Political scientists study governing systems, political development, and political theory. During a political science program, students not only learn about politics and government, they also gain valuable analytical, communication, and research skills. These high-demand skills prepare graduates for careers in government, politics, and other industries.


The study of governmental structures must be approached with great caution, for political systems having the same kind of legal arrangements and using the same type of governmental machinery often function very differently. A parliament, for example, may be an important and effective part of a political system; or it may be no more than an institutional facade of little practical significance. A constitution may provide the framework within which the political life of a state is conducted; or it may be no more than a piece of paper, its provisions bearing almost no relationship to the facts of political life. Political systems must never be classified in terms of their legal structures alone: the fact that two states have similar constitutions with similar institutional provisions and legal requirements should never, by itself, lead to the conclusion that they represent the same type of political system.

To be useful, the study of governmental structures must always proceed hand in hand with an investigation of the actual facts of the political process: the analyst must exercise the greatest care in distinguishing between form and reality and between prescription and practice. Approached in this way, an examination of the organizational arrangements that governments use for making decisions and exercising power can be a valuable tool of political inquiry.


Few states in the modern world have constitutional arrangements that are more than a century old. Indeed, the vast majority of all the world’s states have constitutions written in the 20th or 21st century. This is true of states that were defeated in World War II, such as GermanyItaly, and Japan, and of other states that experienced civil war and revolutions in the course of the last century, such as the successor states of the Soviet UnionSpain, and China. The United Kingdom and the United States are almost alone among major contemporary nation-states in possessing constitutional arrangements that predate the 20th century.

Even in Britain and the United States, the 20th century saw much change in the governmental system. In the United States, for example, the relationship of legislature and executive at both the national and the state levels was significantly altered by the growth of bureaucracies and the enlargement of the executive’s budgetary powers. In Britain, even more far-reaching changes occurred in the relationship between the prime minister and Parliament and in Parliament’s role in supervising the executive establishment. In both countries the appearance of the welfare state, the impact of modern technology on the economy, and international crises resulted in major alterations in the ways in which the institutions of government function and interact.

The modern student of constitutional forms and institutional arrangements confronts an endlessly changing world. In many parts of the world, in countries as different as FrancePakistanArgentina, and Tanzania, there have been continuing experiments with new constitutions. The adoption of new constitutions also has been a major aspect of political change in the successor states of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. All systems, moreover, even without formal constitutional change, undergo a continual process of adjustment and mutation as their institutional arrangements respond to and reflect changes in the social order and the balance of political forces.


The ancient distinction among monarchies, tyranniesoligarchies, and constitutional governments, like other traditional classifications of political systems, is no longer very descriptive of political life. A king may be a ceremonial head of state, as in a parliamentary democracy, or he may be a head of government, perhaps even functioning as an absolute ruler. In the first case his duties may be little different from those of an elected president in many republican parliamentary regimes; in the second his role may be much the same as a dictator in an autocratic regime.

Belgium: royal familyBelgian royal family members (from left) Prince Philippe, Queen Paola, King Albert II, and Princess Mathilde, 2008.Mark Renders/Getty ImagesʿAbdullah II, 2005.© Jason Szenes—EPA/REX/Shutterstock.com

It may be said of the reigning dynasties of modern Europe that they have survived only because they failed to retain or to acquire effective powers of government. Royal lines have been preserved only in those countries of Europe in which royal rule was severely limited prior to the 20th century or in which royal absolutism had never firmly established itself. More successful dynasties, such as the Hohenzollerns in Germany, the Habsburgs in Austria-Hungary, and the Romanovs in Russia, which continued to rule as well as to reign at the opening of the 20th century, paid with the loss of their thrones. Today in countries such as Great Britain, the Netherlands, or Denmark, the monarch is the ceremonial head of state, an indispensable figure in all great official occasions and a symbol of national unity and of the authority of the state, but is almost entirely lacking in power. Monarchy in the parliamentary democracies of modern Europe has been reduced to the status of a dignified institutional facade behind which the functioning mechanisms of government—cabinet, parliament, ministries, and parties—go about the tasks of ruling.Advertisement

The 20th century also saw the demise of most of the hereditary monarchies of the non-Western world. Thrones toppled in Turkey, in China, in most of the Arab countries, in the principates of India, in the tribal kingdoms of Africa, and in several countries of Southeast Asia. The kings who maintain their position do so less by the claim of legitimate blood descent than by their appeal as popular leaders responsible for well-publicized programs of national economic and social reform or as national military chieftains. In a sense, these kings are less monarchs than monocrats, and their regimes are little different from several other forms of one-man rule found in the modern world.


While royal rule, as legitimized by blood descent, had almost vanished as an effective principle of government in the modern world, monocracy—a term that comprehends the rule of non-Western royal absolutists, of generals and strongmen in Latin America and Asia, of a number of leaders in postcolonial Africa, and of the totalitarian heads of communist states—still flourished. Indeed, the 20th century, which witnessed the careers of Atatürk, Benito MussoliniAdolf HitlerJoseph StalinFrancisco FrancoMao Tse-tungJuan Perón, Tito, Gamal Abdel NasserSukarnoKwame Nkrumah, and Charles de Gaulle, could appear in history as the age of plebiscitary dictatorship.Adolf Hitler (right) with Benito Mussolini.Photos.com/Thinkstock

In many of the states of Africa and Asia, for example, dictators quickly established themselves on the ruins of constitutional arrangements inherited from Western colonial powers. In some of these countries, presidents and prime ministers captured personal power by banning opposition parties and building replicas of the one-party systems of the communist world. In other new countries, the armies seized power, and military dictatorships were established. Whether as presidential dictatorships or as military dictatorships, the regimes that came into being appear to have had common roots in the social and economic problems of the new state. The constitutional systems inherited from the colonial powers proved unworkable in the absence of a strong middle class; local traditions of autocratic rule retained a powerful influence; the army, one of the few organized forces in society, was also often the only force capable of maintaining order; and a tiny intellectual class was impatient for economic progress, frustrated by the lack of opportunity, and deeply influenced by the example of authoritarianism in other countries. The dictatorships that resulted proved highly unstable, and few of the individual dictators were able to satisfy for long the demands of the different groups that supported their bids for power.

Although similar in some respects to the dictatorships of the new countries, the caudillos of 19th- and 20th-century Latin America represented a very different type of monocratic rule. In its 19th-century form, caudillismo was the result of the breakdown of central authority. After a brief period of constitutional rule, each of the former Spanish colonies in the Americas experienced a collapse of effective national government. A self-proclaimed leader, usually an army officer, heading a private army typically formed from the peasantry with the support of provincial landowners, established his control over one or more provinces, and then marched upon the national capital. The famous 19th-century caudillos—Antonio López de Santa Anna of Mexico or Juan Manuel de Rosas of Argentina, for example—were thus essentially provincial leaders who seized control of the national government to maintain the social and economic power of provincial groups. The 20th-century dictatorships in Latin American countries had different aims. The modern caudillo proved to be less a provincial leader than a national one. The Perón regime, for example, was established by nationalistic army officers committed to a program of national reform and ideological goals. Often, too, 20th-century dictators in Latin America allied themselves with a particular social class, attempting either to maintain the interests of established economic groupings or to press social reforms.

Dictatorship in the technologically advanced, totalitarian regimes of modern communism was distinctively different from the authoritarian regimes of either Latin America or the postcolonial states of Africa and Asia. Nazi Germanyunder Hitler and the Soviet Union under Stalin are the leading examples of modern totalitarian dictatorships. The crucial elements of both were the identification of the state with the single mass party and of the party with its charismatic leader, the use of an official ideology to legitimize and maintain the regime, the employment of a terroristic police force and a controlled press, and the application of all the means of modern science and technology to control the economy and individual behaviour. The two systems, however, may be distinguished in several ways. Fascism, in its National Socialist form, was primarily a counterrevolutionary movement that mobilized middle- and lower middle-class groups to pursue nationalistic and militaristic goals and whose sole principle of organization was obedience to the Führer. By contrast, Soviet communism grew out of a revolutionary theory of society, pursued the goal of revolutionary overthrow of capitalist systems internationally, and employed the complex bureaucratic structures of the Communist Party as mechanisms of governmental organization.

