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.

  • 6
    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
    Commented Nov 21, 2016 at 0:37
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    "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
    Commented Nov 21, 2016 at 3:36
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    They're not bad for the guy in charge.
    – Mark
    Commented Nov 22, 2016 at 0:19
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    "They have to have some knowledge." but what are you going to do about it?
    – komodosp
    Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 14:15
  • 3
    For the same reason we see disease even though it's bad? Because we can't stop all bad things from happening. Maybe this question was ok to probe the scope of this site when it was still in beta, but it should be closed now. This is pure pontification.
    – wrod
    Commented Jun 26, 2023 at 19:17

13 Answers 13


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.

  • 6
    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
    Commented Nov 21, 2016 at 10:54
  • The 3rd group is usually almost by definition the largest, whether they are the most powerful often depends on whether they realize their power
    – haxor789
    Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 14:16
  • "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." No... the nation was firmly a Republic. George Washington said "I did not fight George III to become George I" to justify why he was not going to run for a third term in office, which if he had, he had the numbers to win it.
    – hszmv
    Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 14:33
  • I'd note a kingdom isn't necessarily authoritarian. Half the top 20 of The Economist Democracy Index are constitutional monarchies. Commented Feb 13 at 9:21

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.



Just re-read that answer and noticed it's quite longwinded, but someone upvoted so I'll leave as is below


For democracy to get into place, the people who fought to get into power, possibly with a lot of blood, political power-play, some ruthlessness and a lot of determination to get their policies (which they usually believe to be correct and superior to the previous rulers) in place, would have to agree to risk giving it all up or back to their enemies at the ballot box - and so would their opponents. And as it is maturing they would have to stick with it through all the teething problems that make it look weak / ineffective.

Original answer

Democracy is difficult to set up - it kind of goes against the natural flow of the development of a power structure. It's a bit of a mistake to think that an Authoritarian government exists because the people want an Authoritarian government. Generally what happens is that powerful people at the top fight other powerful people until one group emerges the winner, they take power and put in place measures to make sure they don't lose it again. It's much harder to find powerful people who will fight with the same zeal even though they aren't determined to be in power themselves.

The problem is that even though the majority of people might want to be ruled in a democratic regime, the people in charge - i.e. the ones with the power and control (and therefore get to make the decisions) - want to continue to be in charge, and the problem with instituting a democracy is that they are the ones who would have to give up that power in order for democracy to take hold, and accept that their opposition may be in charge pretty soon. Not only would they have to accept this but so would all of the people who oppose them!

The entire population of the political system - including the leadership of the security forces - would have to agree to respect democracy and all the rules that it contains, until it becomes mature enough to accepted the "default" system. Plus, while it's still fledgling and trying to mature, it can appear weak, ineffective and disagreeable, and leave people wondering if a strong leader might not be better - at least they can get the trains running on time.

Also, keep in mind, many dictators (like with democratically elected leaders) believe that they are the best person to rule the country and want their policies instituted. For them to agree to democracy is basically agreeing to give all that up, and they believe that would make the country a much worse place. And if another faction succeeds in overthrowing them, then they carry a similar belief about themselves, and are as unlikely to institute democracy given it's opening the door for the enemy they just got rid of, to come back (an especially big fear if it was a violent coup)

And finally, while many people do want democracy, they also want their favourite policies to be implemented, so you're less likely to see people fighting for democracy when the current rulers are doing things they happen to like. (so you get the "Bread and Circuses" effect)


People seem to forget that a lot of authoritarian regimes happen because authoritarianism is a system that can allow for tyranny of the minority. I describe this in a previous answer, but Hitler & the Nazis were able to take over as dictator even though only 36% of the population of Germany liked them at the height of his popularity and even apartheid South Africa was a tyranny of the minority situation.

