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Political System: Types & Definition

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  • 0:48 Monarchy
  • 1:37 Dictatorship
  • 2:24 Oligarchy & Aristocracy
  • 3:36 Communism
  • 4:18 Democracy
  • 5:54 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

How many different ways can human societies organize their governments? In this lesson, we'll examine some common political systems used throughout history and see how they compare.

Definition of Political Systems

This is John Study. John Study is fed up with the people he lives around and has come to the only logical conclusion; he needs to leave and start his own society. So, he does. Turns out, it's actually a lot simpler than you'd think. So, John Study now has a group of people who are all living together, but he quickly realizes that they're not all going to cooperate without some sort of government. John Study doesn't know what sort of government he wants for his new society, so I think it's a good time for him to take a look at a few different political systems, the set of formal institutions and practices that define a government's structure. Let's peruse some of the most common political systems throughout history, and see which one John Study likes the best.

Monarchy

One of the first political systems John Study runs across, and one of the oldest and most common through human history, is the monarchy. In this system, the government is ruled by a single leader, the monarch. Now, this sounds simple enough, but we can break this down further. An absolute monarch is a ruler, like a king or queen, who has total control over the government. Medieval European kings were absolute monarchs who believed their authority to be divinely granted and shared power with no one. However, these systems were often abusive of their citizens, so modern nations tend to go with a constitutional monarchy, in which the ruler's powers are checked by a legislative body, generally called a Parliament or Diet.

Dictatorship

Okay, so let's say that John Study enjoys being the only person in power, but doesn't really want to share power with anyone. Then, perhaps he could consider a dictatorship, a political system in which a single person exercises near total control of not just the government but all of society. Generally, dictators are not monarchs but instead people whose power relies on some pretense of being legitimately elected or selected for office. Once in power, dictators often rely on secret police or military power to tell citizens how they can live, how they should think, etc. Rigged elections, abuses of human rights, and violence tend to be common features of a dictatorship.

Oligarchy and Aristocracy

The next form of political system that John Study could consider would be an oligarchy, which literally means rule of the few. In an oligarchy, a few select people control the government. Which people? Well, it could be people of a certain class, or level of wealth, or even political association. Generally, these people are not elected or looking to share power, so it's not exactly a representative form of government.

Very similar to this is the idea of an aristocracy, in which power is held by land-owning elites. An aristocracy is a bit different than an oligarchy because aristocrats generally have noble titles or some blood relation to the royal family and pass down this status hereditarily. In both oligarchies and aristocracies, there is often a central leader, a monarch or emperor, but this person is little more than a puppet to the ruling class. For example, in feudal Japan, the shogunate system was set up so that powerful warlords called shoguns controlled the emperor, making this exclusive class the real power in Japanese politics.

Communism

Some political systems are directly defined by their economies, which is another way John Study could think about this. Technically, communism is an economic system, in which the government controls the distribution of resources. However, for this to work, you do need a very specific sort of political structure. Therefore, a communist government is one that supports a communist economy and the idea that everyone should basically have equal access to material goods, thus eliminating class division in society. The most famous examples of communist states are the former USSR, which collapsed around 1989, and the People's Republic of China.

Democracy

The final political system we'll look at today is a democracy, in which all citizens have a voice in political decisions. There are multiple ways to set up a democracy. In a direct democracy, every single citizen has equal say in every political matter. Ancient Athens is often cited as a great example. Every citizen could show up to political meetings, and their opinion was registered. In a true democracy, every issue must be voted on, and every citizen must vote at least most of the time.

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