It is the thesis of this text that politics matters..

It is the thesis of this text that politics matters. If you do not take an interest and participate, others will, and they will influence the decisions that govern your lives. Will they take us to war in a foreign land? Who might have to fight in that war? You. Will they alter the tax code to favor certain citizens and corporations? Who will have to pay in taxes what others avoid paying? You. Will they set up government programs whose costs escalate far beyond what anyone had foreseen? Who then will have to pay these costs? You. One of the tasks of this text is to make you aware of what politics is and how it works so that you can look after yourself and prevent others from using you. The ignorant are manipulated.

Many find politics distasteful, and perhaps they are right. Politics may be inherently immoral or, at any rate, amoral. Misuse of power, influence peddling, and outright corruption are prominent features of politics. But you need not like the thing you study. Biologists may study a disease-causing bacterium under a microscope. They do not “like” the bacterium but are interested in how it grows, how it does its damage, and how it may be eradicated. Neither do they get angry at the bacterium and smash the glass slide with a hammer. Biologists first understand the forces of nature and then work with them to improve humankind’s existence. Political scientists try to do the same with politics.

Political science ain’t politics. It is not necessarily training to become a practicing politician. Political science is training in the calm, objective analysis of politics, which may or may not aid working politicians. Side by side, the two professions compare like this:

Politicians Political Scientists
love power are skeptical of power
seek popularity seek accuracy
think practically think abstractly
hold firm views reach tentative conclusions
offer single causes offer many causes
see short-term payoff see long-term consequences
plan for next election plan for next publication
respond to groups seek the good of the whole

Most political science departments divide the discipline into several subfields. The bigger the department, the more subfields it likely has. We will get at least a brief introduction to all of them in this text.

U.S. Politics focuses on institutions and processes, mostly at the federal level but some at state and local levels. It includes parties, elections, public opinion, and executive and legislative behavior.

Comparative Politics examines politics within other nations, trying to establish generalizations about institutions and political culture and theories of democracy, stability, and policy. It may be focused on various regions, as in “Latin American politics” or “East Asian politics.”

International Relations studies politics among nations, including conflict, diplomacy, international law and organizations, and international political economy. The study of U.S. foreign policy has one foot in U.S. politics and one in international relations.

Political Theory, both classic and modern, attempts to define the good polity, often focused on major thinkers.

Public Administration studies how bureaucracies work and how they can be improved.

Constitutional Law studies the applications and evolution of the Constitution within the legal system.

Public Policy studies the interface of politics and economics with an eye to developing effective programs.


This basic point of all serious study sounds commonsensical but is often ignored, even in college courses. It traces back to the extremely complex thought of the German philosopher Hegel (1770–1831), who argued that things happen not by caprice or accident but for good and sufficient reasons: “Whatever is real is rational.” That means that nothing is completely accidental and that if we apply reason we will understand why something happens. We study politics in a “naturalistic” mode, not getting angry at what we see but trying to understand how it came to be.

For example, we hear of a politician who took money from someone who wanted a favor. As political scientists, we push our anger to the side and ask questions like: Do most politicians in that country take money? Is it an old tradition, and does the culture of this country accept it? Do the people even expect politicians to take money? How big are campaign expenses? Can the politician possibly run for office without taking money? In short, we see if extralegal exchanges of cash are part of the political system. If they are, it makes no sense to get angry at an individual politician. If we dislike it, we may then consider how the system might be reformed to discourage the taking of money on the side. And reforms may not work. Japan reformed its electoral laws in an attempt to stamp out its traditional “money politics,” but little changed. Like bacteria, some things in politics have lives of their own.


1.2 Evaluate the several explanations of political power.

Aristotle, the founder of the discipline, called politics “the master science.” He meant that almost everything happens in a political context, that the decisions of the polis (the Greek city-state and root of our words polite, police, and politics) governed most other things. Politics, in the words of Yale’s Harold Lasswell (1902–1978), is the study of “who gets what.” But, some object, the economic system determines who gets what in countries with free markets. True, but should we have a totally free-market system with no government involved? A decision to bail out shaky banks sparks angry controversy over this point. Few love the bankers, but economists say it had to be done to save the economy from collapse. Politics is intimately connected to economics.

discipline A field of study, often represented by an academic department or major.

Suppose something utterly natural strikes, like a hurricane. It is the political system that decides whether and where to build dikes or deliver federal funds to rebuild in flood-prone seacoast areas. The disaster is natural, but its impact on society is controlled in large part by politics. How about science, our bacteriologists squinting through microscopes? That is not political. But who funds the scientists’ education and their research institutes? It could be private charity (the donors of which get tax breaks), but the government plays a major role. When the U.S. government decided that AIDS research deserved top priority, funding for other programs was cut. Bacteria and viruses may be natural, but studying them is often quite political. In this case, it pitted gays against women concerned with breast cancer. Who gets what: funding to find a cure for AIDS or for breast cancer? The choice is political.

