A democratic society makes a clear distinction between state and society and there is a constitutional limitation on the power of the state. This consists of demarcation of activities as those, which the state is well adapted to perform, and those, which it cannot perform and hence should not interfere, in such activities.
There exist a number of institutions, which keep an eye on the functioning of state to ensure that the state does not overstep its limits. The Fundamental rights in the Indian Constitution, Judiciary and Press are an example of the limits imposed on the activities of the state. Authoritarian government represents a fusion of state and society an entire social system in which politics profoundly affects the whole range of human activities and associations. Thus an authoritarian government accepts no limitation on the amount or kind of coercion it may use to achieve its ends. It can execute exile or place people in the labor of prison camps without any restraint.
Hence authoritarian power is unlimited in scope. It is all-embracing. The government asserts the right to control and regiment every phase of life. In a democratic society power is distributed among plurality of groups. There exist independent (emphasis on independent) professional associations, trade unions, business organizations and religious institutions like Churches, Mosques and political parties. These institutions keep each other in check thus protecting political freedom. The democratic society encourages competition among political parties and they inhibit monopolies of power. In authoritarian societies there tends to be near total centralization of power in the hands of few.
Authoritarianism does not permit plurality of parties in state. There exists one official political party organization. It plays an important role in strengthening the top leaders. The party is a training ground for future leaders and administrators. The state has an army of volunteers who observe the population and report subversive activities. In democratic societies the media like TV, radio and the press tend to be independent of government and there exists freedom to criticize. Dissidence is permitted. In authoritarian states the government takes over the entire public communication system and means of media like T.V, radio, cinema and publication of books, magazines and maintains monopoly in production of cultural products (songs, videos, festivals, etc.). The prohibition of media stifles any opposition. The government filters out anything that might create unfavorable attitudes to their power.
Democratic government is characterized by emphasis on autonomy of individuals and subsystems. There is a greater tolerance for individual and organizational opposition. The right to participate in and to oppose the government is a hallmark of democratic society. Cultural organizations, pressure groups, political parties, trade union actively seek to influence the government. The development of autonomy threatens the authoritarian regime. They try to establish control over organized groups. They do not permit organizations like trade unions, youth clubs and political parties to become powerful. The loyalty to state is above loyalty to family and friends. Government controlled youth leagues; trade unions and other organizations have multiplied and flourished under authoritarian systems.
So-called mass organizations are instituted and controlled from above to mobilize people in courses of action desired by the ruling elite and to prevent the development of independent groups and opinion. An important feature of democratic government is rule of law and equality before law. Thus the leaders and the officials are not permitted to take arbitrary decisions and the law of the land equally governs all the individuals irrespective of their status.
However an authoritarian regime is characterized by arbitrary exercise of power especially by police and paramilitary forces because authoritarian regimes depend on the extensive use of arbitrary police power. They are often referred to as police state. In a democracy political leaders rely more on persuasion and less on coercion.
The legitimacy of government depends on the popular support. Thus any attempt at coercion would mean antagonizing the public opinion and loss of power in the next elections. However authoritarian regimes rely on coercive methods to root out opposition and dissent. The Nazi concentration camps and Siberian labor camps in Stalin’s Russia are classic examples of repressive control in an authoritarian regime. The nature of control in a democracy is reciprocal while the government controls the public through bureaucracy but the government’s policies are not unilaterally decided. Often there are discussions, negotiations and bargaining of policy issue between the government and various pressure groups. This is because the survival of the government itself depends on popular control.
In authoritarian regime the control is unilateral and the government relies on techniques of mass indoctrination and wins support among the people. There is hardly any effort towards accommodation of various interest groups. The freedom of speech and expression in articulating the grievances leads to lesser violent conflicts in the democratic set-up. While in authoritarian regimes the absence of legitimate means of expressing dissent leads to violent revolutions and movements.
Pluralism: Functionalists view the state as having arisen out of the basic needs of the social group. To protect themselves from oppressors, people formed a government and gave it the monopoly on violence. The risk is that the state can turn that force against its own citizens. Therefore people must find a balance between having no government which would lead to anarchy, a condition of disorder and violence and having a government that protects them from violence, but that also may turn against them.
When functioning well the state is a balanced system that protects its citizens both from one another and from government. Functionalists say that pluralism, a diffusion of power among many special-interest groups, prevents any one group from gaining control of the government and using it to oppress the people. This system, known as checks and balances, was designed to ensure that no one branch of government dominates the others.
A pluralist society has many groups such as women, men, racial, ethnic groups as well as broad categories as the rich, middle class and poor. No group dominates. Rather as each group pursues its own interests, other groups that are pursuing theirs balance it.
To attain their goals, groups must negotiate with one another and make compromises. This minimizes conflict. These groups have political muscle to flex at the polls; politicians try to design policies that please as many groups as they can. This according to functionalists makes the political system responsive to the people and no one-group rules.