Comparative Politics Student Notes 1

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Comparative government and politics provides an introduction to the wide, diverse world of governments and political practices that currently exist in modern times. Although the course focuses on specific countries, it also emphasizes an understanding of conceptual tools and methods that form a framework for comparing almost any governments that exist today. Additionally, it requires students to go beyond individual political systems to consider international forces that affect all people in the world, often in very different ways. Six countries form the core of the course: Great Britain, Russia, China, Mexico, Iran, and Nigeria. The countries are chosen to reflect regional variations, but more importantly, to illustrate how important concepts operate both similarly and differently in different types of political systems: "advanced" democracies, communist and post-communist countries, and newly industrialized and less developed nations. In addition to the six core countries, we study other countries around the world that reflect the specificities of the class taking the course. We also look at France, as the ASG is located in France, and make comparisons with the USA as all of you are either taking US Government this year or took it last year.

WHAT IS POLITICS?

Some people love politics. They may relish the excitement of political events, such as elections, as they would an exciting athletic contest (such as a Soccer World Cup). Others are fascinated with politics because they care about the issues and their consequences for people in their own communities or around the world. On the other hand, there are those who hate politics, either because it sets groups and individuals against each other, or because it involves abuse of power, deceit, manipulation, treachery, and violence. Finally, there are those who are indifferent to politics, who perhaps find it boring because it has little to do with the things that matter most to them. Politics has many faces and can be a force for good as well as evil.

This course is about the comparative study of politics. In order to make political comparisons, we need to understand what is meant by politics as well as what it means to study it comparatively. Politics has to do with human decisions, and political science is the study of such decisions.

Political decisions are public and authoritative. Politics always involves and has consequences for many human beings. Political decisions always take place within some community that we may call a political system. Yet, not all social decisions are public. Most of what happens within families, among friends, or within voluntary associations belongs to the private sphere. Societies vary greatly in the scope of the public versus the private sphere. In totalitarian societies, the public sphere is very large and private life very limited. Examples within the last 100 years have been Italy under Mussolini, Germany under Hitler, The USSR under Stalin, China under Mao Zedong and Cuba under Castro.

In other societies, the private domain may almost crowd out the public one. To complicate things even more, the boundaries between the public and private spheres get redrawn all the time. A couple of decades ago, the private lives of U.S. presidents or members of the British royal family were considered private matters, not to be discussed in public and certainly not by politicians. In recent years, this seems to have changed. There was a time in British history when certain religious beliefs were in considered treasonous (a threat to the ruling monarch, and therefore a public, political, threat). People who held such beliefs could be executed, as was Thomas More under King Henry VIII. Nowadays, most modern democracies consider religious beliefs to be private matters, though other societies may not. Yet, all societies maintain some distinction between public and private affairs. And although politics may be influenced by what happens in...
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