This video discusses what regimes are and what principles we use when we evaluate them.  To summarize, regimes are the overall political system in a country, and we assess their quality in different ways depending on regime type.  We evaluate democracies (and democratic institutions) on how accountable, responsive, transparent, and representative they are.  We evaluate dictatorships on how they manage elites, publics, and the military.  We evaluate both types based on how long they last and categorize them by how they choose and transfer power between leaders.

What is a regime?

I use the term regime to mean the overall system of government – democracy or dictatorship.  Scholars will often use more technical definitions — Barbara Geddes sees regimes as groups of linked leaders in a country – for example, but it’s best to follow Philippe Schmitter and Terry Lynn Karl’s view that a regime is a system of governance that determines access to public office.  And one way to think about the distinction is where that regime legitimacy derives from – the people or something else (traditional authority, military power, etc).

The most basic way to evaluate and compare regimes to each other is how long they last – this is called “durability.”  Is a country able to keep the same way of choosing a leader for a long time, or does it change every few years?  The United States is an example of a durable regime – we have had the same basic system and constitution for over 200 years.  Durability doesn’t mean nothing changes – as Huntington argued in Political Order in Changing Societies, institutions need to adapt to new circumstances if they want to persist – but that there is continuity in political institutions even as they reform.

The other commonality to how we look at both democracy and dictatorship is how we classify their sub-categories.  We use the procedures to select and transfer power between leaders to describe them – democracies are presidential or parliamentary; dictatorships might select leaders by birth (as in monarchies) or military rank (in military juntas); parties and managed elections might select leaders (as in party-based dictatorships); or there might not be procedures (as in personalist regimes).

Aside from that, we tend to assess democratic and authoritarian institutions with distinct criteria.

Evaluating democracy

We compare democratic institutions to each other based on how accountable, responsive, transparent, and representative they are.

Accountability means how well citizens are able to hold a person or party responsible for the policies they enact.  This is partly about the procedures for elections (or hiring procedures within a bureaucracy) – is it actually possible to remove someone from office if you disapprove of something they did.  Retrospective theories of voting focus on this – the idea is that voters choose who to vote for based on their records — what those politicians did in the past.

Responsiveness means how well politicians (and bureaucratic agencies) implement the public’s policy preferences in between elections.  Are there channels in place to obtain public input on regulations and legislation?  Do politicians listen to the public when they vote on laws, or do they just do what they think is right and let the voters approve or disapprove on election day?

Transparency is about how the public can get information about their government.  There are three elements to this:

  1. Are rules and regulations written down?  While this is obvious in places like the United States, developing democracies do not always have a bureaucratic tradition and informal networks may determine access to public services or the policy process more than written rules.
  2. Do the media and civil society have access to public documents and policy makers?  Average citizens don’t often look for information on laws and regulations, but rely on the media and interest groups to find and distribute this information.  Regular publication of laws and regulations, FOIA (freedom of information) laws, and protection for whistleblowers help ensure that interested parties can learn what the government is doing.
  3. Finally, transparency today often means e-government – the availability of government documents and government services online.  What do governments make available to citizens online and how easy is it to access that?

Finally, representativeness means how well a government reflects (in terms of seats in parliament or the cabinet) the political preferences of its population.  For example, if 20% of the population votes for a particular political party, a fully representative government would have 20% of the seats in parliament go to that political party.

Different democracies place different emphasis on these values and implement them in different ways.  And sometimes there are tradeoffs between them.  The clearest tradeoff is between accountability and representativeness in a country’s electoral law – its rules for holding elections.  Countries that assign seats in parliament based on the overall proportion of votes a party gets in a national election (like Germany, for example) have very representative governments – the makeup of parliament reflects citizens votes more accurately.  Countries that elect single representatives from geographic districts (like the United States) usually end up with less representative governments.  The clearest example of this is the U.S. presidential election system – the person who wins the most votes at the national level does not necessarily win the election.  Majoritarian systems are, however, better at accountability than proportional systems.  When voters choose a party or a list of candidates, they don’t have a single person they can go to to ask for help from the government (and constituent services are something that parliamentarians do in every country).  And when countries are governed by coalitions, it is harder to know what policies individual parties in that coalition are responsible for, and therefore to base your vote on that. 

Evaluating dictatorship

Dictatorships do not base their rule on popular legitimacy, and so need to be compared using different criteria.  Overall, you want to look at what combination of carrots and sticks – patronage and repression – dictatorships use in managing their elites and their publics.  Elites are people with economic or social power – they are potential rivals to a dictator and he needs their support in order to maintain control.  Elites are most often managed through patronage and cooptation – giving them benefits to support the political system – but repression is also used against them – dissident leaders and defectors from the regime are often arrested or killed. 

And while dictatorships do not base their rule on support from the public, no government can survive with absolutely no support.  Dictators can build public support through clientelism – again giving benefits to supporters – and incorporation – this is creating political parties and other institutions to generate propaganda in support of the leader and channels through which people can publicly demonstrate their support for the regime.  Repression of course is also present, usually in terms of violent crackdowns on protests.

Finally, since all dictators rely on repression to some extent to maintain their power, they need to manage their relationship with the security services, making sure the military and police are well-supplied, but not so powerful that they can overthrow the leader themselves.