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Politics: The Basics
What is Politics?

Politics is the process by which groups of people make decisions. It is the authoritative allocation of values. Although the term is generally applied to behaviour within governments, politics is observed in all human group interactions, including corporate, academic, and religious institutions.

In its most basic form, politics consists of “social relations involving authority or power”. In practice, the term refers to the regulation and government of a nation-state or other political unit, and to the methods and tactics used to formulate and apply government policy.
In a broader sense, any situation involving power, or any manoeuvring in order to enhance one’s power or status within a group, may be described as politics (e.g. office politics). This form of politics “is most associated with a struggle for ascendancy among groups having different priorities and power relations.”

Political science (also political studies) is the study of political behaviour and examines the acquisition and application of power. Related areas of study include political philosophy, which seeks a rationale for politics and an ethic of public behaviour, and public administration, which examines the practices of governance.

Democracy, Citizenship, Political Science, and Government are excellent foundations for careers in law, government, public administration, management, media/journalism, education, psychology and other areas; but the most fundamental justification is that it helps us to become more effective participants in the civic life.

Key Concepts is Politics

The are a number of interwowen concepts that are fundamental to an understanding of politics. These are discussed below.


Authority can be defined as ‘legitimate power’. Whereas power is the ability to influence the behaviour of others, authority is the right to do so. Authority is therefore based on an acknowledged duty to obey rather than on any form of coercion or manipulation. In this sense, authority is power cloaked in legitimacy or rightfulness.


Governance is a broader term than government. Although it still has no settled or agreed definition, it refers in its widest sense to the various ways through which social life is co-ordinated. Government can therefore be seen as one of the institutions involved in governance; it is possible to have ‘governance without government’ (Rhodes 1996). The principal modes of governance are markets, hierarchies and networks. The wider use of the term reflects a blurring of the state/society distinction, resulting from changes such as the development of new forms of public management, the growth of public-private partnerships, the increasing importance of policy networks, and the greater impact of both supernational and subnational organizations (‘multi-level governance’). While some associate governance with a shift away from command and control mechanisms to a reliance on consultation and bargaining, others argue that it implies a preference for ‘less government’ and the free market.


In its broadest sense, to govern means to rule or control others. Government can therefore be taken to include any mechanism through which ordered rule is maintained, its central features being the ability to make collective decisions and the capacity to enforce them. A form of government can thus be identified in almost all social institutions: families, schools, businesses, trade unions and so on. However, ‘government’, as opposed to ‘ governance ’ is more commonly understood to refer to the formal and institutional processes that operate at the national level to maintain public order and facilitate collective action. The core functions of government are thus to make law (legislation), implement law (execution) and interpret law (adjudication). In some cases, the political executive alone is referred to as ‘the government’, making it equivalent to ‘the Administration’ in presidential systems.


Power, in its broadest sense, is the ability to achieve a desired outcome, and it is sometimes referred to in terms of the ‘power to’ do something. This includes everything from the ability to keep oneself alive to the ability of government to promote economic growth. In politics, however, power is usually thought of as a relationship: that is, as the ability to influence the behaviour of others in a manner not of their choosing. It is referred to in terms of having ‘power over’ people. More narrowly, power may be associated with the ability to punish or reward, bringing it close to force or manipulation, in contrast to ‘influence’ which also encompasses rational persuasion.

The Political Ideology Spectrum

The political spectrum is the universally accepted measure for describing the ideologies of different political parties. The term was born out of the French National Assembly after the 1789 Revolution. The assembly delegates arranged themselves in common ideological groups from the radical left wing, sitting at the left of the President’s chair, to the conservative right wing, sitting at the right of the President’s chair. Today, political positions are still interpreted this way.

The Ideologies Covered by the Political Spectrum

Traditionally, the spectrum covers the following positions:

  • Far left – anarchist, communist
  • Left – socialist, social democrat, liberal
  • Centre – moderate, Christian democrat
  • Right – conservative, radical individualist, nationalist
  • Far right - fascist

Within this spectrum though, modern-day political parties have a variety of views on issues management and these can be arranged on different spectra, as well. Economic issues may range from the communist to the capitalist; governmental issues from the libertarian to the authoritarian; social issues from the progressive to the conservative; and environmental issues from the green to the industrial.

Terms like right and left, liberal and conservative, socialist, communist, anarchist, etc. are used frequently in political discussions. But people frequently misunderstand or confuse the actual political ideologies that these terms refer to.

Political ideology is a certain ethical, set of ideals, principles, doctrines, myths or symbols of a social movement, institution, class, or large group that explain how society should work, and offer some political and cultural blueprint for a certain social order.

What is a liberal?
One who believes the national government should be active in promoting health, education, justice, and equal opportunity.

What is a conservative?
One who believes government should be limited except in supporting traditional values and promoting freedom of opportunity.

What is a moderate?
 One whose beliefs fall somewhere between liberal and conservative views.

What is a radical? A reactionary?
The term Radical as a label in political science for those favouring or trying to produce thoroughgoing political reforms which can include changes to the social order to a greater or lesser extent. Reactionary (or reactionist) is a political epithet typically applied to extreme ideological conservatism, especially that which wishes to return to a real or imagined old order of things, and which is willing to use coercive means to do so.

Examples of Contrasting Ideologies


Liberal (i.e. Left)

Conservative (i.e. Right)

Representative Party




Increase regulation and worker protection

Ease regulation and keep government out of business


Increase taxes 

Cut taxes




Social Spending


Decrease or maintain

Defense Spending

Decrease or maintain 



Grant amnesty to illegal aliens; don't build a fence along the Mexican border; allow illegal aliens to obtain driver's licenses; prevent the creation of a national ID card & database to track people in the country. 

Prevent amnesty for illegal & driver's licenses for illegal aliens; construct a Mexican border fence; create a national ID card & database to track people in the country.

Death Penalty



Government Size

Increase the government and use more socialistic policies

Reduce the government and use more capitalistic policies

World Peace

Negotiate first and only take military action if sanctioned by the U.N. and other world organizations

Work with world bodies and use negotiation, but take unilateral pre-emptive action if necessary to protect America

Same-Sex Marriage




Protect the rights of the accused first and foremost

Provide maximum punishment and protect the rights of the victim first and foremost

School Vouchers

End the program

Expand the program

Doctor Assisted Suicide



Minimum Wage


Lower or eliminate altogether

Social Security

Increase age of beginning eligibility (e.g. 68 or 70); increase salary limits subject to tax

Privatize; i.e. allow citizens control over their own money and allow stock investments

Health Care

Make 100 percent government controlled

De-regulate and introduce free market reform

Personal Responsibility

Government needs to protect people from themselves

People should be responsible and be held accountable for their own actions

Malpractice Lawsuits

Do not cap punitive & pain/suffering damage amounts

Cap punitive & pain/suffering damage amounts


Maintain separation of church and state; prevent faith-based government initiatives

Introduce more religion in schools; allow faith-based government initiatives

The European Rationalist - In Reason We Trust (http://rationalist.eu)
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