Constitutional Topic: Political Systems
This page concerns Political Systems. The Constitution describes the U.S.
political system. This document will describe political systems in general, and
then use specific examples of real-world political systems.
In the course of creating this page, Wikipedia was an invaluable resource.
Another primary source was Comparative Politics by Gregory Mahler
(Prentice Hall, 2000).
Political Science is a discipline in itself, because the
variety of political systems that are present on our world, or which have been
present in the past, is as widely varying as chemical elements or subatomic
particles. Worse, for the political scientist, these systems are not governed
by laws of nature that are unchanging, but by humans who, by nature, change
This page, then, cannot be an exhaustive study of various political systems.
However, the major points can be addressed and the most common variants
described. Students of politics can take the information presented here and
use it as a basis for research into more focused topics.
One of the problems in the creation of a topic like Political Systems is
this: what framework does one use to present the topic? Should it be a survey
of political theory, reaching back to the Greeks and Romans, and pulling in
Hobbes, Montesquieu, Marx, and Paine? Should it describe past political
systems like the U.S. under the Articles of
Confederation, or France under monarchy, or Sparta's democratic oligarchy?
Should it look at modern democracies and contrast their details?
There is no easy answer. Though the help and suggestion of members of this
site's Message Boards, the format and layout of
this page was decided upon. Suggestions for changes, improvements, and
expansion are welcome.
First, we will discuss the major types of political
systems, describing them in very general terms.
Anarchy is the complete lack of political systems. In a way, it is the state
of nature, where there are no rules and the strongest have power over the
weakest. Though nations might devolve into anarchy following internal strife or
natural disaster, anarchy cannot be sustained. At a minimum, an anarchic
nation will produce a tyrannical leader, and some sense of order eventually
In a dictatorship, one person has absolute power. Though there is typically a
military and a bureaucracy in such a nation, and though there are typically
laws to dictate everyday goings-on, the dictator has complete discretion.
Typically, the dictator takes on, or assumes, an aura of a deity, or a cult of
personality emerges. Examples include Mussolini's Italy, Hitler's Germany, and
Kim's North Korea. Dictatorial systems are often based on military power,
and the term "military dictatorship" is used.
An autocracy is the same as a dictatorship — but the term is often used
to convey something less sinister than "dictatorship" implies. An autocrat may
have less a cult of personality than a dictator has.
An oligarchy is, literally, rule by a few. Oligarchies are often the evolution
of dictatorships from rule by a single person to rule by a small group of
people. Examples include England in 1215, when the King was forced by nobles to
sign the Magna Carta, or South Africa following the alliance of the English-
and Afrikaans-speaking elite.
A theocracy is an oligarchy based on religion — the group is ruled by the
group's spiritual leaders. Religion is a powerful human phenomenon, and
religious leaders can often exert great influence over the group's actions.
Examples include many modern Islamic states, such as Iran or Afghanistan under
the Taliban, and Puritan Massachusetts.
A monarchy is best described in the same way that a dictatorship is. One key
difference is that dictatorship is used as a derisive term, and monarchy is
seen as much more benign. Historically, however, kings and queens have been as
brutal as many modern dictators. The major difference is the transfer of power.
In a dictatorship, power is often not transferred at all — the death of
the dictator signals the end of the dictatorship; or it is transferred to a
hand-picked successor. Monarchies typically have much stricter, hereditary
systems of succession, such that a monarch's first-born son is elevated to king
upon the monarch's death. Past and present examples include Saudi Arabia,
England, and Thailand.
Though the word "democracy" is used in many contexts today, strictly speaking,
a democracy is a system where the people rule. Each decision that needs to be
made is made by the people in toto. Such systems are tenable only in
groups up to a certain size — when larger, debate and voting become
lengthy and cumbersome.
Representative democracy or Indirect democracy
As pure democracy quickly becomes unworkable, a variation on the form quickly
evolved. In this system, representatives of large groups of people
are selected and these representatives meet to conduct the government. The
selection of representatives is typically via election, where a selection of
candidates for the position are put before the people, and by majority vote,
one of them is chosen. Several levels of indirection are possible as the
system grows: for example, in the United States prior to the 17th Amendment, Senators were chosen by state
legislators, which were chosen by the people.
