Authoritarianism is a form of government characterized by strong central power and limited political freedoms. Under an authoritarian regime, individual freedoms are subordinate to the state, and there is no constitutional accountability. Authoritarian regimes can be autocratic, with power concentrated in one person, or can be a committee, with power shared among officials and government institutions. The political scientist Juan Linz defined authoritarianism in an influential 1964 work as possessing four qualities:
Authoritarian government and states
Linz distinguished new forms of authoritarianism from personalistic dictatorships and totalitarian states, taking Francoist Spain as an example. Unlike personalistic dictatorships, new forms of authoritarianism have institutionalized representation of a variety of actors (in Spain's case, including the military, the Catholic Church, Falange, monarchists, technocrats and others). Unlike totalitarian states, the regime relies on passive mass acceptance rather than popular support. Some scholars also mention the emergence of a different type of regime - the hybrid regime - in the post-Cold War era.
Several subtypes of authoritarian regimes have been identified by Linz and others. Linz identified the two most basic subtypes as traditional authoritarian regimes and bureaucratic-military authoritarian regimes:
- Traditional authoritarian regimes are those "in which the ruling authority (generally a single person)" is maintained in power "through a combination of appeals to traditional legitimacy, patron-client ties and repression, which is carried out by an apparatus bound to the ruling authority through personal loyalties". An example is Ethiopia under Haile Selassie I.
- Bureaucratic-military authoritarian regimes are those "governed by a coalition of military officers and technocrats who act pragmatically (rather than ideologically) within the limits of their bureaucratic mentality." Mark J. Gasiorowski suggests that it is best to distinguish "simple military authoritarian regimes" from "bureaucratic authoritarian regimes" in which "a powerful group of technocrats uses the state apparatus to try to rationalize and develop the economy" such as South Korea under Park Chung-hee.
- Corporatist authoritarian regimes "are those in which corporatism institutions are used extensively by the state to coopt and demobilize powerful interest groups". This type has been studied most extensively in Latin America.
- Racial and ethnic "democracies" are those in which "certain racial or ethnic groups enjoy full democratic rights while others are largely or entirely denied those rights", such as in South Africa under apartheid.
- Post-totalitarian authoritarian regimes are those in which totalitarian institutions (such as the party, secret police and state-controlled mass media) remain, but where "ideological orthodoxy has declined in favor of routinization, repression has declined, the state's top leadership is less personalized and more secure, and the level of mass mobilization has declined substantially". Examples include the People's Republic of China, Russian Federation, and Soviet Eastern bloc states in the mid-1980s.
Another type of authoritarian regime is the "competitive authoritarian" regime, a "civilian regimes in which formal democratic institutions exist and are widely viewed as the primary means of gaining power, but in which incumbents' abuse of the state places them at a significant advantage vis-à-vis their opponents." The term was coined by Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way in their 2010 book of the same name to discuss a type of hybrid regime that emerged during and after the Cold War. Competitive authoritarian regimes differ from fully authoritarian regimes in that elections are regularly held, the opposition can openly operate without a high risk of exile or imprisonment, and "democratic procedures are sufficiently meaningful for opposition groups to take them seriously as arenas through which to contest for power." However, competitive authoritarian regimes lack one or more of the three characteristics of democracies: free elections (i.e., elections untainted by substantial fraud or voter intimidation); protection of civil liberties (i.e., the freedom of speech, press, and association), and an even playing field (in terms of access to resources, the media, and legal recourse).
Authoritarian regimes are also sometimes subcategorized by whether they are personalistic or populist. Personalistic authoritarian regimes are characterized by arbitrary rule and authority exercised "mainly through patronage networks and coercion rather than through institutions and formal rules". Personalistic authoritarian regimes have been seen in post-colonial Africa. By contrast, populist authoritarian regimes "are mobilizational regimes in which a strong, charismatic, manipulative leader rules through a coalition involving key lower-class groups". Examples include Argentina under Perón, Egypt under Nasser and Venezuela under Chávez and Maduro.
Authoritarianism is characterized by highly concentrated and centralized power maintained by political repression and the exclusion of potential challengers. It uses political parties and mass organizations to mobilize people around the goals of the regime. Adam Przeworski has theorized that "authoritarian equilibrium rests mainly on lies, fear and economic prosperity".
