Forms of Government

There are many different forms of government in the world. The government of the United States has several different forms of government. While most people think of the government we have as a "democracy," there are many other terms that my be used to describe our government.

One method of describing government is based on where sovereignty lies. If all of the sovereignty lies in a central government, it is called a unitary form. If the member states give up a small amount of their power to a central government but retain their sovereignty, it is called a confederal form of government or a confederation. If the member states give up most of their sovereignty to a central government but keep a small amount of sovereignty for themselves, it is called a federal form of government. The United States has a federal form of government because sovereignty is shared by the national government and the state governments.

Another way to define government is based on where the executive (law enforcing) and legislative (law making) functions are located. If the executive and legislative functions are in the same branch of government, it is called a parliamentary system. If the executive and legislative functions are in separate branches, it is called a presidential system. The United States has a presidential system.

Another way to define government is based on the number of decision makers in the government. If no one is making the decisions in government (everyone is free to do as he or she pleases) it is called anarchy. If only one person makes all the decisions in government, it is called an autocracy. In an oligarchy, a small group makes all the decisions in government. When everyone is given the opportunity to participate in government, it is called a democracy. In a pure or true democracy, everyone participates in the decision making process. In a representative democracy, people choose individuals to make decisions for them. The United States is a representative democracy.

A fourth way to define government is how the leaders get their positions. If the leader gets his or her position by hereditary means, it is called a monarchy. If the leaders are elected as they are in the United States, it is called a republic.

A final method of defining government is based on whether there are effective constraints on the government. If there are effective constraints on the government, it is called a constitutional form of government. If there are no effective constraints on government, it is called a dictatorship.

Government in the United States may thus be accurately described as federal, presidential, constitutional, republic or representative democracy. Each term describes a different aspect of the government.