picture of the US Capital building

Comparative Politics and Human Rights

picture of the US Capital building
The Capital. Source: colincalvert, Creative Commons.

At the time of this writing, 2 February 2017, the United States of America is a liberal democracy. Equal representation in government due to frequent, fair and free elections, and governmental accountability are arguably some of the guiding maxims shaping and molding the relationship between American citizens and their government.  Democracy, as publicly educated schoolchildren are taught, is a representative government operating under the highest ideals of freedom and security.  In addition to liberal democracies, what other forms of government exist?  How do they operate?  How do states of different regimes interact?  And, most importantly, how are universal human rights promoted or impeded by different governmental regimes?

The function and structure of government has been fiercely debated for thousands of years and, indeed, there are many differing opinions on the “perfect” form of governmental regime. Regimes should, according to most theorists, provide a combination of freedom, security, and equality for its citizens (McCormick, 2007). Governments are systems by which a state rations and applies power, whereas regime describes the overall type of government that is in place. The term state–an interchangeable term for nation or country, generally utilized by political scientists and internationalists–will be used throughout this blog in the same manner.

On the international level, states must possess authority and sovereignty. Authority is the ability to exert power and control over its citizens while sovereignty is the ability to act free of outside influence from other states. Due to the nature of international order, including the existence of the UN, many scholars believe the era absolute authority and sovereignty of states has come to a close.  Political theorists now refer to states as having relative authority and sovereignty, as the UN and other global institutions now have more and more influence on the conduct of states around the world (McCormick, 2007).  What is becoming increasingly clear is that the impact of different governmental regimes is no longer confined to just the administration and its citizens. Globalization, the description of increasing interdependence and influence of international state and non-state actors on one another, has supported the premise that regimes can and do affect other regimes both regionally and globally (O’Neil, 2007).

A regime operationalized is the way in which a state attempts to promote freedom, and/or equality, and/or security domestically for its citizens and internationally through relations with other states (O’Neil, 2007). Regimes types are labeled based on which of the primary government functions–freedom, equality, security–the regime promotes the most.  A regime promoting freedom, for example, is more likely to be a liberal democracy rather than a regime promoting equality at the expense of freedom (i.e. communism; O’Neil & Rogowski, 2006).  Regime types vary according to their respective levels of freedom, equality, and security; the respective levels of these three factors trickle down to influence the lives of the citizens in any given state.  Interdisciplinary research in psychology, anthropology, political science, and international relations shows a society’s cultural values may be an extension of its governmental structure; therefore, regime and “national personality” (a form of assessing culture) are linked in this way.  What has not been definitively proven, however, is the directionality of this relationship: does culture affect regime or does regime affect culture?  Government regimes all lie on a continuum: we may think of totalitarianism to be the most oppressive, and liberal democracy to be the most faily representative and accountable.  Other forms of government, such as authoritarianism, communism, socialism, and tribalism, all lie on this continuum as well.  For the purposes of this blog, the concept of human rights in society will be compared to three regime types: totalitarian regimes, authoritarian regimes, and liberal democracies. By investigating the promotion or degradation of human rights in each of these three regimes, scholars and laypeople alike can better understand the relationship between human rights and government. While most of the blog posts on the Institute for Human Rights features a ‘bottom-up’ modality of human rights advocacy, this paper will examine the opposite approach: ‘top-down’.

a picture of shackles
Shakles. Source: Heather Katsoulis, Creative Commons.