Authoritarianism also tends to embrace the informal and unregulated exercise of political power, a leadership that is "self-appointed and even if elected cannot be displaced by citizens' free choice among competitors", the arbitrary deprivation of civil liberties and little tolerance for meaningful opposition.
A range of social controls also attempt to stifle civil society, while political stability is maintained by control over and support of the armed forces, a bureaucracy staffed by the regime and creation of allegiance through various means of socialization and indoctrination.
Authoritarian political systems may be weakened through "inadequate performance to demands of the people". Vestal writes that the tendency to respond to challenges to authoritarianism through tighter control instead of adaptation is a significant weakness and that this overly rigid approach fails to "adapt to changes or to accommodate growing demands on the part of the populace or even groups within the system". Because the legitimacy of the state is dependent on performance, authoritarian states that fail to adapt may collapse.
Authoritarianism is marked by "indefinite political tenure" of the ruler or ruling party (often in a one-party state) or other authority. The transition from an authoritarian system to a more democratic form of government is referred to as democratization.
John Duckitt suggests a link between authoritarianism and collectivism, asserting that both stand in opposition to individualism. Duckitt writes that both authoritarianism and collectivism submerge individual rights and goals to group goals, expectations and conformities.
Totalitarianism is an extreme version of authoritarianism. Authoritarianism primarily differs from totalitarianism in that social and economic institutions exist that are not under governmental control. Building on the work of Yale political scientist Juan Linz, Paul C. Sondrol of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs has examined the characteristics of authoritarian and totalitarian dictators and organized them in a chart:
Compared to totalitarianism, "the authoritarian state still maintains a certain distinction between state and society. It is only concerned with political power and as long as that is not contested it gives society a certain degree of liberty. Totalitarianism, on the other hand, invades private life and asphyxiates it". Another distinction is that "authoritarianism is not animated by utopian ideals in the way totalitarianism is. It does not attempt to change the world and human nature". Carl Joachim Friedrich writes that "a totalist ideology, a party reinforced by a secret police, and monopoly control of ... industrial mass society" are the three features of totalitarian regimes that distinguish them from other autocracies.
Authoritarianism and democracy are not fundamentally opposed to one another, as it is possible for democracies to possess authoritarian elements. An illiberal democracy (or procedural democracy) is distinguished from liberal democracy (or substantive democracy) in that illiberal democracies lack features such as the rule of law, protections for minority groups and an independent judiciary.
A further distinction that liberal democracies have rarely made war with one another; research has extended the theory and finds that more democratic countries tend to have few wars (sometimes called militarized interstate disputes) causing fewer battle deaths with one another and that democracies have far fewer civil wars.
Some commentators, such as Seymour Martin Lipset, believed that low-income authoritarian regimes have certain technocratic "efficiency-enhancing advantages" over low-income democracies, helping authoritarian regimes generate development. Morton H. Halperin, Joseph T. Siegle and Michael M. Weinstein (2005) counter this belief, arguing that the evidence has shown that there is no "authoritarian advantage" and that there is a "democratic advantage" instead. Halperin et al. argue that democracies "realize superior development performance" over authoritarianism. They point out that poor democracies are more likely to have steadier economic growth and less likely to experience economic and humanitarian catastrophes than authoritarian regimes; that civil liberties act as a curb on corruption and misuse of resources; and that democracies are more adaptable. Halperin point out that the vast majority of refugee crises and financial catastrophes occur in authoritarian regimes.
Studies suggest that several health indicators (life expectancy and infant and maternal mortality) have a stronger and more significant association with democracy than they have with GDP per capita, size of the public sector or income inequality. Prominent economist Amartya Sen has theorized that no functioning liberal democracy has ever suffered a large-scale famine.
Research shows that the democratic nations have much less democide or murder by government. Those were also moderately developed nations before applying liberal democratic policies. Research by the World Bank suggests that political institutions are extremely important in determining the prevalence of corruption and that parliamentary systems, political stability and freedom of the press are all associated with lower corruption. One study has concluded that terrorism is most common in nations with intermediate political freedom. The nations with the least amount of terrorism are the most and least democratic nations.