Western constitutional democracies have provided examples of another type of contemporary dictatorship. At various points in the 20th and 21st centuries, during periods of domestic or foreign crisis, most constitutional regimes conferred emergency powers on the executive, suspending constitutional guarantees of individual rights or liberties or declaring some form of martial law. Indeed, the constitutions of some Western democracies explicitly provide for the grant of emergency powers to the executive in a time of crisis to protect the constitutional order. In many cases, of course, such provisions have been the instruments with which dictators have overthrown the regime. Thus, the proclamation of emergency rule was the beginning of the dictatorships of Mussolini in Italy, of Kemal Atatürk in Turkey, of Józef Piłsudski in Poland, of António de Olveira Salazar in Portugal, of Franz von Papen and Hitler in Germany, and of Engelbert Dollfuss and Kurt von Schuschnigg in Austria. In other democracies, however, constitutional arrangements have survived quite lengthy periods of crisis government. After World War II, for example, in both the United States and Britain, the use of extraordinary powers by the executive came to a halt with the end of the wartime emergency. Similarly, although the 1958 constitution of the Fifth Republic of France contained far-reaching emergency powers conferred on the president—“when the institutions of the Republic, the independence of the nation, the integrity of its territory or the fulfillment of its international obligations are threatened with immediate and grave danger, and when the regular functioning of the constitutional authority is interrupted”—their implicit threat to the constitutional order has not been realized.

Many forces at work in the late 20th and early 21st centuries have appeared to lend impetus to the rise of monocratic forms of rule. In nearly all political systems, the powers of chief executives have increased in response to the demanding social, economic, and military crises of the age. The complex decisions required of governments in a technological era, the perfectionist impulses of the great bureaucratic structures that have developed in all industrialized societies, and the imperatives of national survival in a nuclear world continue to add to the process of executive aggrandizement. The question for many constitutional regimes is whether the limitation and balance of power that are at the heart of constitutional government can survive the growing enlargement of executive power.


In the Aristotelian classification of government, there were two forms of rule by the few: aristocracy and its debased form, oligarchy. Although the term oligarchy is rarely used to refer to contemporary political systems, the phenomenon of irresponsible rule by small groups has not vanished from the world.

Many of the classical conditions of oligarchic rule were found until the 20th century in those parts of Asia in which governing elites were recruited exclusively from a ruling caste—a hereditary social grouping set apart from the rest of society by religion, kinship, economic status, prestige, and even language. In the contemporary world, in some countries that have not experienced the full impact of industrialization, governing elites are still often recruited from a ruling class—a stratum of society that monopolizes the chief social and economic functions in the system. Such elites have typically exercised power to maintain the economic and political status quo.

The simple forms of oligarchic rule associated with pre-industrial societies are, of course, rapidly disappearing. Industrialization produces new, differentiatedelites that replace the small leadership groupings that once controlled social, economic, and political power in the society. The demands of industrialization compel recruitment on the basis of skill, merit, and achievement rather than on the basis of inherited social position and wealth. New forms of oligarchic rule have also made their appearance in many advanced industrial societies. Although governing elites in these societies are no longer recruited from a single class, they are often not subjected to effective restraints on the exercise of their power. Indeed, in some circumstances, the new elites may use their power to convert themselves into a governing class whose interests are protected by every agency of the state.

Oligarchic tendencies of a lesser degree have been detected in all the great bureaucratic structures of advanced political systems. The growing complexity of modern society and its government thrusts ever greater power into the hands of administrators and committees of experts. Even in constitutional regimes, no fully satisfactory answer has been found to the question of how these bureaucratic decision makers can be held accountable and their powers effectively restrained without, at the same time, jeopardizing the efficiency and rationality of the policy-making process.


Constitutional government is defined by the existence of a constitution—which may be a legal instrument or merely a set of fixed norms or principles generally accepted as the fundamental law of the polity—that effectively controls the exercise of political power. The essence of constitutionalism is the control of power by its distribution among several state organs or offices in such a way that they are each subjected to reciprocal controls and forced to cooperate in formulating the will of the state. Although constitutional government in this sense flourished in England and in some other historical systems for a considerable period, it is only recently that it has been associated with forms of mass participation in politics. In England, for example, constitutional government was not harnessed to political democracy until after the Reform Act of 1832 and subsequent 19th-century extensions of the suffrage. In the contemporary world, however, constitutional governments are also generally democracies, and in most cases they are referred to as constitutional democracies or constitutional-democratic systems.

The contemporary political systems that combine constitutionalism and democracy share a common basis in the primacy they accord to the will of the majority of the people as expressed in free elections. In all such systems, political parties are key institutions, for they are the agencies by which majority opinion in a modern mass electorate is mobilized and expressed. Indeed, the history of the political party in its modern form is coincidental with the development of contemporary constitutional-democratic systems. In each case, the transition from the older forms of constitutionalism to modern constitutional democracy was accompanied by the institutionalization of parties and the development of techniques of party competition. The essential functions of political parties in a constitutional democracy are the integrationof a multitude of interests, beliefs, and values into one or more programs or proposals for change and the nomination of party members for elective office in the government. In both functions, the party serves as a link between the rulers and the ruled: in the first case by allowing the electorate to register an opinion on policy and in the second by giving the people a chance to choose their rulers. Of course, the centralized, autocratically directed, and ideologically orthodox one-party systems of totalitarian regimes perform neither of these functions.

The two major types of constitutional democracy in the modern world are exemplified by the United States and Great Britain. The United States is the leading example of the presidential system of constitutional democracy; Britain, although its system is sometimes referred to as a cabinet system in recognition of the role of the cabinet in the government, is the classic example of the parliamentary system. The U.S. presidential system is based on the doctrine of separation of powers and distinguishes sharply between the personnel of the legislature and the executive; the British parliamentary system provides for the integration or fusion of legislature and executive. In the U.S. system the separation of legislature and executive is reinforced by their separate election and by the doctrine of checks and balances that provides constitutional support for routine disagreements between the branches; in the British system the integration of legislature and executive is reinforced by the necessity for their constant agreement, or for a condition of “confidence” between the two, if the normal processes of government are to continue. In the U.S. system reciprocal controls are provided by such devices as the presidential veto of legislation (which may be overridden by a two-thirds majority in Congress), the Senate’s role in ratifying treaties and confirming executive nominations, congressional appropriation of funds and the exclusive ability to declare war, and judicial review of legislation; in the British system the major control device is the vote of “no confidence” or the rejection of legislation that is considered vital.

A third type of constitutional democracy is the hybrid presidential-parliamentary system, exemplified by the government of France. In such systems there is both a directly elected president with substantial executive powers and a presidentially appointed prime minister, who must retain majority support in the legislature. If the president’s party or coalition also controls a legislative majority, the prime minister is generally a secondary figure, responsible for the day-to-day running of the government. However, the office of prime minister becomes more important when one party or coalition controls the presidency and a rival party or coalition retains majority support in the legislature. During such periods the president generally appoints the leader of the legislative majority as prime minister.


Most national societies have passed through a stage in their social and political development, usually referred to as feudalism, in which a weak and ineffectively organized national government competes for territorial jurisdiction with local power holders. In medieval England and France, for example, the crown was perennially threatened by the power of the feudal nobles, and a protracted struggle was necessary before the national domain was subjected to full royal control. Elsewhere, innumerable societies continued to experience this kind of feudal conflict between local magnates and the central government well into the modern era. The warlords of 19th- and 20th-century China, for example, were just as much the products of feudal society as the warring barons of 13th-century England and presented the same kind of challenge to the central government’s claim to exercise sovereign jurisdiction over the national territory. By the 1970s, feudalism was almost extinct. The social patterns that had formerly supported the power of local landowners were rapidly disappearing, and central governments had generally acquired a near monopoly of communications and military technology, enabling them to project their power into areas once controlled by local rulers.

In nearly all national political systems, central governments are better equipped than ever before to exercise effective jurisdiction over their territories. In much of the developing world, nationalist political movements and a variety of modern economic forces have swept away the traditional structures of local government, and the quasi-autonomous governments of village and tribe and province have been replaced by centrally directed systems of subnational administration. Even in the heavily industrialized states of the modern world, there has been an accelerating tendency toward greater centralization of power at the national level. In the United States, for example, the structure of relationships among the governments at the national, state, and local levels has changed in a number of ways to add to the power of the federal government in Washington. Even though the system of national grants-in-aid appears to have been designed as a means of decentralizing administration, the effect has been decidedly centralist, for the conditional character of the grants has allowed the federal government to exercise influence on state policies in fields that were once invulnerable to national intervention.