In a plutocracy, the ones with the most resources are the ones who rule. The
most common place to see plutocracy in action is in emerging democracies, where
the leaders look to wealthy citizens for guidance on governmental affairs.
Such contacts do not necessarily have to approach plutocracy, but because of
the human propensity for attraction to wealth and the human propensity for
attraction to power, the combination of the two can, at a minimum, radiate
In an aristocracy, the upper class of citizens, however that might be defined
in any one society, holds the power. Heredity, or rule by right of birth,
plays a large role in continuing power. Aristocracy is closely related to both
plutocracy and monarchy. In a typical system, such as that of medieval
England, one family from a group of aristocratic families rises above the rest,
either through military conquest or agreement between the families.
"Meritocracy" is a phrase that has some political baggage attached to it, not
so much as a political system in itself, but as a modifier of another type of
system. Colloquially, then, a meritocracy is a political system whereby the
most deserving people lead. But it does have a more formal definition: where
the leaders are chosen from the masses based on those who have achieved the
most. "Achievement" is a vague term, and can be societally based, such as
those who are the best educated, those with the most money or land, or those
with the most fame; in this way, an aristocracy, plutocracy, or even a
theocracy can be called a meritocracy.
A stratocracy is a government run directly by the military; stratocracies are
more commonly known as military dictatorships. There have been relatively few
pure stratocracies over time, though there have been many nations with a strong
military but with (at least nominal) civilian rule. See "The Military"
A cleptocracy is generally a more specific description of a dictatorship:
literally, a cleptocracy is a government sustained by stealing. As such, the
circle of power must necessarily be a small one. The rulers and his or her
inner circle steal national resources or the profits thereof (such as diamonds
or oil); use foreign aid for personal gain; and use the national treasury to
further personal aims. Because such actions would rarely be tolerated by an
informed public, the press is often complicit or government-run and democratic
features like elections are for show or are nonexistent.
Following a 2010 Supreme Court ruling (Citizens United v Federal Election
Commission), this term began to appear in the popular media. The decision
dictated that campaign contribution limits on corporate donors were
unconstitutional, and it was feared that a subsequent increase of corporate
funding would lead to members of Congress being "owned" by sponsoring
companies. Such members of Congress would then be more interested in furthering
the interests of the corporations than of the people.
Regardless of the type of system used by any nation or
society, there is a very typical and well-used set of divisions in governments.
These are characterized by five groups: the executive, the legislature, the
judiciary, the military, and the church. In some systems, one or more of these
divisions is not present — some dictatorships will have no legislature,
for example, and the United States has no state church. The remainder of this
page will look at each division in a general sense, and the role of the
The Executive Branch
Generally speaking, the executive branch of government executes the laws
created by the legislative branch, though this general rule is modified in some
political systems. For example, in a totalitarian dictatorship, there may be
no legislature, and hence the executive also makes laws.
The executive branch is sometimes divided into two parts, a head-of-state
and a chief executive. The head-of-state is the person, or group, that
represents the nation to other nations. The chief executive is responsible for
all those roles of the executive that are not handled by the head-of-state.
The power held by these two positions is not consistent. In Britain, for
example, the head-of-state is the monarch, who has little actual power over the
executive branch. The Prime Minister is the chief executive and holds a great
deal of power. In France, the President is the head-of-state and has a great
deal of power over the executive. The Prime Minister has been likened to a
junior partner in the executive.
The Israeli President is elected by the Knesset and is largely ceremonial,
much like Britain's monarch. The Prime Minister holds the bulk of the power.
In Russia, the roles are again reversed, with the President holding the bulk of
the power and the Prime Minister being a junior partner. In the United States,
the President is both the head-of-state and the chief executive.
While the head-of-state is almost always a single person, the chief
executive has sometimes been a group, or committee, or people.
The method for choosing the executive varies greatly. In some cases, such as
in Britain, the head-of-state is a hereditary monarch and the chief executive
is the Prime Minister of the Parliament. The people, then, have no choice in
the head-of-state and only a small segment of the population have a choice of
the Prime Minister (the Prime Minister is chosen from all the Members of
Parliament from the majority party — each MP is elected in a local
election). In Israel, the President is chosen by the Knesset and the Prime
Minister is a Member of the Knesset. In the United States, the President is
elected, indirectly through the Electoral
College, by the people.