Because almost everything is political, studying politics means studying nearly everything. Some students select “interdisciplinary majors.” Political science already is one, borrowing from and overlapping with all of the other social sciences. At times, it is hard to tell where history, human geography, economics, sociology, anthropology, and psychology leave off and political science begins. Here, briefly, is how political science relates to the other social sciences.


History is one of the chief sources of data for political scientists. When we discuss the politics of the Third French Republic (1871–1940), the growth of presidential power under Franklin Roosevelt (1933–1945), and even something as recent as the Cold War (1946–1989), we are studying history. But historians and political scientists look for different things and handle data differently. Typically, historians study one episode in detail, digging up documents, archives, and memoirs on the topic. Their data usually focus on one point, and they are reluctant to generalize. Political scientists, on the other hand, begin by looking for generalizations. They might take the findings of historians and compare and contrast them. A historian might do a detailed study of Weimar Germany (1919–1933); a political scientist might put that study alongside studies of France, Italy, and Russia of the same period to see what similarities and dissimilarities can be found. To be sure, some historians do comparative studies; they become de facto political scientists.

Human Geography

Human geography (as distinct from physical geography) has in recent decades been neglected by political scientists, though it influences politics more than many realize. The territorial component of human behavior—borders, regions, ethnic areas, trade flows, and centralization of power—have great political ramifications. Conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, India, and Turkey are heavily geographical problems, as is Canada’s unsettled federalism, from which some Quebeckers wish to depart. French political scientist André Siegfried (1875–1959) pioneered the use of maps to explain regional political variations, a technique of today’s electoral studies. The “red” and “blue” states in U.S. presidential elections show the relevance of political geography.


Economics, proclaim some economists, is the subject matter of politics. (Some political scientists claim the opposite.) True, many political quarrels are economic: As Lasswell asked, “Who gets what?” Sufficient economic development may be the basis for democracy; few poor countries are democratic. A declining economy may doom democracy, as happened in Germany’s Weimar Republic and more recently in Russia. What policies promote economic development? How big a role should government have? Is the euro currency making Europe more united? Or ready to fall apart? When economists get into questions of policy, they become “political economists.” A relatively new school of political science, “rational-choice theory,” shares the economic perspective that humans pursue their self-interests.


Sociology and political science overlap. Sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset (1922–2006) was equally renowned as a political scientist. He was among the first to demonstrate the close connection between democracy and level of wealth. Political science conventionally starts by looking at society to see “who thinks what” about politics. In demonstrating how political views vary among social classes, regions, religions, genders, and age groups, sociology gives an empirical basis to political-culture, public-opinion, and electoral studies.


Anthropology, which traditionally focused on preliterate societies, may seem of little relevance to political science. But the descriptive and interviewing techniques of anthropology have been heavily adopted by political scientists. The subfield of political culture can be viewed as a branch of anthropology. Japanese deference patterns, which we still see today, were laid down more than a millennium ago. Some current political systems are still run by traditionally influential families or clans. In Central Asia, the families of emirs who ruled under the Persians did so under the Russian tsars, the Communists, and now the newly independent states. In Africa, voting and violence follow tribal lines.


Psychology, particularly social psychology, contributes much to political science’s understanding of which personalities are attracted to politics, why and under what circumstances people obey authority figures, and how people form national, group, and voting attachments. Studies of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Zedong are often based on psychological theories. Psychologists are especially good with methodology; they devise ways to study questions objectively and teach us to doubt claims that have holes in them. Asking questions in a “blind” manner and “controlling” for certain factors are techniques developed from psychology.

methodology The techniques for studying questions objectively.


1.3 Review the several theories of political power.

Political science often uses the findings of other social sciences, but one feature distinguishes it from the others—its focus on power: A gets B to do what A wants. Our second founding father (after Aristotle) is the Renaissance Florentine philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527), who emphasized the role of power in politics. You can take all the factors and approaches mentioned previously, but if you are not using them to study power—which is a very broad subject—you are probably not doing political science.

Some people dislike the concept of political power. It smacks of coercion, of inequality, and occasionally of brutality. Some speakers denounce “power politics,” suggesting governance without power, a happy band of brothers and sisters regulating themselves through love and sharing. Communities formed on such a basis do not last, or if they do last it is only by transforming themselves into conventional structures of leaders and followers, buttressed by obedience patterns that look suspiciously like power. Political power seems to be built into the human condition. But why do some people hold political power over others? There is no definitive explanation of political power. Biological, psychological, cultural, rational, and irrational explanations have been put forward.

political power Ability of one person to get another to do something.



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