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3.8: Historical and Contemporary Government

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    Forms of Government
    Figure 3.8.1: There are many forms of national government including Monarchy, Oligarchy, Theocracy, Dictatorships, Republican Democracies, Presidential, Parliamentary, Federal, Confederate, and Unitary systems.

    Basic Forms of Government

    States come in a variety of forms that vary based on (1) who holds power, (2) how positions of leadership are obtained, and (3) how authority is maintained. The United States is a democratic presidential republic, a democratic government headed by a powerful elected executive, the president. Also, the United States's federal system divides the power of government between national and state governments.

    The United States originally won its independence from Britain, which was a monarchy in which power was concentrated on an individual king. Other forms of government include oligarchy and dictatorship or totalitarianism. One way to classify these governments is by looking at how leaders gain power. Under this system, governments fall into general categories of authoritarianism, oligarchy, and democracy.

    Authoritarian Governments

    Authoritarian governments differ in who holds power and in how much control they assume over those that they govern, but all are marked by the fact that the empowered are unelected individuals. One well-known example of this type of government is a monarchy.

    A monarchy is a form of government in which supreme power is absolutely or nominally lodged with an individual who is the head of state, often for life or until abdication. The person who heads a monarchy is called a monarch.

    Some monarchs hold unlimited political power while many constitutional monarchies, such as the United Kingdom and Thailand, have monarchs with limited political power. Hereditary rule is often a common characteristic, but elective monarchies are also considered monarchies (e.g., The Pope).

    Some states have hereditary rulers but are considered republics (e.g., the Dutch Republic). Currently, 43 nations have monarchs as heads of state. Monarchies are often tied to the divine right of kings idea. The divine right of kings was a political and religious doctrine. It meant that a monarch was given the right to rule by God alone. It gave a king absolute rule over his subjects because he ruled in God’s name.

    Totalitarianism (or totalitarian rule) is a political system that strives to regulate nearly every aspect of public and private life. This type of rule does not have limits or restraints on power. Totalitarian regimes or movements maintain themselves in political power by means of an official all-embracing ideology and propaganda disseminated through the state-controlled mass media, a single party that controls the state, personality cults, control over the economy, regulation and restriction of free discussion and criticism, the use of mass surveillance, and widespread use of state terrorism. (e.g. Imperalist Japan, Czar Nicholas I of Russia).

    Ogligarchic Government

    An oligarchy is a form of government in which power effectively rests with a small elite segment of society distinguished by royalty, wealth, family, military, or religious hegemony. An oligarchy is different from a true democracy because very few people are given the chance to make changes. An oligarchy does not have to be hereditary or monarchic. An oligarchy does not have one clear ruler, but several powerful people who rule. One common example is a theocracy.

    A theocracy is a form of government in which a god or deity is recognized as the state's supreme civil ruler, or in a broader sense, a form of government in which a state is governed by immediate divine guidance or by officials who are regarded as divinely guided. Theocratic governments enact theonomic laws. Theocracies are distinguished from other secular forms of government that have a state religion or are merely influenced by theological or moral concepts, and monarchies held "by the Grace of God" (theory of Divine Right of Kings).In a theocracy, the religious hierarchy controls the state administrative hierarchy.

    Democratic Government

    Democracy is a form of government in which the right to govern is held by the majority of citizens within a country or a state. The two principles of a democracy are that all citizens have equal access to power and that all citizens enjoy universally recognized freedoms and liberties. Additionally, four elements of democracy are common: 1) citizens choose and replace the government through free and fair elections, 2) there is active participation of the citizens in politics and civic life, 3) there are human rights and civil liberties (freedoms), which are protected for all citizens, and 4) there is a rule of law in which the laws and procedures of government and society apply equally and fairly to all citizens.

    There are several varieties of democracy, some of which provide better representation and more freedoms for their citizens than others. However, if any democracy is not carefully legislated with balances, such as the separation of powers, to avoid an uneven distribution of political power, then a branch of the system of rule could accumulate power and become harmful to the democracy itself. Freedom of political expression, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press are essential so that citizens are informed and able to fairly and equally participate in the political process.

    In a direct democracy, or pure democracy, all decisions are voted on by the people. When a budget or law needs to be passed, then the idea goes to the people. This form of government is reserved for small communities that have a central meeting place and solve simple issues.

    The map below shows all the countries of the world, colored according to their level of freedom (democracy). Green indicates countries with a high degree of freedom, yellow represents countries who are "less than completely free" and purple is countries that have very low or non-existent levels of democratic freedom. For an interactive version of this map, visit Freedom House.

    Figure 3.8.2: Freedom House 2018 map shows freedom in the world: green=free, yellow=partly free, and purple=not free.