Totalitarian Regimes

What form of regime would arise if an ideological extremist exerted absolute control over a state?  This is totalitarianism (O’Neil, 2007).  Pure totalitarian regimes have been rare throughout human history, with some recent examples including Hitler and his Nazi ideology, Stalin and his Communist ideology, and Kim Jong Il and his cult of personality.  Totalitarian states have a small group of leaders, led by one individual with an absolute mandate, dictating every way of life for its citizens. Totalitarian regimes rule with fear, violence, mechanisms of repression, and oftentimes isolate the state and its citizens from the influence of outside communication and interference (O’Neil, 2007).  These regimes are guided, as previously stated, by an ideology that governs all ways of life for the state’s citizens; this ideology is part of the triad of totalitarianism, also including the state party having hegemonic control over the military-police force and industry / production in the state (O’Neil, 2007).  Ideology, the marriage of party and law enforcement, and the dictation of culture all comprise the triad, which aids in the efficacy of the totalitarian regime to exert control. This triad is the main arm by which totalitarian regimes repress its subjects. The goal of totalitarian regimes is the spread of its ideology throughout the world, dominion over one state is typically not sufficient.  Totalitarianism is seen as the ‘lowest on the scale’ in terms of personal freedom. Totalitarian regimes, such as North Korea, overemphasize security and grossly divert the national budget towards the military and defense.

A hallmark of the totalitarian regime is its quest for pure ideological control from the top down. To again refer to the North Korean case, upon the death of Kim Jong-il, the North Korean people were required to enter a period of intense mourning until his successor could ascend to the throne. During the time of mourning, North Korea was considered a ‘necropolis’, a term used when the leader of a nation-state is actually a deceased individual.  Kim Jong-un assumed the supreme leader position and North Korea resumed its totalitarian tendencies.  The totalitarian government dictates the culture of the state often using manufactured fear, secret police, and a controlled public media/propaganda machine.

Authoritarian Regimes

Authoritarian regimes are often secretive and therefore difficult to study.  In contrast to totalitarian regimes, where the leader or party in control touts the political clout of leadership, authoritarian leaders understand the power of secrecy in maintaining control.  Authoritarian governments can take many forms- on paper, that is.  Maintaining a visage of functioning democratic ideals (this concept will be visited later) is important to many authoritarian leaders, as the international community tends to forgo prosecuting and punishing democratic states.  Authoritarian regimes are operationally defined by a small loci of power (either by one leader, a military junta, or party leaders) controlling many aspects of live for the citizens of the state.  Like totalitarianism, authoritarianism is utterly non-democratic in practice (regardless if they hold ‘elections’; O’Neil, 2007).  Indeed, part of the insidiousness of dictators controlling an authoritarian regime is their use of fake elections to make the appearances of a democratic transfer or retention of power for leadership. Authoritarian regimes share many similarities with totalitarian regimes; however, authoritarianism typically does not include an ideology or philosophy, or the need for leaders to spread ideology throughout the world (O’Neil & Rogowski, 2006). Violence, repression, lack of free speech, and the need for an ‘enemy’–whether foreign or abroad–is characteristic of authoritarian regimes.

The mechanisms by which an authoritarian leader retains control may be divided into discrete categories: by force, by culture, and by capital.  Authoritarian dictators can and will use their police force and military capabilities at will to depose dissidents and quash rebellion (O’Neill, 2007).  In the case of violent repression, the international community may elect to step in, and this threat is not lost on the savvy dictator. Therefore, other means of repression have been commonplace in authoritarian regimes.  The subtle use of cultural and societal mores as an extension of the government has been well documented, and the term ‘authoritarian’ has entered the common lexicon to refer to any personality or culture embodying the pursuit of power and control at the expense of others (McCormick, 2007; O’Neil, 2007; O’Neil & Rogowski, 2007).  Again, the security of a state and its leaders is championed by the elimination of citizens’ freedom. Human rights, similarly to authoritarianism, is typically in dire straits under the influence of an authoritarian leader.

