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1.2: Politics

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    The word America — derived from the name of Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci — has multiple meanings. It can refer to a patch of land, primarily located between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, or to a system of government for administering that patch of land. But it can also refer to the people who reside there: America is as much a them as it is a that.

    Photograph of the Main Building on Ellis Island in New York Harbor
    The Main Building on Ellis Island in New York Harbor, entry point for over 11 million immigrants to the United States from 1892 to 1924, today serves as a museum.

    Most of the people who make up America were born there, but many were born elsewhere, and most of those who were born in America have ancestors who were born elsewhere and came to America not so long ago. They came (some more willingly than others) from all corners of the globe, bringing their religions and languages and cultures along with their hopes and fears and dreams.

    For almost as long as it has been a country, Americans have spoken of the idea that the United States is a “melting pot,” one that blends many different peoples into a single American polity. However desirable or undesirable this outcome would be, it clearly hasn’t happened completely, as many Americans today still maintain the identities (cultural and otherwise) of their ancestors. Furthermore, the groups of people who make up America are themselves diverse, made up of subgroups with different beliefs, perspectives, and aspirations.

    The diversity of America the people — not only of race, nationality, and religion, but also of interest, opinion, and condition — is what makes America the system of government necessary. This system of government is not the only one available, and many of those dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States wish it were different in one way or another. Before examining that system of government, however, it is worth establishing what politics and government are more generally. Then it will be easier to recognize America for what it is: a machine for conducting politics, allocating power democratically, and solving collective action problems.

    Politics & Power

    Politics is the contest over and exercise of power. Usually people associate politics with aspects of government, such as elections, politicians, and policies, but politics occurs in any situation where there is competition over power. For example, the phrase “office politics” is commonly used to refer to the contest over power in the workplace, such as when employees compete for promotions or complain about incompetent bosses.

    Politics can occur outside of government because power can exist outside of government. Power is the ability to cause someone to do something he or she would not otherwise do. Governments have many powers with which to influence the behavior of their citizens or of other governments, but nongovernmental organizations and everyday people also have various powers of their own.

    Power is sometimes thought of only in terms of violent force, but violence or the threat thereof is by no means the only form of power, even if it is one of the most visible forms. We influence others’ behavior — and have our behavior influenced by others — many times each day, usually without violence and often without even noticing. Those influences are forms of power, too.

    Politics exists because power is scarce. There is not enough power for everyone to have as much as he or she wants, because power is relative. Whenever one person becomes more powerful, everyone else becomes less powerful relative to that person.

    Political scientist Harold Lasswell defined politics as “who gets what, when, and how.” Whenever people, groups, or countries compete over territory, wealth, privileges, or status, they are competing over power. Sometimes this competition occurs through formal processes, such as elections, lawmaking, and trials. Other times it occurs through informal processes, such as protests, rebellions, and terrorist attacks. Whatever form it takes, the contest over power is, by definition, political.

    Why Do We Need Politics?

    Many people dislike politics. To some, the competitive nature of politics is a turnoff, especially when politics seems to consist of nothing more than bitter arguments. To others, politics is too complex to understand or too boring to take interest in. You yourself may wonder whether politics is even necessary, or why leaders don’t simply put politics aside and take action to solve problems.

    As much as we sometimes try to get away from politics, it is an essential part of human society. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle famously wrote that “man is by nature a political animal.” What he meant was that humans are creatures of the polis, the Greek word for “city.” (The word politics comes from the Greek politiká, for “affairs of the city.”) Humans are the only animals who naturally form large, non-familial groups. Wolf packs and beehives may contain many members, but all are close blood relatives, whereas even the smallest human towns generally consist of several distinct families. In Aristotle’s view, the traits that make humans unique are their ability and desire to organize themselves in such communities.

    Because we humans tend to live in groups, we often encounter situations in which we need to make group decisions. When a prehistoric tribe debates whether to move on to new hunting grounds or an industrialized country chooses which side of the road to drive on, it’s not practical to let everyone decide for himself or herself. A decision-making process for the whole group is needed, one that most group members will accept, even if they don’t always like the outcome. Families typically accomplish this goal by deferring to a parent or other senior member, but in groups of multiple families there is no such natural or default leader. Instead, the group must settle on some other process for making collective decisions. The system of institutions, rules, and leaders tasked with making decisions for a group is called a government.

