteria. Social inequality, poverty and restricting of personal freedom create strong tensions, but it doesn't mean, that tensions create a serious danger for the regime.

1) The ability of the regime to suppress rebels by force. No matter how unhappy people are, unhappiness doesn't win the wars by itself. See peasant rebels in middle ages - they were numerous, and all were suppressed by force. Hungry and desperated peasants were no match for well armed and trained knights.

2) The instability of non-authoritarian forms of government. Post-Tsar Russia, post-colonial Africa, South America - you find numerous examples, where the overthrowing of authoritarian regime has resulted in a short period of quasi-democracy, quickly replaced by dictatorships. Building democracy requires a huge amount of social capital - if there's no trust and no willing to accept other party winning the elections - the democracy is unstable.

3) External influences. In Europe between wars, there was a series of dictatorships arising. Dictatorship is usually more efficient in preparing and waging wars. One of the last democratic countries in Central Europe, Czech Republic, was the first to fall victim to non-democratic neighbors. In Cold War, both sides of conflict has sponsored armed groups in South America, sabotaging any potential democracy that could be born.


There are several reasons. Even assuming that the old regime can be done with (as discussed in @brythan's answer, it's a dicey proposition in the first place), replacing it with non-authoritarian regime is not a trivial task.

  • As can be seen in examples such as 1990s Russia, a poorly-executed non-authoritarian regime can be really really detrimental to citizens of a country, at least short-term.

    Unfortunately, the benefits of freedom and non-authoritanizm take a while to materialize, while the downsides can happen pretty quickly (authoritarian regimes, at least, typically enforce some semibalance of law and order), while the proper, non-corrupt, justice system is hard and difficult to build from scratch.

    As such, people can easily become very disenchanted with non-authoritarian mode, and associate it with the country's and their own fortunes' downturn.

  • People who are likely to arise to power are people who already have power.

    Which often means people who were already a successful part of authoritarian system (witness how many former Secretaries of Communist Party in former Soviet republics became newly baked Presidents).

  • Moreover, even when such new powers aren't part of old power structure, nothing says they have to be committed to democracy. Yes, Mubarak was kicked out of power in Egypt. Anyone who thought that Mursi was a paragon of democracy was ... not thinking wisely, shall we say?

    Additionally, as @Brythan's answer noted, it would require conscious effort and desire on initial ruler's part (willingness to step down from power and allow democratic power transition after him).

  • As Master Yoda noted, easier, authoritarianism is. More seductive.

    Note that even people supposedly wedded to democratic ideas easily slide into "I want moar power to achieve this beneficial goal" and as much as possible, sliding into more dictatorial and less democratic process. From FDR's court-packing, to Bush's bailouts, to Social Conservatives' idea that government has a right to control what goes on in the bedroom, to to Obama's governance by executive order.


Because power politics is the norm, and enlightened self-interest is rare. Political realists have realized that authoritarian regimes are natural, and that representative governments are the exception in human history.

Consider Hans Morgenthau:

The tendency to dominate, in particular, is an element of all human associations, from the family through fraternal and professional associations and local political organizations, to the state. On the family level the typical conflict between mother-in-law abd her child's spouse is in its essence a struggle for power....Social clubs, fraternities, faculties, and business organizations are scenes of continuous struggle of power between groups that either want to keep what power they already have or seek to attain new power..."of the gods we know." to quote Thucydides, "and of men we believe that is is a necessary law of their nature that they rule where ever they can" Or as Tolstoy put it"the very process of dominating another's will was itself a pleasure, a habit, a necessity."

In view of this ubiquity of the struggle for power in all social relations and on all levels of social organization, is it surprising that nation state politics is of necessity power politics"

Consider Hobbes:

"The life of man [by nature is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short [...] The condition of Man is a condition of war against every one"

Or Heinlein

“Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded — here and there, now and then — are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty. This is known as "bad luck.”

