I read a question asking if communism was inherently authoritarian as it is often portrayed. President Nixon often talked about countries being either communist or free. Is democracy always the opposite of authoritarianism?

  • 4
    We can find plenty of examples of authoritarian actions (defined as one group imposing its will on others) in democracies. E.g. the US experience with Prohibition.
    – jamesqf
    Jul 18, 2021 at 4:06

5 Answers 5


If we imagine a pure democracy where the government faithfully executes the decisions enacted by a majority of the people, its level of authoritarianism would necessarily be decided by the people. In theory, people could vote that the government should perform routine searches of houses for contraband without prior cause, or arrest and imprison people without a right to habeas corpus or to retain counsel on their behalf. Pure democracy as a concept has been criticized for allowing a "Tyranny of the Majority", the idea being that if a group holds majority voting power they can make decisions that are to their benefit over the minority voting group in the country, as opposed to making decisions that they believe will benefit the country as a whole the most.

Western-style liberal democracies obviously do not work like this, they have some set of rights, documented explicitly or otherwise, that the government cannot routinely curtail without either a supermajority vote or some kind of judicial oversight or procedural restriction. There are also generally legislative controls to prevent the "Tyranny of the Majority," such as veto power for the chief executive of the country on bills or legislative procedure that allows de-facto vetoes by minority voting groups (such as filibuster in the US or quorum requirements). This is probably the kind of democracy Nixon was referring to, and in opposition to Soviet and Maoist-style communism as opposed to idyllic Marxist communism, which would probably have some kind of democratic or republican component for the workers to make decisions about the country's public policy and could even have a constitution laying out fundamental rights that the proletariat are entitled to that the government actually adhered to.

Ultimately though, any form of government can be authoritarian. The US certainly has a sordid history of authoritarianism, such as eugenics laws in the early 20th century, warrantless internment of Japanese citizens during World War 2, and the way that it has used the current "War on Drugs" and later the specter of terrorism to vastly expand its police and surveillance powers. In theory a democracy is more receptive to the will of the citizens, but politicians and institutional media are experts at getting the public to agree with measures they want to put through. Despite all this, it's still accurate to say that liberal democracies tend to be much less authoritarian than dictatorships.

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    But western-style democracies HAVE often acted just like this. For instance the current persecution of drug users, post WWII persecution of homosexuals in Britain (see Alan Turing), the US imposition of Christian prayers in the mid-20th century, et cetera...
    – jamesqf
    Jul 19, 2021 at 2:11
  • @jamesqf That's a good point, I got caught up in the Nixon reference and didn't answer the question. Jul 19, 2021 at 3:13
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    Gave you thumbs up. It would be cool if you could expand on the final paragraph, especially putting in principles at work. There is a principle of authority and responsibility being connected. If those with power have no responsibility, or insufficient responsibility, you get tyranny pretty quick. A democracy is supposed to limit the power of any individual. But, of course, there are many ways that can produce horrible results. You mention several. Then there are any of the diverse methods of buying votes. Or frightening voters. Or a colluding news media. And so on.
    – puppetsock
    Jul 19, 2021 at 17:53

Defining Democracy and Authoritarianism

For this we should consider Democracy to be defined as a government where citizens elect officials to represent their interests (representative democracy, which is what most people think of when they think of democracy) and Authoritarianism to be a concentration of power in the government such that any public dissent from the status quo as set by the state is met with swift and brutal repression. The "status quo" includes whichever person or party is currently in power, and thus alternative political parties are generally not allowed to compete - either by law or by jailing political opponents. Authoritarian governments generally have an Autocrat for reasons that are probably out of scope for this question, but this is not necessarily the case.

Is Democracy inherently anti-Authoritarian?

Arguably the most important aspect of Democracy is a peaceful transition of power when people vote against the current ruling party or person. This is inherently anti-Authoritarian in that an Authoritarian government or Autocrat would not accept this transition of power, and would respond with force.

