Introduction to Comparative Politics

Royal Palace, Phnom Penh, Cambodia (Tan)

 

What is politics?

 

According to Aristotle, writing in the fourth century BC, politics was the search for the good life.  In this reading, then, politics has a moral and philosophical component (what is a good life?).

 

Our modern term politics comes from Ancient Greek politikos, having to do with the polis, the ancient Greek city-state.

 

One of the sayings coined by Aristotle was that man is a “political animal.”  Aristotle said: "From these things it is evident, that the city belongs among the things that exist by nature, and that man is by nature a political animal" (1253a1-3).  By this statement, Aristotle meant to suggest two things: 

 

According to a more recent definition: politics is who gets what, when, and where. The understanding of why is the job of Political Science.

 

Think about this definition: politics is who gets what, when, and where. 

 

By this definition, politics not only happens in states, but it happens in organizations, NGOs and businesses, even universities and families.  You’ve heard someone say this before, “so much politics at the office.”

 

More conventional definition, one that fits more what we will deal with in this class: politics is the art or science of government. 

Subdefinitions: Governments administer states.  States have a monopoly of violence in territory.

 

Politics as a field of study divided into different subfields.

This course, will serve as a brief introduction to two of the subfields, Comparative Politics and International Relations, the international side of politics.

 

Studying international politics, studying comparative politics is important because being informed is part of being an educated person, helps to understand our own system, helps to be a better citizen—able to evaluate US policy toward other countries.  I always say the content of this course is the basics of what it takes to be an educated person in 200X.

 

So, what is Comparative Politics, what we'll study in the first half of this course?  Using one of the definitions we developed earlier, comparative politics becomes, the art and science of other countries’ governments. (or, who gets what, when, and where—over there in those countries.) 

 

An important part of what we do in Comparative Politics is Classifying Regimes

 

1.  Nature of Regime

Aristotelian classification: Number of Rulers

 

Number of Rulers

Rule in the General Interest

Rule in Self Interest

Social Group

One

Monarchy

Tyranny

King

Few

Aristocracy

Oligarchy

Wealthy/Nobles

Many

Democracy (polity)

Ochlocracy (Mob rule)

The Poor (All)

 

More Contemporary Classification: Democracy/Authoritarian/Totalitarian

2.  Political Culture

According to scholar Michael Curtis: "Community-held beliefs, feelings, and values that influence political behavior" transmitted through socialization (family, media, literature).

US v. Singapore political culture (groups/individuals, elites/hierarchy and equality, democracy/paternalism, desire for participation/desire to be cared for)

 

Barack Obama (MSNBC)  Lee Kuan Yew, former prime minister of Singapore (WIkimedia Commons)

 

3.  Development

 

POLITICAL DEVELOPMENT:

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT:

 

4.  Economic System (varies  by state role and relative importance of equality).

 

Now, how do we go about studying a question scientifically in Comparative Politics?

 

Our question: why do governments in some areas perform better than others?  Rather than randomly collecting facts and opinions about governments all over the world, you would formulate a scientific study of the issue.  In theory, you would use existing literature on politics, as well as theories on governmental performance, and your own observations to inform the development of a hypothesis (a tentative explanation that you will subsequently investigate/test)

 

Research the literature, develop a hypothesis, test the hypothesis, see whether it is demonstrated or not.  If it is demonstrated, then you have developed scientific support for your explanation.

 

Why do some governments perform better than others?  One potential answer: Because of the level of social capital in the populace (degree to which population involved and aware).

 

Then, you would organize a test of your hypothesis to determine whether or not it was correct.

 

Study done by a political scientist named Robert Putnam: Making Democracy Work Regional governments in Italy.  Why do some work better than others?  What he found was that in some areas where social capital was high (where people read the newspaper and joined civic organizations), government worked better; in some areas, where social capital was lower, government did not work as well.

 

Study conducted in Italy but Putnam believed it was generalizable (applies to other countries as well) Has been working since on social capital and US organizational life.  US problems because people "bowl alone" rather than joining bowling leagues.  He believes that democracy can't function effectively if we all cocoon at home. We must interact with and trust each other; we must inform ourselves about the affairs of the community in order for democracy to function effectively.

 

That’s an example of the science of comparative politics.  Problem, design of a scientific inquiry, development of a conclusion.  Test generalization.

 

Approaches to Comparative Politics

 

If I ask you why is voter turnout lower in the United States (35-55% legislative races, 50-60% presidential races) than Italy (average turnout for parliamentary races 80%), how would you attempt to find out?

