Politics involves the activities of individuals who are cooperating or competing with others to resolve disagreements over scarce resources or different preferences. Politics is the means by which societies decide who gets what, when, and how. Anyone engaged in political activity is a political actor, while politicians are those running for elective office or serving in one. To understand political activity and outcomes, it is useful to focus on the rules that determine what the actors can and cannot do, the reality of the political environment, and the choices that the political actors make.
Public policy—all the actions that governments take that are designed to influence individual, group, institutional, or national behavior—is one of the main products of politics. Those seeking to make public policy typically invoke the public interest, claiming that the policies they seek will benefit the broader society (rather than merely their own self-interest). Policies are made by those with power.
Power is fundamental to the study of politics, although it is impossible to accurately measure or observe. Power is the ability of one political actor to get other actors to do things they would not otherwise choose to do or not to take actions they otherwise would. The highest form of power is sovereign power, which means that the actor with sovereign power is ruled by no one else. Sovereign power is usually associated with a single person (an emperor), a national government, or in democracies, with the citizens themselves. A political actor has authority if they have the power to enforce rules, and that authority is seen as legitimate if the power is used in ways consistent with those rules.
Disagreements over resource allocation and values are fundamental to politics. Bargaining is the attempt to resolve these conflicts.
Political scientists systematically study political phenomena—the actions of individuals, groups, institutions, and countries as they seek to obtain their goals or express their identities. That those who study politics are scientific does necessarily not mean that they can identify universal laws, although many have tried. What is important is that political scientists use the scientific method to understand the political world. In the scientific method, researchers try to develop accurate depictions of the world through logic, reason, and evidence while making their techniques and data open to scrutiny and verification by other researchers. In their research, political scientists must always be tentative about their conclusions: further study might indicate that their conclusions need to be revised in the light of new evidence or techniques.
Normative political science, also called political philosophy, seeks to answer questions regarding the meaning, purposes, and goals of politics, such as “What is a good citizen?” or “What purposes should governments serve?” The answers to these questions cannot come from examining evidence alone; instead, political philosophers rely on reason and logic. Three common approaches to normative political science involve a focus on consequences (for example, the purpose of government is to provide benefits to its citizens), rules (for example, the purpose of government is to protect rights), or virtue (so that the purpose of government is to produce virtuous citizens). Some of the main questions in normative theory are rooted in antiquity, but they remain relevant today.
Empirical political science, in contrast to political philosophy, attempts to answer questions (or test hypotheses) on the basis of evidence. Unlike political philosophers, empirical political scientists are curious to learn about how the political world actually works rather than how it should work and about how politicians actually behave rather than how they should behave. Empirical political science is based on facts—that which can be counted or measured and verified to be true. It is not always easy to determine what the facts are, in part because political action can be so complex and difficult to observe.
A key outcome of empirical research is generalizations—that is, statements about political behavior that are typically true or are correct in general even if not for every individual or each event. Generalizations are probabilistic rather than deterministic. Generalizations are helpful because they allow us to describe, explain, and predict.
This text examines politics using a “micro (individuals) to macro (relations between countries)” framework. It begins by focusing on individuals, the building blocks of all political action: nothing happens in politics unless individuals are engaged in political activity. While all political behavior is ultimately individual behavior, in politics individuals typically band together with others to form political parties, interest groups, or even social movements. When groups are formalized—with set rules and practices, for example—they become institutions. The text examines the most important governmental institutions—legislatures, executives and executive agencies, courts, and bureaucracies. These are the institutions present in every government in the world. The news media is the most important nongovernmental institution. International relations involves the interactions among countries on matters of war and peace, as well the international political economy and globalization.