Andrew J. Nathan notes that "regime theory holds that authoritarian systems are inherently fragile because of weak legitimacy, overreliance on coercion, overcentralization of decision making, and the predominance of personal power over institutional norms....Few authoritarian regimes—be they communist, fascist, corporatist, or personalist—have managed to conduct orderly, peaceful, timely, and stable successions". One exception to this general trend is the endurance of the authoritarian rule of the Chinese Communist Party, which has been unusually resilient among authoritarian regimes. Nathan posits that this can be attributed to four factors: (1) "the increasingly norm-bound nature of its succession politics"; (2) "the increase in meritocratic as opposed to factional considerations in the promotion of political elites"; (3) "the differentiation and functional specialization of institutions within the regime"; and (4) "the establishment of institutions for political participation and appeal that strengthen the CCP's legitimacy among the public at large".
According to a study by Brandt and Henry, there is a direct correlation between the rates of gender inequality and the levels of authoritarian ideas in the male and female populations. It was found that in countries with less gender equality where individualism was encouraged and men occupied the dominant societal roles, women were more likely to support traits such as obedience which would allow them to survive in an authoritarian environment and less likely to encourage ideas such as independence and imagination. In countries with higher levels of gender equality, men held less authoritarian views. It is theorized that this occurs due to the stigma attached to individuals who question the cultural norms set by the dominant individuals and establishments in an authoritarian society as a way to prevent the psychological stress caused by the active ostracizing of the stigmatized individuals.
The following is a non-exhaustive list of examples of states which are currently (or frequently) characterized as authoritarian:
- Angola under the People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola Party (1975–)
- Azerbaijan under Heydar Aliyev (1993-2003) and Ilham Aliyev (2003–)
- Bahrain under the House of Khalifa (1746–)
- Belarus under Alexander Lukashenko (1994–) on account of Lukashenko's self-described authoritarian style of government
- Bosnia and Herzegovina / Republika Srpska under Milorad Dodik (2006–)
- Burundi under Pierre Nkurunziza (2005–)
- Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge and Hun Sen (1985–)
- Cameroon under Paul Biya (1982–)
- Chad under Idriss Deby (1990–)
- People's Republic of China under the Communist Party of China (1949–) “Some scholars have deemed the Chinese system a 'fragmented authoritarianism' (Lieberthal), a 'negotiated state' or a 'consultative authoritarian regime'" According to research by John Kennedy at al. (2018), Chinese citizens with higher education tend to participate less in local elections and have lower levels of democratic values when compared to those with only compulsory education.
- Democratic Republic of the Congo under Mobutu Sese Seko, Laurent-Désiré Kabila and Joseph Kabila (1965–)
- Republic of the Congo under Denis Sassou Nguesso (1979–)
- Cuba under the Communist Party of Cuba (1959–)
- Egypt under Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (2014–)
- Equatorial Guinea under Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo (1979–)
- Eritrea under Isaias Afwerki (1993–)
- Ethiopia under Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front (1991–)
- Gabon under Omar Bongo and Ali Bongo Ondimba (1967–)
- Hungary under Viktor Orbán (2010–) has recently moved more towards illiberalism
- Iran under Pahlavi dynasty (1925–1979), and later Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei (1981–) Linz wrote in 2000 that "it is difficult to fit the Iranian regime into the existing typology, as it combines the ideological bent of totalitarianism with the limited pluralism of authoritarianism and holds regular elections in which candidates advocating differing policies and incumbents are often defeated"
- Jordan under Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein
- Kazakhstan under Nursultan Nazarbayev
- Laos under the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (1975–)
- Morocco under Mohammed VI
- Montenegro under Milo Đukanović and DPS (1990–)
- North Korea under the rule of the Kim dynasty and the Korean Workers' Party (1947–)
- Oman under Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said
- Palestine under the Palestine Liberation Organization (1964-present) and Hamas (2007-present)
- Qatar under the House of Thani
- Russian Federation under Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev (1999–) (see Putinism for more) has authoritarian tendencies, and is described by some as "really a mixture of authoritarianism and managed democracy"
- Rwanda under Paul Kagame (2000–)
- Saudi Arabia under the House of Saud (1744–)
- Serbia under Aleksandar Vučić (2012–)
- Singapore is considered authoritarian, especially under Lee Kuan Yew until 2015.
