Politics is Ubiquitous: Defining What is Politics

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Politics cannot be confined to state-related activity because it cannot be avoided. It focuses on human interaction that supports a system in which there are people who excise power. This power can be found within “private” entities that can be extended in the context of households. Although the true essence of politics is best represented in a state setting, we need not forget that the state is a macrocosm of a household. Its platform may be larger and faced with more impactful decisions, but the skills of leadership, mediation and acting upon the interests of its people are practiced in “non-governmental” organizations. This essay will highlight the key features of this topic: the possibility of political activity beyond the state, the various approaches to politics and the key thinkers around the development of the various definitions of politics.

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A “conventional” definition of politics can be understood as a concept that can only be aligned with a form of government, “the art or science concerned with the guiding or influencing governmental policy” (Merriam-Webster, 2019), however this overlooks its core. Some may argue that the state offers a more “explicit” and adequate representation of such activity. The government’s role is to represent its citizens and protect them through adequate social welfare, economic growth and monitoring over any form of instability that may threaten its system. The same concept applies to its sub-systems in a more practical context – in a household, a dominant figure’s role is to ensure that everyone is fed and clothed, the children have access to good education and healthcare and that everyone interacts smoothly with one another.

Politics is a highly contested term as its various definitions stem from one’s view of where its boundaries lie. It can be viewed as a discipline which is formatted in the form of scientific theories or it can be viewed as the study of how power is exercised, regardless of whether this power is exercised in the public sphere (the state) or in the private sphere (businesses, families, schools, churches). Politics can also be a way of addressing unrest. Various scholars have stemmed their definitions of politics upon observation, their experiences and judgements within political interactions thus providing conflicting views.

According to Heywood, efforts in addressing any form of disorder within a society do require proposing possible compromises for its citizens. Politics examines every foundation of a functioning society such as roles and responsibilities that leaders are faced with (along with choices needing to be made) and addressing of social and economic ills; therefore, it not only focuses on the public sphere. Although a government may appear to operate solely in the interests of its citizens, leaders are (inevitably) self-interested. This self-interested behaviour emphasizes the vulnerability of the citizens as they are often provided with distorted information that dictates their perception of the world they live in. Politics assesses the extent of the danger of this “brainwashing” therefore the private sphere could play a significant role. A household is where values are implemented and where all forms of political culture are consumed (Heywood, 2013). Churches play a huge role to this as they facilitate the one’s engagement with one’s religion – religion shapes their values and beliefs.

Politics as a means of the excise of power, does exist within the private sphere as it is present in all aspects of life (Leftwich). Other thinkers favouring this view include Crick and Lasswell. Crick centred his approach to politics from the idea of an overall agreement as he stressed that beneficial distribution of power served as the greater good of society. He viewed legitimization as a procedure that would boost the incentive for the creation of political parties which would create rivalry that will push leaders to better the lives of their citizens and increase their hope in the development of a prosperous society. Such views proved to be as too utopic as politics does not ensure peaceful compromise. This encapsulates the impact positivism had and how the behaviouralist approach disguised how democracy became the root of questionable political practices such as the misrepresentation of power through orchestrated party competition (Heywood, 2013).

Millett however, focused mainly on how those in power (within all spheres) can shape the way their “subjects” view the world. This epitomizes the danger of sensationalism and propaganda within society. In the public sphere, specifically within a totalitarian state, this may be done through the negligence of transparency and manipulating the vulnerable to follow unjust beliefs through practices such as scapegoating (for example Nazi Germany) (Heywood, 2013). In the private sphere, this may be done through popular culture, and advertising done by multinational corporations and smaller companies.

Apart from psychological manipulation, politics can be viewed as “who gets what, when and how?” (Lasswell) suggesting that distribution of power can never be equal and the “who” is the state or any “supreme” group of people (Heywood, 2013) (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2019). Lasswell’s analyses of politics were based around the idea of it being an “empirical discipline” that assessed how power is developed and distributed. His approach was largely scientific; he examined how “political relationships” (Dahl, 1963).

In that sense, politics is orientated around the state’s greed and exploitation of the vulnerable (those subjected to the distortion of information). This can also allude to capitalist ideals, where everyone (by nature) is self-interested- people strive for instant gratification which (in most cases) can be of detriment to others therefore placing the wealthy at the top of the social hierarchy.

