Dictatorships have dominated global politics for hundreds of years, from the pharaohs of Egypt to the absolute monarchs of Europe. Though democracy has since spread to much of the world, about a third of today’s countries are still ruled by dictatorship. And yet, compared to democracies, we know very little about how dictatorships work, who the key political actors are, and where decision-making powers lie. Political processes are opaque, and information is often intentionally distorted. Political survival depends not on maintaining the favor of voters, as in democracies, but on securing the backing of a considerably smaller coalition of supporters. The absence of a reliable third party to enforce compromises among key players means that power-sharing deals lack credibility and the threat of forced ouster is omnipresent. Uncertainty pervades authoritarian politics.
Modern autocrats respond to this uncertain environment in a variety of ways. They use political parties, legislatures, elections, and other institutions typically associated with democracies to lessen their risk of overthrow. Despite the façade of democracy, these institutions are key components of most autocrats’ survival strategies; those that incorporate them last longer in power than those that do not. The specific ways in which autocratic institutions are used and the extent to which they can constrain leadership choices to prevent consolidation of power into the hands of a single individual, however, vary enormously from one dictatorship to the next. Better understanding the conditions that push autocracies down a path of collegial versus strongman rule remains a critical task, particularly given that the latter is associated with more war, economic mismanagement, and resistance to democratization.
Ever since Aristotle, the comparative study of political regimes and their performance has relied on classifications and typologies. The study of democracy today has been influenced heavily by Arend Lijphart’s typology of consensus versus majoritarian democracy. Scholars have applied it to more than 100 countries and sought to demonstrate its impact on no less than 70 dependent variables. This paper summarizes our knowledge about the origins, functioning, and consequences of two basic types of democracy: those that concentrate power and those that share and divide power. In doing so, it will review the experience of established democracies and question the applicability of received wisdom to new democracies.
Political scientists use the concept of legitimacy to assess the rightfulness of political rule. Their research can approach legitimacy from two perspectives: When taking a normative approach, political scientists develop and justify their own evaluation of the rightfulness of political arrangements. When taking an empirical approach, they study how other people—such as political elites or citizens—evaluate the rightfulness of political rule.
Both approaches have been used in research on the European Union. Scholarly discussions that approach the EU’s legitimacy from a normative perspective revolve around the question of which standards of rightfulness are appropriate for the EU. These depend largely on how the EU polity is conceptualized: as a technocratic regulatory agency, an intergovernmental organization, a federation, a demoi-cracy, or a system of multilevel governance. Since the EU is hybrid polity that possesses elements of each of these models, and is therefore difficult to classify, no consensus has emerged in this debate.
Scholarship that approaches the EU’s legitimacy as an empirical phenomenon examines political attitudes and discourses in European society, asking whether, and why, societal actors treat the EU as legitimate. A diverse set of research methods—including public opinion surveys, content analysis of different kinds of texts, and qualitative interviews with citizens—have been applied to shed light on this question. While this research has not provided clear evidence of a “legitimacy crisis” of the EU, it does show that many Europeans relate to the EU with a sense of diffuse unease and skepticism, in part because they find it opaque and difficult to understand.
Liberalism in politics is associated with nonauthoritarianism, the rule of law, constitutional government with limited powers, and the guarantee of civil and political liberties. A liberal society is tolerant of different religious, philosophical, and ethical doctrines and allows individuals to freely form and express their conscientious convictions and opinions on all matters and live according to their chosen purposes and life paths. In economic terms, liberalism is associated with an unplanned economy with free and competitive markets, as well as private ownership and control of productive resources.
The basic institutions that are characteristic of a liberal society are constitutionalism and the rule of law; equal basic rights and liberties; formal equality of opportunity; free, competitive markets with private property in means of production; government’s obligation to provide public goods and a social minimum; and the fiduciary nature of political power to impartially provide for the public good. Liberals interpret these basic institutions differently. Classical liberalism regards extensive property rights and economic liberties as basic, while libertarians see all rights as property rights and as absolute. High liberalism regards economic liberties as subordinate to personal and political liberties and subject to regulation, with redistribution of income and wealth to mitigate gross inequalities and provide all citizens with adequate resources to guarantee the worth of their basic liberties and opportunities.
Rational choice theory may seem like a separate theoretical approach with its own forbidding mathematics. However, the central assumptions of rational choice theory are very similar to those in mainstream political behavior and even interpretive sociology. Indeed, many of the statistical methods used in empirical political behavior assume axiomatic models of voter choice. When we consider individual voting behavior, the contribution of rational choice has been to formalize what empirical political scientists do anyway, and provide some new tools. However, it is when we consider collective voting choice—what elections mean and what kind of policy outcomes result—that rational choice leads to new, counterintuitive insights. Rational choice also has a normative dimension. Without voter rationality the traditional understanding of democracy as popular choice makes little sense.