School in a Book: Political Science

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Before you debate, learn your stuff. Here’s what you need to know in order to do your civic duties well.

Note that some political terms are not mutually exclusive; for example, the U.S. can be described as a democracy, a republic, a capitalist country or a federation.

Find U.S. elected officials on usa.gov/elected-officials.

Basic Political Science

Politics: The complicated, multi-part process of choosing laws and lawmakers

Government: On a state or national level, a politically based institution that makes and enforces laws; conducts foreign affairs; conducts war and related self-protective acts; and performs many other specified duties, such as education and infrastructure building and maintenance.

Political science: The study of political history, processes, people and ideas

Political party: A named group that shares political preferences and seeks to have their representatives elected

Suffrage: The right and ability to vote

Power: The ability to get others to do what you want

Political ideology: A set of beliefs about the right, practical and preferable function, structure and powers of government

The main political ideologies: In order on the political spectrum: anarchy; libertarianism; conservativism; progressive liberalism; socialism, communism, fascism/totalitarianism

The political spectrum: A way of organizing political ideologies according to the amount of government control and, conversely, the amount of individual freedom the adherents believe is proper, practical and preferable. Commonly, the political spectrum is viewed as a straight line, giving rise to the “left-right” terminology commonly used. It might also be viewed as a circle. The political spectrum is as follows, starting at the right: fascism/totalitarianism; anarchy; libertarian capitalism; conservative capitalism; progressive liberal capitalism; socialism; and communism.

The two main types of political issues: Economic and social. Economic issues also concern the size, structure and power of government, the amount of individual freedom and liberty and foreign policy. Social issues are many and diverse and are often also directly economically salient; therefore, the division between these issues is at times confusing and irrelevant. Social issues usually capture a greater amount of popular interest, but economic issues are usually more foundational to a country’s functioning.

Important present-day political issues: As evidenced by the political ideologies, the main political issue is the size and powers of the government in question and, conversely, the amount of individual freedom and liberty allowed by that government. Other matters of governmental structure, plus economic policy and foreign policy are also highly significant.

Important present-day social issues: abortion, affirmative action, agricultural policy and land reform, animal rights and animal testing, capital punishment, censorship, internet censorship, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, Internet taxation, climate change policy, direct democracy, disarmament and nonproliferation, drug policy and reform, education policy and reform, electoral reform, foreign policy, gay rights and gay marriage, gun rights and gun control, health care policy and reform, immigration policy and reform, Israeli–Palestinian conflict, language policy, lobbying, medical marijuana, NATO expansion, nuclear testing, political corruption, race relations, science and technology policy, separation of church and state, space policy, stem cells and the stem cell controversy, tax reform, terrorism, counter-terrorism, welfare reform and more.

Republican: A member of the U.S. political party called the Republican Party. Republicans value small government, low taxes, a laissez-faire economy and freedom from government intervention.

Democrat: A member of the U.S. political party called the Democratic Party. Democrats value social justice, moderate or high taxes, greater government intervention in business and economic processes and a more robust welfare system.

Independent: Citizens who do not belong to or identify with either political party

Third party: Any of many U.S. political parties other than the democratic or republican party

Democracy: A political system or ideology in which leaders are (directly or indirectly, through elected representatives) elected by the general public of eligible voters. New elections occur regularly.

Constitutional democracy: A democracy in which the rights and powers of the people are described in a constitution, which is the foundational law of the land.

Conservativism: A political ideology promoting slow change, restricted government (particularly central government), efficient use of government resources (to the detriment of social reform and publicly funded institutions), and traditional social values. An economic conservative espouses only the ideology’s economic ideas, and a social conservative espouses only the ideology’s social values. The Republican Party is the conservative party in the U.S.

Liberalism: In the U.S., a political ideology promoting social and economic reform, higher taxes and greater governmental power. It is sometimes also called progressivism. The Democratic Party is the liberal party in the U.S. In Europe, liberalism is the opposite and very similar to conservativism. This type of liberalism contrasts with the Labour Party, which is similar to U.S. liberalism.

Republic/democratic republic/federal republic: A form of government in which leaders, including a supreme leader and many local representatives, are elected democratically. These leaders then make laws and vote on them on behalf of their constituents.

