On my point of view it is pretty simple to overthrow an authoritarian government. You just have to gather a lot of people in the smallest area possible (where the leader is located). Further actions can be made such as restraining the leader in some way.

It is true that that requires collaborative effort by the people and most of them need to be willing to take risks. But are humans selfish enough that they can not realize that is of greater importance the well being of majority?

Authorities are not going to kill millions of people. Are they?

Or if you allow me to rephrase my question in other way. Why are people afraid of the government?

  • 4
    Because government has the monopoly of the violence. Unless you have a very good reason and you are very good explaining it to the world, it is quite unlikely that the international community will support a group of people trying to replace the government.
    – fedorqui
    Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 11:23
  • 38
    Authorities are not going to kill 1 million of people. Are they? uhm, yes they are?
    – Federico
    Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 12:44
  • 21
    You're a poor farmer/worker. If you overthrow the authoritarian ruler, you'll likely STILL be a poor farmer/worker. What's your reason to risk your life on this? ideology trumps self preservation (and calling desire to not die "selfish" is a bit hard, innit?) for only a very small subset of humans; and typically, in VERY specific circumstances.
    – user4012
    Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 15:01
  • 1
    I think the authoritarian regimes are too multiple and diverse to have an definitive answer. Most of the cases it's because an overthrow would only make things worse (case of most military dictatorships) by triggering civil wars. Just look at contemporary Syria... any dictatorship would be better than that. In rare case of totalitarian regimes (such as China and N.Korea, but also Nazi Germany and Soviet Union) people actually believe the propaganda and as such don't want to overthrow the regime because they support it.
    – Bregalad
    Commented Jan 25, 2017 at 19:40
  • 2
    Because you'll get shot? Commented Jun 18, 2019 at 1:31

9 Answers 9

  1. Authoritarian governments control the military and don't allow people to legally bear arms that could potentially oppose them.
  2. Such governments usually come to power on claims of fighting some real or imagined injustice that gives them a honeymoon period where enough people are happy with what's happening.
  3. People don't normally rebel against anything until it's pretty bad, most authoritarian governments exploit resources (oil, religion) to keep most people content. When the bubble collapses then the problems start, like in Venezuela.
  4. Authoritarian governments aggressively squash opposition early on before it can rally to a level that can threaten their rule.
  5. These governments will kill massive amounts of their own people to stay in power. Stalin's gulags killed more people than Hitler did in concentration camps.
  6. The government controls the education system and media to brainwash the population constantly. North Korea and China both fight hard to keep their population ignorant, and make themselves appear benevolent.
  • 3
    Other factors you could add to that list are controlling the media and surveillance unrestricted by civil rights.
    – Philipp
    Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 13:14
  • 7
    You could also elaborate on the importance of controlling the military. When a revolution is a quick success, it's usually because the military allows it to succeed. Compare the 2011 uprisings in Egypt and Syria.
    – Philipp
    Commented Nov 30, 2016 at 13:21
  • 3
    The answer could also apply to democratic/republic governments like in the EU and US. Some countries in Europe have a ban on guns, they also have government education/healthcare, and they also do have state run media like the BBC in the UK. People only usually rebel when it personally affects them like poverty, famine, job loss, etc..
    – Noah
    Commented Dec 7, 2016 at 18:50
  • 1
    @Killer066 Some or all f these may apply to non authoritarian countries, but the difference is in degree. The UK has state run media and schools, but there are non state run media and schools as well which isn't true in places like North Korea.
    – Ryathal
    Commented Dec 8, 2016 at 12:33
  • 4
    Your first point is completely wrong. It's not about weapons themselves, it's about relative power of weapons. While not fully authoritarian, USA is an excellent example: USA's citizens might have a lot of weapons, but it doesn't matter because USA's police has automatic weapons, body armour and Infantry Fighting Vehicles (and if anything, army has even better gear), thus state retains "monopoly on violence" while giving citizens illusion of power. There's no place, authoritarian or otherwise where citizens could legally own AA/AT rocket launchers, assault weapons, combat-capable tanks etc.
    – M i ech
    Commented Jun 14, 2019 at 10:45

Authoritarian governments are kept in power by a small, elite part of their society. When they need additional support (perhaps to deter rebellion) they build domestic institutions - effectively sharing a part of their power in order to buy stability. Dictatorships can also use develop their own legitimacy (without sharing power), preventing people from wanting to resist in the first place.

