What Is Politics and How Does It Work?


By Ethan Hollander, Wabash College

Politics, to put it simply, is the way groups of people make decisions, even when people in the group want different things. This can be as small as a few friends deciding what toppings to get on a pizza, or a country of millions deciding who its leaders should be.

Male hand while playing chess, concept of politics and making decisions
How people make decisions is called politics. (Image: Totojang1977/Shutterstock)

Making Public Decisions

Politics can even be a group of countries deciding how they want to address a problem like climate change or migration. What all these scenarios have in common is that they involve situations where a group of actors wants or needs to make decisions that will affect each of them, but they all have different interests in terms of what those decisions should be.

You want anchovies; I want olives. But if we can only get one topping, what’s it going to be? Who gets his or her way, and who doesn’t? And how are we going to decide? Should we build a road? Sure. But where’s it going to go? What’s the speed limit going to be? And who’s going to pay for it? It’s easy to say that everyone should pay. But does that mean everyone equally, or should people who drive more pay more?

Politician sitting at a wooden table
In general, a small group of people makes decisions on behalf of the people in society. (Image: Salivanchuk Semen/Shutterstock)

The way public decisions are made in politics depends a lot on the situation. A group of friends deciding on where to go to dinner probably just talks it out until they come to a decision that everyone’s okay with.

But when we’re talking about something like a city or a country, direct decision-making and unanimous consent become impossible. So, we generally resort to having a small group of people make decisions on behalf of all of us. And then the key questions become: How do those decision-makers make their decisions? And how much say do we the people have in deciding who they are?

This article comes directly from content in the video series Democracy and Its Alternatives. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Political Institutions Keep the Divergence in Balance 

What’s important to remember is that every political situation involves a surrender of individual freedom: You give up some say over your own affairs in order to reap the benefits of living in a group. Most people are comfortable giving up some autonomy for the sake of those benefits. But how much autonomy you’re willing to give up, and for what—those are among the most intense political disagreements we have.

Typically, it’s our political institutions—the government and the law—that do the difficult work of reconciling our divergent interests. But when the views of people in society become too divergent, those institutions get stretched to the breaking point.

For instance, if a subset of society comes to feel as if they’ve been systematically excluded from the collective benefit, they might resort to violent means of getting what they want: things like riots, rebellion, and war. As Martin Luther King said, riots are “the language of the unheard”.

Of course, if violence comes about because people go around the established political institutions, you might be tempted to call violence a failure of politics. But to paraphrase the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz: War is simply the extension of politics by other means. In other words, trying to influence the decisions you’re subject to is a political act, whether you do so peacefully or otherwise.

The Intensity of Politics

That’s the fear that many people had in January 2021, when a violent mob converged on the US Capitol in Washington. The rioteers eventually went home, Congress certified the results, and President Trump stepped down. But that clearly wasn’t how presidential transitions were supposed to take place, especially not in a country that holds itself up as a beacon of democracy.

But divisions that led to the violence of 2021 clearly predated the 2020 elections. The partisanship, the polarization, the gridlock, even the rhetoric—these things were the culmination of a process that took decades. Whenever it started, people wonder if the intensity of politics today is a temporary blip or signs of deeper democratic decay.

A Global Phenomenon

Adding to their worries is the fact that the assault on liberal democracy appears to be a global process. In Europe, centrist political parties have been losing ground to more radical challengers from the right and left.

The situation also got worse in countries where democracy was less firmly established: Turkey, Brazil, Hungary, and the Philippines. Each of these countries elected strongmen who slowly chipped away at democratic institutions, solidifying their hold on power and instituting repressive policies—all in the name of law and order.

Common Questions about Politics and How It Works

Q: How can we define politics?

Politics can be defined as a way in which a group of people decides on a single thing despite their different desires. This can happen in a group of friends arguing over what kind of food to eat or among a nation deciding who is going to represent them. Politics can also be a group of countries that want to decide on important issues such as migration or climate change.

Q: Why do we need to have a small group of people making decisions on behalf of all people?

Because in politics, the way public decisions are always made depends on the existing situation. For example, when a group of friends plans to go to a restaurant, they talk about it to finally make a single decision. But it would be impossible to get everyone’s satisfaction in a city or a country. Therefore, public decision-making should be done by a group of people elected by all people.

Q: What happens when people’s views become too divergent in society?

When the government and the law fail to use politics to bring people’s divergent views together, those institutions will get close to breaking. For example, if a group of people in a society feel that they are systematically excluded from collective benefits, they may use violent means such as riots or war to make their voice heard.

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