The nation-state is the dominant type of political system in the contemporary world, and nationalism, or the creed that centres the supreme loyalty of the people upon the nation-state, is the dominating force in international politics. The national ideal triumphed as a result of the wars of the 19th and 20th centuries. The Napoleonic Wars, which spread the doctrines of the French Revolution, unleashed nationalism as a force in Europe and led to the Risorgimento in Italy and the emergence of Bismarck’s Germany. The two world wars of the 20th century carried the principles of national self-determination and liberal democracy around the world and gave birth to the independence movements that resulted in the foundation of new states in eastern Europe in 1919 and the emergence from colonial status of countries in Asia and Africa after 1945. The collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union itself completed this process of moving from multinational empires to truly sovereign national states.

All the major forces of world politics—e.g., war, the development of national economies, and the demand for social services—have reinforced the national state as the primary focus of people’s loyalties. Wars have played the major part in strengthening national governments and weakening political regionalism and localism. The attachments that people have to subnational political communities are loosened when they must depend for their security on the national power. Even in the new age of total war—which few countries are capable of waging and even fewer of surviving—people look for their security to national governments rather than to international organizations. In nearly all contemporary states, the national budget is dominated by expenditures for defense, the military employs the largest fraction of the work force, and questions of national security pervade the discussion of politics.

One of the lessons of the last century was that national sovereignty continues to be the most important obstacle not only to the emergence of new forms of supranational government but to effective international cooperation as well. Almost everywhere, attempts to achieve federation and other forms of multinational communication have foundered on the rocks of nationalism. The collapse of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland and the Federation of Malaya, for example, were paralleled by the seeming ineffectiveness of the Organization of American States and the Arab League. On another level was the collapse of the Warsaw Pact when the countries of eastern Europe reclaimed their sovereignty in the late 1980s after decades of domination by the Soviet Union. In western Europe, however, countries joined together to form the supranational European Communities, which ultimately were succeeded by the European Union (EU) and expanded to encompass the bulk of the European continent. The countries of the EU are united not only by a long history and a common cultural inheritance but also by the expectation of mutual economic advantage. Even in this case, though, nationalism has proved to be an obstacle to the most ambitious goals of unification, which would severely limit national sovereignty in some spheres.

At the international level, anarchy is the principal form of contemporary rule, for the nation-state’s freedom of action is limited only by its power. While the state’s freedom of action may not be directly threatened, the effectiveness of the state’s action in the economic realm is increasingly being called into question. The development of national industries in the 19th and early 20th centuries played a major part in strengthening national as against regional and local political entities, but the scale of economic activity has now outgrown national markets. Industrial combines and commercial groupings have emerged that cross national frontiers and require international markets. This tight integration of the world economy has limited the effectiveness of some traditional instruments used to influence national trends in capitalist economies.

It is increasingly clear that some aspects of traditional sovereignty may be affected by serious efforts to confront some issues that act on the entire international system. National frontiers can no longer be adequately defended in an era of intercontinental ballistic missiles, especially with the rapid diffusionof the technology required for delivery systems as well as for nuclear weapons themselves. Action in this area is, by definition, an attempt to shape the national security policy of states, something very near the core of a state’s sovereignty. Concern over environmental matters could lead to more restrictive regimes than any arms-control provisions, ultimately shaping the way in which countries evolve economically. Destruction of major ecosystems, wasteful use of energy, and industrialization based on the use of fossil fuels are all national policies with international repercussions. As technology empowers more countries to directly affect the state of the planet as well as other countries, there are increasing incentives to limit the domestic policy choices of all countries.


The 18th-century political philosopher Montesquieu wrote that governments are likely to be tyrannical if they are responsible for administering large territories, for they must develop the organizational capacity characteristic of despotic states. It was partly this fear that led the American founding fathers to provide for a federal system and to divide governmental functions between the government in Washington and the state governments. Modern technology and mass communication are often said to have deprived Montesquieu’s axiom of its force. Yet the technology that makes it possible for large areas to be governed democratically also holds out the spectre of an even greater tyranny than Montesquieu foresaw.

In all political systems the relationships between national and regional or state governments have been affected by technology and new means of communication. In the 18th century Thomas Jefferson—in arguing that local government, or the government closest to the people, was best—could claim that citizens knew most about their local governments, somewhat less about their state governments, and least about the national government. In the present-day United States, however, the concentration of the mass media on the issues and personalities of national government has made nonsense of this proposition. As several studies have demonstrated, people know much less about local government than national government and turn out to vote in much larger numbers in national elections. The necessity for employing systems for the devolution of political power is reduced when a central government can communicate directly with citizens in all parts of the national territory, and the vitality of subnational levels of government is sapped when public attention is focussed on national problems.

Another general development that has lessened the importance of regional or state government is the rise of efficient national bureaucracies. In nearly all political systems, there has been some tendency toward bureaucraticcentralization, and in some cases national bureaucracies have almost completely replaced older systems of regional and provincial administration. In the United States, for example, complex programs of social security, income taxes, agricultural subsidies, and many others that bear directly on individuals are centrally administered.

Even in systems in which a division of functions between national and subnational governments is constitutionally prescribed, the prevailing trend in intergovernmental relations is toward increasing involvement of the national government in areas once dominated by regional or state governments. Thus, the original constitutional arrangements prescribed by the Allied powers for the West German republic in 1949 won general acclaim at the time because they provided for greater decentralization than had the Weimar Constitution; but, as soon as Germany was free to amend its own constitution, several state functions were reassigned to the national government. In the United States, also, the collapse of the doctrine of “dual federalism,” according to which the powers of the national government were restricted by the powers reserved to the states, signalled the end of an era in which the states could claim exclusivejurisdiction over a wide range of functions. Today, forms of cooperative federalism involving joint action by national and state governments are increasingly common. Such cooperative relationships in the United States include programs of public assistance, the interstate highway system, agricultural extension programs, and aid to education. In some areas, such as school desegregation, the national government has used broad powers to compel states to conform to national standards.

Nevertheless, efforts made to reinvigorate regional or state governments have met with some measure of success in countries such as FranceItaly, and Belgium. Moreover, popular attempts to reverse the trend toward national centralization have persisted in regions with historically strong nationalist or separatist movements—for example, in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Quebec, and Brittany.


Political scientists since Aristotle have recognized that the nature of political communities changes when their populations grow larger. One of the central problems of contemporary government is the vast increase in urban population and the progression from “polis to metro-polis to mega-polis.” The catalog of ills that have resulted from urban growth includes political and administrative problems of extraordinary complexity.

Aging infrastructure has become an issue of pressing national importance in the United States, with the major cities obviously suffering in this area. Grave social problems—for example, violent crime (especially that committed by youths in poverty-stricken areas), drug trafficking, unemployment, and homelessness—are concentrated to such a degree that they directly shape the environment in many large urban areas. The majority of cities are ill equipped to handle these problems without significant assistance from the national government. Yet, in the latter half of the 20th century, the tax base of many U.S. cities dwindled, with the flight of the middle classes to the suburbs and the relocation of industry. Largely as a result of this trend, political power began to follow wealth out of the cities and into adjoining suburbs, which in turn served to reduce the national government’s activism in the cities.

The metropolis suffers from several acute governmental and administrative failures. Responsibility for the issues that transcend the boundaries of local governments has not been defined, for representative institutions have failed to develop at the metropolitan level. In most cases, there are no effective governmental structures for administering area-wide services or for dealing comprehensively with the common problems of the metropolitan community. The result has been the appearance of a new class of problems created by government itself, including uneven levels of service for metropolitan residents, inequities in financing government services and functions, and variations in the democratic responsiveness of the governments scattered through the metropolitan area. The tangled pattern of local governments, each operating in some independent sphere, does not allow the comprehensiveplanning necessary to deal with the escalating problems of urban life.

