Political Theories and Systems in World History

What Is Government?

A government is the body that makes and administers, or manages, society’s laws. Most governments promote the general welfare of their people in the areas of health, safety, education, and aid to the needy. The police and the courts maintain order. The armed forces provide security against attack.

Political science is the study of governments and how they work. Political scientists study governmental structure and policy making, political parties, interest groups, and international relations. A political system is an institution, or organization, that shapes the power relationships in a society. People have created a wide variety of political systems. The earliest systems had no formal structure. Important decisions were often made by one person or by a council. As societies became more complex, people created more complicated forms of government.

Functions of Government

All governments perform these three necessary functions:

  • executive (administer the government and carry out the laws)
  • legislative (make the laws)
  • judicial (interpret the laws)

All governments possess the power to make decisions and carry them out. Some governments rule by direct force or by the threat of force against their citizens. Others rule with the support of their citizens. When the people believe that the government is not working in their interest, governmental authority can break down. If a government uses force against the people, the struggle can escalate, or increase. Some governments have been overthrown by revolution. A good example is the American colonists’ fight against the British government. Governments may also be overthrown by a small group rather than by a popular uprising. This kind of action is called a coup d’etat, which means “a blow against the state.”

Types of Governments

There are four main types of government. They are monarchy, democracy, oligarchy, and dictatorship.


Monarchy is one of the oldest forms of government. In a monarchy, a king or a queen is the head of the government. Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain and King Harald V of Norway are monarchs.

Countries that have both constitutions and monarchs are called constitutional monarchies. Great Britain is a constitutional monarchy. The queen’s tasks are chiefly ceremonial. She reigns, but she does not rule. Instead, Great Britain has a prime minister, a cabinet, and a permanent civil service. These officials carry out the day-to-day job of governing. They do so according to laws passed by Parliament, which is the legislative branch. In Britain, one house of Parliament is popularly elected.

Countries where the monarch’s word is the law are called absolute monarchies. King Abdullah II of Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarch. The country has no constitution, no parliament, and no political parties. Sometimes absolute monarchs claim to rule by divine right. This means that they believe their right to rule comes from God.

England, France, and Russia used to be absolute monarchies, but the people overthrew Charles I in 1649, King Louis XVI during the French Revolution in 1792, and Tsar Nicholas II in the Russian Revolution of 1917.


Political Cartoon

A second type of government is democracy. The power to rule in a democracy comes from the people. (In Greek, “demos” means “people,” and “cracy” means “power” or “form of government.”) The United States is a democracy in which the people take part in the government. Some other countries, such as France and India, are also democracies.

Democracy has deep roots in Western political tradition. It can take a variety of forms. In ancient Greek city-states, it took the form of a direct democracy. Greek citizens participated directly in running the government. In contrast, the United States has a representative democracy. The country is too large for everyone to gather to discuss and vote on laws as they did in ancient Greece. Instead, the people elect representatives to carry out their wishes according to the Constitution. In a representative democracy, all people over a certain age have the right to vote. The decisions that guide the government, however, are made by elected representatives rather than by the citizens themselves. The largest representative democracy in today’s world is India, with a population of more than 1.2 billion.

Representative democracy reflects ideas expressed during the 1600s and 1700s. At that time, Enlightenment thinkers wrote about a social contract in which those in power rule through the consent of the governed.


A third type of government is oligarchy, which is government controlled by a few. Before the Industrial Revolution, England was considered an oligarchy. Even though it had a monarch whose powers had been limited, the real power was in the hands of a few members of Parliament. Voting was limited to people with a certain income. Therefore, the aristocracy and rich merchants controlled the government.

Some of the ancient Greek city-states were oligarchies ruled by a few leading families. The seafaring Republic of Venice was ruled by the most elite merchants. The rest of the people had no say in the government. Some countries today might be considered oligarchies even though they would not call themselves that. Certain developing countries, particularly in Latin America, have long been ruled by leading families who control the economies of these countries.


Throughout history, many countries have struggled under a form of government known as dictatorship. A dictator rules like an absolute monarch but does not use royal titles such as king or emperor. In modern times, dictators have become totalitarian rulers. Under totalitarianism, all parts of life are under the complete control of one ruler who has all the power. Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union and Adolf Hitler of Germany were totalitarian dictators. Both kept control through a secret police that terrorized people so they could not oppose the government. The Communist Party in the Soviet Union had this role from 1918 to 1990. The Nazi Party in Germany supported Hitler from 1933 until 1945, when the Allied victory in World War II ended his rule.

At the present time, a few developing countries are dictatorships, particularly in Africa and Asia. North Korea is one of the last Communist dictatorships. Although countries with dictators often have constitutions and legislative bodies, the wishes of the dictators are always carried out over the wishes of the people.

A Global Perspective

Research It Compare and Contrast In the United States, people take freedom of speech for granted, but this freedom is not guaranteed in every country.

With a partner, conduct research to identify three countries where citizens have freedom of speech and three countries where they do not. Find out what type of government each of the countries has. With your partner, discuss how freedom of speech is affected by the type of government that a country has.

Thanks to modern systems of transportation, communications, and marketing, people in one part of the world are more connected to other parts of the world than they have been in the past. These connections can affect government. These connections can also affect political relationships between countries. For instance, conflicts between France and Germany led to two world wars in the twentieth century. Today, however, these two countries both belong to the European Union. Their use of a shared currency and their common economic goals have led to a peaceful relationship.