Medieval European countries, 20th century Chile and Mexico at the beginning of the 21st century all have something in common: they were controlled by authoritarian governments. Though noted for complete control of the political system, authoritarianism has many variations. Though the power source may differ, authoritarian regimes have certain repressive characteristics in common and can emerge from military forces, political parties, bureaucracies or monarchies.
Running the Show
In an authoritarian government, one leader or a small ruling group is in charge. No checks or balances are in place to limit this control. Political powers rest at the top, where all laws are made and citizen rights and privileges are determined. Individualism is frowned upon unless it promotes the government’s interests. Democratic liberties such as freedom of the press and free speech are banned. The results of elections are in question, since the majority has no actual control.
The End Game
Many authoritarian governments take power with a specific action plan, such as abolishing a corrupt system or repairing the economy. These objectives are often very popular with citizens, who support the government as long as progress is made toward these goals. Dissent, whether among leaders or citizens, is often met with violence. To achieve their goals, authoritarians focus on strategies rather than philosophies. This differentiates authoritarian regimes such as Fidel Castro’s communist Cuba from Adolf Hitler’s totalitarian Germany.
The People's View
Because an authoritarian government often appears during a time of national crisis, leaders generally take power with the support of the general public. The rise of these autocrats may coincide with the ouster of the unpopular previous government. For example, in 1946 Juan Peron was elected president by a majority of citizens. He was chosen to replace Argentina’s military leadership, which was considered unresponsive to the needs of workers. As long as goals are met and rights are not too restricted, authoritarian regimes are often fully accepted by citizens. If popularity dwindles, the government abandons its previous goals and becomes focused on staying in power.
One way that authoritarian governments hold power is by limiting its citizens participation in politics. Individuals are aggressively discouraged from becoming interested in government. Political activism is difficult because there is no easy path for citizen involvement. Any opposition is quickly crushed, often violently. Basic human rights are ignored, because they are seen as a threat. For instance, China’s authoritarian leadership has been criticized for decades about its human rights violations, including not allowing religious expression, labor union formation and free speech.
Living in upstate New York, Susan Sherwood is a researcher who has been writing within educational settings for more than 10 years. She has co-authored papers for Horizons Research, Inc. and the Capital Region Science Education Partnership. Sherwood has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction from the University at Albany.