Constituents: Voters and other citizens being represented by political leaders

Presidential government: A republic with a separate executive branch from the legislative branch that is led by a president.

Islamic republic: A democratic republic that is also a theocracy, as all laws must be compatible with the rules of Islam.

Commonwealth: The traditional English term for a republic.

Parliamentary government: A form of government in which the executive branch, including a main leader and an advisory cabinet, is chosen by a legislature or parliament. The leader is called a prime minister or a chancellor. This branch can be dissolved by the parliament and can in turn dissolve the parliament.

Parliamentary democracy: A democracy in which the legislature is elected by the general population and the prime minister is elected by the legislature based on party strength resulting from elections.

Parliamentary monarchy: A parliamentary democracy in which there is also a ceremonial monarch who is not directly involved in lawmaking.

Prime minister: The leader of a parliamentary government

Capitalism: A political system or ideology based on private ownership, free-market competition and the profit motive.

Welfare capitalism: Capitalism that also includes an extensive social welfare system, including universal health care, education and more.

State capitalism: Capitalism that is highly regulated by the government.

Socialism: A political system or ideology in which the democratically elected leaders attempt a large-scale redistribution of wealth

Communism: A political system or ideology in which the state, usually run by a small group of leaders, controls everything, including the economy. The state eliminates private ownership of property or capital, claiming that all people share ownership of these resources. Leaders are not elected democratically.

Marxism: A form of communism devised by Karl Marx in the late nineteenth century that he claimed would free the proletariat (workers) from exploitation by capitalists (business owners), resulting in a classless society.

Totalitarianism/authoritarianism: A political system or ideology in which state authority is total and brutally enforced. Political matters, economic matters and even attitudes and beliefs are tightly controlled.

Fascism: A form of totalitarianism that existed in several nations during World War II

Nazism: National Socialism, the form of fascism that existed in Germany during World War II

Libertarianism: A political system or ideology that seeks to maximize the freedom of the individual and minimize the size and powers of the government. It is an extreme form of conservativism.

Anarchy: A political system or ideology characterized by a lack of governmental authority and resulting lawlessness. Most often, anarchy is the result of continuous civil war and political upheaval, though anarchists promote anarchy as a preferred system.

Monarchy: A form of government led by a single supreme leader. The leader’s powers vary by state. In a constitutional monarchy, the monarch is limited and guided by a constitution, the foundational law of the land. An emirate is a form of monarchy ruled by an emir (the ruler of a Muslim state). A sultanate is ruled by a sultan.

Oligarchy: A form of government that is led by a small group of (usually wealthy and well-connected) individuals

Dictatorship: A political system or ideology in which a single ruler or a small group of rulers has absolute power unconfined by any law

Federalism/federation/confederacy/confederation: A general term for a political system or ideology in which a group of individual states or provinces are united under a central government with limited powers

Theocracy: A form of government in which a deity or religion, as interpreted by religious professionals, is supreme. An ecclesiastical state, such as Vatican City, is a theocracy that is led by the church itself.

Feudalism: A past political system in which loyalties and monies were exchanged for food, land, military service and more. It operated in Europe in the Middle Ages, and is also known as the feudal system. Peasants were loyal to knights, knights to lords and lords to kings.

Foreign policy: The government’s theoretical standpoints and actual involvement in international politics and affairs. Foreign policy has far-reaching consequences, leading to war, effective trade, trade disputes, nuclear proliferation, nuclear war prevention, humanitarianism, environmental affects, terrorism, the prevention of terrorism and more.

Major foreign policy strategies: Diplomacy, foreign aid (either military or economic) and military force

Isolationist: A person who advocates non-intervention or low intervention in international affairs

Internationalist: A person who advocates taking an active role in international affairs

Interest group: An organization of people who share a common interest and work together to protect and promote that interest by influencing the government. Can be either economic or noneconomic. Business special interest group are the most common type, but labor groups (representing labor unions) are also powerful and seek the interests of skilled and unskilled workers. Interest groups are not allowed to recommend a certain voting decision. Interest groups are not allowed to donate money to campaigns directly, but they can contribute money through their

Political action committee (PAC): A group of people representing various special interests (such as corporations) who donate to and support political campaigns. Some PACs write legislation, then pass it to legislators, who introduce it verbatim. An example of a highly influential PAC is ALEC, who contributed significantly to the growth of the prison-industrial complex by promoting longer sentencing, three-strikes-you’re-out laws and more.

