Political Science For Dummies
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From early Greek political philosophy to current international conflicts, political science is a study in how people come together, interact, become informed, and make decisions that affect everyone. Studying political science allows you to become educated on political issues, make decisions, and discover how politics is made at the local, national, and international level. Take a look at the list of important political scientists and their major works to guide you through the evolution of political science. Also, read through major political science concepts to give you a well-rounded view of political science as a vital discipline.

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Key political scientists and their works

Socrates, Circa 470–399 BCE: Socrates was the first to discuss the concept of virtue and associate it with ethical behavior. Socrates also gave us the Socratic method, which involves intense questioning of students.

Plato, 427–347 BCE: Plato discussed how politics can be used to bring about justice in society. In 360 BCE, Plato’s The Republic was published.

Aristotle, 384–322 BCE: Aristotle was a student of Plato. He was the first to combine philosophy and politics and create a typology of different forms of governments. In 335 BCE, Aristotle wrote Politics.

St. Augustine, 354–430 CE: St. Augustine was a Catholic philosopher who fused the thoughts of Plato with Catholic teachings.

St. Thomas Aquinas, 1225–1274 CE: St. Aquinas integrated Aristotle’s concept of people being able to reason with Catholic doctrines.

Niccolo Machiavelli, 1469–1527: Machiavelli claimed that power is the key to politics. In 1532, The Prince was published after Machiavelli’s death.

Thomas Hobbes, 1588–1679: Hobbes agreed with Machiavelli that power is the key to politics and stated that people voluntarily give up their freedoms for security. In 1651, Hobbes’s Leviathan was published.

John Locke, 1632-1704: Locke came up with the idea that human beings are principled and bright and therefore can live with a limited government and self-rule. His Two Treatises of Government was published in 1690.

Montesquieu, 1689–1755: Montesquieu created the concepts of separation of powers and checks and balances. In 1748, The Spirit of the Laws was published (first English version was published in 1750).

Jean Jacques Rousseau, 1712–1778: Rousseau believed that people are born free and can peacefully live in a state of nature without government. Their goodness is destroyed by the advent of private property. In 1762, Rousseau’s The Social Contract was published.

Edmund Burke, 1729–1797: A conservative political theorist, who was opposed to the French Revolution, Burke claimed that people are on occasion irrational and driven by emotions, which can result in the destruction of traditional institutions.

Adam Smith, 1723–1790: Smith created the concept of laissez faire capitalism, advocating for a small, limited role of government in the economy. His The Wealth of Nations was published in 1776.

John Stuart Mill, 1806–1873: Mill argued that the more active people are in politics, the more satisfied they will be with their government.

Karl Marx, 1818–1883: Marx was one of the founders of Communism. He argued that societies develop through class conflict until Communism has been reached. The Communist Manifesto, written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, was published. In 1867, Marx’s Das Kapital (Volume I) was published.

Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, or just Lenin, 1870–1924: Lenin was a major Russian political theorist who instigated the Russian Revolution and created the Soviet Union in 1922. Lenin’s books Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism and The State and Revolution were published in 1917.

Hans Morgenthau, 1904–1980: Morgenthau brought back realism to the United States and American foreign policy in his work Politics among Nations (1948).

Vladimir Orlando Key Jr., 1908-1963: V. O. Key was one of the most famous political scientists studying American politics. He not only created the concepts of realignment and dealignment but also was the first to study the impact of interest groups on American politics.

Gabriel Almond, 1911–2002: Almond not only brought behavioralism to comparative politics but also created the concept of the civic culture (with Sidney Verba) to explain how an ideal political culture can sustain democracy. Their book The Civic Culture was published in 1963.

David Easton, 1917–2014: Easton not only created the school of postbehavioralism but also gave the world the input/output model to explain policy making.

John Rawls, 1921–2002: Rawls created the concept of a theory of justice, arguing for a political system based on social justice. In 1971, Rawls’s A Theory of Justice was published.

Kenneth Waltz, 1924–2013: Waltz created the idea of the three image (level) explanation for international conflict. His Man, the State, and War: A Theoretical Analysis was published in 1959.

