Autocracy, democracy and oligarchy are terms used to define different systems of government. The systems defined by these terms range from a government in which one person makes all decisions to a government in which decisions are made by all people.
Autocracy is “rule by one.” In an autocratic government, one person -- the autocrat -- has all the power and makes all the decisions. There are no laws or constitution that restrain the authority of the autocrat. The people who are governed have no processes, such as elections, through which they can express their desires for how their government operates. The advantages of an autocratic government are that decisions can be made and implemented quickly. However, individual rights are usually ignored and power is often maintained by force. Some autocracies are theocratic governments, in which the ruler claims to have been put in power by a deity.
There are many different forms of democracy, but what makes a democracy different from all other forms of government is the participation of the people in decision-making. In a direct democracy, each individual has a vote in setting laws, rules and policy. In other forms of democracy, such as a republic, the people elect representatives to make decisions on their behalf. Most democracies include a constitution or bill of rights that restrain authority. Rule by law, along with the recognition of individual liberties, are among the benefits of a democratic system of government. However, when everyone has some degree of input in decision-making, the process of reaching a decision can take more time.
In an oligarchy, a few rulers control the government. These rulers gain their power and maintain their authority as a result of their wealth or another form of influence. The oligarch rulers make decisions to benefit themselves financially and with little regard for the wishes or best interests of the people they govern. The oligarch may not be the official ruler of the country but may have close ties to and influence on those who are officially in power. According to Paul M. Johnson of Auburn University’s Department of Political Science, oligarchy “always has a negative or derogatory connotation.”
A nation's government may not fit neatly into any one of the leadership styles described above. Systems are often in flux, and the process of a system transitioning from one type of government to another happens often. One aspect of a government may operate like a democracy, putting power and decision-making in the hands of the people, while another aspect may cater to the wishes of the wealthy or repress freedoms. A government that has traditionally operated as an autocracy may begin allowing citizens to have limited decision-making power by holding a vote, while a government that has traditionally operated as a democracy may begin imposing new limits on particular activities.