Lobbying: The attempt to influence lawmakers in their policy and voting decisions. This is done professionally by large organizations and by individuals and smaller groups as well. Lobbying is highly effective, but its ethics are complicated as many lobbyists promote self-serving policies that might do harm to the large body of citizens the representative is responsible to.

Lobbying techniques: Persuasion, information, material incentives, economic leverage, disruption, amicus curae (court briefs to influence court decisions) and litigation. Lobbyists sometimes get only two or three minutes of an official’s time to make their case. Former government officials often become lobbyists and earn a high salary as such.

Grassroots activism: The process of mobilizing large numbers of people to achieve the interest group’s goal. Grassroots techniques include: letter writing campaigns, rallies and marches, petitions, initiatives, Hill visits by normal citizens, advertising, writing policy education materials such as voter guides, publicly posting positions of members of Congress on key issues, meeting attendance (including local meetings of city councils, boards of education and more), campaigning, working for a party organization.

Soft money: Unregulated money given by interest groups. This was outlawed but loopholes are constantly being sought.

How to register to vote: In the U.S., legal residents over the age of 18 can vote. Register online, at a state or local election office or at the department of motor vehicles. Update your voter registration if you change addresses.

Other ways to get involved in politics: Serving as a poll worker, donating to candidates, running for local office, joining a citizen advisory board, creating a petition, writing about and discussing your issue or candidate of choice. Note that it is more effective to send letters to state officials than to DC. Calling is more effective than writing letters, and in-person visits are best of all.

Legitimacy: The acceptance of a governing authority by its citizens

Authority: The ability of a governing authority to govern without the use of force

Sovereignty: The right to of self-government, as the right of a nation to choose how to govern itself. When a state’s citizens can appeal to a higher body (such as state judicial decisions being appealed to the Supreme Court), that state is not sovereign.

English colony and U.S. protectorate: A state that mostly governs itself but recognizes the right of another state to interfere. These are not sovereign.

Forms of political organization: The main form is the nation-state, also called a nation, a state or a country. Other forms are international political organizations, such as NATO, non-government organizations (NGOs), outlaw regimes and more.

Regime: Any particular government that is in power at a particular time (i.e. “the current regime”)

Constitution: Written agreement that outlines the foundational law of the land, including the powers of the different branches of government and the powers of citizens.

Nationalism: The idea that each nation should hold sovereignty, without being unduly influenced by global politics and organizations such as NATO

Egalitarianism: A belief in the inherent equality of all people, and the right to political equality of all people

Political corruption: The use of entrusted powers by government officials for private gain. This includes extortion, cronyism, nepotism, patronage, graft, pork barreling, embezzlement and conflict of interest exchanges.

Extortion: Bribery

Cronyism: The favoring of friends

Nepotism: The favoring family members

Patronage: Working for the interests of a single person or group instead of for one’s own purposes and interests

Graft: Various ways of using public monies for private gain, including granting lucrative contracts to friends who might then pay you

Pork barreling: Representatives trading favors with other representatives to bring more money to their area. This is frequently done by agreeing to vote for another lawmaker’s bill if benefits to their area are added to the same bill, even if the benefits are unrelated.

Embezzlement: Stealing money you’re entrusted with but that doesn’t belong solely to you

Conflict of interest: An ethically problematic situation in which a person in power holds two different responsibilities that might have conflicting goals, resulting in difficult choices on the part of that person. An example of this is a state representative who is also a member of the board of a large company, such as a drug manufacturer, who might pressure the representative to pass legislation that is amenable to their cause.

Rider: An addition to a law that has nothing to do with that law, added to gain favor with the representatives who benefit from the rider

Party identification: Loyalty to a political party, whether or not one is an official member of that party

Duopoly: The condition in which political power is shared by two political parties

Partisan journalism: Media sources that are clearly and openly biased in a party’s favor

Yellow journalism: Reporting shocking stories to attract a larger audience

Public policy: Any rule, plan, or action pertaining to issues of domestic national importance

Bureaucracy: The people who administer government and other very large organizations

Machine: A hierarchically organized, centrally led state or local party organization that rewards members with material benefits

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