Define and provide examples of different forms of government, including direct democracy, representative democracy, republic, monarchy, oligarchy, and autocracy.

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Democracy Index by country, 2014
Democracy Index by country, 2014
For more on why the United States is classified as a democratic government, see United States History I.13

Defining Democracy, from the Museum of Australian Democracy

Types of Electoral Systems from the World Policy Institute.

For more information, see Democracy: Electoral Systems from the same organization.

Governments can be classified into many different types.

The CIA's list of different forms of government
World Map of Systems of Government by Country

Screen Shot 2017-02-21 at 10.27.35 AM.pngMarch of Democracy. See 4,000 years of democracy in 90 seconds.

Direct Democracy

Political decision making and control is done by all the citizens who choose to participate.
2016 town meeting in Alford, Massachusetts

"A form of democratic government whereby citizens have the right to participate in decision making through referenda on legislative initiatives. Direct democracy can exist in parallel to representative democracy, for example, where ballot initiatives allow citizens to vote on legislative initiatives, or replace representative democracy. "
  • EXAMPLE: New England Town Meeting
    • A New England town meeting is a legislature of citizens, for citizens, and by citizens. The fact that each citizen of the town is also a legislator makes the New England town meeting a direct democracy.
    • Town meeting democracy is not representative democracy.
    • In a New England town meeting, citizens come together and make laws face-to-face. Budgets are adjusted, passed, or defeated. Officers are elected. Town property is bought or sold. Taxes are levied. This is done legislatively under rules of procedure designed to protect minorities and to insure that the process is orderly and predictable.
Multimedia.png Click here to see archival footage of a Vermont town meeting in 1950. Town meetings in many New England towns operate much the same today.

Representative Democracy

Chamber of the House of Burgesses, Virginia
Chamber of the House of Burgesses, Virginia

Political decision making and control is done by representatives elected by the people who have the responsibility of acting in the people's interest, but not always according to their wishes.
"A form of democratic government whereby citizens’ interests are represented by elected officials in open elections. Representatives act in the interests of their electors, either by bringing together electors’ views, or through personal initiative and independence between elections."
  • EXAMPLE: United States, France, United Kingdom, India

The House of Burgesses was the first legislative assembly in the American colonies, and was a leading model of democracy coming into the modern era.

For more, see House of Burgesses from Mt. Vernon website

womens history.jpgOver 70 countries have have had women leaders, many of them representative democratic countries.


"A political system in which a country is ruled by law, has representative government, and is democratic in nature." A republic has a head of state who is not a monarch, often a president. There are a number of different kinds of republic including parliamentary, federal or democratic republics.

Although it is sometimes used interchangeably with representative democracy, republic is vague enough that a number of more authoritarian states are called republics including Iran and China. To see more about the difference between these terms, see this article.
  • EXAMPLES: United States, France, Germany, India

Cicero addressing the senate during the Roman Republic

"A form of government in which political power belongs largely to one ruler, generally called a king or queen, who receives his or her position by claim of divine or inherited right. "

Map icon.pngMeet the World's Other 25 Royal Families, Washington Post (July 23, 2013)

Constitutional monarchy describes a state in which the monarch does not exercise political power.
Queen Elizabeth II, 2007
Queen Elizabeth II, 2007

  • EXAMPLE: United Kingdom, Sweden, Japan

Absolute monarchy describes a state in which the monarch has ultimate authority and exercises political power.

womens history.jpgClick here for a short list of great female monarchs along with a small biography about each of them.
  • Click here to read a Washington Post article that shows a map of which of the world's monarchies allow female royal succession.


A form of government where a select few, usually considered the "ruling class," holds all of the political power. Oftentimes this ruling class distinction is economic in nature; for example, some consider free-market capitalism in the United States to be oligarchic as a result of massive campaign funding from large corporations. Sometimes referred to as an aristocracy.
  • EXAMPLE: Russia, Cuba (rather ironic examples, as communism was supposed to fight this very same form of government)

Multimedia.pngClick here for a link to a video that makes the case that the United States is an oligarchy, not a democracy.

Presidente de Chile Don Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, 1974
Presidente de Chile Don Augusto Pinochet Ugarte, 1974


A form of government where power is held by one person.
  • EXAMPLE: Modern totalitarianism (note: totalitarian governments are not autocracies by nature as some are ruled by a collective leadership), North Korea

Difference between totalitarian regime and dictatorship:
- Regime: wide focus on control of political, social, and cultural aspects of a society.
- Dictatorship: narrow focus on political control.


A form of government where power is held by a religious group, and where the law of the land is often dictated by the tenets of the religion in power. Theocracy has historically been a powerful force in the Middle East for centuries, manifesting itself most fully after the Arab Conquests and during the long-lasting Ottoman Empire.
Vladmir Putin & Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Vladmir Putin & Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

womens history.jpgIn Iran, Sharia law under a theocracy has had negative impacts on women's social and legal status. Since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 women have made progress.

The British Parliamentary Political System

The Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is the supreme legislative body in the United Kingdom and British overseas territories.
The Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is the supreme legislative body in the United Kingdom and British overseas territories.

Definition of a Parliamentary System

"British General Election Briefing," by Ben Schott in the The New York Times, April 18, 2010 (Week in Review, p. 11) makes the following points about British electoral system which is known as a parliamentary democracy.
  • In selecting Parliament, voters choose a candidate by handwriting a cross on ballot, the candidate with most votes wins a seat, and the party with the most seats forms the government.
    • Members of Parliament shifts according to population; 650 members were elected in 2010.
  • England has 533 members; Scotland 59, Wales 40, and Northern Ireland 18.
    • Prime Ministers are chosen by the Monarch from members of Parliament. This is usually a formality as the Queen asks the leader of the party that has won the most votes to form a government.
  • Parliaments cannot exist for more than 5 years. There are no minimum electoral terms and Prime Ministers are free to call for an election at any time. However, the Prime Minister cannot call for an election, but must ask the monarch to dissolve Parliament.

Agregateur_Poietique.gifClick here for USG.2.5 which has important speeches throughout US history
Multimedia.png This video may help you understand some of the different forms of government.
    • This video can also help you to understand different world governments even more.

Link to online flash cards that review different types of government.


Frank M. Bryan
author of Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How It Works