Autocracies vs. Democracies. A theoretical approach

Democracies still face threats to their existence today. With autocratic regimes, political power is clearly based upon executive prerogative, meaning a potentially unchecked use of force by police and military, thereby guaranteeing domestic stability through force. In contrast, the political power of democracies is ultimately based upon their power of persuasion; a principle that is often challenged and subverted by opponents of democracy, especially in times of social and economic crisis. Here, a democracy ideally means a constitutional order that guarantees universally applicable, generally formulated, non-retroactive laws while also having the ability to enforce these with sovereign authority, and that furthermore cements the separation of politics and jurisprudence by prohibiting the enactment of excessively vague blanket clauses. What differentiates democracies in practice is the particular way in which the demos is given the power to rule over itself: the resulting organizational rules are not only formal principles, but also the outcome of substantive debates concerning the structures and functions of democracy. The distinctive modus operandi of each democratic system is thus also an expression of a particular understanding of democracy, with its own systemic answers to the central theoretical questions of democracy. Here, this Insight blog will deal with the central question of democratic governance: how the ruling should be related to the ruled, with the answers falling into two ideal types, based on difference or sameness; whereas conflict-oriented democracies advocate a representative system and thereby embrace social heterogeneity, consensus-oriented democracies argue for systems founded on identicalness and thus strive for complete or near-complete homogeneity between the ruling and the ruled.

In the global history of democratization over the past three centuries, there have been many cases of democratized states becoming destabilized through the actions of opponents, both domestic and foreign (e.g. in South America and Southeast Asia), reflecting a constant interplay between democratic expansion and autocratic rollback. The conceptual model of “defective democracy” (Merkel, 2010) makes clear that the drift into autocracy happens gradually and that the dividing line between democracy and autocracy can sometimes be fluid, such as in the cases of exclusive democracy (in which parts of the populace are systematically excluded from the electoral process), enclave democracy (in which constituent groups such as militias, businesspeople and/or the military exercise some political power without the need for democratic legitimacy), illiberal democracy (in which constitutional frameworks are suspended either partially or completely) and delegative democracy (in which political checks and balances have been tipped in favor of a strong executive; ibid., 37ff.). Within the domestic sphere, democracies are faced with extremist forces – such as extreme radical right parties, militias and terrorist organisations – trying to undermine their democratic foundations in order to establish an authoritarian or totalitarian system, while in the international arena, they are confronted by autocratic regimes with antidemocratic intentions.

Accordingly, there exists a complex interplay between democracy and autocracy in which the two models of governance compete not only domestically for sovereign control over a territory and its people, but also internationally between rival states. If the democratization wave theory formulated by Samuel Huntington (Norman, 1991) is extended back through history, it can also be seen that the first democratization wave seen in the European and American bourgeois revolutions of the 18th century began as a reaction to the prevailing undemocratic regimes – largely autocratic ones – that had enjoyed relative stability for centuries (Fukuyama, 2011). The key development that shook the stability of autocracies was the Enlightenment’s posing of the legitimacy question: once asked, it becomes impossible to silence through any means of thought control or physical force – which ultimately explains the steady, albeit slow, proliferation of democratic regimes around the world, while also allowing for the vague expectation that democratic models of governance will eventually prevail in time, even in the face of autocratic alternative systems and illiberal democracies ruled by radical right actors.

Professor Samuel Salzborn is a Senior Career Fellow at CARR and is a Visiting Professor for Research on Antisemitism at the Center for Research on Antisemitism (ZfA) at the Technical University Berlin, Germany. His profile can be found here:

© Samuel Salzborn. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-No Derivatives).


Fukuyama, Francis, The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution (New York, 2011).

Huntington, Samuel P., The Third Wave. Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century, (Norman, 1991)

Merkel, Wolfgang, Systemtransformation: Eine Einführung in die Theorie und Empirie der Transformationsforschung 2nd edition (Wiesbaden, 2010).