Efforts to create new governing structures for metropolitan communities have been among the most interesting developments in contemporary government. In the United States these efforts include the creation of special districts to handle specific functions, area-wide planning agencies, interstate compacts, consolidated school and library systems, and various informal intergovernmental arrangements. Although annexation of outlying areas by the central city and city-county consolidations have been attempted in many cases, the reluctance of urban areas to surrender their political independence or to pay for central-city services has been an obstacle. The Los Angeles plan, by which the county assumed responsibility for many area-wide functions, leaving the local communities with substantial political autonomy, may represent a partial solution to the problem of urban-suburban tensions. In other cases, “metropolitan federation” has been attempted. One of the earliest and most influential examples of a federated system of metropolitan government is Greater London, which encompasses 33 London boroughs and places effective governing powers in the hands of an elected mayor and assembly. In Canada the city of Toronto and its suburbs adopted a metropolitan “constitution” in 1953 under which mass transit, highways, planning, and several other functions were controlled by a council composed of elected officials from the central city and surrounding governments; further restructuring and reform of Toronto’s government took place in 1998 and 2007. Cities in the United States that have undertaken various degrees of area-wide consolidation include Miami, Nashville, Seattle, and Indianapolis.

Most of the major problems of contemporary politics seem to have found their focus in the metropolis, and there is almost universal agreement that new governing systems must be devised for the metropolitan community if the problems are ever to be resolved.


In his PoliticsAristotle differentiated three categories of state activity—deliberations concerning common affairs, decisions of executive magistrates, and judicial rulings—and indicated that the most significant differences among constitutions concerned the arrangements made for these activities. This threefold classification is not precisely the same as the modern distinction among legislature, executive, and judiciary. Aristotle intended to make only a theoretical distinction among certain state functions and stopped short of recommending that they be assigned as powers to separate organs of government. Indeed, since Aristotle held that all power should be wielded by one man, pre-eminent in virtue, he never considered the concept of separated powers. In the 17th century the English political philosopher John Locke also distinguished the legislative from the executive function but, like Aristotle, failed to assign these to separate organs or institutions. Montesquieu was the first to make the modern division among legislative, executive, and judiciary. Arguing that the purpose of political association is liberty, not virtue, and that the very definition of liberty’s great antagonisttyranny, is the accumulation of all power in the same hands, he urged the division of the three functions of government among three separate institutions. After Montesquieu, the concept of separation of powers became one of the principal doctrines of modern constitutionalism. Nearly all modern constitutions, from the document written at Philadelphia in 1787 through the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of August 1789 up to the constitutions of the postcolonial countries of Africa and Asia, provide for the separate establishment of legislative, executive, and judiciary. The functional division among the branches of government is never precise. In the American system, for example, the doctrine of checks and balances justifies several departures from the strict assignment of functions among the branches. Parliamentary forms of government depart even further from the concept of separation and integrate both the personnel and the functions of the legislature and the executive. Indeed, the principle of shared rather than separated powers is the true essence of constitutionalism. In the constitutional state, power is controlled because it is shared or distributed among the divisions of government in such a way that they are each subjected to reciprocal checks and forced to cooperate in the exercise of political power. In the nonconstitutional systems of totalitarianism or autocracy, although there may be separate institutions such as legislatures, executives, and judiciaries, power is not shared but rather concentrated in a single organ. Because this organ is not subjected to the checks of shared power, the exercise of political power is uncontrolled or absolute.


The characteristic function of all legislatures is the making of law. In most systems, however, legislatures also have other tasks, such as selection and criticism of the government, supervision of administration, appropriation of funds, ratification of treaties, impeachment of executive and judicial officials, acceptance or refusal of executive nominations, determination of electionprocedures, and public hearings on petitions. Legislatures, then, are not simply lawmaking bodies. Neither do they monopolize the function of making law. In most systems the executive has a power of veto over legislation, and, even where this is lacking, the executive may exercise original or delegated powers of legislation. Judges, also, often share in the lawmaking process, through the interpretation and application of statutes or, as in the U.S. system, by means of judicial review of legislation. Similarly, administrative officials exercise quasi-legislative powers in making rules and deciding cases that come before administrative tribunals.

Legislatures differ strikingly in their size, the procedures they employ, the role of political parties in legislative action, and their vitality as representative bodies. In size, the British House of Commons, with more than 600 members, is among the largest; in contrast, numerous small island countries have legislative bodies with fewer than 20 members. Bicameral legislatures are common in many countries, particularly those with a federal system of government, such as the United StatesAustraliaBrazilCanadaGermany, and India. Unicameral legislatures are typical in small countries and in those with a unitary system of government, such as New Zealand and Denmark. However, a federal system does not necessarily imply a bicameral legislature, nor do all unitary systems have unicameral legislatures.

The procedures of the United States House of Representatives, which derive from a manual of procedure written by Thomas Jefferson, are among the most elaborate of parliamentary rules, requiring study and careful observation over a considerable period before members become proficient in their manipulation. Voting procedures range from the formal procession of the division or teller vote in the British House of Commons to the electric voting methods employed in many U.S. states. Another point of difference among legislatures concerns their presiding officers. These are sometimes officials who stand above party and, like the speaker of the British House of Commons, exercise a neutral function as parliamentary umpires; sometimes they are the leaders of the majority party and, like the speaker of the United States House of Representatives, major political figures; and sometimes they are officials who, like the vice president of the United States in his role as presiding officer of the Senate, exercise a vote to break ties and otherwise perform mainly ceremonial functions.

Legislative parties are of various types and play a number of roles or functions. In the United States House of Representatives, for example, the party is responsible for assigning members to all standing committees; the party leadership fills the major parliamentary offices, and the party membership on committees reflects the proportion of seats held by the party in the House as a whole. The congressional party, however, is not disciplined to the degree found in British and some other European legislative parties, and there are relatively few “party line” votes in which all the members of one party vote against all the members of the other party. In the House of Commons, party-line voting is general; indeed, it is very unusual to find members voting against their party leadership, and, when they do, they must reckon with the possibility of penalties such as the “withdrawal of the whip,” or the loss of their official status as party members.

It is often said that the 20th century dealt harshly with legislatures, leading to executive aggrandizement. Certainly, executives in most countries have assumed an increasingly large role in the making of law, through the initiation of the legislation that comes before parliaments, assemblies, and congresses, through the exercise of various rule-making functions, and as a result of the growth of different types of delegated legislation. It is also true that executives have come to predominate in the sphere of foreign affairs and, by such devices as executive agreements, which are frequently used in place of treaties, have freed themselves from dependence upon legislative approval of important foreign-policy initiatives. Moreover, devices such as the executive budget and the rise of specialized budgetary agencies in the executive division have threatened the traditional fiscal controls of legislatures. This decline in legislative power, however, is not universal. The United States Congress, for example, has preserved a substantial measure of its power. Indeed, congressional oversight of the bureaucracy is an area in which it has added to its power and has developed new techniques for controlling the executive. The difficulties of presidents with legislative programs of foreign aid and the perennial congressional criticism of executive policies in foreign affairs also suggest that Congress continues to play a vital role in the governing process.


Political executives are government officials who participate in the determination and direction of government policy. They include heads of state and government leaders—presidentsprime ministers, premiers, chancellors, and other chief executives—and many secondary figures, such as cabinet members and ministers, councillors, and agency heads. By this definition, there are several thousand political executives in the U.S. national government, including the president, dozens of political appointees in the cabinet departments, in the agencies, in the commissions, and in the White Housestaff, and hundreds of senior civil servants. The same is true of most advanced political systems, for the making and implementation of government policy require very large executive and administrative establishments.

United States: presidencyPres. George W. Bush and President-elect Barack Obama meeting in the Oval Office of the White House, Washington, D.C., Nov. 10, 2008.Eric Draper/The White HouseThe Group of Eight summit in Genoa, Italy, 2001.Luke Frazza—AFP/Getty Images

The crucial element in the organization of a national executive is the role assigned to the chief executive. In presidential systems, such as in the United States, the president is both the political head of the government and also the ceremonial head of state. In parliamentary systems, such as in Great Britain, the prime minister is the national political leader, but another figure, a monarch or elected president, serves as the head of state. In mixed presidential-parliamentary systems, such as that established in France under the constitution of 1958, the president serves as head of state but also wields important political powers, including the appointment of a prime minister and cabinet to serve as the government.

The manner in which the chief executive is elected or selected is often decisive in shaping his role in the political system. Thus, although he receives his seals of office from the monarch, the effective election of a British prime minister usually occurs in a private conclave of the leading members of his party in Parliament. Elected to Parliament from only one of several hundred constituencies, he is tied to the fortunes of the legislative majority that he leads. By contrast, the U.S. president is elected by a nationwide electorate, and, although he leads his party’s ticket, his fortunes are independent of his party. Even when the opposition party controls the Congress, his fixed term and his independent base of power allow him considerable freedom of maneuver. These contrasts explain many of the differences in the roles of the two chief executives. The British prime minister invariably has served for many years in Parliament and has developed skills in debate and in political negotiation. His major political tasks are the designation of the other members of the cabinet, the direction of parliamentary strategy, and the retention of the loyalty of a substantial majority of his legislative party. The presidential chief executive, on the other hand, often lacks prior legislative and even national-governmental experience, and his main concern is with the cultivation of a majority in the electorate through the leadership of public opinion. Of course, since the president must have a legislative program and often cannot depend on the support of a congressional majority, he may also need the skills of a legislative strategist and negotiator.