Terms vary. Monarchs generally hold life terms. Members of parliaments
hold maximum terms, though votes of no confidence in parliament can force new
elections sooner. Other executives hold their positions for a fixed term, such
as in the United States. In dictatorial systems, terms are for life.
The Legislative Branch
Generally speaking, the legislative branch makes the laws. Legislatures
usually consist of many members chosen by the people of the country. There are
several basic models of legislature that have been and are used in the
The most prevalent system is the parliamentary system. In this type of
system, the nation is broken up into small units, divided variously by
geography, ethnicity, or population. Each unit elects one or more members of
parliament from a slate of candidates. After election day, the party with the
majority of members becomes the Majority Party and chooses the Prime Minister
and Cabinet. If no party has a majority, parties negotiate divisions of power
and form coalitions. Once a coalition is established, the government is
formed. Coalitions are often fragile, as the majority voice in the coalition
can offend the minority (or minorities) and cause members of the coalition to
abandon the coalition. Parliamentary legislatures remain in power for a fixed
term or until a vote of no confidence is taken and the majority loses the
In another type of parliamentary setup, there are no political divisions
— national elections are held and people vote for a single party. When
the votes are counted, seats in the parliament are given on a percentage basis
to each party. The party then decides who to appoint to each seat it is
apportioned. In this type of system, minority voices are more likely to be
heard and coalition governments more likely to be formed (in a districted
system, is it possible for one party to win 50-percent-plus-one of all
districts and acquire 100 percent of the seats in parliament; in a national
election system, this cannot happen).
In a system like that of the United States, members of the legislature hold
their office for a certain fixed term. After elections, a majority party is
determined, but there is no such thing as a vote of no confidence. Though
parties play a major role in the selection of legislative leaders, individual
members of the legislature are free to vote however they wish without fear of
bringing down the government as in a parliamentary system.
Another common system involves a legislature composed of one party. Such
systems are common in communist nations, so examples include the USSR's Supreme
Soviet and China's National People's Congress. Though dissent is generally
allowed in such a system, the decisions of the party are rubber-stamped by the
Legislatures can have one house (unicameral) or two houses (bicameral). A
1973 survey found that nations with a legislature were nearly evenly divided
between unicameral and bicameral. The role of the two houses vary from one
nation to another. In the United States, the two houses, the House of
Representatives and the Senate, have roughly equal powers, and legislation
passed by one house must be passed by the other to become law (in many systems,
the executive must also approve of any legislation passed by the legislature).
In Britain, the House of Commons is an elected body with the majority of the
power; the House of Lords can amend and delay bills passed by the House of
Commons, but may not cancel them. The House of Lords has no power over
The Judicial Branch
Generally, the judicial branch interprets the laws of the nation. Because
of the nature of law enforcement, the judicial branch often has the largest
membership. In the United States, for example, there is one executive (two, if
the Vice President is counted), 535 legislators, and thousands of federal
The structure of the judiciary varies greatly from one nation to another,
based on the legal tradition. The most familiar may be that of the United
States, where there is a Supreme Court that is the final court of appeals in
the nation. Below the Supreme Court are a series of inferior courts, starting
with the federal court where most cases are heard, and several levels of
appeals courts. Britain has a similar setup, but the House of Lords is the
court of final appeal.
Israel has several judicial systems — the secular system is divided
into general law courts and tribunals. The general court has a Supreme Court,
district courts, and magistrates. Personal matters, such as marriage and
divorce disputes, are handled by religious courts. There are four systems of
religious court; Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Druze.
Selection of judges is another point of comparison. Generally, the
selection process is divided between appointed and elected. Appointed judges
are thought to be free from political pressure, and thus are able to best
represent the people and the law. Elected judges are thought to best represent
the will of the people. Terms vary from life to several years, in both systems
Other judicial concepts vary from nation to nation. For example, in the
United States, each state maintains its own judicial system separate, but
related to, the national judiciary. Concepts of "innocent until proven guilty"
or "guilty until proven innocent" vary, and does the concept of the jury trial.
These concepts are highly tied to the legal tradition of each nation.
Almost every society in known history has or has had a military structure.
It is a constant in human history that societies will fight over resources, and
to fight effectively requires a trained class of persons — soldiers.