The Structure of an Authoritarian Regime

Authoritarian regimes are built on the support of small, strategic parts of their society. This is in contrast to a democracy, which requires broad electoral support for a variety of pieces to be effective. For these small interest groups, the standard of living will be relatively high and members may enjoy more freedoms than the average person.

This article by Boix and Svolik contains a discussion of this structure.

This is the first deterrent to overthrowing an authoritarian regime. It's not that the government holds all the valuable resources (including military ones); it's that the government's allies hold many of them.

Of course, this is also a big opportunity: those same allies may be open to defecting.

Institution Building

The government may need additional support, beyond what it can get from domestic allies by dolling out extra economic incentives. When this is the case, the government will invest in developing political institutions (political parties, courts, legislatures, laws, formal departments, etc.).

This is risky, because it means limiting the government's power in exchange for (hoped) stability. For example, a government facing violent conflict from various groups might instate a national legislature with open elections. That will give the rebellious groups the opportunity to participate in a process, providing an outlet for their demands.

The government may or may not obligate itself to follow through with the legislature's proposals, but it's still a marginal victory for the rebels.

The linked paper by Gandhi and Przeworski focuses on providing empirical support for this.


Legitimacy is one of the cornerstones of political stability. Generally, people don't revolt against governments they perceive to be legitimate, even if those governments perform relatively poorly.

Nathan's article discusses this as part of a case study of Chinese politics. There are countless articles about identity politics (examples: Irish nationalism, trans-Africanism, Islamic solidarity) which illustrate how founding mythologies and other stories provide legitimacy for regimes. These actions are especially valuable for dictatorships, which sit atop a fragile network of political alliances.

From the citizen's perspective: economics

It's also worth noting that from the ordinary person's perspective, an authoritarian government might be significantly better than the regime that came before it. Or there might be real fear that the next regime will be worse. Both of these are reasons not to defect.

Of course, there is the possibility that a rebellion will improve things. People in poverty are notoriously risk-averse: any loss of income or resources could put them below sustenance-level (which means they will eventually die of disease, starvation, etc.). Even if the rebellion is successful, it likely won't meaningfully improve things for many years - can the poor afford to wait that long?


People are likely to support an authoritarian government if they feel that their group is in danger, according to authoritarianism theory and evolutionary psychology. There are many historical examples where authoritarian governments have fabricated collective dangers or exaggerated existing dangers in order to make people rally around the flag and support their government. I have explained this and documented many examples in this book https://books.google.dk/books?id=p845DwAAQBAJ (open access)


Yes, gathering enough people for an uprising would just about insure success. But if the authoritarians are willing to inflict a bloodbath, as they often are, to try and hold power, maybe not everyone needed is okay with the idea that there is a good chance that they will be a martyr for the greater good.

Think about the analogy of many Hollywood movies. Stand By Me, where the gang of bullies obviously has the raw numbers to overwhelm and mess up or even kill the smaller kids. -

Ace: What are you gonna do, shoot all of us?

Gordie: No Ace, just you.

Now, Ace's group would have still won, but Ace, himself, didn't see the value in it if he, himself, was dead.

You see it in westerns too. Something to the effect of, "Yeah, your mob is going to be able to take me down, but I'm going to take a bunch of you with me. Who wants to step forward and be the one to die?" Not usually a lot of volunteers. And, yeah, it's movies, but I don't think that aspect is especially inaccurate. Live people prefer, all things being equal, to remain living. They also prefer not to be taken away to be tortured for the rest of their days.

