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Concepts and Theories in Politics

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Concepts and Theories in Politics
Welcome to Introduction to Politics! This lecture will supplement what you will hear in class. I’m going to discuss some important methodological and substantive issues having to do with political science, including the role of concepts and theories, human nature and politics, and ideologies. If you need more background, I suggest taking a look at Sheldon Wolin, Politics and Vision; C.B. Macpherson, The Real World of Democracy; or Robert Dahl, A Preface to Democratic Theory. To begin with, in some ways it is a misnomer to speak of political “science.” One crucial difference between political science and the natural sciences is that in the latter there is normally only one dominant paradigm at a time, while in the former there are what might be called competing paradigms. As T.S. Kuhn establishes in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, there was a paradigm shift from the Ptolemaic to the Copernican universe; in other words, from the idea that the Earth is the center of the universe we move to the idea that the Earth in fact goes around the sun, a radical conception when it was first put forward in 16th-century Europe but one that is now universally accepted. In the social sciences, however, there is no overriding consensus on how to analyze reality (or even on what counts as reality). In political science, for example, three major views may be distinguished on power and authority in the United States: (a) the pluralist model, in which power is dispersed among competing elites and the citizens have ultimate authority; (b) the power elite model, in which one relatively unified elite (with corporate, military, and political branches) aggregates power to itself; and (c) the governing class model, in which the corporate ruling class dominates the other segments of the power elite. Figures associated with these models are (a) the earlyRobert Dahl (the later Dahl changed his position dramatically, as reflected in his Preface to Economic Democracy), (b) C. Wright Mills (The Power Elite), and (c) G. William Domhoff (Who Rules America? and Who Rules America Now?). Antecedents include (a) James Madison’s Federalist Papers, (b) Roberto Michels’ Political Parties (with its “Iron Law of Oligarchy”), and (c) Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto and The Class Struggles in France (among others). This is not to say that there is no way to assess the relative claims of these models, merely that no agreement exists among practitioners of political science as to which is most accurate. (It should be added that occasionally there are fundamental disputes in the natural sciences, e.g., the debate over evolution vs. intelligent design. But this is more of an exception.) With respect to the establishment of a paradigm (or competing paradigms), note that it is not a matter of simply observing “the facts.” There are too many phenomena out there to study without some criteria of relative significance. For example, I took a course in which students were asked to record everything they could in 20 minutes in Harvard Square. Some students concentrated on the buildings, others on the cars, still others on the people, but nobody got “everything,” because there was simply too much to get. (Try it sometime and you’ll see what I mean.) So first you develop an idea of what’s important and then you see, through empirical observation, whether the idea makes sense. And even the word “ empirical” can be misleading. Some phenomena, like the rise of Nazism, require the kind of in-depth studies that include psychoanalytically oriented material. In Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents and Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism, the idea of Nazism as a pathology is advanced, which would require an in-depth discussion of aggressiveness (Freud’s “death instinct,” if you will) and sexuality to see how unconscious elements influence political and social developments. Someone who was a strict empiricist might exclude these factors as not observable, but arguably that would limit our understanding of such phenomena as the disturbing amount of popular support for Hitler and his crew. (See Syberberg’s incredible film Our Hitler for more on this, as well as Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will.) Besides the complicated methodological issues of how to study political phenomena, there are questions of what human nature is and how it affects politics (as well as how politics affects human nature). Are people fundamentally good? Are they sinful or otherwise damaged? Are they aggressive and/or self-destructive? These are examples of relevant questions about what people are like. In the 17th and 18th centuries, political philosophers debated these issues. Some, like Thomas Hobbes, believed that people were fundamentally selfish, acquisitive, and aggressive. Others, like John Locke, believed that people were acquisitive but inclined to be good. Still others, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, believed that people had the capacity to be good but only under optimal conditions. All three of these writers were social contract theorists, meaning that they subscribed to the idea (a fiction, really) that society was created by a contract among its members. This was certainly revolutionary for the time, since the Divine Right of Kings was the standard model for political authority through much of this period. But the idea that people could exist outside of society is not supported by the anthropological evidence: people (as well as many animals) have always existed in a community. (See the film Genie for the fate of a young girl who was brought up in virtually total isolation.) So it might be more helpful to view the idea of a pre-social “state of nature” as a kind of device to answer the question: what would people be like if they were taken out of society? (See Lord of the Flies for a modern treatment of this theme.) Hobbes, in a famous phrase, sees life in such a state of nature as “nasty, poor, brutish, and short,” and believes that only a strong “Leviathan” can curb people’s inherent tendency toward aggression and destruction. Locke, on the other hand, sees the state of nature as more idyllic and lacking only rules to adjudicate (mostly non-lethal) conflicts. Rousseau, for his part, has the most complicated analysis, seeing people as essentially peaceful but limited outside of society, with all sorts of possibilities opening up in a radically democratic society based on what he calls the “ general will,” which is a combination of the popular will and the general interest. We’ll come back to these ideas later, but for now the point is that just as with the definition of “political science” itself, so with the idea of human nature: fundamental disputes exist over what it is and how it affects politics (and how politics affects it: see Orwell’s 1984and Huxley’s Brave New World for accounts of how human nature might be fundamentally reshaped). Incidentally, just as “all of philosophy is a footnote to Plato” (Alfred North Whitehead), so political science owes a major debt to the author of The Republic, which you should read at some point ��� especially the Allegory of the Cave, which we will discuss next time. Finally, what about ideologies? An ideology may be described as a more or less comprehensive belief system that attempts to situate people’s place in the world and to remake that world according to certain principles. As opposed to merely empirical analysis, an ideology is engaged in normative activity; that is, it is discussing the way things should be or ought to be. Many, perhaps most, political scientists see a fundamental distinction between the two levels of analysis. Hegel, however, thought that in some sense the “ought” is contained in the “is,” and Marx agreed with him. You might say that just as the oak develops from the acorn, there are certain inherent potentialities in political and social institutions, which over time develop in a certain way. This is a historical account of what Hegel and Marx called the dialectic, where new social classes reshape the political map through revolutionary social struggles. Marx believed, for example, that what he called the proletariat (working class) could and should lead a popular movement against capitalism, which in any event he saw as a doomed system. For him, socialism – followed by pure communism – would represent the fulfillment of latent possibilities in human nature corresponding to the ideals of utopian thinkers from Plato onward. (One big difference between Plato and Marx is that Plato believed in rule by a philosophically trained elite, whereas Marx believed in revolutionary democracy.) So that’s socialism; you also have ideologies such as liberalism, conservatism, fascism, and anarchism. But even within one ideology, like liberalism, there can be major differences: classical liberalism believes in the free market and “night watchman” state, whereas modern-day liberalism is more inclined to put restrictions on the market and set up something of a welfare state; classical conservatism believes in small government, whereas what’s called “ neo-conservatism” believes in a very powerful state enforcing its dictates in imperialist fashion; and anarchism is either libertarian-individualist or communitarian-collectivist. On this latter point, Ayn Rand is quite the libertarian, whereas Ursula LeGuin sees herself as a communitarian. The two may be anarchists, but the net result is quite different.

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