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3.2: The Modern State and Regime Types

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    Learning Objectives

    By the end of this section, you will be able to:

    • Identify the differences between strong and weak states
    • Compare and contrast examples of political capacity in different countries
    • Define and identify different regime types


    The rise of the so-called modern state is usually attributed to the end of the European Middle Ages, wherein states were critical to the organization and survival of certain societies. Being a member of state brought benefits to those included. Having a recognized state meant there was a recognized authority by which states could trade and do business with each other. Trade prompted economic development, which further solidified trading relationships. With economic development, states were also able to pursue technological innovations. The advent of trade enabled states to improve the way ordinary day-to-day activities were run, and it enabled states to build further military power. Advances in technology helped European states invent, or improve, the use of gunpowder, weapons, mapmaking, as well as mathematics and engineering. A final benefit for European states coming out of the Middle Ages was some semblance of political stability for its inhabitants. When protected by a recognized, and somewhat unified, state, ordinary people had greater chances for survival.

    As described earlier in this chapter, not all social contracts and state authority are created equal; in fact, there is great variation in the way states manifest in different regions and under different ideological perspectives. To this end, this chapter asks how we can compare states and state power. What is the scope of variation in the types of states we have seen? What are the implications of various state types?

    Foundations & Strong and Weak States

    How do Comparativists compare and contrast state types? How does this contribute to advancing our understanding of how states form, operate, and interact with each other? In looking at modern states, what are the main factors to consider in comparing states?

    As seen previously in this chapter, states are alike in that they began forming when societies were able to stay in one place (thanks to the agricultural revolution), and some form of the social contract is observed between a state authority and those under the state authority. Regardless of the type of regime, government, and culture of the society, states tend to grapple with how much power a state can have to impede on the lives of its citizens. The balance over how much freedom to grant, versus how much authority the state can wield, contributes to a variety of different political outcomes; this is where the foundations of the social contract begin to end. Some states are powerful, strong, effective, and stable. Other states are disorganized, chaotic, weak and unstable. How can we tell the difference between strong and weak states?

    Strong states are those which are able to work their political agendas effectively, to make sure basic political tasks are completed. Strong states are able to defend their territory and interests, collect taxes from the people, enforce laws, manage their economies, and promote civil and political stability within their domain. Regardless of where authority is derived, the state has legitimacy to act because the citizens have accepted the terms of the social contract.

    Weak states are those which are unable to perform basic political tasks, and unable to work the political agenda of the authority in charge. Weak states are typically unable to defend their territories and interests. They do not have enough legitimacy, or related logistics, to collect taxes, enforce their laws, and manage their economy effectively. Weak states also struggle with ensuring domestic stability, likely because they lack the legitimacy and authority to act on their constituents. Considering strong and weak states side-by-side, we can begin to discuss the concept of state capacity. Political capacity is defined as the ability of a state to use its power, as derived through authority and legitimacy, to get things done and promote its own interests. A state with low capacity is a weak state whereas a state with high capacity is a strong state. Capacity will be one of the factors comparativists consider when comparing states.

    An important factor to consider for comparativists considering states is a states’ regime type. A regime is the method by which the state has chosen to wield its power to enforce laws, rules and norms of political life. Regime type and the form of government are therefore synonymous.

    Aside from political capacity and regime type, comparativists also consider many aspects of the political and cultural realities and institutions of a given state. Factors such as internal political stability and conflict, political conflict between competing states, culture and society within a state, geography, social demographics, political agendas and outcomes, and state economies and relationship to the global economy. Other chapters will focus on these latter factors, while this chapter is focused on the capacity of states and their regime types.

    Regime Types - Dictatorships to Democracies

    States can vary not only in their strength, legitimacy, and authority, but in the mechanisms they use to achieve political agendas. To this end, there are a number of different government types that states have chosen to achieve their political ends. Here, too, there can be much variation in how states choose to exercise their power. One way to look at regime types is to consider, broadly speaking, the range in types. Some of the main regime types and their characteristics are represented below in Table 3.1.