By brutal methods, greater access to firepower and general resources of force, and making very public examples of people who step out of line, totalitarian/authoritarian regimes are able to intimidate and cow the masses who have the combined might to throw them down. The problem is that organizing a unified front takes time, effort, and coordination, and with that many people, it's tough to keep things quiet until you have things ready.

Also, it's often tough to get the opposition organized, because many have conflicting interests beyond the overthrow of the current regime. That's been a key problem with what has happened in the "Arab Spring." Maybe you have a key group interested in a theocratic government. Another is a minority ethnic group who wants to splinter away on their own altogether. Yet another may want a secular democracy. If they get the military to help, maybe the military assumes they'll run the show, since they have most of the firepower. Maybe you get a group that wants an Amazonian matriarchy. Those groups will start jockeying and undermining each other long before they've achieved their initial goal, quite often.

Very often potential leaders and organizers get taken out, leaving the dual problem of people being afraid to be next, and losing the organizational leadership required to get an uprising together.

That's why it usually takes things deteriorating to a certain breaking point before you see those uprisings take place.


Some reasons are common and some differ from country to country. Since other answers cover mostly common reasons, I add some reasons that are special to one or several of them. First I'd note that I don't consider all examples mentioned below as authoritarian governments. I only say if one consider it authoritarian, it has stability because...

  • Religion: e.g Iran. In Iran avid fans of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are mostly because of his religious position. Largest percentage of population to attend a funeral was for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, The founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
  • Severe repression: e.g. Saudi Arabia.
  • In some countries there are elections that one person is the winner until dying. e.g. Azerbaijan. In this case people are not unanimous if the government is a kind of dictatorship.
  • not considered as authoritarian e.g. UK. It is widely accepted (true? or false?) that Queen has not notable role in the power.
  • Support of foreigners: e.g. Bahrain, One of the most sever dictatorships. Bahrain's started large protests against its rulers in early 2011. A month later the king requested security assistance from Saudi Arabia and ... . Also Bahrain's dictator has support of US and UK.

  • No good replacement: After many efforts the government overthrown; what then? It takes decades to reach a democracy like what in the US, which itself is not a good government system. people are socket puppet of owners of money and power. When they are tired of republicans they vote to democrats to change (e.g. vote for Obama). Then they don't see good changes. Again they vote to republicans and,...

Note that countries are subject to a number of cases above; e.g. the case "Severe repression" comes true also for Bahrain.

See also my answer to this question.


Because of assymetry in the payoff: the cost to overthrow a totalitarian government is often born individually, while the beeneefits of overthrowing a totalitarian government is public: everyone's happy when the overthrow is susseccful.

In essence, overthrowing such a government is a public good. Public good is difficult to supply without a government, and certainly ly will not be supplied by the only government whose supply of it means its own demise.


In an authoritarian state (since the definition talks about strict adherence to the government) people would grow up thinking that that is a good society and in extreme cases may even turn their back on democracy. In the case of Nazi Germany, Hitler controlled the media and focused a lot on propaganda. As a result of this few (of what Hitler considered good Germans) wanted change and many were willing to go to war for him. This coupled with what PoloHoleSet said about the western style, who wants to die first, scenario makes for a society where it is not only dangerous to speak out against the government but it goes against the interest of majority of the population. Check this page if what I said hasn't made sense.


In addition to the above answers, people seem to forget that authoritarian governments aren't overthrown sooner because of issues with human nature in addition to political reasons.