In some nations, the military is a dictatorship, and the head of government
is a military officer. This is in contrast to other dictatorships where the
military is completely subservient to the ruler. In Hitler's Germany, for
example, the military was a strong tool of the Nazi Party, but Germany was not
run by the military. The same can be said for the United States which, since
World War II has maintained a very strong military, but where the military has
no actual power in the government. In the case of the United States, the
military is an institution of the Executive, and not a separate branch of
government. A lack of power does not mean a lack of influence, though. In the
United States, politicians vie for military spending in their districts, and
the prosecution of war can lead to serious changes in the economy and in public
Ancient Sparta is a good example of a nation where the military was a
distinct branch of government — in fact, Aristotle said that Sparta was
an unending generalship. The militaristic nature of Sparta is generally
overstated, though, as there were some democratic institutions in place.
However, most citizens were expected to be soldiers — only those too weak
to soldier were permitted to be civilians.
Military dictatorships are not uncommon even today. Some world leaders came
to power as the result of military coups. The leader may be a single person,
such as Libya's Colonel Moammar Al Qadhafi and Pakistan's General Pervez
Musharaf, or a junta, a committee, as in Myanmar (Burma). Other historical
examples include Argentina in the late 1970's and early 1980's, or Uganda under
General Idi Amin.
In some nations, the church has no role in government, as in the United
States. However, in other states, even those that are not theocracies, the
church has a great deal of influence. Note that it must be distinguished
between a formal national church and personal religious beliefs. While the
United States has no national church, individual leaders often look to their
religious faith for strength of answers. This is in contrast, however, to
those nations where the national church has a voice in the conduct of
government. Such church involvement in government is also known as
The most obvious place where church has a role in government is in the
theocracy, most often seen today in the Islamic state. In such a state, the
leaders are often religious clerics. Legal systems might adhere to Shariah, or
Islamic law as presented in the Koran. In Iran under the Ayatollah Khomeini,
the head-of-state was a cleric with broad powers; since his death, however,
executive power is held by the President, elected by the people. The
legislature, the Majlis, is elected by universal suffrage, but all legislative
actions must be approved by a Council of Guardians composed of clergy and
jurists. The Council judges the suitability of each presidential candidate and
of every candidate for seats in the Majlis.
In Israel, Judaism is not the official religion, but its influence is seen
throughout its political structure. An example already given involves the
provision of different religious court systems. Judaic principles can be seen
in various places, such as the recognition of the Sabbath and the use of kosher
cooking in state kitchens. However, divisions within Judaism, between the
majority and the minority ultra orthodox and modern orthodox sects, have raised
issues of late as to where religion and government should come together and
where they should separate.
In Britain, the Church of England has a role in government in several key
ways. The head-of-state is also the Supreme Governor of the Church, and
appoints archbishops, bishops, and deans on the advice of the Prime Minister.
In addition, 26 members of the House of Lords are the archbishops and bishops
of the Church.
There are a few other notable differences between
political systems that should be mentioned, and which can be used to
characterize a nation's government.
First is in the distribution of power. As nations grow larger, it is often
desirable to divide the nation into smaller units, such as provinces, as in
Canada, or states as in the United States or Brazil. With smaller nations,
division is not always necessary. With this division comes three typical
systems for dividing power. The first is the unitary system, where there is no
actual division of power. Unitary systems include Britain, France, and, oddly
for its size, China. The unitary system is by far the most common in the modern
world. It is simple, with only one level of government to contend with.
Many larger nations, however, have adopted a federal system, where the nation
has certain powers, but smaller political divisions enjoy a certain degree of
autonomy and sovereignty. The United States is the classic example, but Canada,
Australia, Russia, and Brazil all also have federal systems. Other nations not
quite so large, such as Nigeria, Switzerland, India, and Mexico, opted for
federal systems to ease tensions in various ethnic, linguistic, or regional
groups within the nation.
The last type of distribution is the confederation. There are no surviving
confederations today. In a confederation, the national government is very weak
compared to those of the internal political divisions. The United States under
the Articles of Confederation is one example.
Germany in the early 1800's, and Switzerland through most of the 1800's also
used confederal systems. Many consider the European Community (EC) to be a
confederal system, and over time, as more power is assumed by the EC, it may
evolve into a true confederacy.