Liberal Democratic Regimes

Finally, the last regime type explored in this blog is the liberal democracy–whereby a state’s representatives are elected through free, fair, and frequent elections by eligible citizens (O’Neil, 2007).  Liberal democracies take several forms: the presidential system (found in the United States), the parliamentary system (in the UK), and a semi-presidential system (France; McCormick, 2007).  Unlike the previous two types of regimes, democracies attempt to provide citizens with freedom, equality, and security alike (O’Neil, 2007).  An important caveat here: in democracy, freedom is typically more championed than equality; the reverse would be true in a communist or socialist regime. Liberal democracies typically enact policies allowing for citizens to allow more personal choice in their lives (freedom) rather than policies that ‘level the playing field’ (equality).  All liberal democracies feature policies promoting both freedom and equality to a certain extent (O’Neil, 2007).  Liberal democracies have recently been touted as the ‘ideal’ government due to its representative nature; however, problems exist in democracies just like in any form for government.  As political parties have risen in ascendancy, as a form of power consolidation within democracies, beleaguered by petty power grabs and comparatively low-level corruption, many voters in liberal democracies have expressed discontent with their representing parties (How strong are the institutions of liberal societies, 2016).  The Economist recently published a critique of modern liberal democracy, importing its readers the dangers of populism, political party influence, and degradation of the fair and public media as assaults on the fundamental institutions of democracy.

Liberal democracy is built upon ideal of citizens wielding power over the state, as opposed to the unbridled conglomeration of power in totalitarian regimes.  Ideals such as protection of the public sphere (whereby knowledge and information is shared freely and publicly among all persons), a reciprocally deterministic relationship between citizens and government (i.e., representatives being held accountable to their constituents), and the enshrinement of human rights all clearly and concisely comprise the blueprint of democracy.  Liberal democracies represent not only a regime type, but also the synthesis between political institutions and moral thinking itself.  Universal ethical imperatives, such as those outlined in the UN and its many treaties, policies and protocols, are the foundation for human rights.  Liberal democracies have embraced human rights as staple of their political culture.  The word ‘citizen’ is used with intention here because democracies have citizens. Repressive governments are said to have subjects.

Comparative Politics and Human Rights

This blog post is the first of several elucidating the connections between comparative politics and the protection of human rights.  The comparative analysis of regimes often attempts to provide easy-to-understand, distinct, and discrete forms of government, such as totalitarianism, authoritarianism, and democracy.  In reality, governments and regimes exist in a world of gray, a space between these clear definitions.  Democracies use torture.  Totalitarian regimes care for the elderly.  Authoritarian leaders sometime start their reign genuinely advocating for the rights of repressed persons.  A lesson to be learned from this analysis is not to classify regimes and governments as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, for exercising more judgement in that regard could alienate populations and incite leaders to violence. Given this suspension of judgement, the study of human rights’ relationship to regime will help scholars and laypersons alike understand what, if any, threats to their rights exist in the world around them.

Concluding this paper is a word of caution to global citizens, but especially those living under the regime of liberal democracy. A term mentioned above, the public sphere, refers to the ability for any and all members in a state to come together and freely share information (especially knowledge from science, art, and religion) for the goal of political change and debate. An analogy would be the Forum used in Ancient Greece. The public sphere today includes popular social media and the press (whether print or online). The role of the free press in particular has been greatly threatened and trivialized in many states around the world, including liberal democracies such as the United States. It is through the press and other non-governmental actors the tangible effects of the regime are made public. To threaten and attack institutions such as free press is to directly threaten the mechanism by which democracy is held accountable. Without a platform for public discourse, the public sphere is limited in its access of information: imagine a library with no books or internet. To publicly call and shame a government for human rights violations is one of the most important mechanisms by which governments are held accountable. In a post-facts world, the truth about your government does matter.



How strong are the institutions of liberal societies? (2016). The Economist (Online), Retrieved from http://fetch.mhsl.uab.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/1837417012?accountid=8240

McCormick, J. (2007).  Comparative Politics in Transition (5th. Ed.)  Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.

O’Neil, P. H. (2007).  Essentials of Comparative Politics (2nd Ed.).  W. W. Norton & Company: New York, NY.

O’Neil, P. H. & Rogowski, R. (2006).  Essential Readings in Comparative Politics (2nd Ed.).  W. W. Norton & Company: New York, NY.