    Classical Republic

    Classical republicanism, also known as civic republicanism, is a form of republicanism developed in the Renaissance period that was inspired by classical writers such as Aristotle, Polybius, and Cicero.

    Although modern republicanism rejected monarchy in favor of rule by the people, classical republicanism treated monarchy as one form of government among others. The belief of what constituted an ideal republic depended on personal viewpoint. Classical republicanism is built around concepts such as civil society, civic virtue, and mixed government. A small group of elected leaders represents the concerns of the electorate. The majority rules over the few. Some historians have noted that classical republican ideas influenced early American political thought.


    Socialism is an economic and political system where the means of making a living (factories, offices, etc.) are owned by the workers who run them, and the people who depend on them instead of a group of private owners.

    There are two ways socialists think of the way society can own the means of making wealth: either the state is used, or worker-owned cooperatives are used. Another important belief is that management and sharing are supposed to be based on public interests. Socialism benefits those who are homeless, less fortunate, or underemployed.

    The major differences between the different varieties are the role of the free market or planning, how the means of production are controlled, the role of management of workers and the government's role in the economy.


    American Indian tribes are sometimes described as “nations within a nation.” Although the tribes are located within the United States, the United States Constitution considers them as separate governments. Native Americans have their own laws and government. Tribal governments have the power to tax, to pass their own laws and to have their own courts. Generally, states do not interfere with tribal governments. Congress, however, has the power to pass laws that govern Indian tribes and their members. Congress tries to make laws that help American Indians while respecting each tribe’s authority to pass its own laws and govern itself.

    Many American Indian tribes have adopted constitutions similar to the U.S. Constitution. As a result, many tribes have branches of government similar to those in U.S state and federal governments. This allows for the separation of powers.

    Type of Govt.

    Head of State

    Decision Makers

    Source of Power & How Acquired

    Length of Rule

    Political Freedoms Determined by:

    Military Dictatorship

    Dictator (Military Officer)


    Power taken by Military thru a "Coup D’état"

    Death or Overthrow (by another Coup d’état)


    Absolute Monarchy



    Divine right through birth or lineage

    Death, Overthrow or Abdication


    Limited Monarchy

    King/Queen or Prime Minister

    King/Queen & Representative Group (usually Parliament)

    Divine Right Through Birth and a Constitution through election

    Death, Overthrow, Abdication or End of Term

    Bill of Rights or other Limiting Document(s)


    Small group of Leaders

    Small group of Leaders

    Intelligence and/or Wealth thru Coalition or Consensus

    Death or Overthrow


    Representative Democracy (Republic)


    President and Representative Group

    A Constitution thru Elections

    End of Term

    Bill of Rights or Other Limiting Documents

    Direct Democracy


    All Citizens

    All Citizens thru Elections and Direct Participation


    All Citizens




    No one has power over anyone else

    Ends when a Government is Established

    Each Individual (Can do anything” except organize)


    Religious Leader

    Religious Leader(s) of State Established Religion

    Church and State leadership and decision-making are combined

    Undetermined. When the government and/or religion are overthrown or when religious and/or political leadership changes.

    Church leaders and political leaders.


    Totalitarian leader or group of totalitarian leaders

    Totalitarian leader or group of totalitarian leaders granting power to and removing it from the local governments when it sees fit. France is also a unitary government. The national government rules over the various provinces or departments. These local bodies carry out the directions of the central government, but never act independently.

    Government has total control over the people and control ALL aspects of daily life.

    When the government is overthrown

    State exercises total control over the people and actively monitors and determines ALL aspects of daily life.

    Figure 3.8.3

    Study/Discussion Questions

    1. Which three basic criteria determine which form of government a nation or a state has?

    2. What type of government does the United States have?

    3. If we look only at how leaders gain power, which three basic forms of government does your text describe? What are the essential characteristics of each? What subforms does each government contain?



    Basic Characteristics



    Imagine you have been chosen as a representative to the Constitutional Convention. Your task is to explain the new federal form of government to the state that elected you. In one paragraph, explain this new form of government and persuade your constituents (the people who sent you) why they should support it.

    "Democratic presidential republic."   Wikipedia  CC BY-SA 3.0.
    "Introduction to Sociology/Politics."   Wikibooks  CC BY-SA 3.0.
    "theocracy."   Wiktionary  CC BY-SA 3.0
    "oligarchy."   Wiktionary  CC BY-SA 3.0.
    Source: Boundless. "The U.S. Political System." Boundless Sociology. Boundless 02 Jul 2014. Retrieved 23 Dec 2014 from
    Source: Boundless. "Types of States." Boundless Sociology. Boundless. 14 Nov 2014. Retrieved 23 Dec. 2014 from
     Source: Tribal Government Systems

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