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Politics: Definition and Source of Governmental Conflict

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  • 4:50 The Role of Politics
  • 7:05 Conflict
  • 9:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will explore the concept of politics. We will examine the various definitions of the word, take a close look at the role of politics in government, and investigate the conflicts sometimes caused by politics.

What Is Politics?

In this lesson, we will investigate the concept of politics. We will examine its various definitions, take a close look at its role in government, and explore the conflicts it often causes. Let's visit a political science class that is just beginning to study the nature of politics and listen in on the students' discussion.

The professor tells his students that thinkers, writers, and scholars have been debating the definition and nature of politics for centuries, but they still have not reached a consensus on the meaning of the word. He invites the class to try to answer the question, 'What is politics?'

Amanda speaks up first. 'Politics is the art of government,' she says. 'It's what states and governments do, and it encompasses everything that concerns running the government, like creating policies, holding public office, wielding authority, making decisions and laws for the good of society, and then enforcing those decisions and laws. Politics is practiced primarily by people directly active in the governmental system, like the president and lawmakers.'

Jake is shaking his head. 'Oh, no!' he exclaims. 'I disagree. That definition is far too narrow. Politics is about so much more than government. I read that political scientist Hannah Arendt once called it the interaction of 'free and equal citizens' in society. It reaches into everything in the public sphere - the government, of course, but also business, school, culture, work, and art - and it involves everybody because we all live in a community. That means we're all political; like Aristotle said, 'Man is by nature a political animal.' '

Rob wrinkles his nose. 'Well, that's all very interesting,' he remarks, 'but I think it's too abstract. I see politics as more of a process than an idea. To me, politics is all about conflict resolution. It uses tools, like negotiation, conciliation, and compromise, to solve problems peacefully without violence. For example, politics is what solves conflicts between countries through dialogue and diplomacy rather than by war.'

Jennifer tips her head to one side and then smirks. 'Hmmm...' she replies, 'That's very pretty and very idealistic, but it's not very realistic. I think politics is all about power. Let's face it; our resources are scarce. There's only so much money and so many material things to go around, but our desires are unlimited, so we have to determine somehow who gets what and when. Politics is the power struggle that occurs as we all try get our share of the resources. Those who have more power are more successful in this game, which takes place wherever people are, in the government, in the community, among nations, and even at home with family and friends. It's a dog-eat-dog world out there, and politics helps us negotiate it.

Kevin laughs. 'You've hit the nail on the head with that last statement,' he tells Jennifer. 'It's definitely a dog-eat-dog world, but I think that politics only contributes to the problem. It's all about manipulation, lies, hatred, and corruption. It just causes trouble, and I don't think any good comes out of it. Maybe I'm being cynical, but I agree with the writer Ernest Benn who once said, 'Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it whether it exists or not, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedy.' ' The whole class bursts into laughter.

The Role of Politics in Government

The professor steps back in front of the class. 'You've come up with some great definitions for politics,' he begins, 'and I think you're beginning to see that politics is a complex concept. All your definitions are meaningful. No matter how we define the term, though, politics is a reality that we all have to deal with in our democratic nation, and it plays a major role in the day-to-day activities of the government. Can anyone give me a few scenarios to illustrate this?'

Hands shoot up throughout the classroom, and the professor writes the students' ideas on the board. Each shows politics in action.

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