Skip to main content


A state is a political community occupying a specific territory that claims sovereignty or independence in the exercise of power over the people of its territory. The state or nation-state is the basic political unit of the international community. The United Nations is an international organization that includes 191 states or nation-states. A state may also refer to the subordinate political units of a federal system, such as the 50 states of the United States of America.

The state includes all the political or governmental institutions that collectively exercise legitimate power over the people in a particular territory. More than half the states or nation-states of the world today can realistically claim to have crossed the threshold to democracy. They have met the minimal standards by which a democracy is distinguished from a non-democracy.

Among the most unfree and non-democratic states of the world today are the few remaining communist regimes, such as China, Cuba, North Korea, and Vietnam. Other prominent examples of unfree and non-democratic states are Burma (Myanmar), Guinea, Syria, and Zimbabwe. Individual dictators or a single political party rule these states autocratically or despotically with little or no accountability to the people under their control and little or no restraint by the constitution or laws of the land. By contrast, the free and democratic states, while claiming sovereignty and independence relative to other nation-states of the international community, recognize that popular sovereignty, the consent of the people, is the source of governmental authority in the democratic nation-state.

By John Patrick, Understanding Democracy, A Hip Pocket Guide (Oxford University Press)