Now consider that virtue, the animating force in American life serving as an example of enlightened self-interest, and how rare that is

When Alexis de Tocqueville observed democratic life in America, he encountered a number of "strange paradoxes." Americans haphazardly employed a shallow, if admittedly pragmatic public philosophy, while also engaging themselves deeply in the civic demands of self-government. They imbued majority opinion with nearly religious significance, yet maintained institutions that depended on individual experimentation, innovation, and expression. The general teachings of revealed religion influenced their political habits to an unprecedented extent, while church and state remained separated in law. At first America appeared to Tocqueville as a series of contradictions. But gradually he saw that Americans were perpetually balancing liberty and obligation in greater and lesser acts that reflected self-sacrifice as much as self-interest. Their republican style of political virtue, he concluded, turned on a proper understanding of interest. "Self-interest rightly understood" represented a desire to serve the general good and understanding of the social dimension of private actions that was itself a complex balance of seemingly opposing sensibilities. This type of civic virtue combined a disinterested concern for others with calculations of private welfare. The federal frame of government encouraged people to balance public good and private interest, as did intermediate institutions such as voluntary associations and the structure of family life.

Alexis de Tocqueville on Civic Virtue and Self-Interest Rightly Understood in American Democracy

  • Those quotes talk about power politics, but none of them touch the democracy/authoritarian contrast. Realists don't focus on authoritarian politics, rather they cast all politics as power politics. This includes democracy just as much as authoritarian states. Thinking of democracy as something that requires enlightened rule is a straw man - and it isn't true. Hobbes is even famous for showing that a republic is based in self interest. Nov 22 '16 at 21:36
  • You're right that realists cast all politics as power politics, but what I wanted to show was that it's more base forms are the more common. Hobbes showed that the Leviathan, almost if not a totalitarian amount of authority was preferable to the state of nature. Not a republic. In any event, "thinking of democracy as something that requires enlightened rule is a straw man" is a bridge too far for me. And it's not enlightened rule, but a special self rule that allows for the duality of civic society but also the ability and means to pursue one's own goals and security
    – user9790
    Nov 22 '16 at 21:42
  • +1 for showing that authoritarian regimes could be expected to be the norm, rather than the exception. In fact, looking at human history, peace, democracy, prosperity, human rights and gender equality are the exceptions. The lesson is that we can't expect those exceptions to spread naturally to the whole word, and if we want to keep and expand them we need to work hard.
    – Pere
    May 27 '17 at 21:20

This question is like asking:

If walking with a cane is so bad, why do so many people walk with canes?

...the answer being, that walking with a cane is better than not walking at all.

In the same vein, an authoritarian government is better than no government at all -- particularly if a region is surrounded by hostile forces. Having a protective tyrant native to and fond of a country's own creed and culture is often preferable to a more exploitative foreign tyrant with little sympathy or understanding of his subjects.

Really the question should be what makes people need to walk with canes, or going up a level: what makes leviathans or countries lame? And the answer is presumably the same: injury and erosion. Some overexertion, or some outside force, injures a nation. Or the nation's organs and members erode from age, disuse, abuse, sickness, etc. Thus made lame, an afflicted nation decays into a simple tyranny, or fragments into several.


The US definition of "authoritarian" usually means "there is no competitive voting". This usually includes all one-party states.

But the majority of people worldwide do prefer one consensual ideology to multiple ideologies competing for power. And one ideology is usually represented by one party. Even if the majority agree there should be some political competition, they prefer it going on in the framework of one ideology, usually inside the party.

The US is not an exception here: there as well, the majority of people share common ideological views. The only difference is that ideology (or slightly varying versions of it) are represented by two parties rather than one.

Only in Europe, possibly, people's views are diverse enough that they prefer opposing, conflicting ideologies to compete.

Some countries are labeled non-authoritarian by the US only on the grounds of being friendly to the US, while being de-facto one-party states (such as Japan).

Being a one-party state does not necessarily mean the system is not democratic in the original meaning of the word: the government can be more responsible and accountable for what they do. But the feedback from the people is provided with other mechanisms than voting: for instance, appeals, petitions, internal party criticism and discipline investigations etc. For the West it is considered "undemocratic", because Western culture is voting-centered: you vote and after that you can do nothing to influence the elected.

  • 3
    There are a lot of claims here that need sources. For example, do the majority of people worldwide prefer a single ideology? Is Europe different? Is it the only different place? Nov 21 '16 at 1:54
  • Do you even know how Japanese politics work? Nobody would say Japan is a de-facto one party state if they read papers on a daily basis.
    – Rathony
    Nov 21 '16 at 8:20
  • "The US is not an exception here: there as well, the majority of people share common ideological views." Really? It could be argued that the US has rarely been more divided than it is now. Nov 21 '16 at 9:39
  • 1
    @Steve Melnikoff over what issues? We even do not know Trump's opinion about most issues.
    – Anixx
    Nov 21 '16 at 11:50

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .