Authoritarianism can be broadly defined as a political system in which a specific set of unelected officials possess the authority of the state. Authoritarian systems are different from totalitarian ones, as they allow various degrees of individual freedom. They can take several forms, depending on how the leader(s) have achieved power: aristocracy (inheritance), theocracy (religion), plutocracy (wealth), military rule (force), revolutionary regime (uprising), or meritocracy (merit). Now, in order to determine the pros and cons of any form of governance, the starting premise has to be some broad definition of what is meant by good governance. We suggest that good governance contributes to the harmonisation and development of society as a whole. This implies that those who engage in governance must be concerned with all parts of society and also must perform the tasks of governing well. These two criteria eliminate most forms of authoritarianism, as many of the aforementioned ways of gaining power are in breach of one or both of them. For example, plutocracy can be eliminated not only because wealth does not qualify someone to lead a state, but also because plutocrats cannot govern in the best interests of society as a whole without compromising that what enabled them to be in power in the first place. Aristocracy can be eliminated too, as history amply demonstrates that talents and abilities to govern are not in genes. Authoritarianism based on military might or religion fails the above requirements too[1]. However, there is one authoritarian system that may fulfil the above criteria, namely meritocracy: governance by the meritorious, those who have the experience, wisdom, knowledge or skills relevant to governance. This is different from representative democracy, as it is not based on a popular vote but on some other form of choosing the leaders. For example, in present-day China, officials are selected by an internal competition within the party (previously, in the mandarinate, they were selected through examinations). Some elements of meritocracy exist in most representative democracies: for instance, in the US, Supreme Court judges, who have some legislative power, are appointed, not elected; most members of the upper house of the UK’s Parliament are also appointed using meritocratic principles. The same applies to top civil servants in most countries. Let’s consider the pros and cons of the meritocratic system.


  • Efficiency: meritocracies are typically less deliberative, so they can benefit from a faster decision-making process. For example, the financial crisis in 2008 spread like wildfire through representative democracies but only affected China indirectly. One reason for this was that Western governments could not act fast enough (because most of the banks were private, and because some deliberations and consensual agreements were necessary before taking a particular course of action). In China, where most banks were state controlled and there were fewer deliberations, emergency measures could be implemented virtually overnight.
  • Those who govern can focus on governance rather than spending most of their talents, resources and effort on struggling to be re-elected.
  • Not being hampered by a short-term electoral cycle, meritocrats can focus on long-term goals, rather than just satisfying the immediate desires of the electorate in an attempt to gain or maintain popularity.
  • Meritocracy by definition involves the qualified and experienced. This is not always the case in representative democracy. For example, those in charge of particular departments (e.g. health or education) often do not have any qualifications and experience or knowledge in these fields[2]; even some elected leaders (such as Trump) have no previous experience of elected office.


  • Meritocrats are in danger of becoming a ruling elite, remote from people and not aware of their real problems and needs.
  • If there is no binding feedback system that can secure checks and balances, the flexibility, adaptability and ability of society to evolve is reduced, leading to an unhealthy solidification of social structures.
  • Too much (legislative, executive and judiciary) power may be concentrated in one place, encouraging corruption and other forms of abuse.
  • It is difficult to keep selection criteria and selection processes robust if they are not checked independently (in representative democracies, voters have that role).

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There may be ways to deal with these challenges, but there is a further disadvantage to which authoritarianism of any sort (including meritocracies) is vulnerable. Occasionally, there are authoritarian systems and even benign dictators under whose rule society, by and large, prospers (former Yugoslavia under President Tito, and Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew are possible examples). The trouble is that even successful autocratic systems inevitably stunt political awareness and development, and by doing so, infantilise society. A good autocrat sometimes becomes the nation’s father figure, often with disastrous consequences when he is gone (as in the case of former Yugoslavia). Even if it is possible to secure a smooth transition and continuity of well-chosen meritocrats, political infantilisation is still damaging as society settles for a docile mind in a nanny state, and ceases to take responsibility for itself.

Direct democracy

As with authoritarianism, there are various forms of direct democracy. The earliest practice of so-called deliberative democracy through indicative representation can be traced to ancient Greece, with its random sampling (lottery) system to choose the general assemblies. Late 18th-century township meetings, that brought together American citizens to make decisions, provide a more recent example. The American jury system also draws on this tradition. In fact, the deliberative experiment has been tried here and there across the West – albeit as an advisory, rather than binding, element of governance – notably in Canada, Australia and California (Berggruen & Gardels, 2013, p.69). The most cited case so far of modern deliberative democracy as a form of direct representation is the Citizens’ Assembly. This was convened in the Canadian province of British Columbia in 2004 to review the extant election system and recommend reforms. Those reforms were put forward to a vote in a public referendum, but they fell just short of the required majority at the polls (Berggruen & Gardels, 2013, p.69). However, the Irish citizens’ assembly established in 2016 to consider abortion and some other issues was seen as a “great success”.  It would be a mistake, though, to think that direct democracies crop up only in the West. Kibbutzim in Israel were also organised on the principles of direct democracy. More recently, since becoming a de facto autonomous region in 2013, Rojava in Western Kurdistan, now known as the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, has attempted to adopt direct democracy, but its effectiveness is fogged by the conflict in the region (Wall, 2015, p.103).  Some elements of direct democracy are, in fact, used in most parts of the world. For instance, many countries resort to referendums, some of them, such as Switzerland, frequently. The main advantage of direct democracy is that people participate in and decide their own political destiny; this leads to political maturity, as the populace have to take responsibility for the consequences of their decisions. However, direct democracy is not a panacea. There is a good reason why no country has adopted direct democracy as a sole form of governance. In their book Intelligent Governance for the 21st Century, the philanthropist Nicolas Berggruen and the political journalist Nathan Gardels comment about the state of California, which has come closer to adopting direct democracy than most places in the world:

As is often the case, the extreme reveals the essence. Everyone can see that the experience of unmediated direct democracy in California, where popular initiatives dominate governance, has proven ruinous. This valued venue of public recourse, originally designed to counter the power of the state’s railroad barons in the early 20th century, has become instead the preserve of special interests and short-term populism. As former California Supreme Court Justice Ron George asks rhetorically: ‘Has the voter initiative now become the tool of the very special interests it was intended to control, and an impediment to the effective functioning of the true democratic society?’ (Berggruen & Gardels, 2013, p.32)

Here, briefly, are some of the possible disadvantages of direct democracy:

  • It is easier for those most skilled in rhetoric or media usage to sway decisions in their favour (the Brexit referendum being, arguably, an example).
  • The majority is, by definition, in the middle of the bell curve, so their choices are likely to be mediocre, average choices rather than necessarily the best ones.
  • The tyranny of the majority is a serious risk.
  • It is difficult to organise on a large scale (even the ancient Greeks had to resort to a lottery as not everybody could participate at the same time – and Athens was then only a small town by today’s standards).
  • It is slow and not very efficient. Some decisions need to be made faster than deliberation within the concept of direct democracy would allow.
  • It is hard to balance short-term interests with long-term goals if additional mechanisms are not in place.
  • Referendums can be a great democratic tool, but are not good for very complex decisions or for the myriad small day-to-day ones that need to be made. Also, outcomes can be influenced by who formulates the question and how it is worded.

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Indirect (representative) democracy

“What better way to enslave a man than to give him the vote and tell him he’s free.”

Albert Camus

Indirect democracy sits in between authoritarianism and direct democracy. It can even be called elected authoritarianism, as the citizens do not govern directly but instead have a chance to choose, usually once every four or five years, who will govern instead of them. In between those elections, it is not easy for citizens to influence policy or hold the government accountable. This is the dominant model in most countries nowadays for a good reason: indirect democracy manages to avoid the major shortcomings of both authoritarianism and direct democracy. It secures (at least in theory) the participation of all and yet it enables relative efficiency (making many decisions in sufficient time). However, it too has a number of shortcomings.

  • Short-term bias: most democratic systems are based on a short electoral cycle –so politicians, being elected for a limited, relatively brief time (in comparison to the lifespan of an average country or society) focus chiefly on short-term goals. Hardly any politician is prepared to invest in projects that will pay dividends after he or she is gone. Short-termism is also encouraged among voters, especially in consumer democracies, where the media and the market steer behaviour towards immediate gratification (Berggruen & Gardels, 2013, p.32).
  • Bias towards individual interests over common ones: representative democracy is based on the assumption that an individual’s interests coincide with those of society as a whole. However, this may not always be the case. For example, society benefits from investing in a good education for all young people, but voters without children (or those with grown-up children) may have other priorities. The one-person, one-vote system encourages the tendency of individuals to fall back on self-interest when considering public issues. The renowned political philosopher John Rawls (1921–2002), among many, doubted that a just society could be sustained when the uninformed individual voter acts in his or her own self-interest instead of in the common interest.
  • A structural bias in favour of interest groups: as a rule of thumb, the larger the number of individuals who would benefit from the collective good, the smaller the share of the gains to the individual undertaking action in the group’s interest. In other words, in the absence of selective incentives, the incentive for group action diminishes as the size of the group increases, so large groups are less likely to act in their common interest than small ones. The logic is quite different when individuals are lobbying for a small group interest, as it may accrue greater individual benefits to them. This implies that there is a structural bias: those who wish to bend the system in favour of narrow interests are willing to invest more effort in such actions. That bias easily outweighs any inclination the average citizen may have to prevent it from happening. So, in the long term, the governments of stable nations become progressively less representative and more under the sway of small interest groups. Things are, of course, more complex as there are some ‘hidden’ incentives with large groups such as a sense of belonging (e.g. nationalism). Nevertheless, this point still carries great weight.
  • A lack of participation: many citizens indifferently abstain from elections as they feel that their voice is insignificant in the sea of a wider electorate and their vote makes no difference. This is especially the case with the so-called ‘first past the post’ electoral system: in the UK, for example, all general elections this century have had a turnout of less than 70%, so effectively one potential voter in every three does not participate.
  • Choosing who rather than what: by and large, indirect democracies are about who rather than what. Individuals and parties lay out their policies before an election, but they are not bound to stick to them, and they often don’t. There are no sanctions if they don’t – that would be impractical, as politicians need to have a free hand to act if circumstances change (this is, of course, not always the reason for breaking manifesto pledges, but it can always be used as a justification). Moreover, many voters are not engaged sufficiently to scrutinise the policies of each party, and make their choice on the basis of the extent to which they like the party leaders or other representatives. So, votes are often cast because of who rather than what, and who often depends on some characteristics that are irrelevant to what – such as image. If somebody is not a political pundit, it is tempting to go with the flow or vote according to superficial impressions and imperfect heuristics. The 2019 general election in the UK is a good example: when voters who expressed strong disapproval of the Labour party leader at that time, Jeremy Corbyn, were presented with his policies, many strongly approved.
  • Uninformed choices: democracy relies on well-informed voters. But modern democracies are so complex, and people’s lives so busy, that the majority of citizens simply lack sufficient knowledge to make truly informed decisions. Most voters instinctively know that a large personal investment in becoming aware of the details of political life yields a poor individual return. In addition, there is a segment of the electorate that finds it hard to grasp the complexities and nuances of some issues. If all this is taken into account, it should not come as a surprise that many voters do not make rational choices and are even prone to denying facts if they contradict their emotionally charged beliefs.
  • A bias towards mediocrity: another assumption on which democracy is based is that quantity produces quality, but this is not always the case. Based on his experimental work, Professor David Dunning, a psychologist at Cornell University, believes that people can rarely accurately judge competence that is higher than their own: “very smart ideas are going to be hard for people to adopt, because most people don’t have the sophistication to recognize how good an idea is”. If there is some truth in this, democracies rarely or never elect the best leaders, as the majority simply cannot recognise that these leaders are indeed the best.
  • It does not encourage social development: representative democracy has the tendency to please people as they are, rather than foster their development. To get a large number of votes, politicians appeal to the lowest common denominator and promise short-term gratification. This inhibits and sometimes even reverses the development of society as a whole.
  • Susceptibility to propaganda: PR companies, by the admission of the ‘father of public relations’, Edward Bernays (1891–1995), are in fact propaganda machines, and ever since their appearance in the early 20th century have been used to influence voters. This brings us to a challenge to representative democracies that is so important that it needs to be examined in more detail.


How do you privatise public services and institutions (such as schools, hospitals and transport) in a democracy when the majority of people benefit from them and it is easy to grasp that not having to generate extra profit to pay shareholders must be, at least in principle, better than having to do so? To persuade a sufficient number of people to agree with such a move, or at least not prevent it, manipulation needs to play a part. The blueprint in these cases is, first, to underfund the targeted public service or institution, and then to burden it with excessive bureaucracy to make it appear inefficient. This is reinforced by a media sympathetic to the cause of privatisation that fuels the belief that the public service is failing people (usually singling out a few individual cases of bad experiences, which are bound to happen when millions of people use the service). When public opinion turns against the service, privatisation is offered as a solution. But this is, of course, not all. Let’s consider some other forms of manipulation:

Diversions: diverting people to issues on the political margins that are emotionally charged, such as abortion, sexuality or religion. This requires three steps:

  1. Amplify the importance and emotions of an issue: find an issue that stokes emotions in your target group and exaggerate its importance.
  2. Encourage black-and-white thinking: associate yourself (or your party) with what your target group wants / likes about that issue, and your opponent with what they fear / dislike; the simpler, the better (facts or reasoning can be usually discarded, as wants and likes operate on an emotional level).
  3. Make an associative link between that issue and other issues so that it seems as if they must go together, even if they are unrelated. To avoid cognitive dissonance (contradictory perceptions for which we have low tolerate), many people will support you on other politically central issues even when they go against their own interests (e.g. you may start raging against abortion in front of “pro-life” supporters and carry on by promoting cuts to public services).

Attention can also be diverted from real issues by finding scapegoats, such as Jews, Muslims, immigrants, the gay community, and so on. When people feel that they cannot beat the source of unfairness or oppression, they project their sentiments onto those they think they can beat (as a rule, the weaker and/or more vulnerable). This is not unlike the reaction of a child who is hit by their father, and then ‘makes it even’ by hitting their younger sibling. Of course, this is just a diversion, but it provides an opportunity to vent frustration and creates an illusion that something is being done, so it is heavily exploited by some political figures.

Bribery: it is not uncommon for the electorate to be bribed by the dangling of a small carrot. For example, a former president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was virtually offering a small amount of cash to those who pledged to vote for him. A less blatant way of doing this, but one more common in the West, is an electoral pledge to reduce taxes; this seems attractive to many, but often leads to an increase in the national debt that needs to be repaid with interest – which means that all but the very wealthy, in fact, lose more than they gain in the long run.

The distortion of information: this can also take several forms, such as exaggerating something or taking it out of context, inserting one false claim into a number of plausible pieces of information, or making unverifiable claims (as the ‘weapons of mass destruction’ that did not exist were used to gain support for the invasion of Iraq). This all leads to some voters not just being uninformed but, in fact, being ill-informed. With the pronouncements of Donald Trump and the rise of fake news both online and from the likes of Fox News, this has now reached levels unprecedented since the days of Joseph Goebbels.

The bottom line is that there is an imbalance in representative democracy: the amount of money, effort and time that those who want to use, misuse and abuse the imperfections and limitations of the system as well as of individual voters always exceeds the amount of money, effort and time that individuals can afford to guard themselves against such manipulations. It is not surprising that there is a rise in dissatisfaction with democracy.

A concluding comment

It seems that no single political system is perfect. However, as all those mentioned have some pros and some cons, another option may be worth considering – combining them. There is no reason why we cannot try to make a synthesis of the good aspects of these systems and dismiss their weak sides. In fact, many countries already combine some of their elements in various ways. It would be impossible to consider all the examples here, so we will focus on just one: the US. The US makes a suitable choice not only because it is the dominant global political power right now, but also because a combination of the systems discussed above was embedded in its political structures from the very beginning – not by accident or organically, but through deliberate choice. An analysis of the benefits this brought, as well as what went wrong and why, can be instructive when contemplating a political synthesis.

[1] A benevolent ruler with wise advisers might work, but it is always a hostage to fortune.
[2] For example, UK’s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley (appointed in 2018), admitted she didn’t understand basic things about NI politics before being appointed.

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