 

Approaches offer guides to us as to how to structure our inquiries.

I will not mention all the approaches, just some of the most important.

 

1.  Systems Theory

Politics as an interrelated system.

Inputs demands –government—outputs policies (with feedback).

Used often with the study of policy.  How did a particular policy come out?  Result of demands of different groups, their weight.  Consider prescription drug coverage for seniors.

 

HELP US WITH OUR STUDY OF US AND ITALIAN VOTER TURNOUT?

 

2.  Rational Choice

Among the newer of the approaches, developed from insights by economics that people attempt to maximize their utility (total satisfaction).

 

Why do people vote less in the United States than in Italy?  Rational choice theorists might assume that people in the US believe that their vote doesn’t matter; therefore, casting it would not be useful.  Or, they might hypothesize that Americans have X number of hours in a day, decide to do something other than vote because that will be more useful to them, maximize their utility.

 

HELP US WITH OUR STUDY OF US AND ITALIAN VOTER TURNOUT?

 

3.  Institutional Analysis

This is what we will do a lot of in this class.  Forms the bedrock of Comparative Politics.  We will look at different institutions of government in different countries and see how different institutional set-ups lead to different processes and outcomes.

 

Institutions are not just physical bodies.  Institutions are the structures and RULES of politics.  So, we will look at Britain’s parliament (a physical institution) as well as Britain’s Constitution (a set of rules, and unwritten at that).

Textbook gets us started on the basics of the institutional set-up of government: executives, legislatures, judiciaries, parliamentary systems, presidential systems, semi-presidential systems, electoral systems, federal and unitary. We will expand on this as we go through country-by-country.

 

So, if we wanted to apply our institutional analysis to understanding differing levels of voter turnout in the US and Italy, we might look at different structures and RULES that make voting harder in the United States (having to register), or make votes count less (Electoral College) than in some other countries.

Turnout in the 2008 presidential race was 62% nationally. In the states that started the movement for election-day registration--Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Maine--turnout was higher, in the 70s.  North Carolina initiated Election Day registration (one-stop voting at early voting) and turnout rose 10.8%. Battleground status, of course, helped to push turnout higher. These numbers are % of voting eligible not % of registered.

 

HELP US WITH OUR STUDY OF US AND ITALIAN VOTER TURNOUT?

 

4.  Political Development

Explore this more in classes on politics of developing areas, or next level comparative politics course.

Family of approaches that look at how politics functions based on a country’s level of development.

For example, if you want to understand voter turnout in Malaysia, look at other countries having passed through similar levels of development.

Assumption that economic stage affects political structures (traditional authority [tribal sheikh], charismatic authority [personal magnetism Castro in Cuba], bureaucratic authority [regime based on rules, officials])

 

HELP US WITH OUR STUDY OF US AND ITALIAN VOTER TURNOUT?

 

5.  Political Cleavages

Explain politics through class, religion, caste, ethnicity, tribe conflicts.

Marxist analysis explain politics through class conflict.

Clash of religion/ethnicity useful in understanding Indian politics.  Frequent and deadly Hindu-Muslim violence.

Conflicts between tribes over economic and political resources key to understanding Rwandan genocide.

 

HELP US WITH OUR STUDY OF US AND ITALIAN VOTER TURNOUT?

 

Other approaches:
Geography

History

Political Culture

Globalization—interrelationship of domestic and international factors.

 

DO ANY OF THESE HELP US WITH OUR STUDY OF US AND ITALIAN VOTER TURNOUT?

 

Now, should you be totally confused?  Is there no one right answer in Comparative Politics?  What’s a student to do?

 

Usually, when it comes to designing a study of a political problem, there are many different approaches one can take.

One wise thing to remember is to consider that there are a variety of approaches, so if you don’t find what you are looking for by looking at the problem one way, keep looking for other explanatory factors.  If it’s not institutions, perhaps it’s culture, perhaps it’s rational choice.  Oftentimes, the answer is in a combination of approaches.

 

As we start our journey in Comparative Politics, we are not designing grand studies of comparative political problems, our goal is simpler: to describe and explain different political phenomena.  And here there are right and wrong answers.  So, students can have confidence as they approach their studies.

 

Turn to op-ed for the day and practice reading critically.

 

 

Updated August 20, 2010

Author: tanp@uncw.edu

Return to Dr. Tan's homepage: http://people.uncw.edu/tanp