What Is Comparative Politics?
Jeffrey Kopstein and Mark Lichbach
Imagine that you could design the political order (e.g., democracy in the United States, Communist Party dominance in China) for a country of your choosing. Where would you start? Who would get to rule? What rules for political life would you choose? Could you make rules that would be fair to everyone? If not, whom would these rules favor and whom would they disadvantage? Would they be rules that even those at the “bottom” of the social order, the poorest and least powerful people, would agree to? What would be the rules for changing the rules? These are difficult questions because to answer them in a meaningful way requires an understanding of why and how different countries of the world are governed differently. With so many choices to make, it is easy to see why the job of designing a constitution would be such a difficult one. It could, however, be made easier. One might start by evaluating the existing possibilities as exemplified by the various forms of government in the states of the world. The state is an organization that possesses sovereignty over a territory and its people. Yet, within our world of states, no two are ruled in exactly the same way. Why should this be the case? Why are societies run, and political orders designed, in so many different ways? What consequences do these differences hold for a people’s well-being? Comparativists (i.e., political scientists who study and compare the politics of different countries) believe that it is possible to provide answers to these questions, and in this book students will begin to understand the craft of comparative politics. Even if it is not possible to design a country as one sees fit, it is possible to understand why countries develop the way they do and why they are ruled as they are. By comparing the range of possible political responses to global opportunities and constraints, we can begin to offer explanations for why countries develop as they do and evaluations about the trade-offs 1
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JEFFREY KOPSTEIN AND MARK LICHBACH
involved under different political orders. Understanding and explaining the differences among the politics of countries are really the core concerns of comparative politics. COMPARATIVE POLITICS AND POLITICAL SCIENCE
Within political science, comparative politics is considered one of the major “subfields.” How is it situated in relation to the other subfields? Let us consider two that are among the most closely related: political theory and international relations. In some ways, the first comparativists were political theorists. Two thousand years ago, the ancient Greek political theorists Plato and Aristotle identified different kinds of political orders – such as aristocracy (literally “the rule of the best”), oligarchy (“the rule of the few”), democracy (“the rule of the people”), and tyranny (the rule of the tyrant) – and wrote carefully argued treatises on which form of government is the best. Although they offered basic explanations for why one type of government changed into another, they were more interested in justifying what is the right kind of government than in telling us systematically why we get the kind of government that we do. Contemporary political theorists within political science continue this venerable tradition. They continue to write about different kinds of political orders and analyze the structure of ideas about those...