Robert Gilpin, 1930–2018: In his work, War and Change in World Politics, published in 1981, Gilpin introduced the theory of hegemonic stability.

Major Political Science Concepts

Authoritarianism: In an authoritarian state, the government controls many aspects of its citizens’ lives; however, it doesn’t exercise complete control over people.

Balance of power: A theory that stipulates that as long as all great powers are similar in size and power, the world will be in balance and peace will result.

Behavioralism: The study of human beings and their behavior. Behavioralism was a direct response to the failures of traditionalism and was an attempt to turn political science and the social sciences overall into real scientific disciplines.

Bicameralism: A political system in which two legislative houses, usually one lower and one upper house, exist.

Cabinet: A cabinet consists of the appointed officials of the executive.

Cadre party: A decentralized and part-time political party whose major purpose is to win office. The United States has Cadre political parties.

Capitalism: An economic system that is also referred to as a free market economy. It’s the number-one economic system in the advanced industrialized world. Under capitalism, property, and the means of production, such as factories, are privately owned.

Checks and balances: A form of government where each branch of government shares power with the others and can therefore check the others.

Cold War: The period between 1946 until 1991 is called the Cold War because there were no large-scale physical conflicts (wars) between the two great powers, the United States and the Soviet Union.

Communism: A political and economic system where a classless society exists. It’s based on the concept of communalism — everything is owned by the community, and people are provided for by the community.

Critical realignment: A core group of a political party’s supporters switching to the opposition. This switch also creates a new majority party.

Confederation: A confederation is a very loose organization of localities or states. In a confederation, these localities and states hold all the political power. The central government itself has none or only a few powers.

Constitution: Written document that outlines the whole structure of a political system. Constitutions include the distribution of power among institutions and also basic individual rights.

Dealignment: A core group of supporters leaving a political party and refusing to join another political party.

Democracy: A form of government in which political power is vested in the people.

Direct democracy: A type of democracy where the people directly make policy.

Economic liberalism: A political and economic theory based on support for a market economy and private property. Economic liberals are afraid of government intervention in the economy and thus support only a small limited government.

Elite theory: A theory that a few powerful groups will consistently prevail in public policy making, often at the expense of the majority.

Empirical theory: A theory that tests its propositions.

Fascism: An authoritarian ideology that is highly nationalistic, militaristic, and in many instances openly racist.

Federal system of government: A system of government where subnational levels of governments not only exist but also have independent powers.

Globalization: The integration of countries through increasing trade and contact.

Human rights: Rights essential to human beings.

Idealism: School of thought that emphasizes the role of knowledge, reason, compassion, and self-restraint in international relations.

Incumbents: Elected officials who currently hold office.

Independent: A voter who doesn’t identify with a political party.

Interest aggregation: The act of joining like-minded citizens to acquire political power.

Interest group: An organization that seeks to influence public policy.

International law: A body of rules and principles that are binding upon civilized states.

International political economy (IPE): An interdisciplinary approach, incorporating the disciplines of political science and economics and relying on history, sociology, and even anthropology, to study the relationship between states in the international economic arena.

Judicial review: The power of courts to declare laws of the legislature or acts of the executive unconstitutional, thereby nullifying them.

League of Nations: Proposed by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, the League of Nations was an international organization designed to prevent war. The organization was based on the concept of collective security, where an attack on one member equaled an attack on all members, thereby outlawing war.

Legitimacy: The belief that a government’s power over its population is rightful.

Lobbying: Contacting members of the legislative, executive, or judicial branches of government in an attempt to influence policy or administrative decisions.

Mass party: A centralized and full-time political party whose major purpose is to represent a certain ideological viewpoint.

Mercantilism: One of the oldest economic theories around. It, unlike economic liberalism, believes that politics and economics are related and that economics is supposed to serve a nation’s interest.

Multiparty system: A political system in which more than two parties have a realistic chance of winning political offices.

Neofascism: Post-WWII ideology that incorporates significant elements of Fascism but also rejects violence and advocates gaining power democratically.