  • Bystander effect: the bystander affect is the inhibiting influence of the presence of others on a person's willingness to help someone in need. Bonobos and chimps are affected by the bystander effect showing that it is an evolutionary instinct and according to a 2013 peer-reviewed study, there might be a positive correlation between the bystander effect and affective empathy, meaning more empathetic people may be likely to do nothing if a group of authoritarians attack whether or not said authoritarians have state authority.
  • Mental illness and cult of personality: As I pointed out before, there are many mental illnesses that are related to a lack of empathy or sympathy that could make a person be likely to harm others either on impulse or because of a lack of ability to care about others:

While not a peer-reviewed study per se, but the DSM-5 says that the prevalence of Narcissistic Personality Disorder in the population is 6.2%, or approximately one out of sixteen members of the population (6.25%). The DSM-V was published in 2013 and is a peer-reviewed text, so it is within the 10 year criteria you mentioned and this fact is mentioned in more recent sources like an article for Psychiatric Times published in 2016. Another study from 2019 doesn't mention Narcissistic Personality Disorder, but does mention how approximately 3% of the population has Antisocial Personality Disorder, another disorder that is a common dual-diagnosis with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Then, there is a 2020 study that shows 1.6% to 5.9% of people have borderline personality disorder or BPD, which can be associated with a lack of empathy and lead to behaviors that can be mistaken for NPD. This is similar to Histrionic Personality Disorder (which doesn't cause people to suffer from a lack of empathy like with NPD, but can appear that way due to how it is difficult for those with HPD to recognize the emotions of others and thus lack emotional intelligence) that affects less than or equal to 2% of the population according to the University of Arizona College of Medicine.

This is important because some authoritarians seem to have some mental illnesses that might make it harder for them to sympathize with others and the social skills to convince others to join them with or without the state. Some psychologist believe Adolf Hitler may have had untreated borderline personality disorder or histrionic personality disorder as described in the 1993 study Adolf Hitler. A Reassessment of His Personality Status. These mental disorders can lead to a lack of sympathy and empathy which allows people to not really care about others as easily as an average person & - if the above 2013 study on the bystander effect is correct - makes it easier for the person with the mental condition to overcome the bystander effect. Basically, disturbed authoritarians and those with similar mental disorders may have an easier time acting on negative impulses and harming others than empathetic people, putting more compassionate people at a disadvantage. We even see this with apes who lack empathy who seem to be able to form gangs and warlordships to attack more compassionate neighbors to expand territory. There are many theories on how these unempathetic people/apes come together, but one hypothesis is that since people are proven to form bonds and friendships more easily with those who are similar to themselves, it could be said that many authoritarians get their start coming together with other people with similar authoritarian personalities & (if some of them are affected by the previous mentioned mental disorders) form gangs/terrorist groups/dangerous groups that can easily assault those who might be unable to fight back for a variety of reasons.

Depending on who you ask, the definition of a government is “the system by which a state or community is controlled or regulated”. According to Enlightenment thinker John Locke in philosophy, if a system regulating a community provides three things (law and order, protection of property rights, and enforcement of contracts), then it counts as a government. Sources like Encyclopedia Britannica refer to militias as political institutions with many informal communities and nations having militias as their governing bodies, so even those can be seen as governments. With these definitions, a simple clan or neighborhood watch, or group of people forming a citizen’s arrest group would count as a government as long as it protects the public against the many people who lack empathy and compassion or simply don’t want to follow the rules (who will always exist because many mental disorders associated with a lack of empathy like Antisocial Personality Disorder and Narcissistic Personality Disorder may be caused by genetics or a combination of genes) , those who would misuse private/public property, and guarantee that contracts are enforced instead of ignored by those who just don’t want to follow through. Human beings naturally form into groups since we need to socialize or suffer negative effects. Heck, in his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia, socialist libertarian Robert Nozick created the concept of the night-watchman state: a concept where any of the governments previously described can be considered a 'state' as long as it meets the requirements set by John Locke & the concept has been accepted by scholars such as Charles Townshend. It is also considered the minimum requirement for a 'state' according to Oxford in their peer-reviewed book The Oxford History of Modern War & and other peer-reviewed political works. When we form together, we create systems that enforce the rules and when the government collapses, no one can really stop people from coming together and creating their own system to fill the void: not without ironically forming your own group that fulfills the criteria of a basic government to stop people from forming their own government.