    Table 3.1: Regime Types
    Regime Type Number of People in Charge Examples
    Anarchy No one  
    Monarchy One (Usually royal or bloodline) Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Medieval England
    Dictatorship One Libya, North Korea, Cuba
    Aristocracy A few (Usually an elite, small, ruling class) Ancient Sparta
    Oligarchy A few (Usually wealthy elites) Renaissance Venice
    Junta A few Military Officers (Usually high-ranking officers) Chad, Guinea
    Democracy Many or All United States of America, Britain, Germany

    In considering Table 3.1, we can first look at a type of regime called a monarchy. A monarchy is a form of government where a single person leads the country under the authority of royalty, bloodlines, or some other factor of symbolic significance. The word monarchy derives from ancient Greek word, μονάρχης (monárkhēs), where μόνος or mónos means “one” or “single” and ἄρχων or árkhōn means “ruler” or “chief.” Monarchies are thought to descend from more ancient forms of tribal leadership, where tribes appointed a special or sacred individual to lead their interests. Over time, modern monarchies evolved where leadership was generally vested with a King or Queen. Even within the regime type of monarchy, there is variation in how the leader may exercise their power. There are two primary types of Monarchy that have been identified throughout history. In an absolute monarchy, the monarch is wholly responsible for all decisions, and rules the state with absolute power over all political, economic and social matters. In a constitutional monarchy, a monarch must abide by a state-adopted constitution, which dictates the scope and depth of its power in all state-related activities.

    A dictatorship is a form of government where one person, or sometimes a single group, has sole and absolute power over the state. While dictatorships can range in the extent to which the state intervenes in the private lives of citizens, most dictatorships do not permit free media, freedom of speech, or personal rights and freedoms. A common form of dictatorship in the 20th and 21st centuries have been personalist dictatorships, where power lies with a single, charismatic and all powerful person who drives all actions of the state. Current examples of these types of dictators could be Kim Jong-Un of North Korea and Xi Jinping of China. Kim Jong-Un is currently the Supreme Leader of North Korea, and has served since 2011 when his father, Kim Jong-il, who was Supreme Leader, passed away. Like his father, Kim Jong-Un has operated under a cult of personality. A cult of personality occurs when a state leverages all aspects of a leader’s real and exaggerated traits to solidify the leader’s power.

    Kim Jong-un
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): 2019 Image of Kim Jong-un, leader of North Korea. (Source: Kim Jong-un, by Alexei Nikolsky is licensed under CC-BY 4.0)

    In the case of North Korea, the state uses its media to promote propaganda which endows its leaders with near or equal to God or Godly status. Xi Jinping of China also has been characterized as a dictator, as he controls all actions and activities of the state along with elites, whom he personally selects, who assist him in carrying out all state activities.

    An aristocracy is a form of government where a group of social elites rule the state. Often, leaders of an aristocracy are nobles, wealthy, or somehow identified as superior to and/or above the class that is being ruled. Aristocracy tends to be associated with ancient Sparta because the form of government deliberately vested power with those who were seen as elite and capable of ruling. In modern terms, oligarchies seem to be a more present-day embodiment of aristocracy. Oligarchy is similarly defined as a form of government where elites rule, though there is not necessarily an assumption of nobility.

    A junta is a regime type where there is a small, military group of elites who rule state activities. The term junta derives from its use during the Spanish resistance to Napoleon’s attempted invasion of Spain in 1808, wherein military groups within Spain assembled and attempted to stop Napoleon’s attack. Junta means “meeting” or “committee” in Spanish, though its current affiliations within political science characterize it as akin to a military oligarchy. Often, juntas tend to form as resistance or rebellion, and are used in coup d’etats. Coup d'etats are attempts by elites to overthrow the current government of a state through abrupt seizure of power and removal of the government’s leadership.

    Regime Transitions

    One key area of concern in comparative politics is the phenomenon of regime transition. Regime transitions occur when a formal government changes to a different government leadership, structure or system. Sometimes, a regime will change from a dictatorship to a democracy through the mobilization of citizens demanding change from their state operations. Other times, a democracy may backslide into a dictatorship. While democracies have become the most common and generally accepted form of government, there have been dozens of examples of a democracy backsliding into a dictatorship.

    Consider the example of the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany during the 1920s. Following World War I, a weak democracy was installed in Germany. The Weimar Republic was Germany’s democracy following World War I, but it suffered a number of problems which eventually suppressed the regime and caused it to form into an oppressive dictatorship. The terms of the Treaty of Versaille, which ended World War I, put Germany into social and economic dire straits. The terms of the agreement forced Germany to pay high reparations to the Allies, which left the German people impoverished. High unemployment, high inflation, and general discontent caused the Weimar Republic difficulty in enforcing its political agenda. In the midst of dire circumstances, Adolf Hitler was able to use a Cult of Personality to rally many Germans against the Weimar Republic. Through his use of manipulation and incendiary speech, Hitler was able to get appointed as the Chancellor of Germany. He abolished the Constitution, and year after year, eroded the rights and liberties of the German people till Germany was a fully authoritarian regime led by a single dictator. At the end of World War II, Germany again experienced a regime transition back towards democracy.

    Overall, observing cases of regime transition can be important to learning the causes and consequences of changing regimes.