Despite what many people believe, there have been plenty of democracies throughout human history, showing that democratic societies are not exactly the outlier many have assumed. One example is the Nri Kingdom in Africa which was potentially founded all the way back in 900 AD and lasted until the year 1911; another is Frisian Freedom in Europe that lasted from 800 AD to 1523 AD. You also have the Essenes Jewish civilization from the 2nd century BC to 1st century AD, the Icelandic Commonwealth from 930 to 1262,Lanfang Republic on the island of Borneo from 1777 to 1884, the Free Imperial City of Memmigen from 1268 to 1802, the Republic of Cospaia from 1440 to 1826, the Taifa of Córdoba from 1031 to 1091, the Vajjika League in India from the 7th century BC to 468 BC, the Republic of Ancona made by an alliance of Jews and Catholics that wished to be less controlled by the Palpacy that existed from around 1000 AD to 1532 AD, late Carthage (apparently, according to the book Violence, Civil Strife and Revolution in the Classical City: 750-330 BC, Carthage became a democratic republic from 480 BC to 146 BC after internal politics led to the weakening of the monarchy), the Confederacy of Tlaxcala in Mesoamerica from 1348 to 1520, Sparta which had a form of democracy called range voting starting around 700 BC that allowed citizens over the age of 20 to vote for or against laws proposed by the kings, San Marino (which got its independence as a representative republic since 301 AD, but is mostly recognized as a country and not just a microstate when it created statutes in 1600 AD), Couto Misto from the 10th century to 1868, and the Novgorod Republic from 1136 to 1478 just to name a few. Basically, democracy has been around in a bunch of different places and had longevity and success, but authoritarianism can make it easier for someone with either good or bad intentions to take control even if the vast majority of people do not like them. That is pretty much why many people see authoritarianism as bad: there are some good Kings and dictators in history and they were able to help improve society, but is the system that allows for terrible leaders to basically end up in positions of Power with very few ways to remove them and even allow certain people to stay in charge even if the vast majority of people hate them for legitimate reasons.

Sure, in democracies you can worry about tyranny of the majority ( though the fact that democracies like the Nri Kingdom and Frisian Freedom lasted so long and fell due to external conquests shows we have had solutions to that for a long time), but authoritarianism often leads to tyranny of the minority and people who can stay in power even if the vast majority of people despise them.

People also forget that overthrowing a government is hard. Even in modern times, the odds of a successful violent revolution are only 26% and the odds only get lower the further you go into the past. This means that authoritarianism doesn't only make it easy for someone to consolidate power with only a small amount of genuine supporters, but it is a system that is very difficult for people to overthrow once it is in place.

This study from political scientists Stephan and Chenoweth is not perfect, but this peer-reviewed study generally shows how in recent history, about one in four revolutions succeed and they seem to be more successful on average in modern times because people are more well-educated and have somewhat of a better understanding of how disrupting Supply chains and other items can take down a government. As I have also pointed out before, many dictatorships work to keep members of their population ignorant such as how monarchies work to keep serfs ignorant, some dictatorships work to keep a slave-like population that they also keep ignorant, and how even dictatorships like the Soviet Union would present misinformation like claiming genetics is somehow capitalist propaganda because keeping a population ignorant and low on resources makes them easier to control.

Basically, one of the more cynical reasons that authoritarianism was popular at certain points in history is because it was a system that allowed you to control a large population even if a minority of people genuinely liked you or your policies. It allowed leader to be able to control essentially all of their nation's resources while only having to convince a minority of people. Generally, if you keep people ignorant with misinformation or preventing them from being educated, a lot of those people beneath you become easier to control and you have to worry less about a successful Revolution than you generally have to if well-educated people in a democracy are left unsatisfied. Also, well not as popular as they are now, democracies have been a thing for a huge chunk of human history even if they are not focused on.

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    Thanks for the explanation of the 26% success rate, though that still sounds kinda fishy, if I find the time I'd need to read the actual paper.
    – haxor789
    Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 14:34

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.

  • Who said that was a "scientific" claim. Also what does that even mean in that context? Like whether something is "good" or "bad" is a moral judgement and a political question, science can only determine if a policy is effective with respect to a certain goal not whether it's "good".
    – haxor789
    Commented Jun 23, 2023 at 14:11
  • A good example that comes to mind is the current state of affairs of the Central African Republic is somewhat lawless and disorganized that citizens who lived through the countrie's five year "Central African Empire" yearn for the days that "Emperor" Jean-Bédel Bokassa's brutal military dictatorship rule from 1976-1979. For those not in the know, Bokassa spent most of the government budget on his lavish lifestyle, and during a student protest, participated in the beating death of as many as 100-150 children arrested (like he beat children). +
    – hszmv
    Commented Jun 26, 2023 at 17:21
  • + When he was finally returned from exile, he was found guilty of Treason and Murder (for the death of the Children) and got off on a technicality on charges of Cannibalism (I could not make this up if I tried. It is rumored that he fed visiting foreign dignitaries a meal made with human meat at his coronation dinner. A rumor he started by implying he did as much to the visiting French minister.). Again... this is a man who many who lived through his rule saw as a golden age for the nation... which makes one wonder how bad the state of affairs when "the cannibal had a point?" is common.
    – hszmv
    Commented Jun 26, 2023 at 17:27
  • The idea that "Dictatorship is usually more efficient in preparing and waging wars" is not very scientific or evidence based. It is largely a myth promulgated by WW2 German propaganda. The Nazi war machine was, in reality, not very good at preparing for and waging war. Starting wars, perhaps, but once democracies got their act together they were far better.
    – matt_black
    Commented Feb 13 at 21:43

