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Definition: authoritarianism from The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology

A sociopolitical system based upon the subjugation of individual rights to the authority of the state and its leader(s).


An attitude or trait characterized by the belief that there should be strict adherence and obedience to authority. Here the term is applicable either to those who are in authority or to those subservient to authority. See AUTHORITARIAN PERSONALITY.

Summary Article: Authoritarianism
From Encyclopedia of Governance

The term authoritarianism has been employed in several different contexts. The two most prominent usages will be discussed in this entry: authoritarianism as a style of rule and as a personality type.

Authoritarianism as a Style of Rule

Authoritarianism refers to a style of rule characterized by limited political pluralism, little political mobilization, and few safeguards for individual rights. An authoritarian regime, sometimes called a dictatorship, is often contrasted with a democratic form of government.

The term authoritarianism was created to describe a middle ground between democratic regimes, such as the United States and United Kingdom, and totalitarian regimes, such as Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union in the first half of the twentieth century. Totalitarian regimes use terror to maintain power and completely reorganize social and political life by banning pluralism, mobilizing mass demonstrations of support, and constructing ideologies around charismatic leaders. Authoritarian regimes, by contrast, allow for limited pluralism while banning political mobilization and de-emphasizing ideology and charisma.

Authoritarianism is a broad category, and various subtypes of authoritarian regimes have been identified. Bureaucratic authoritarianism describes various Latin American regimes led by coalitions of military officials and bureaucrats. Sultanism is a type of authoritarianism characterized by extreme patrimonialism, unrestrained personal rule often around a personality cult, and the use of terror and rewards. Competitive authoritarianism is a combination of democracy and authoritarianism, whereby formal democratic institutions are the main way that political authority is obtained, but incumbents often violate rules and employ bribery and harassment.

Several questions dominate the study of authoritarian regimes. Under what conditions do countries successfully transition from authoritarian to democratic regimes? Why do countries backslide from democracy toward authoritarianism? How do authoritarian regimes obtain and maintain legitimacy and power? Are authoritarian regimes more likely to make successful economic transitions than democratic countries are?

Authoritarianism as a Personality Trait

The Authoritarian Personality is a study of prejudice written by Theodor Adorno and his colleagues in 1950 as an effort to explain anti-Semitism during the rise of fascism, communism, and McCarthyism. The authoritarian personality is a particular type of disposition toward authority characterized simultaneously by submissiveness toward leaders above and harshness and aggression toward those below. Additional characteristics of an authoritarian personality include a focus on power relationships and a pessimistic view of human nature. This psychoanalytical, cultural approach to understanding authoritarianism produced numerous tests and measures to study this personality characteristic.

Since its inception, the study of the authoritarian personality has opened doors to the following debates: Can we generalize about antidemocratic personalities (Left or Right)? Are there common psychological characteristics that lead to extremism? What is the relationship between the authoritarian personality and political behavior? Under what conditions will authoritarian predispositions arise? Should authoritarianism be understood as a personality trait rooted in Freudian psychology or a feature of collective in-group/out-group behavior?

    See also
  • Communism; Democratization; Legitimacy; Patrimonialism; Regime

Further Readings and References
  • Adorno, T., et al. (1950). The authoritarian personality. New York: Harper.
  • Linz, J. J. (2000). Totalitarian and authoritarian regimes. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.
  • Regine A. Spector
    Copyright © 2007 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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