Types of Government and Related Concepts

Black and white photo of the U.S. Capitol building
Black and white photo of the U.S. Capitol building.

L. Toshio Kishiyama / Getty Images

Humankind has spent ages trying to figure out the best ways to structure societies. As a result, history is home to dozens of different types of governments, all with their own strengths and weaknesses. Understanding these forms of government can help shed a light on history, as well as on the present day.

Along with actual forms of government, there are quite a few concepts that relate to government but aren’t exactly theories of governance themselves. Instead, they’re political, social, and economic concepts that tie closely to the business of governing. They’re just as important to understand as types of government, and, in fact, they typically are closely associated with specific forms of government.

Let’s take a look at some of the most important types of government you should know about, plus the other concepts and theories that will give you a better understanding of politics in general.

Types of Governments

In general, governments can be broadly grouped together based on who holds the majority of the power: the population at large, a small group of elites, or a singular entity - whether that’s a single person or an organization. These groupings by no means cover every idea or theory of government, but it’s a helpful starting point, especially for comparing different types. 

Government by the Many

In the modern world, the most popular form of government - no pun intended - is government by the many, or government “by the people, for the people.” The idea behind this is that the fairest form of government is one in which the people being governed are empowered to make their own decisions, rather than having decisions imposed on them by an outside force. 

While this category of government always is intended to empower the citizenry, the means of that empowerment can take many different forms. In general, these societies include representative government, as well as direct democracy for certain aspects of life, often combined within one system of government. For instance, a typical “democratic” government will elect representatives to do the business of governing, while also occasionally going directly to the people with things like ballot initiatives. 

Governments of this type typically have some sort of a balance of power between different sections or branches of government, including a legislature and an elected executive. Political parties tend to hold significant power in these systems, although the division of power differs among different systems and individual countries.

Government by the Few

Some systems of government propose many reasons why government by the many is impractical or illogical; instead, they position a group of ruling elites as the primary arbiters of how a country is run. This was common in centuries past, where systems of nobility held most of the power, particularly when it came to the day-to-day work of running everything from individual estates on up. Those elites also often answered to a powerful executive - often a monarch - but held a great deal of power on their own that even a monarch needed to cultivate to avoid being overthrown.

Today, we have much less of this kind of elite governance, with noble titles, but small groups still do accumulate and hoard power in other systems. These may not be quite as obvious; they may even operate, officially, under a more representative framework or constitution. In reality, though, these types of governments will prioritize increasing wealth and power among a small group of already wealthy and powerful people, often at the expense of the rest of the population.

Government by a Singular Authority

Certain forms of government vest their power in a single entity, whether that’s a single person (like an absolute monarch or a dictator) or an entity like a military junta. These forms of government are notable for the absolute power wielded by that executive and, often, strong suppression of opposition and of the rights of the ordinary citizens. 

These governments are marked by total control over the lives of their citizens, often banning dissent and exercising control over every aspect of life. There is typically no mechanism for removal or regulation of the wielder of power, other than a full-fledged coup. As a result, human rights violations tend to go hand-in-hand with these governments, since the suppression of dissent is key to maintaining absolute power.

Understanding Political and Economic Theories

Not every important political concept is a form of government, exactly. It’s important to have an understanding of the political and economic theories that support and weave together to build the structures that create a government.

Many of these concepts involve ideas about how a country should interact with other entities, how different voices within a single country should be balanced, and what economic interests should be prioritized. Concepts such as nationalism and pluralism, for instance, describe attitudes about the makeup of a nation and national character, while colonialism is about a specific category of actions and attitudes towards outside entities. 

In popular discourse, some of these concepts tend to be spoken about in very broad terms that dilute or alter their meanings. By learning the fundamentals, you can expand your own understanding of what they really mean. 

Learn to Tell Similar Concepts Apart

A number of political and economic concepts are frequently confused or incorrectly compared to one another. You can cut through the noise and chatter of these conversations by getting a firm understanding of their meanings yourself. Understanding the differences between these concepts can help you feel more secure in forming your own opinions - and help you avoid getting sucked into pedantry on the one hand or misinformation on the other.

Where do republics and democracies differ and overlap? How can we tell apart different types of authoritarianism? What concepts often get conflated but are actually ideological opposites? The answers to these questions can help you gain a better understanding of what’s going on in the world and avoid misunderstandings and false impressions. 

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Prahl, Amanda. "Types of Government and Related Concepts." ThoughtCo, May. 6, 2021, thoughtco.com/types-of-government-5179107. Prahl, Amanda. (2021, May 6). Types of Government and Related Concepts. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/types-of-government-5179107 Prahl, Amanda. "Types of Government and Related Concepts." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/types-of-government-5179107 (accessed May 8, 2021).