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. Commented Nov 22, 2016 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
    Commented Nov 22, 2016 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
    Commented May 27, 2017 at 21:20

What protects the existence of a government is unrelated to whether the government is good or effective

There are two questions at issue here: what drives the longevity of a form of government and what drives the success of that form of government. The two questions are essentially unrelated.

Governments don't usually exist in a competitive market with other forms of government where their objective success drives the choice of government form. So there is little reason to equate their existence with a signal that their particular form of government is a success.

Authoritarian governments continue to exist because they are good at suppressing the dissent that might displace them, even when they are not successful by any objective standard. Their success at suppressing dissent matters more than their economic success, their success at keeping the population healthy or any other metric of "good". So most Warsaw pact countries stayed authoritarian until the fall of the Berlin wall even though public dissent sometimes led to attempted revolutions. Democracy only won in them when the external support from the Soviet union needed to suppress dissent was withdrawn. North Korea is one of the worst countries on the planet by any sensible metric but has been good enough at suppressing dissent to prevent regime change (even more remarkable give that South Korea has made a great success from the same starting point and has moved from authoritarian rules to democracy.)

Also, of course, democratic governments are not always particularly good at promoting the wellbeing of their populations. Broadly, democracies do a better job at being good (they certainly have better track records economically) but largely do so because peaceful removal of bad governments is possible not because an elected government is always "good". Some seem to have a bad track record on "good" like Argentina or current South Africa. Some seem to vacillate between democracy and authoritarian rule, especially when the democratic government don't robustly establish "better" government (though many western european states seem to have established better government post authoritarian rule, eg Portugal, Spain, Greece).

Perhaps more significantly, even if democracy is better at "good" than authoritarian government, democracies don't usually take over their less successful competitors.

So, in general, "good" is not what determines the existence of particular types of government. Once established force can suppress the demand for better government even if the current government is "bad". Authoritarian government survives because of force not because it is good.


People are innately tribal. This means:

  • They prefer people and contexts they are familiar with and are wary of people and contexts that are unfamiliar
  • They identify with people that are like them and ostracize people unlike them
  • They learn from those around them, idealize people who are powerful and successful, and thus naïvely fall into hierarchical structures

Tribal systems — small homogenous groups led by elders, chieftains, and/or religious figures — are the earliest form of government, and the norm that small groups fall into. Everyone in a group wants the group to have some sort of cohesive, systematic organization and looks around for someone who seems to have an idea about how to do that, and the 'poof' (after a bit of contestation between likely candidates) you have a tribe.

This tribalism appears in different forms. Small groups where everyone knows each other have a simple social leader like an elder or a chieftain; in larger groups tribalism appears as kings, aristocrats, priests, or others who are idealized as 'superior' beings; in broadly Liberalized societies tribalism appears as the dictator (literally, 'he who speaks for the nation'), which quickly turn authoritarian. And while it's perfectly possible to overcome this pull towards tribalism, doing so requires high literacy rates and the kind of self-reliance that comes from philosophical reflection. People have to overcome their instinctive urge to rely on the judgement of others — which leads straight down the path to authoritarian rule — and develop their own internal moral compass. That is a slow, painful, slippery slope to climb.


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.

  • You do realize that the tyrant doesn't just have an army, but that YOU are usually their army and you are fighting and dying for THEIR power? Like depending on how much the opponents might want to kill you that might still be preferable, but generally it's not that the tyrant is protecting you, YOU are meant to protect the tyrant.
    – haxor789
    Commented Jun 26, 2023 at 10:01

Authority is the ability to command other people to your will. Authoritarianism is the idea of using authority to command an entire society (to solve a problem ... or just for the sake of it).

It's an easily conceived idea: "What if all people would work together to solve MY problem, that would be done in no time" or "this would make this impossible task quite easy" and it's an idea that many people are susceptible to. And because it's already a technological and logistical challenge to make that offer to other people, not to mention to convince them that it's a good idea to do it, the idea of coercing them to do it is also easily conceived.

