Autocracy vs. democracy

Definition & Introduction

Autocracy vs. democracy is a term that is used to compare two forms of government. In short, governing power in an autocracy is concentrated around one individual with limited or no checks and balances on that person’s authority. In contrast, democracies grant governing authority to the people or to governing officials through free elections.

In a previous edition of the President’s Desk Newsletter, Carnegie Council President Joel Rosenthal identified pluralism as one of democracy's essential virtues. This is one of the many differences between autocracy and democracy. The ability for diversity of thought, motivation, lifestyles, and more to coexist within a political body is indispensable to democracy. He goes on to write: "For democracy to be an ethical standard, it must remain open, unfinished, and constantly evolving."

It can be tempting to weigh the pros and cons of both autocracy and democracy, but former Carnegie Council Senior Fellow and current AIEI Board Advisor Jean-Marie Guéhenno argues that "just thinking in the old categories of democracies versus autocracies misses all the new challenges that our institutions have to face today." Learn more about Guéhenno’s reasoning by listening to the podcast below. Explore essays and articles analyzing the state of democracy from Carnegie Council's quarterly Ethics & International Affairs journal and check out other articles and podcasts from Carnegie Council’s experts below.

Why Democracy vs. Autocracy Misses the Point

Jean-Marie Guéhenno & AIEI Senior Fellow Anja Kaspersen

How does the age of data influence existing governance institutions and, crucially, can they keep up? In this Artificial Intelligence & Equality podcast, Anja Kaspersen is joined by Professor Jean-Marie Guéhenno for a thought-provoking conversation about his book The First XXI Century: From Globalization to Fragmentation.

Listen to the podcast

Ethics of Dealing with Authoritarians

How can democracies simultaneously defend human rights and promote open societies while still engaging with leaders from non-democratic states as strategic allies?

Joel Rosenthal joined Chatham House to discuss how democracies and multilateral institutions can use ethics to assess tradeoffs when dealing with illiberal actors.

Watch on YouTube

Democracy vs. Autocracy in 2023

Judah Grunstein & USGE Senior Fellow Tatiana Serafin

Judah Grunstein, editor-in-chief of World Politics Review, analyzes the evolving discourse around autocracy and democracy and why these discussions will continue to be a big story in 2023.

Listen to the podcast

Which activities are most helpful in building a healthy democracy?

See how our network responded

Are Americans Facing an Undemocratic Future?

Jason Stanley & Carnegie Council President Joel Rosenthal

In the wake of the January 6 insurrection, Carnegie Council President Joel Rosenthal spoke with Yale’s Professor Jason Stanley to address the dangerous inflection point that U.S. democracy had reached. Has democracy in the United States bounced back? They discuss how to undo the damage done to U.S. institutions and the rise of nationalism around the world, from India to Brazil to Hungary.

Why is Democracy Worth Fighting For?

Democratic Activist Nathan Law

In a 2021 Global Ethics Day event, former Hong Kong Legislator Nathan Law details why democracy is worth fighting for. He believes democracy is more than just elections and the right to vote, but is also about how we live our lives and respect others choices.

Off-site resources

Autocracy vs. Democracy After the Ukraine Invasion

Has Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sharpened the divide between these ideologies?


The Shifting Global Balance of Autocracy and Democracy

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Varieties of Democracy Institute (V-Dem)


Democracy vs. Autocracy: A Human Rights Perspective

What does Russia’s war against Ukraine say about autocracy and democracy's ability to respond?


The Conflict Between Autocracy and Democracy

Originally published in "The American Journal of International Law"

Access via Jstore