Another important area of contrast between different national executives concerns their role in executing and administering the law. In the U.S. presidential system, the personnel of the executive branch are constitutionally separated from the personnel of Congress: no executive officeholder may seek election to either house of Congress, and no member of Congress may hold executive office. In parliamentary systems the political management of government ministries is placed in the hands of the party leadership in parliament. In the U.S. system the president often appoints to cabinet positions persons who have had little prior experience in politics, and he may even appoint members of the opposition party. In the British system, cabinet appointments are made to consolidate the prime minister’s personal ascendancy within the parliamentary party or to placate its different factions. These differences extend even further into the character of the two systems of administration and the role played by civil servants. In the U.S. system a change in administration is accompanied by the exodus of a very large number of top government executives—the political appointees who play the vital part in shaping day-to-day policy in all the departments and agencies of the national government. In Britain, when political control of the House of Commons changes, only the ministers, their parliamentary secretaries, and one or two other top political aids are replaced. For all practical purposes, the ministries remain intact and continue under the supervision of permanent civil servants.

In nearly all political systems, even in constitutional democracies where executive responsibility is enforced through free elections, the last century saw a remarkable increase in the powers of chief executives. The office of the presidency in the United States, like the office of prime minister in Britain, greatly enlarged the scope of its authority. One of the challenges of representative government is to develop more constitutional restraints on the abuse of executive powers while retaining their advantages for effective rule.


Like legislators and executives, judges are major participants in the policy-making process; and courts, like legislatures and administrative agencies, promulgate rules of behaviour having the nature of law. The process of judicial decision making, or adjudication, is distinctive, however, for it is concerned with specific cases in which an individual has come into conflict with society by violating its norms or in which individuals have come into conflict with one another, and it employs formal procedures that contrast with those of parliamentary or administrative bodies.

Established court systems are found in all advanced political systems. Usually there are two judicial hierarchies, one dealing with civil and the other with criminal cases, each with a large number of local courts, a lesser number at the level of the province or the region, and one or more courts at the national level. This is the pattern of judicial organization in Britain, for example. In some countries—for example, in France—although there is a double hierarchy, the distinction is not between courts dealing with criminal cases and other courts dealing with civil cases but rather between those that handle all civil and criminal cases and those that deal with administrative cases or challenges to the administrative authority of the state. Reflecting the federal organization of its government, the United States has two court systems: one set of national courts and 50 sets of state courts. By contrast, Germany, which is federal in governmental organization, possesses only a single integrated court system.

Local courts are found in all systems and are usually of two types. The first type deals with petty offenses and may include a traffic court, a municipal court, a small-claims court, and a court presided over by a justice of the peace or a local magistrate. The second type, sometimes called trial courts, are courts of first instance in which most cases of major importance are begun. These are the state superior courts in the United States, the county courts and quarter sessions in Britain, the tribunal de grande instance in France, and the district courts, or Landgerichte, in Germany. In some systems there is a level above the local court, usually referred to as assize courts, in which exceptionally serious crimes, such as homicide, are tried. Courts of appeal review the procedures and the law in the lower court and, in some instances, return the case for a new trial. In all systems there are national supreme courts that hear appeals and exercise original jurisdiction in cases of the greatest importance, such as those involving conflict between a state and a national government. Outside the regular court systems, there are sometimes found specialized judicial tribunals, such as administrative courts, or courts of claims that deal with special categories of cases.Navajo Supreme Court justices questioning counsel during a hearing.Greg Wahl-Stephens/AP Images


In all modern states, governmental functions have greatly expanded with the emergence of government as an active force in guiding social and economic development. In countries with a command economy, government has a vast range of responsibilities for many types of economic behaviour. In those countries favouring social democracy, the government owns or regulates business and industry. Even in the free-market economy of the United States—where there remains a much greater attachment than in most societies to the idea that government should be only an umpire adjudicating the rules by which other forces in society compete—some level of government regulation, such as the use of credit controls to prevent economic fluctuations, is now accepted with relatively little question. Government has thus become the major or even the dominant organizing power in all contemporary societies.

The historical stages by which governments have come to exercise their contemporary functions make an interesting study in themselves. The scope of government in the ancient polis involved the comprehensive regulation of the ends of human existence. As Aristotle expressed it, what was not commanded by government was forbidden. The extent of the functions of government in the ancient world was challenged by Christianity and its insistence on a division of those things that belong separately to Caesar and to God. When the feudal world succeeded the Roman Empire, however, the enforcement of the sanctions of religion became one of the first objects of political authority. The tendencies that began in the 18th century separated church from state and state from society, and the modern concept of government came into being. The American colonies’ Declaration of Independence expresses the classic modern understanding of those ends that governmental functions exist to secure. The first aim of government is to secure the right to life; this comprehends the safety of fellow citizens as regards one another and the self-preservation of the country as regards foreign powers. Life exists for the exercise of liberty, in terms of both natural and civil rights, and these, along with other specific functions of government, provide those conditions upon which men may pursue happiness, an end that is finally entirely private and beyond the competence of government.

With the advent of the Marxist conception of the state, the ends of human existence once again became the objects of comprehensive government regulation. Marxism sees the state as a product of class warfare that will pass out of existence in the future age of perfect freedom. Aristotle believed human perfection to be possible only within political society; Marx believed that the perfection of man would follow upon the abolition of political society. Before the final disposal of the state, however, many Marxists believe that forceful use of governmental power is justified in order to hasten mankind’s progress toward the last stage of history.



The first right of individuals and countries is self-preservation. The task of maintaining the country, however, is more complex than the individual’s duty of self-preservation, for the country must seek to command the attachment of a community of citizens as well as to preserve itself from external violence. As Thomas Hobbes insisted, civil war constitutes the greatest threat to governments, for it represents the dissolution of the “sovereign power.” In modern terms, civil war signifies that the government has lost one of the basic attributes of political authority: its monopoly of force and its control over the use of violence. In a fundamental sense, political authority may be preserved from the threat of civil war only when there exists in the political community an agreement on the basic principles of the regime. Such a consensus is the result, among other things, of a shared “ideology” that gives fellow citizens a sense of communal belonging and recognizes interlocking values, interests, and beliefs. Ideology, in this sense, may be the product of many different forces. Sometimes it is associated with ancient customs, sometimes with religion, sometimes with severe dislocations or the sort of common need that has led to the formation of many nation-states, and sometimes with the fear of a common enemy. The ideological commitment that people call patriotism is typically the product of several of these forces.

Governments neglect at their peril the task of strengthening the ideological attachment of their citizens to the regime. In this sense, civic education should be counted among the essential functions of the state, for it is primarily through systems of education that citizens learn their duties. Indeed, as a number of sociological studies have shown, the process of political socializationthat transforms people into citizens begins in kindergarten and grade school. Even more than this, education is the instrument by which governments further the cohesion of their societies and build the fundamental kinds of consensus that support their authority. It is not surprising, therefore, that national systems of education are often linked to central elements of the regimes. In France public education was traditionally mixed with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church; in Great Britain a private system of education supported the class divisions of society; and in the United States a primarily secular form of public education traditionally used constitutional documents as the starting point of children’s training in patriotism.

The preservation of the authority of the state also requires a governmental organization capable of imposing its jurisdiction on every part of the national territory. This involves the maintenance of means of communication, the use of administrative systems, and the employment of police forces capable of controlling domestic violence. The police function, like education, is often a key to the character of a regime. In Nazi Germany, Hitler’s Brownshirts took over the operation of local and regional police systems and often supervised the administration of law in the streets. In the Soviet Union the security police acted to check any deviation from the policy of the party or state. In the United States the police powers are largely left in the hands of the 50 states and the local agencies of government. In addition, there are state militias that act, under the control of the governors of the various states, in moments of local emergency, such as riots or natural catastrophes. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), in some respects the equivalent of a national police force, is an agency established to carry out specific assignments dealing with a limited but important class of crimes. Since there is no comprehensive federal criminal code, there is not, strictly speaking, a federal police.