    Democratic Government

    Many different forms of government exist in the world today. Some are based on hereditary rule, with leaders passing on their titles to their children. Others are grounded in a specific religious tradition, with laws and practices heavily influenced by that religion’s teachings. Still others are controlled by whoever in the area happens to have the most military power at the time, which can lead to a great deal of political instability. Each government is shaped by the cultures, experiences, and values of the people who established it.

    Like others around the world, the American government is a product of its people’s shared history and beliefs. The core principle of American government is democracy, a word which comes from the Greek for “people” (demos) and “rule” (kratia) — hence, “rule by the people.” Democracy is a way of empowering the people as a whole to make decisions about issues that affect them, rather than having those decisions made for them without their input.

    Democratic government is based on the principles of popular sovereignty and majority rule. Popular sovereignty is the principle that people have a right to govern themselves and that it is generally wrong or unfair to deny someone a chance to participate in that process. Majority rule is the principle that, when a group is split between two courses of action, the course of action with the most supporters is the one that should be taken. These two principles are not absolutes — children are not allowed to vote in elections, and not all decisions democracies make are majoritarian — but they are nonetheless core aspects of any democratic system.

    You probably intuitively recognize both popular sovereignty and majority rule, even if you didn’t know what these principles were called until now. Most Americans will accept the result of a vote or election as long as they believe that everyone had a chance to participate and that the winning side was supported by the majority. Nobody likes to lose, but the losers of an election will usually go along with the outcome if they feel they lost fair and square. If, however, they feel they were cheated out of a victory somehow — if either popular sovereignty or majority rule seems to have been violated in some way — the loss becomes much harder to swallow (as we saw in Chapter 1).

    Democracy can be direct or indirect. In a direct democracy, citizens vote directly on government policy. Some U.S. states occasionally practice direct democracy by letting their citizens decide whether to raise specific taxes or enact new laws, but most of American politics is conducted indirectly. In indirect democracy, citizens vote for representatives — presidents, members of Congress, governors, mayors, etc. — who then choose policies for them. This extra step makes American democracy less majoritarian but more efficient: instead of having to decide multiple complex policy decisions every day, we vote once or twice a year for representatives to decide those policy questions on our behalf.

    You may have heard it said that the United States is not a democracy but rather a republic. Republic — from the Latin res (thing, affair) and publica (of the public, of the people) — is another word for indirect democracy, a system in which citizens vote for leaders to decide policies rather than for the policies themselves.

    In the past, democracy and republic were used to distinguish direct and indirect democracy from one another as separate forms of government. Today, however, democracy is commonly used to describe both forms. The United States, therefore, is both a republic and a democracy (albeit a mostly indirect one).

    America did not “invent” democracy, nor was it the first country to be governed democratically. Nevertheless, it was the first country of its size to establish and maintain a democratic form of government for an extended period. It was once widely believed that a territory as big as America was impossible to govern democratically, and that any attempt to do so would eventually decay into nondemocracy. Today, the longevity of American democracy is taken as proof that democracy can work on a large scale, and people all around the world express support for democracy in some form or another (as shown in Figure 2.1 below). Many countries have modeled their own governments on the American system, and America itself has been both directly and indirectly involved in spreading democracy around the globe.

    Bar chart showing average support for democracy in selected countries between 2017 and 2022, according to the World Values Survey
    Figure 2.1: Average support for democracy in selected countries, 2017-2022 (Source: World Values Survey, Wave 7)

    Collective Action Problems

    The purpose of government is to make decisions for a group when it would be impractical to let each group member decide for himself or herself. Tribal migration and traffic laws are two examples of situations where group decision-making is desirable, but we can also generalize from them to define more broadly the kinds of decisions governments make.

    Human societies establish governments to provide public goods. A public good is a benefit that can be enjoyed by all group members. National security, law and order, transportation infrastructure, fire departments, and clean air are all examples of public goods provided by the American government. Public goods differ from private goods, like the sandwich you had for lunch, because anyone can enjoy a public good without diminishing anyone else’s enjoyment of it. You can legally prevent someone else from eating your sandwich (it is yours, after all), and you probably will, because the more of it they eat the less of it there will be for you to eat. By contrast, you cannot legally prevent someone else from breathing the same clean air you breathe, but their enjoyment of that clean air does not prevent you from enjoying it as well.