- South Sudan under Salva Kiir Mayardit (2011–)
- Syria under the Ba'athist regime and al-Assad family (1963–)
- Tajikistan under Emomali Rahmon (1994–)
- Thailand under General Prayut Chan-o-cha who overthrew the democratically elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra in a military coup and installed a military junta to oversee the governance of Thailand (2014–)
- Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan (2003–) described as a “competitive authoritarian regime”
- Turkmenistan under Saparmurat Niyazov (1991–2006) and Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow (2006–)
- United Arab Emirates under the six royal families of the United Arab Emirates (10 February 1972–)
- Uganda since independence (1964–)
- Uzbekistan under Islam Karimov (1989–2016) and Shavkat Mirziyoyev (2016-)
- Venezuela under Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro (1999–)
- Vietnam under the Vietnamese Communist Party (1976–)
Examples of states which were historically authoritarian include
World War II saw the defeat of the Axis powers by the Allied powers. All the Axis powers — Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan — had totalitarian or authoritarian governments, and two of the three were replaced by governments based on democratic constitutions. The Allied powers were an alliance of Democratic states and (later) the Communist Soviet Union. At least in Western Europe the initial post-war era embraced pluralism and freedom of expression in areas that had been under control of authoritarian regimes. The memory of fascism and Nazism was denigrated. The new Federal Republic of Germany banned its expression. In reaction to the centralism of the Nazi state, for example, the new constitution of West Germany (Federal Republic of Germany) exercised "separation of powers" and placed "law enforcement firmly in the hands" of the sixteen Länder or states of the republic, not with the federal German government (at least not at first).
Culturally there was also a strong sense of anti-authoritarianism based on anti-fascism in Western Europe. This was attributed to the active resistance from occupation and to fears arising from the development of superpowers. Anti-authoritarianism also became associated with countercultural and bohemian movements such as the Beat Generation in the 1950s, the hippies in the 1960s and punks in the 1970s.
In South America, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, Chile and Uruguay moved away from dictatorships to democracy between 1982 and 1990.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the Soviet Union in 1991, the other authoritarian/totalitarian "half" of the Allied Powers of World War II collapsed. This led not so much to revolt against authority in general, but to the belief that authoritarian states (and state control of economies) were outdated.  The idea that "liberal democracy was the final form toward which all political striving was directed", became very popular in Western countries and was celebrated in Francis Fukuyama's book The End of History and the Last Man. According to Charles H. Fairbanks, Jr., "all the new states that stumbled out of the ruins of the Soviet bloc, except Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, seemed indeed to be moving toward democracy in the early 1990s," as where the countries of East Central Europe and the Balkans.
In late 2010, the "Arab Spring" arose in response to unrest over economic stagnation but also in opposition to oppressive authoritarian regimes, first in Tunisia and spreading to Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain, and elsewhere. Regimes were toppled in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and partially in Yemen, and other countries saw riots, civil wars or insurgencies.
From 2005 to 2015 observers noted what some called a "democratic recession" (although some — Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way — have disputed this theory). In 2018 Freedom House declared that from 2006 to 2018, "113 countries" around the world showed "a net decline" in "political rights and civil liberties" while "only 62" experienced "a net improvement."
Writing in 2018, U.S. political journalist David Frum stated:
Michael Ignatieff wrote that Fukuyama's idea of liberalism vanquishing authoritarianism "now looks like a quaint artifact of a vanished unipolar moment", and Fukuyama himself expressed concern. By 2018 only one Arab Spring uprising — in Tunisia — resulted in a transition to constitutional democratic governance, and a "resurgence of authoritarianism and Islamic extremism" in the region was dubbed the "Arab Winter".
Explanations offered for the new spread of authoritarianism by supporters include excessive immigration into European and Western countries, and the "primary and existential fear" of the "surrender" by liberal democracy of "national sovereignty and independence". Others credit the downside of globalization, and the success of the Beijing Consensus, i.e. the authoritarian model of the People's Republic of China. In at least one country, (the U.S.) factors blamed for the growth of authoritarianism include the Financial crisis of 2007–2008 and slower real wage growth; and social media's elimination of "gatekeepers" of knowledge, so that a large fraction of the population considers to be opinion what were once "viewed as verifiable facts” – everything from the danger of global warming to the preventing the spread of disease through vaccination.