Governments must preserve themselves against external as well as domestic threats. For this purpose they maintain armed forces and carry on intelligence activities. They also try to prevent the entry of aliens who may be spies or terrorists, imprison or expel the agents of foreign powers, and embargo the export of materials that may aid a potential enemy. The ultimate means of preserving the state against external threats, of course, is war. In war, governments usually enlarge the scope of their domestic authority; they may raise conscript forces, imprison conscientious objectors, subject aliens to internment, sentence traitors to death, impose extraordinary controls on the economy, censor the press, compel settlement of labour disputes, impose internal-travel limitations, withhold passports, and provide for summary forms of arrest.

Many forces generate clashes between countries, including economic rivalry and disputes over trade, the desire to dominate strategic land or sea areas, religious or ideological conflict, and imperialistic ambition. All national governments develop organizations and policies to meet these and other situations. They have foreign ministries for the conduct of diplomatic relations with other countries, for representing them in international organizations, and for negotiating treaties. Some governments conduct programs such as foreign aid, cultural exchange, and other activities designed to win goodwill abroad.

In the 20th century, relationships between governments were affected by a developing awareness that world peace and prosperity depend on multinational and international cooperation. The League of Nations and its successor, the United Nations, together with their associated agencies, represent major efforts to establish substitutes for traditional forms of diplomacy. Regional alliances and joint efforts, such as the Organization of American States, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the European Union, and the African Union, represent another type of cooperation between countries.


The conflict of private interest is the leading characteristic of the political process in constitutional democracies, and the supervision, mediation, arbitration, and adjudication of such conflicts are among the key functions of their governments. Representative institutions are themselves a device for the resolution of conflict. Elections in constitutional democracies provide opportunities for mass participation in a process of open debate and public decision; assemblies, congresses, and other parliamentary institutions provide for public hearings on major issues of policy and require formal deliberative procedures at different stages of the legislative process; and political parties integrate a variety of interests and effect compromises on policy that win acceptance from many different groups.

If the interests that compete in the political process are too narrow or restricted, efforts may be made to control or change the rules of competition. Thus, laws have been enacted that seek to prevent discrimination from locking women and minority groups out of the democratic process; the franchise has been extended to all groups, including women, minorities, and 18-year-olds; and government bodies such as courts and administrative agencies enforce legislation against groups considered to be too large or monopolistic.

Judicial processes offer a means by which some disputes in society are settled according to rule and legal authority, rather than by political struggle. In all advanced societies, law is elaborated in complex codes governing rights and duties and procedural methods, and court systems are employed that adjudicate disputes in terms of the law. In constitutional systems such as the United States, the judiciary is deeply involved in the process of public decision making; the courts actually produce much of the substantive law that bears on private individuals and economic groups in society.


Government regulation of economic life is not a new development. The national mercantilist systems of the 18th century provided for regulation of the production, distribution, and export of goods by government ministries; even during the 19th century, governments continued to intervene in the economy. The government of the United States, for example, from its inception in 1789, allotted funds or subsidies for the support of agriculture, maintained a system of tariffs for its own revenue and the support of domestic manufacturers, patronized the arts and sciences, and engaged in various kinds of public worksto advance commerce and promote the general welfare. In France even more elaborate governmental schemes of economic regulation were practiced throughout the 19th century, including a variety of socialist experiments such as the Public Workshops that Louis Blanc established in Paris in 1848. In Britainthe various factory acts of the 19th century represented an effort by government to improve slightly the working conditions in industry.

After World War II the ability of a government to regulate or control the economy became one of the chief tests of its success, and regulatory agencies multiplied to the point at which they are now often referred to as “the fourth branch of government.” The extent of the controls imposed on the economy is one of the principal distinctions between capitalist, socialist, and communist systems. In communist countries it is a matter of doctrine that the means of production should be owned and therefore controlled by the state. In Britain the Labour governments nationalized some major industries, including coal, steel, and the railroads, prompted partly by socialist doctrine and partly by the failure of British industry to remain competitive in international markets. This process was then reversed when the Conservative Party became ascendent. In the United States the government has involved itself in the economy primarily through its regulatory powers. In France the government has gone farther and has engaged in national economic planning in cooperation with private business organizations.

The regulation of industrial conditions and of labour-management relationshas been a major concern of most Western governments. In the United States the first regulatory efforts in this field were made during the Progressive era at the turn of the 20th century, when the wages, hours, and working conditions of women and children in industry became a matter of public scandal. A little later the conditions, hours, food, and wages of merchant seamen were brought under government regulation; an eight-hour day was set for railway crews; and workmen’s compensation laws were instituted. With the Great Depression in the 1930s, minimum wages were introduced for workers in many industries, hours of work were set, and the right to collective bargaining was given legal sanction.

Regulation of transportation has been another major activity in most Western political systems, beginning with the railroads. In the United States their monopolistic practices attracted the criticism of agricultural interests and led eventually to the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887, which regulated railroad rates; subsequent legislation covered the hours, conditions, and wages of railroad employees, among other things. Other modes of land and air transportation have since been brought under regulatory controls implemented by government agencies.

In many European countries, major facilities of communication—telephone, radio, and television—are owned and operated by the government. In the United States, most of these facilities have remained in private ownership, although they are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission. The regulation by government of important instruments of public opinion such as radio, television, and newspapers has important implications for the freedoms of speech and press and other individual rights. In the United States and Great Britain, government censorship of the press and other media has been restricted to matters of national security. This is also generally true of other Western constitutional democracies. In many of the less-developed countries with authoritarian governments, very extensive controls are imposed on the press, and government-owned newspapers are often the principal sources of political news.

Other forms of government regulation of the economy involve the use of taxes and tariffs, the regulation of weights and measures, and the issuance of money.


To some extent, all modern governments assume responsibility for protecting the political and social rights of their citizens. The protection of individual rights has taken two principal forms: first, the protection of liberty in the face of governmental oppression; second, the protection of individual rights against hostile majorities and minorities. From the 1960s to the mid-1980s the sphere of public discussion in the Soviet Union was gradually, though erratically, widened. While this widening never extended to the purely political, some of the sociological discussion allowed served to set the intellectual stage for the Gorbachev period of radical reform. Although the Soviet Union suppressed most expression of political opinion until the late 1980s, domination by a central authority protected the basic human rights of some groups from violent rival minorities. On a larger scale, this is also what suppressed many long-standing rivalries in eastern Europe during the Cold War. The degree of repression in the former communist states varied from country to country and changed with time after the death of Stalin.

In the second half of the 20th century in the United States, the Supreme Court expanded the rights of the criminally accused with such cases as Gideon v. Wainwright (1963), in which the Supreme Court ruled that indigent defendants had a right to a court-appointed attorney, and Miranda v. Arizona (1966), in which the court specified a code of conduct for police interrogations of criminal suspects held in custody. After the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954, the national government acted to bar legal discrimination against ethnic minorities, as well as women, people with disabilities, gays and lesbians, and the elderly. Indeed, in the second half of the 20th century, many (but not all) freedoms detailed in the Bill of Rights (the first 10 amendments to the Constitution) were extended. By the early 21st century, however, as the Supreme Court assumed a more conservative orientation, it shifted its focus away from the expansion of minority rights. For example, on issues of race, the Supreme Court ruled in the Bollinger decisions (2003) and in Ricci v. DeStefano (2009) that, while affirmative action policies aiming to provide minority groups with broader employment or educational opportunities could still be used, such policies were not valid if race was the determining factor.

Another type of government regulation bearing on the individual concerns the law of immigration and emigration. The great mass migrations of the 19th and early 20th centuries came to an abrupt halt after 1914 with the proliferation of government controls on the freedom of movement across national boundaries. After some later liberalization, immigration to the industrialized states again saw increased restrictions near the end of the 20th century.


All modern governments participate directly in the economy, purchasing goods, operating industries, providing services, and promoting various economic activities. One of the indispensable functions of government—national defense—has made governments the most important consumers of goods, and they have not hesitated to use their resulting pricing, purchasing, and contracting powers to achieve various economic aims. In efforts to avoid dependence on private sources of strategic goods and defense materials, some governments have taken a further step and established their own military production plants. In wartime, governments have assumed control over entire industries and have subjected the work force to military direction in addition to rationing goods and regulating prices.