However, creating a proper governance and coming together in a way to defend your community is difficult due to the factors I describe above. You have to create a system with enough caring people who can overcome the bystander effect & deal with uncaring people who lack empathy/sympathy who will try to cause societal disharmony. This is especially hard to do during times of extremes societal stress like economic collapse, natural disaster, and other issues that might tear apart a community. Many authoritarians can to power during these times of societal duress. Economic collapse helped Hitler's rise to power and while many talk about how Hitler rose due to being elected to power, some forget that originally Hitler was essentially in charge of a far-right nationalistic terrorist group with no official authority we now know as the Nazis. This group allowed Hitler to gain power and start establishing a rise to power even before he was in charge of the German state. He used his group, even without government authority, to attack the leaders of the fledgling democratic Weimar Republic in 1923 and had members of the Nazi Party coerce voters into voting for Hitler to guarantee the election that eventually led to Hitler's official rise to power. Even if Hitler still somehow lost the election, he would have still been in charge of a powerful right wing terror group with far-reaching influence in Germany similar to what we see with the Ku Klux Klan in the United States or extremist groups in many other parts of the world.

tl;dr: Basically, any person uncaring and determined enough who can create a large enough cult of personality can be able to take power even without needing an official state or government recognition. As even apes teach us, all it takes is someone with an authoritarian personality and potentially certain unempathetic mental conditions finding like minded people, assaulting those who might have trouble defending themselves due to the bystander effect, and taking charge before someone can have the chance to create a better alternative to authoritarian rule. While my explanation may not include all of the intricacies that prevent an authoritarian from being overthrown, this should provide some reasons as to how authoritarians can rise to power & make it hard to be removed.


It's worth reading Hannah Arendt's essay "On Violence" (in the anthology "Crises of the Republic"). Arendt makes the following political distinctions:

  • Strength: The quality of an individual that allows him to act
  • Violence: The magnification of an individual's strength through technological (tools and weapons) or institutional (binding norms or hierarchies) means
  • Power: The ability to come to agreements and act collectively
  • Authority: The delegation of power (as defined above) to an individual or institution who will order and structure the actions of the group

Authoritarian regimes idolize strength and work through violence: They build strong military and police forces, demand strict loyalty, insist on rigid hierarchies, and take other measures to endure that the ruler or ruling cohort can take instrumental control over all significant aspects of governance. Instrumental control means that they can treat the government as an extension of their personal strength, so that they can inflict extreme violence against any opposition. this is why the worst forms of authoritarianism often prefer torture over execution: the depravity of torture is a protracted form of violence that proves the magnified strength of the leader(s).

The question suggests that people can come together in numbers and overwhelm an authoritarian regime, and that is technically true; it is, in fact, precisely what Arendt means by 'power'. But power on this scale is difficult to achieve. It requires some degree of consensus, organization and planning across a broad range of people, who must all agree to show up together at some particular time and place, and that process is vulnerable to violence at many levels. An authoritarian regime can use violence — interrogations, arrests, property destruction, assaults — against anyone who shows too much interest in anti-government information. An authoritarian regime can arrest, torture, and/or execute anyone who is granted authority by the populace to organize opposition or resistance. Authorian regimes (and any form of government, really) are uniquely situated to break up power by attacking individuals as individuals if they step out of line; no individual has the strength to stand up against the extended strength (violence) of authoritarian rule. As Arendt herself notes, violence can always defeat power in the short run.

In the long run, violence is less effective. A pattern of violent rule tends to breed resentment across a population, and that resentment creates a unified public view against the regime; a unified view is the root of power. In fact, the application of violence rests on implicit forms of power; on people's tacit acceptance of violence because of the risks and troubles of opposing it; on soldiers' and bureaucrats' unthinking acceptance of hierarchical rule. Eventually all these implicit acceptances wear thin, and authoritarian regimes collapse from within or are overwhelmed outside forces that carry popular support. But it pays to be aware of the intrinsic difficulties of creating power, compared to the relative ease of establishing the capacity for violence.

You must log in to answer this question.

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