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What is Low Politics? - Definition, Types & Examples

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Some political matters get top priority, while others don't. Does this mean they don't matter as much? It's not quite that simple. In this lesson, we'll explore low politics and see why they're still relevant.

Low and High Politics

When there are a million decisions to make, something has to take priority and something else has to take the back seat. That's just a reality of governing. So, how do we decide what matters are of the most importance?

One traditional way to answer this is to divide the affairs of state into high and low politics. High politics are those which are absolutely necessary for the survival of the state. This includes issues involving the military, national security, and diplomacy. On the other hand, issues that aren't vital to survival are deemed to be low politics. Generally, this includes economic and social concerns, along with most domestic issues. It's the difference between matters of survival and matters of administration. Low politics allow the state to function, but if something goes wrong, we don't expect an enemy army to immediately destroy the country. So, in this model, items of low politics take the back seat to national security concerns. That's low.

Characteristics of Low Politics

So, what exactly characterizes low politics? While the term doesn't have a single, strict set of identifiers, there are some common traits we see in issues of low politics.

For one, low politics tend to include domestic matters. If it's something that can be handled internally, without having to interact with foreign governments or peoples at all, then it's a matter of low politics. International issues can be part of low politics as well, such as global finance, but the fact remains that nearly all domestic issues are within this category.

While national leaders are more likely to be handling matters of national security, issues of low politics are generally delegated
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Additionally, low politics matters are rarely handled directly by the people on top. While presidents, prime ministers, and their cabinets deal personally with international diplomacy, making alliances and conducting national security, they delegate economic and social matters to bureaucratic administrators. Since national leaders tend to put their efforts into high politics first, low politics can be handled by other trusted governing staff.

So, where can we see low politics in action? The economy, job markets, infrastructure development, arts programs, education, healthcare, and the environment are all matters of low politics in most modern societies. From staffing the DMV to hosting the Olympics, low politics may be important, but they aren't essential to survival.

Importance of Low Politics

The dichotomy of high and low politics sets up an immediate contrast, and the assumption is that high politics must be better or more important than low politics. While the categorization does emphasize making high politics a priority, by no means can we say that low politics are unimportant.

While fun, hosting the Olympics is deemed as an issue of low politics
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For starters, low politics covers all of the day-to-day actions of governance and administration that keeps a country functioning. If you want roads to be fixed, playgrounds to be built, and hospitals to be staffed, then you need low politics.

In wider terms, however, more and more national leaders are starting to see low politics as an important part of international relations, especially in tense situations. Since high politics include the issues that most nations take the most seriously during negotiations and diplomacy, this can be a hard place to reach compromises. By contrast, low politics offers countless aspects of society where antagonistic countries can start compromising. You need sheep? We can trade you sheep, and then we can co-host an international wool festival! (That's just an example, by the way; that exchange has never actually happened).

Issues of low politics have proven to be great places to open dialogue about cooperative solutions, since these issues are generally less sensitive and tensions around them are lower. Then, by starting with small compromises, countries can begin working together on larger problems.

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