In nearly all political systems, certain functions are recognized as primarily public, or belonging to the government, although some aspects of these services may be handled by the private sector. In addition to national defense, public functions include the maintenance of domestic peace, public education, fire protection, traffic controlconservation of natural resources, flood control, and postal services. Many governments have assumed responsibility for additional commercial operations, even in nonsocialist countries. The sale of electric power, for example, is one of the established enterprising functions of national, state, and local governments in the United States and Canada. Municipally owned power utilities exist in many cities in North America; a number of states in the U.S. have public power districts; and the U.S. government markets power through the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Bureau of Reclamation, and several other agencies. Another range of functions, such as lending and insurance, are performed by other national agencies, including the Veterans Administration, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and the Federal Housing Administration.

Other miscellaneous enterprises in which governments are involved include the provision of health care, the operation of public transport facilities, the development of public works, airport and port maintenance, and water-supply systems. In Great Britain the government operates hospitals and provides medical care under the National Health Service. In the United States many state and local governments operate hospitals on a commercial basis, although providing some charity care. At the local level in the United States, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey constructs and operates bridges, terminals, and airports. The states in the Delaware Basin joined in a compact to establish an agency to control the use of water from the basin, institute programs to prevent pollution, provide recreation facilities, transmit and sell hydroelectric power, and provide watershed management. Cities in the United States and Canada operate dozens of urban transit systems, hundreds of municipal gas utilities, and thousands of water-supply systems. Cities are also generally responsible for garbage disposal, and many cities manage parks and recreational amenities, such as golf courses. Finally, a number of state governments control the distribution of alcohol.


While the functional objectives of government administration vary from system to system, all countries that are technologically developed have evolved systems of public administration. A number of common features may be detected in all such systems. The first is the hierarchical, or pyramidal, character of the organization by which a single chief executive oversees a few subordinates, who in turn oversee their chief subordinates, who are in turn responsible for overseeing other subordinates, and so on until a great structure of personnel is integrated and focussed on the components of a particular program. A second common feature is the division of labour or specialization within the organization. Each individual in the hierarchy has specialized responsibilities and tasks. A third feature is the maintenance of detailed official records and the existence of precise paper procedures through which the personnel of the system communicate with each other and with the public. Finally, tenure of office is also characteristic of all public bureaucracies.

The various national civil services, despite their similarities, also show important differences, particularly in the way in which individuals are recruited and in the status accorded them in the political system. The British civil service, for example, has traditionally been composed of three classes, or grades—clerical, executive, and administrative. Administrative civil servants, the highest grade, are recruited by examination from among recent university graduates. The top managers of the different government ministries are drawn from this elite group. They remain in office despite changes in government and are accorded immense prestige. The U.S. civil service is organized into more than a dozen grades. Although promotion from the lower grades is the typical means by which positions in the top grades are filled, there is also a flow of individuals into senior positions from private business and the professions. The U.S. equivalent of the administrative civil servant in Britain is usually a political appointee recruited by each new administration from private life or from a position in politics.


Students of political systems grapple with a subject matter that is today in constant flux. They must deal not only with the major processes of growth, decay, and breakdown but also with a ceaseless ferment of adaptation and adjustment. The magnitude and variety of the changes that occurred in the world’s political systems beginning in the early 20th century suggest the dimensions of the problem. Great empires disintegrated; nation-states emerged, flourished briefly, and then vanished; world wars twice transformed the international system; new ideologies swept the world and shook established groups from power; all but a few countries experienced at least one revolution and many countries two or more; domestic politics in every system were contorted by social strife and economic crisis; and everywhere the nature of political life was changed by novel forms of political activity, new means of mass communication, the enlargement of popular participation in politics, the rise of new political issues, the extension of the scope of governmental activity, the threat of nuclear war, and innumerable other social, economic, and technical developments.


Although it is possible to identify a number of factors that obviously have a great deal to do with contemporary development and change in the world’s political systems—industrialization, population growth, the “revolution of rising expectations” in the less developed countries, and international tensions—there is no agreed theory to explain the causes of political change. Some social scientists have followed Aristotle’s view that political instability is generally the result of a situation in which the distribution of wealth fails to correspond with the distribution of political power and have echoed his conclusion that the most stable type of political system is one based on a large middle class. Others have adopted Marxist theories of economic determinism that view all political change as the result of changes in the mode of production. Still others have focussed on governing elites and their composition and have seen in the alienation of the elite from the mass the prime cause of revolutions and other forms of violent political change.

In the discussion that follows, a distinction is drawn between unstable and stable political systems, and an attempt is made to suggest ways of understanding the processes of political development and change.


In modern times the great majority of the world’s political systems have experienced one form or another of internal warfare leading to violent collapse of the governments in power. Certain crisis situations seem to increase the likelihood of this kind of breakdown. Wars and, more particularly, national military defeats have been decisive in prompting many revolutions. The Paris Commune of 1871, the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917, Hitler’s overthrow of the Weimar Constitution in Germany, and the revolutions in China all occurred in the aftermath of national military disasters. Many factors in such a situation, including the cheapening of human life, the dislocation of population, the ready availability of arms, the disintegration of authority, the discrediting of the national leadership, material scarcities, and a sense of wounded national pride, contribute to the creation of an atmosphere in which radical political change and violent mass action are acceptable to large numbers of people. Economic crises are another common stimulus to revolutionary outbreaks, for they produce not only the obvious pressures of material scarcity and deprivation but also a threat to the individual’s social position, a sense of insecurity and uncertainty as to the future, and an aggravation of the relationships among social classes. A severe national economic crisis works, in much the same way as a military disaster, to discredit the existent leadership and the present regime. Another triggering factor is the outbreak of revolutions in other political systems. Revolutions have a tendency to spread: the Spanish Revolution of 1820 had repercussions in Naples, Portugal, and Piedmont; the French Revolution of July 1830 provoked similar outbreaks in Poland and Belgium; the Russian Revolution of 1917 was followed by a dozen other revolutions; and the colonial liberation movements in Africa, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere after World War II appear to have involved a similar chain reaction.

Crisis situations test the stability of political systems in extremely revealing ways, for they place extraordinary demands on the political leadership and the structure and processes of the system. Since the quality of the political leadership is often decisive, those systems that provide methods of selecting able leaders and replacing them possess important advantages. Although leadership ability is not guaranteed by any method of selection, it is more likely to be found where there is free competition for leadership positions. The availability of established methods of replacing leaders is equally, if not more, important, for the result of crises is often to disgrace the leaders in power, and, if they cannot be replaced easily, their continued incumbency may discredit the whole regime. The stamina and resolve of the ruling elite are also important. It is often said that a united elite, firmly believing in the justice of its own cause and determined to employ every measure to maintain its power, will not be overthrown. Most revolutions have gotten under way not when the oppression was greatest but only after the government had lost confidence in its own cause.

Other conditions of the survival of political systems relate to the effectiveness of the structures and processes of government in meeting the demands placed on them. Political systems suffer violent breakdown when channels of communication fail to function effectively, when institutional structures and processes fail to resolve conflicts among demands and to implementacceptable policies, and when the system ceases to be viewed as responsive by the individual and groups making demands on it. Usually, a system has failed over a period of some time to satisfy persistent and widespread demands; then, exposed to the additional strains of a crisis situation, it is unable to maintain itself. Revolutions and other forms of violent collapse are thus rarely sudden catastrophes but rather the result of a process of considerable duration that comes to its climax when the system is most vulnerable.

Unstable political systems are those that prove vulnerable to crisis pressures and that break down into various forms of internal warfare. The fundamental causes of such failures appear to be the lack of a widespread sense of the legitimacy of state authority and the absence of some general agreement on appropriate forms of political action. Governments suffer their gravest handicap when they must govern without consent or when the legitimacy of the regime is widely questioned. This is often the case in systems that have experienced prolonged civil war, that are torn by tensions among different national or ethnic groups, or in which there are divisions along sharply drawn ideological or class lines. The problem is often most acute where there is a pretender to the throne, a government in exile, a neighbouring state sympathetic to a rebel cause, or some other focus for the loyalty of dissidents. To some degree, also, the problem of legitimacy confronts all newly established regimes. Many of the postcolonial countries of Africa and Asia, for example, found it a source of great difficulty. Often they emulated the form of Western institutions but failed to achieve their spirit: borrowing eclectically from Western political philosophies and systems of law, they created constitutional frameworks and institutional structures that lacked meaning to their citizens and that failed to generate loyalty or a sense that government exercises rightful powers.