Neorealism: An update to classical realism by including the role international law, international organizations, and domestic politics can play in international relations.

Normative theory: A theory that looks at how things ought to and should be and not how they really are.

Parliamentary system: A political system in which the executive is selected by the legislative.

Partisan: A voter who identifies with a political party.

Party identification: People connecting with a political party.

Party platform: A document drawn up that outlines a party’s policies and principles.

Pluralism: A theory that public policy should be made by competing interest groups to ensure that no single interest group will prevail all the time.

Political culture: A set of attitudes and practices held by citizens that in turn shapes their political behavior in society.

Political ideology: A belief system (Weltanschauung) that shapes how people see and analyze politics. An ideology affects people’s outlook on the world and the role they play in it. It determines how people see everything and everybody.

Political party: A group of citizens who organize to contest elections, win public office, and impact policy making.

Political power: The ability to get others to do what you want. It can take force or peaceful means, such as persuasion, to achieve this.

Political science: An academic discipline that studies the relationship between people and political institutions.

Political socialization: The term refers to the process of how people acquire their political values.

Populism: A movement that challenges the established values and rules of the political establishment.

Postbehavioralism: A methodological approach that combines aspects of traditionalism and behavioralism.

Presidential system: A political system in which the executive is selected separately from the legislative.

Proportional representation: An electoral system in which seats are allocated based on the proportion of the vote a party receives.

Realignment: A core group of supporters of a political party switching to the opposition party.

Realism: School of thought that emphasizes the role of the state, national interest, and military power in international relations.

Representative democracy: A type of democracy where the people elect representatives to make policy on their behalf.

Separation of powers: A form of government where powers are divided between the legislative, executive, and the judiciary.

Single-member district electoral system: An electoral system in which the person who wins the most votes in a district is elected to office.

Social contract theory: Theories on the relationship between state and people.

Social democracy: The mildest form of socialism, advocating for the retention of private property in a society but calling for a large welfare state and some state-owned industries. The free market remains in place.

Socialism: A political and economic system where most property is owned by the state and a centralized planning agency that plans for all of society replaces the free market.

Sovereignty: Sovereignty is also called the essence of statehood. It’s what makes a country legitimate in the eyes of the world.

State: The Treaty of Westphalia established the current state system in 1648. A state is an entity with a defined territory and an established sovereign government.

State capitalism: A modern variant of mercantilism, this economic theory believes that the government has the right and even obligation to intervene in the economy. This can be accomplished through direct ownership of enterprises or other forms of economic planning. But private property is legal, and the majority of the economy is privately owned.

State socialism: Advocates a direct state role within a nation’s economy, but private property isn’t allowed. In other words, the state owns all the property in a society. A prime example is the former Soviet Union where the state owned all the property and a private market wasn’t allowed to function.

Terrorism: The deliberate use of violence against civilians for political or religious ends.

The Concert of Europe: The Concert of Europe was the political system in Europe, based on the balance of power concept, that lasted until the outbreak of World War I. It provided Europe for almost a century with peace (despite some minor conflicts).

Theory: A general explanation of behavior or events.

Treaty of Westphalia: The Treaty of Westphalia set the foundation for a new international structure in Europe in 1648. Entities called states were created, replacing the old empires.

Traditionalism: A methodological approach that is descriptive and configurative in nature and employs normative theory.

Totalitarianism: In a totalitarian state, the government exercises total control over its citizens.

Two-party system: A political system in which only two parties have a realistic chance of winning political office.

Unicameralism: A political system in which there is only one legislature.

Unitary system of government: A system of government where all power is located with the central government. Although lower levels of governments, such as counties or departments, can exist, these don’t have independent powers. All power is derived from the central government.

United Nations (UN): An international organization that attempts to maintain peace and security in the international arena.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Marcus A. Stadelmann, PhD, is a professor of political science and chair of the Department of Political Science and History at the University of Texas at Tyler. Along with teaching at universities in California, Utah, and Texas, Dr. Stadelmann has published and given presentations in the fields of American politics and international relations.

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