As a consequence of that, it's often less of an ideology in itself and rather a mode of operation utilized by lots of possible ideologies, for lots of possible reasons, with lots of possible means of coercion. So that definitions of authoritarian regimes usually focus on structural similarities.

For example:

  • The power to execute societal action is vested in the hands of 1 person/small group of people
  • Their power is largely unrestricted and/or undefined
  • freedom is limited
  • political groups and institutions aren't done away with but put under control
  • dissident action is prohibited and censorship and oppression are presented as necessary evil

Now given that knowledge one might conceive the naive idea, of a binary of "the ruler" and "the ruled" and the ruler deciding everything an "the ruled" are slaves to their will. However the reality is more complicated. While nominally it's one leader (or a small group), practically one person wouldn't get anything done. They wouldn't be able to keep the economy running, would be able to set up a police apparatus to coerce the rest or to set up a military apparatus to secure one's influence from external threats and that's just 3 points of failure of a system and there are a lot more.

So as a consequence of that, they are in need of support, whether it's external support (being a puppet regime) or whether it's internal support (police, military, economy, propaganda, etc.). So despite a nominal binary of rulers and ruled, there the reality is more of a social hierarchy, meaning the system is often recursive, meaning in that context that lots of people finding themselves in a double position of being ruled while ruling others. So that they might even end up identifying with the system that nominally oppresses them as well.

So the leader is just the tip of an iceberg. And the entire system is somewhere between a bottom up "democracy" with 1 representative (supposed to supervise and act out a plan) and a top down monarchy with one ruler. Usually it's closer to the second while pretending to be closer to the first.

Now does it work as expected? While it's not entirely unreasonable to effectively use such a mode of operation for a dedicated task and a restricted period of time, idk most companies are organized like that (and most of them fail over time while some succeed with it, at least for some time). Usually these systems end up being used for longer than expected and the longer they last they less effective and more self-serving they become.

So suppose you're to organize a party, you allocated friends and family and give out tasks and meta-tasks (tasks to give out tasks) and given that everyone of them is willing to go to that party and thus anticipating a better outcome for themselves and others if they contribute to the preparation they are fine with your authority and doing their tasks.

Now suppose you're getting used to that power and want to continue applying it or maybe you're not content with the party preparation so far and want them to be better. At some point you'll inevitably reach the point where the benefit of the job someone is doing is outweighted by the cost of doing it. So you might like to be at that party and like the preparation of the party to succeed and do your part in it (even accepting the meaningless authority of the organizer), but it's not the most important thing in your life and you've got better things to do.

So now the organizer, rather than dealing with tasks actually related to the party, ends up sending people on errands convincing other people that they should proceed with the preparation and prioritize it over their other stuff. As well as finding ways to make their argument more convincing. Meaning the system becomes self-serving, it's prime objective is to preserve the system, because the system itself is seen as the key to achieve anything else. Now in terms of party organizing the person would likely just quit, but depending on the problem and the magnitude and impact they might rather up the pressure than giving up the task and as said putting the focus on securing the means (authority) to do it.

So it's unfortunately relatively easy to fall in the trap of authoritarianism when you want to solve a problem by any means necessary and without the hassle of getting other people on your side and convince them it's actually also in their best interest.

The other problem is that even if you've realized that a system is authoritarian, sucks at it's job, and only considers fighting for it's continued existence as it's primary job. How would you get rid of it. Like you'd need to organize people, quick, without much discussion as you might not have the time and resources to go through every detail... And you might have realized it, it's unfortunately very likely that a resistance movement also mimics these structures. So a revolution might get rid of the authoritarian leader, just to replace it with another one.

And at first the people might even be fine with that as the purpose of their authoritarianism has changed to something more agreeable, until they again become self-serving.

The thing is these "fast decision making without much discussion" almost inevitably causes individual problems to be disregarded and even if they are minor in the beginning, the longer this lasts the more relevant they will become to the point where resistance is inevitable, at which point the system either reacts with repression and at the worst case reduces itself to be a mechanism of repression or reacts with compassion and shares that power and responsibility or at least provides a relief as an appeasement with the system.

So the question is somewhat how to deal with that. The obvious solution would be full on democracy up to anarchy, where no one rules and the power is spread equally among the members of a society. However that requires the willingness to do that and even with the willingness might also require practical experience including failure. Because that would need to be a cooperative process where you not only aim for your own best interest but also respect other people to have the same rights and freedoms themselves.