Closely related to the problem of legitimacy as a cause of the breakdown of political systems is the absence of a fundamental consensus on what is appropriate political behaviour. A regime is fortunate if there are well-established, open channels of political action and settled procedures for resolving grievances. Although the importance of such “rules of the game” is that they allow change to occur in mainly peaceful ways, stable political systems often show surprising tolerance for potentially violent forms of political behaviour, such as strikes, boycotts, and mass demonstrations. Such forms of political behaviour are not permitted in systems where there are no agreed limits to the role of violence and where there is a high risk that violence may escalate to the point of actual warfare. If the government cannot count upon widespread support for peaceful political procedures, it must restrict many kinds of political action. Such restriction, of course, inhibits still more the development of open methods of citizen participation in politics and adds to tension between the government and the people.


The simplest definition of a stable political system is one that survives through crises without internal warfare. Several types of political systems have done so, including despotic monarchies, militarist regimes, and other authoritarian and totalitarian systems. After 1868, in the period of the restoration regime under the Meiji emperor, Japan succeeded, without major political breakdowns, in building an industrial state and developing commercial structures that transformed traditional Japanese society. This achievement was based on the development of centralized patterns of political control and the growth of a type of authoritarianism involving the rule of a military elite. Similarly, some of the totalitarian regimes of the contemporary world have demonstrated an impressive capability for survival. The key to their success is their ability to control social development, to manage and prevent change, and to bring under governmental direction all the forces that may result in innovations that are threatening to the system.

In some systems, survival does not depend on the detailed management of the society or close governmental control over social processes but is the result of sensitive political response to the forces of change, of flexible adjustment of the structures of the system to meet the pressures of innovation, and of open political processes that allow gradual and orderly development. Much of the Western democratic world has achieved peaceful progress in this way, despite new political philosophies, population increases, industrial and technological innovations, and many other social and economic stresses.

Such evolutionary change is possible when representative institutions provide effective channels for the communication of demands and criticisms to governments that rely upon majority support. The election of legislators and executive officials, competition between political parties, constitutionalguarantees of freedom of speech and press, the right of petition, and many other structures and procedures perform this function in contemporary constitutional democracies. In such systems, social and economic problems are quickly transformed into issues in the open arenas of politics; governments are obliged to shape policies that reflect a variety of pressures and effect compromises among many conflicting demands.petition; British ParliamentPetitioning the British Parliament or government.© UK Parliament Education Service

The representative mechanisms that have produced evolutionary change in Western constitutional democracies are themselves subject to a continuous process of adjustment and mutation. Indeed, representative institutions must develop in ways that reflect social and economic developments in the society or they will lose their legitimacy in the minds of the people. In political systems such as the United States, for example, subtle shifts in the function and relative power of different institutions are continuously being made and, over time, produce entirely new structures and very different patterns of institutional behaviour. It is as a result of this process that the presidency has accumulated a range of new powers that have given it primacy among the branches of American government. This process also explains the growth of administrative agencies that perform both legislative and judicial functions. This process of dynamic adjustment is crucial, for institutions that remain static in a changing society are unable to serve as agencies of evolutionary change.


The study of political change is difficult, for change occurs in many different ways and at many different points in the political system. One may distinguish several major types of change.

Radical Revolution

First are changes of the most fundamental type—transformations not only of the structure of government but of the whole polity. Such change is not limited to political life but transforms also the social order, the moral basis, and the values of the whole society. Drastic change of this kind occurred in the four great revolutions of the modern era—the English Revolution of the 17th century, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Russian Revolution. These movements had the most profound effect on social and political life, permanently altering the beliefs by which men live. Their consequences were felt not only in the societies in which they occurred but also in many other political systems, in which, as a result of their example, revolutions of an equally fundamental character occurred.

Each of these major revolutions was something of a world revolution, for it resulted in a basic change in the ways in which men in all political systems viewed the nature of politics and the purpose of political life. The independence movements in the colonial empires after World War II, for example, were fuelled by those principles of individual liberty and representative government that were once the slogans of 18th-century American and French revolutionaries. Marxist revolutionary concepts emphasizing economic progress and radical social change have shaped the development of many new countries. The continuing impact of such ideas is an example of another way in which fundamental political change occurs. The nature of a political system may be transformed not suddenly or violently in the course of revolution but by the gradual, corrosive influence of ideas and by the accumulating impact of different political philosophies.

Structural Revision

A second type of change involves alterations to the structure of the political system. Such change is not fundamental, in the sense of a basic transformation of the nature of the regime, but it may produce great shifts in policy and other political outcomes. Because the structure of a political system—that is, its formal and informal institutional arrangements—is a major determinant of policy outcomes, it is frequently the target of political action of various kinds. The political activist, the reformer, and the revolutionary share the recognition that the policies of a government may be effectively changed by adjusting the institutional forms through which the government acts. In some systems, structural change has been accomplished by legal means. In the United States, for example, such major institutional reforms as the direct election of the Senate and the limitation on presidential terms were made by constitutional amendment; and in Britain the various reforms of Parliament were accomplished by statute. In other systems, structural changes are often achieved by revolution and other violence.

Change Of Leaders

A third type of political change involves the replacement of leaders. Again, the recognition that to change the personnel of a government may be an effective way of changing government policy prompts many kinds of political action, ranging from election contests to political assassination and various forms of coup d’etat. In some systems the existence of established means of changing political leaderships works to prevent violent types of political action. In the United States the quadrennial contests for the presidency afford a constitutional opportunity to throw the whole executive leadership out of office. At the other extreme, the coup d’etat leads to the abrupt, often violent replacement of national executives. Although it is a type of revolution, the coup d’etat usually does not involve prolonged struggle or popular participation; after seizing office, the principal aim of the leaders of the coup is usually the restoration of public order. The coup d’etat occasionally develops into much more than the replacement of one set of governmental leaders by another and may prove to be the initial stage of a truly revolutionary process—e.g., the coups d’etat that initiated communist rule in Czechoslovakia in 1948 and ended King Farouk I’s regime in Egypt in 1952.

Change Of Policies

Government policy itself may be an important agency of political change. The social and economic policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and the socialist programs implemented by the British Labour Party after 1945 are examples. In both cases, government policies resulted in far-reaching modifications to the functioning of the political system: a vast expansion in the role of government in the economy, the use of taxes to redistribute wealth, an increase in the political influence of organized labour, and the implementation of national programs of social welfare. Major policy change of this type, of course, is often a response to widespread pressures and demands that, if not satisfied by the system, may intensify and lead to various forms of violent political action. At other times, however, policy changes are imposed by a government to achieve the political, social, and economic goals of a single class, of an elite, or of the political leadership itself.

Many important questions remain as to the reasons for change, the ways in which change occurs, and the effects of change. Political scientists are still not completely certain, for example, why some systems have managed to avoid violent political change for considerable periods, while in other systems change is typically accomplished through coups d’etat, revolutions, and other forms of internal warfare. As suggested above, the explanation may have much to do with the existence in countries such as the United States and Great Britain of well-established political institutions that permit peaceful change, the presence in the population of widely shared attitudes toward the government, and the existence of basic agreement on the legitimacy of state authority. Clearly, however, other factors are also involved. Perhaps one of the chief goals of the study of political systems should be to determine as exactly as possible the conditions and prerequisites of those forms of change that permit the peaceful and evolutionary development of human society.D. Alan HeslopThe Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica

LEARN MORE in these related Britannica articles:

newsletter icon

MORE ABOUT Political system

HISTORY AT YOUR FINGERTIPS Sign up here to see what happened On This Day, every day in your inbox!By signing up, you agree to our Privacy Notice.


Assorted References

historical systems

institutions and philosophy

Published by: Eaugrads

Evangelical Alumni Foundation seeks to fulfill "The Great Commandment and The Great Commission" to GOD's great economy. Each of us has great purpose as Sons of God. We are many in one body. Together, we are firmly planted by streams of water to bear fruits in all seasons. We shall not lack no good thing. Deuteronomy 1:11 God's Spiritual Billionaire's! Brief about our founder of Eaugrads: "JESUS"... "His pursuit of us is Relentless, His desire to Fight on our behalf is never ending; Despite the day to day distractions, designed to stop us from reaching our destinies, we can be sure of this... what God starts; He Finishes." Amen! Ministered By Tanya Harris, LLD

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s