However, there is an old phrase "Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what's for lunch". Just because a majority of people (or however the given Democracy apportions voting power to its people) support something doesn't make it non-Authoritarian. If a majority of people support giving the government the power to grant minorities less rights or to execute drug traffickers this is certainly an Authoritarian stance, but it is not anti-Democratic.

It is also possible that a country which is ostensibly a Democracy can become an Autocracy with popular - if temporary - support from the people, such as how Maduro went from President to Autocrat. That said, Democracies generally create a separation of powers with checks and balances to prevent a ruler from seizing absolute power.


If you are looking to contrast Democracy with another type of government in this vein, it should be Autocracy. There are aspects of Democracy that are anti-Authoritarian, but being a Democracy does not mean a country is not Authoritarian, it just means that a majority of those given the power to vote support those Authoritarian measures.


In principle, yes. In practice, no, for it depends on the specific implementation of the democratic process in the structure of the government. For example, Venezuela is democratic in form (there are elections and an opposition), but authoritarian in nature (results of election are ignored or changed, opposition are persecuted, coerced, etc.). Even in the US, if the president exerts control over his party, which in turn is the majority in the Senate and House, then the president may govern in an authoritarian manner...

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    If an election result can be ignored or changed how could you call it is a democratic system? It is not a democratic country no matter the existence and the number of opposites parties, if only, and always, a single voice can prevail. It is a classic dictator/authoritarian in disguise
    – r13
    Jul 18, 2021 at 19:42
  • But you are talking about an ideal form of democracy that does not even describes the realities of the political process of ancient Greece. In reality, practical forms of democracy differ from that ideal substantially. By your definition, there is no democratic republic in the universe, because once elected, the representatives are not subjected to the electorate any more. When will you consider the US became a democracy? After the constitution, when only those with property had the right to vote, after the abolition of slavery, in the 1900 when women were able to vote? ...
    – ajbg
    Jul 19, 2021 at 0:19
  • "...because once elected, the representatives are not subjected to the electorate any more." They are, if not, they face/risk the possibility to be voted out in the next election in a democratic society.
    – r13
    Jul 19, 2021 at 1:39
  • @r13 we've seen this repeatedly happen where a politician prefers to have power for 4 years and do whatever they want, than to have power for a longer time period but only do what the people want. Jul 19, 2021 at 10:23
  • Many consider Venezuela to be more democratic than the US. Jul 19, 2021 at 13:46

"Is democracy always the opposite of authoritarianism?"

Yes, the democratic system and authoritarian are two poles that stand against each other. They are mutually exclusive.

In an authoritarian state, only a single person, with or without a group of chosen elites (party), dominate the state's social-political agenda. In such state, the opposite voices/views are suppressed through political persecution, regardless of whether the voices/views are supported by the majority or minority.

On the contrary, a democratic state respects the voices/views of the majority, regardless of the correctness of the majority voices/views, but, unlike the authoritarian state, the opposite voices/views are allowed to be raised/heard/expressed freely without the worry of been politically persecuted, and the minority is permitted to work from within, and have the chance to prevail ultimately.

Both democratic belief and authoritarianism can form a good/bad government. The direction of the former depends on the opinion of the majority that may swing/alter from time to time; the latter depends solely on the opinion of a single person that usually lasts with him/her regardless of other opinions. Clearly, rule by a single opinion is on the other end of rule by the opinion of the majority.