Furthermore, politics can be viewed in a more negative light. It can be defined as a lifelong struggle for “the people” through the uncontrollable instability of many systems as if it is “war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed” (Mao Zedong). This suggests that all political activity cannot be dealt with by “commoners” as only the state is comprised by those who have the right to decision making.

Politics cannot be reduced to one entity as it is present in “every corner of human existence”. It is the basis of one’s sense of being and its inevitability forces one to submit oneself and become a “political animal” (Aristotle) that engages with all aspects of political analysis. This offers a scientific angle to politics as it evokes a thought process based upon observation of all human interaction; politics is a lifelong experience. Plato, in his findings, proved Aristotle to be correct in that he believed that the voice of all worked to the overall detriment of society as most of the people who partook in government debates were not educated enough.

Contra Aristotle, Easton viewed politics as the “authoritative allocation of values” therefore alluding to demands the state’s need to adhere to adequate provision of social welfare. For him, politics is a government-orientated activity. However, this government-orientated activity’s volatility dictates the way in which these “stakeholders” manage their society (Reference, 2019).

For feminists, “the personal is political”, alluding more to the unequal distribution of power towards females within our society regardless of whether it is displayed in the context of the state (patriarchal state) and in the private sphere (at work, in a household and in schools). This shows that politics has a domino effect, social ills follows us in every aspect of life.

Rousseau and Mills portray politics as enriching. Rousseau states that a government’s success is fully dependant upon the involvement of its citizens – “the political” focuses upon the “general will” of society. Mill’s approach was more spiritual as he sees politics as path of human development as it provides a cognitive framework that, in turn, shapes the values one chooses to live by (Heywood, 2013).

Apart from definition, the extent of politics’ ubiquity can be assessed more meaningfully through the approaches to the study of it. The empirical approach is objective as it bases its findings on the “what is” – observation and scientific theory – politics is seen more as a scientific discipline as its main interest is to critically assess as opposed to focusing on the “what ought to be”.

Without the use of observation and meaningful analysis, one cannot adequately practice politics. Leaders’ (local, provincial, national) efforts will not be profound if they do not fully understand their environment. In terms of a community, it is important to fully engage with the problem at hand (through background information) because that is the key to creating positive change. Politics is universal as it is present in all systems where power relations and decision-making are present. However, it does not take precedence over all human relationships as they possess other factors such as love, faith, integrity and other core values. Power and authority may not be the interests of all – people may strive for a society where unity is an instrument of power. Politics and economics often share similarities which lead people to misunderstand terms within them. In terms of scarcity, the economist may focus on statistics based on production and provision of resources while the political analyst may focus on the human factors which may have impacted it (Dahl, 1963).

The normative approach possesses a philosophical quality as it looks at “what ought to be” and seeks to find (and suggests) positive alternatives within various investigations. Such “flaws” may be uncontrollable, meaning that possible changes can be stimulating rather than unlawful (Socrates) (Jack Miller Center, 2019). These recommendations may focus on ethics, these ethics may highlight what is considered morally correct or incorrect (Renner, 2018). This approach is universal – in a household, parents instil certain values on their and therefore help their children understand what is acceptable or unacceptable. In terms of government, if service delivery has sudden declined, the government will need to use their values to recognize that such a social ill need immediate attention as well as research that would help avoiding it. This approach is more critical and subjective, however there is room for objectivity.

Following pivotal movements within the last few decades, we can say that politics has evolved into many facets. In most cases, it is based around people’s sets of beliefs and not merely the state. It has become intertwined with human factors such as culture and feminist ideals which are imbedded within every aspect of human life (patriarchy in the workplace and within a household, institutional racism within academic institutions, social inequality, gender inequality income inequality, and the general disregard of human rights) and denial of that will do more harm than good to our society (Heywood, 2013). Another approach aligned to this view is New institutionalism as it seeks to extend beyond the realm of conformity and tradition. This approach suggests that political processes are stagnated by archaic methods of operating the state therefore leaving the state to be an insufficient entity as it does not help its citizens evolve.

I believe that politics cannot be defined solely as an activity aligned with the state. Although society has created this barrier between the state and the people, we need not forget that the only difference between the state and its citizens is that the state is a representative body whose voice has a more profound effect. Politics highlights a society’s flaws and these flaws are manifested within every aspect of an individual’s life. It consists of many layers that allow for any route of interpretation. Political culture is (inevitably shaped) shaped by systems within the private sphere however people’s acceptance of that is dependent on how much power citizens have within a state. 

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