    Public goods can be expensive. As shown in Figure 2.2 below, each year the American government spends trillions of dollars on public goods which most of us would be unable to obtain individually. This is one of the main reasons why humans form groups: to be able to enjoy public goods which they could not enjoy otherwise. Almost no American could afford to pay for a military large enough to protect him or her from foreign invasion, but all Americans working together can chip in enough money to fund a military capable of protecting them all. This is the primary purpose of taxes: to collect enough money for the government to provide expensive public goods.

    Bar chart showing U.S. federal budget outlays for fiscal year 2022, according to the Congressional Budget Office
    Figure 2.2: U.S. federal budget outlays, Fiscal Year 2022 (Source: Congressional Budget Office)

    The tricky part about public goods is that people do not have to contribute to them in order to enjoy them. With private goods, only those who pay for the good get the benefit (unless they choose to give it to someone else for free). Public goods are different. If you were to stop paying your taxes — that is, if you decided to become a free rider, someone who benefits from a public good without contributing to it — you would not suddenly be denied the enjoyment of tax-funded public goods. The air you breathe would be just as clean, the roads you drive on just as well-maintained, the home you live in just as safe from foreign invaders. Even if the government wanted to deny free riders those public goods, it couldn’t, because public goods are by definition enjoyable by those who do not contribute to them.

    Photograph of rocky spires called hoodoos in Utah's Bryce Canyon National Park
    “Hoodoos” — rocky spires — abound in Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park, part of the National Park Service, one of many public goods provided by the American government.

    If the number of free riders in a group is small, there will probably still be enough contributors to provide public goods. The trouble is that everyone has an incentive to free-ride, because it is preferable to enjoy a public good without contributing to it. When the number of free riders becomes too large, the group will no longer have enough contributors to provide the public good. This is known as a collective action problem: the group and all of its members benefit if the public good is provided, but each individual member would prefer to free-ride instead of contributing.

    Government solves collective action problems mainly through coercion: they force citizens to contribute instead of free-riding. Few people would freely choose to pay the taxes on which the government relies to provide public goods, which is why the government does not give them that choice. If you decide not to pay your taxes, the government will attempt to change your mind. They might begin by asking nicely, but if you continue to refuse their requests will become increasingly demanding. Eventually, people with guns will come to your home to arrest you and confiscate the money you owe in unpaid taxes, plus an additional amount for the trouble you’ve caused. If you resist even then (perhaps with a gun of your own), they will use deadly force against you, possibly even killing you, all because you refused to pay your taxes.

    Coercion is not pleasant, so most of the time we try not to think about it. We prefer to imagine that a good, free, democratic America works by everyone just asking nicely and everyone else responding in kind. Indeed, most Americans pay taxes, obey laws, and heed the instructions of police officers without having to be asked twice. However, they do so because they recognize that refusing to follow the rules comes with harsh penalties, up to and including the government’s use of deadly force to ensure their compliance. If governments did not have the option to use violence as a last resort, they would be unable to solve collective action problems and provide public goods. Every government, democratic or otherwise, is predicated on its ability to bring violence to bear against its own citizens if necessary.

    The Political Machine

    America, its politics, and its government are products of human nature. As humans, we desire the fulfillment of living in a society and the enjoyment of public goods that only society can reliably provide. We need politics to manage a diverse society, and we need government to provide public goods by coercing individuals to contribute to them. For anyone who does not want to live as a hermit, politics in some form or another is an inescapable part of human existence.

    The upside of American politics is that it can provide these benefits, increasing the happiness and quality of life of its users. This makes America a very popular product, one that hundreds of thousands of people every year adopt by applying for and obtaining U.S. citizenship. But America, like many machines, can fall into disrepair, be used for ill instead of good, or even misfire with terrible consequences. The same power that enables American government to solve collective action problems for the good of its users can be (and has been) used to make their lives much worse, both intentionally and unintentionally. That’s just how power works: any government that is powerful enough to do very good things is also powerful enough to do very bad things.

    As we’ll see beginning in the next chapter, America’s democracy was carefully crafted to limit the dangers inherent in any government. Like many products, it comes with a set of “safety features” designed to prevent injury or harm from careless or malicious use. These safety features tend to make government slower and less efficient, which can cause people to be dissatisfied and impatient with how their government works. While it’s always possible that some of these limitations on government are excessive and should be relaxed, it’s important to remember that power is a double-edged sword, and that the political allocation of that power often has unintended consequences.

    This page titled 1.2: Politics is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Benjamin R. Kantack (Tekakwitha Press) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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