Introduction

This textbook is intended to orient students to the study of politics and the discipline of political science. By the end of this course, students will gain comprehensive understanding of political behavior, political institutions, and normative ideas of political theory. This textbook is composed of two parts with five chapters in each of these parts. In Part I, we will analyze, conceptualize, and describe what politics is by defining key political terms such as justice, freedom, equality, and democracy. As we shall see, each of these concepts has different and sometimes competing conceptions that often inform one’s foundational political beliefs. For example, when we talk about equality it is important to make distinctions between comprehensive equality (such as the principle that are humans are created equal), equality of outcomes (that individuals ought to be afforded an equal distribution of material goods), and equal opportunity (that government ought to ensure equal protection under the law and basic fairness in a free economic marketplace). One’s level of commitment to these different conceptions of equality goes a long way toward shaping political belief.

In Part II, we will survey the discipline of political science and its major subfields. Why is political science a part of the social sciences? What do political scientists do? How can we think like social scientists? What is the difference between qualitative and quantitative data? These are some important questions we will consider in Part II. Key to this second part of the textbook is orienting students into a political science major or minor degree, giving comprehensive understanding to the state of the discipline and its value to the world outside academia.

In studying politics, it is important to make a distinction between a descriptive understanding of what politics is and a normative understanding of what politics ought to be. Niccolo Machiavelli is often considered the first political scientist. This Italian diplomat and theorist writing on the cusp of modernity wrote a classic text on the practical ways in which a ruler gets and keeps power—The Prince. Machiavelli claimed this work was intended as a practical guide for monarchical rulers, and because of this, he “thought it proper to represent things as they are in a real truth, rather than as they are imagined.” Here, Machiavelli makes an important distinction between an objective understanding of what politics is versus a normative idea of what politics should be. “Many have dreamed up republics and principalities which have never in truth been known to exist,” wrote Machiavelli. “The gulf between how one should live and how one does live is so wide that a man who neglects what is actually done for what should be done moves towards self-destruction rather than self-preservation.” Should the study of politics be left right here on this realist ground? What more is left to the study of politics than simply describing what it is?

As Socrates reminds us at the end of Book I in Plato’s Republic, humans don’t want merely to live a life predicated on the necessities of survival, we want to live well. What does it mean to live life well? This we may say is the art of politics—law, leadership, and rule that seeks the betterment of society and individuals. In other words, politics is necessary because we want to live well, not merely survive. What this suggests is that normative theories of what politics should be are informed by and deeply intertwined with our perceptions of reality. Or in other words, if x is how real power operates, then we should do y in order to best advance the interests of society. Reflect on your own perceptions of politics. How do you understand the relationship between what you think politics is versus what it should be? For example, you may see politics as a ruthless zero-sum game of endless conflict but nonetheless think politics should be more deliberative and cooperative. You therefore may seek certain policies or rules that mitigate conflict-based politics and ensure greater compromise and cooperation. As this example suggests, what politics is and what it ought to be are not the same thing, but they are importantly interconnected.

 

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