  • not even in Athens did the citizens attending the assembly believe in the respect others, with different opinions, deserve; nor does it signify anything in real and practical democracy today. A president, like Obama and Trump, can effectively govern through decree; and for all practical purpose, even if we deem governing by decree antidemocratic and/or authoritarian, it is a political resource the Us president has. You may argue that in time this authoritarian actions may be corrected and democracy restored, but in so doing you will conclude democracy may be interrupted by authoritarianism.
    – ajbg
    Jul 21, 2021 at 21:04
  • @ajbg If Trump can govern/control the US through "decree", do you think we will have Biden, as "presidential election" could be banned as he wishes?
    – r13
    Jul 21, 2021 at 21:21
  • That’s precisely my point; i.e., real democracy doesn't exclude authoritarian actions, but only so if we refer to it as an ideal abstraction. In principle, I do agree with you, but to me achieving such level of accountability and participation in a democracy is a struggle yet to be determined or even define properly.
    – ajbg
    Jul 21, 2021 at 21:58
  • @ajbg No, it excludes authoritarian actions. Do you think Trump, or Obama, will prevail if either decided to abolish the election or take away the power/rights of the congress, even with the back of their's party? However, in China and N. Korea, the leader gives order in the morning, everything will change accordingly in the evening.
    – r13
    Jul 21, 2021 at 22:49
  • How do you justify/explain the crisis and decline of democracy globally in the last 20 years (see freedom house report), and the American one definitely as of 2017? How can you criticize comcretely the failure of democracy according the political psychologist Shawn Rosenberg? I mean, not in the clouds but on Earth, democracy is a bit different than wishful thinking...
    – ajbg
    Jul 21, 2021 at 23:34

A government is a legal (as opposed to moral) monopoly on force. The government can compel you to do what they want, backing up the instruction with brute physical force. Fines, jail, up to execution. Any form of government can produce tyranny, since power is placed under government control.

A government system may work if authority and responsibility are not too unbalanced. If a government leader can do whatever he feels like and not get punished, he (or his successor) will soon find he really wants to do stuff to stay in power. Just about anything to stay in power.

The idea of democracy is that if somebody gets out of line he gets out of office. For this to work requires several things.

The institutions surrounding the process must be sound, not corrupt. The police (of all levels and whatever form) must stand apart from the process and enforce the rules. The rules must be good rules. The courts (or whatever the equivalent mechanism for deciding such things) must be non-corrupt. The election process must be pretty close to perfect, allowing as little corruption as possible.

The news media must be non-corrupt, at least most of the time and on balance. It can work to have confrontational news media. Leftist press and rightist press balancing out, for example. But it is less than ideal.

There must be mechanisms for information to get out about how bad a given government is so that the voters can see who to vote for. Or more importantly, against. So things equivalent to free speech are critical. In a country where the government decides who can say what, tyranny is never far away no matter the political system.

People must be educated. If the government runs the schools there is a huge instability. It is all too often an irresistible temptation for a would-be tyrant to enact "just a little" education reform. And before you know it, 17% of university profs are communist.

But education is required. People have to understand the nature of government and how quickly it can become horrible. No matter how much you like the current leader. No matter how perfect and moral you think he is. He won't be there forever. So, if you give him new power, even if he does something good with it, that power is now attached to the office. And the guy who comes after the current leader may not be nearly as nice.

So, democracy is not inherently anti-authoritarian. If you add voting to a situation with corrupt institutions, a corrupt news media, and a non-educated populace, you won't get freedom. Even if you have, for the moment, a good leader, it will last at most the life of that leader. And it could easily tempt that leader to turn.

  • 2
    what's that bit about communist university profs in the middle? Jul 21, 2021 at 16:26
  • 1
    A recent poll shows that in some departments in the arts faculty of some universities in the US, 17% list themselves as communist. The numbers in STEM fields are far lower, usually 1% or so, but not zero.
    – puppetsock
    Jul 21, 2021 at 22:04
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    yeah but what does it have to do with authoritarian information flow? If anything, they're allowed to be communist because information about the bad parts of capitalism isn't being censored Jul 22, 2021 at 9:03
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    @user253751 Maybe you didn't notice. But communism is an authoritarian form of government. Every single time it has been implemented has resulted in a dictatorship. It's in the specifications of communism: Dictatorship of the Proletariat.
    – puppetsock
    Jul 23, 2021 at 18:51
  • 1
    Dictatorship of basically everyone? That also describes democracy... Jul 24, 2021 at 18:20

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