Yet the most widespread "liberal" tactic is rather a plurality of thoughts and power centers. For example separation of powers, decentralization, tolerance of dissent (within limits). Strict definitions of positions of power, as well as limitations in time and strict rules of legitimization. Which is still authoritarian to a large degree, as the goal is too rule others and to develop ones position of power into one of absolute power, but where the different power structures are meant to keep each other in check.

So it's less of a "we keep doing it because we like it" and more of a "we're still in the process of figuring out ways how to not do it". The big problem is that we do not want to give up that effectiveness of cooperation, but unless we figure out how cooperation without leaders work we're always just a few steps away from authoritarianism.

Edit: Also just for completion. In addition to all the problems that good faith actors might have with cooperation without leadership and or leadership without authoritarianism. There's also various bad faith actors. Like some people do actually like social hierarchies and see it as inevitable, necessary or even good. Idk you're usual suspects: racists, sexists, nationalist, conservatives/traditionalists (as many places overcome such a system, that's what their conservatism refers to) and various other chauvinists. Generally if you've got a group antagonism within a country that suits itself to being in favor of the "enemy" being worse off than oneself. Also if you want to control a community from the outside it's usually seen as beneficial to have 1 person to talk to rather than a complex social network which talks more it themselves than to you and is thus less susceptible to being fooled and played against each other.

So authoritarianism can also come from outside forces, idk divide and conquer strategies come to mind. They can come from creating division, racism and scapegoatism, your classic us vs them narratives, which usually end up to masque the rise of a dictator. But also your calls for unity can be phony if that's supposed to be under the banner of a dictator (as said earlier). So yeah achieving actual democracy is an uphill battle, but authoritarianism actually sucks for the majority of people so it's still worth trying.


Because many people like authoritarian systems, at least to a certain degree. And that degree need not be extreme; of course many people living under authoritarian systems see various things about it that they think are bad; it's just that overall things are acceptable enough that making a serious effort to change the system would be not be worth the cost or potential cost (risk) of such an effort.

Let me address these two points in more detail.

First, many decades of research by psychologists has made it clear that there exists a certain type of personality trait, usually called "authoritarian follower" or "right-wing authoritarian personality" (RWA). These people are, to use the Wikipedia summary, are "highly submissive to their authority figures, act...aggressively in the name of said authorities, and [are] conformist in thought and behavior."

It should be no surprise that such people exist; we all have this to some degree, small or large, simply due to practicalities and human nature. The reasons for this include:

  1. Ease of thought. Why spend a lot of extra effort to carefully examine the situation every time you cross a street when you could simply accept the authority of the pedestrian signal and instead spend your time thinking about something more profitable to you?

  2. Fear of punishment. Why say or do something that could cause people some people you're having dinner with to dislike you, and create an uncomfortable situation, when you can simply let it go?

  3. Group solidarity. Humans have an innate and probably evolutionarily determined desire to work with a group, as this very often gives you more power and safety than being a loner. Group approval, even if it's for something you feel is bad, can still give psychological satisfaction.

For a lot more detail on this, it's well worth reading the (free) book The Authoritarians by Bob Altemeyer. He was a psychologist at the University of Manitoba. It covers, in a very readable way, his decades of research into authoritarianism, including how prevalent it is and the reasons it's appealing to various degrees depending on the person.

Second, living with an authoritarian society can offer worthwhile benefits, especially given that the personal cost of pushing for a change to a less authoritarian society can be great. As well as the ease of thought, fear of punishment and group satisfaction benefits described above, there can be an implicit agreement that if you as a citizen go along with stuff that doesn't affect you too much you will in turn receive benefits such as price controls on essential goods. The risk that the government might fail to control prices may well be seen as preferable to the risk that you would get thrown in jail for disagreement with the authorities, or get called up to fight in some war, or similar, if these latter risks have much lower probabilities for you as an individual. Even aside from the personal cost of trying to change the system, democracies are often enough less effective at e.g., keeping prices of essential goods stable.


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.

  • 5
    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? Commented Nov 21, 2016 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
    Commented Nov 21, 2016 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. Commented Nov 21, 2016 at 9:39
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    @Steve Melnikoff over what issues? We even do not know Trump's opinion about most issues.
    – Anixx
    Commented Nov 21, 2016 at 11:50
  • It also discounts that the U.S. political parties do not have as much power over their members as European political parties do and that the intra-party politics within the big two parties often plays an important divide as those who are in seats that are not "safe" for re-election will not vote for more extreme party policy if it means they're out of a job next election. Generally, this tends to work similar to how the coalition governments common in Europe function.
    – hszmv
    Commented Jun 26, 2023 at 17:11

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