Friday, May 4, 2012

What is Politics And How Can We Analyze It?

Probably the most familiar definition of politics is by David Easton, who defines politics as “the authoritative allocation of values for a society.” What Easton means is that politics involves the distribution of important things (values) for the whole society. What he means by “authoritative” is that those making decisions about the distribution have the legal right to do so. Who has this authority and what is its source? Most people would think of the three branches of government—legislative, executive, and judicial—and note that the authority is derived from a constitution. Thus, what the government may do authoritatively is prescribed by the constitution. But other entities, such as private corporations, also make authoritative allocations of values that affect the whole society. Thus, politics can involve both public and private decisions.

In the American Creed, there are three ideas that reflect important values in American political thought: Individualism, equality, and liberty. These constitute the values that government—through its policies—may promote. There are two normative questions about the role of government in a society: (1) What should government do? That is, what goals or values may government pursue through its policies? (2) How much government should there be? That is, when does government policy reach the point of being too much government? These questions still pervade politics in the United States and Texas. For example, the Tea Party movement was formed to offer an answer to these questions. However, note that most Americans, and surely most Texans, favor a government that is limited in its scope. We don’t want a big, intrusive government.

So, what do Americans and Texans mean by the three ideas? First, among the three ideas, individualism is the most important. This has been recognized by American scholars as well as by early visitors to the United States. As far as Texas is concerned, individualism holds a special place atop the hierarchy of values. Everett Carll Ladd, in The American Ideology: An Exploration of the Origins, Meaning, and Role of American Political Ideas, states:

To understand the American ideology, we need to see individualism not as a dimension of individual character but rather as a moral standard by which social institutions and practices are judged. . . . Individualism, in a fundamental sense, sees each person as the equal of every other. The worth of a society is to be judged on how well it meets the needs and interests of all individuals making it up. Individuals have claims to life, libert, property, and happiness which involve not mere wishes but fundamental rights. No institutions which thwart individual claims can be legitimate. These are among the central tenets of the American public philosophy of liberal individualism—a moral system first, and only secondarily a political one.

Thus, individualism recognizes the right of each individual to act in accordance with his own conscience, free from social constraints. This is closely aligned with the American conception of freedom. Again, Ladd points out the distinctive character of freedom to Americans:

The American idea of freedom is of the “leave me alone” variety. It sees freedom as a condition achieved when individuals are permitted as much as possible to make their own choices. It’s “negative” in the sense that it is achieved in the absence of something—government intervention—rather than in the accrual of “positive” government guarantees. “Don’t tread on me,” the old Revolutionary War flag proclaimed. That’s freedom. When I’m not being tread upon.

The preceding definition of freedom is what most political scientists would term liberty—freedom from government.

Finally, we need to address the meaning of equality. Ladd maintains that “America’s public philosophy posits a broad commitment to social equality—which includes rejecting ideas of rank and deference in social relations, extending individual opportunity, and recognizing individual achievement (emphasis in original).” Ladd notes that economic equality is not favored by Americans. On the political front, equality means, at its base, “one person, one vote.” Americans recognize that political equality is foundational to democracy—another element of the American Creed.

With an understanding of the three values or goals whose furtherance with governmental power is deemed legitimate, let’s turn to how these values can be used to analyze American and Texan politics. As noted earlier, individualism is the first and most important value; therefore, it is the anchor for all politics. Liberty places limits on governmental action; equality demands government action to ensure its existence. The relationship among the three values can be illustrated in the following diagram:

As the diagram illustrates, individualism is the base value. Other values, such as liberty and equality, require an intrusion on individualism. For example, efforts by government to increase opportunities for some infringe upon the individual freedom of others to act in accordance with their own consciences. Likewise, freedoms—individual liberties—infringe upon individual rights. On the horizontal axis, at the extreme right, is social order, by which is meant traditional social order. For example, some people believe that there is no individual right to terminate a pregnancy. Those people believe that traditional social norms and mores require that a pregnant woman carry her fetus to term. On the other hand, some people believe that a woman has a right, until the fetus becomes viable outside the womb, to terminate the pregnancy. I think you get the picture.

Now, if ideas are important to Americans and Texans and if there are different conceptions of which value is more important (equality or individualism, individualism or social order), then people will organize their political views around the values that they cherish more. For example, if the issue involves individualism vs. equality, and the person values equality over individualism, then they will support a government policy that promotes greater equality. If the opposite is true, then the person will oppose any policy that promotes greater equality, arguing that it is an infringement upon one’s individual freedom. The Supreme Court decision in 1954 ending segregation in public schools is a good example of a conflict involving these values.

If a person holds consistent views on the scope and purpose of government—that is how much government should there be and what value should government promote—political scientists consider that person to possess a political ideology or to be an ideologue. Using the four ideas noted above, we can construct a typology of political ideologies in America and Texas.

The typology builds on work by William S. Maddox and Stuart A. Lilie in Beyond Liberal and Conservative: Reassessing the Political Spectrum (1984) and Kenneth Janda, Jeffrey M. Berry, and Jerry Goldman in The Challenge of Democracy: American Government in Global Politics, 11th ed. (2012).

In the next post, we'll consider these ideologies as they relate to Texas politics and the institutions of Texas government.

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