Tools for Political Understanding

18:09 Wed 03 Jan 2007
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In conversation with my friend Sharon this evening, I started thinking about what tools can help people understand politics. I don’t mean “big stuff” like elections and how various chambers of government and so on, but a general approach that can serve as a basis for looking at any political situation.

Before I go any further, I must reiterate that these are basic suggestions only, and that anything beyond a casual interest should be furthered by reading Machiavelli‘s The Prince.

The first question I usually ask is: who benefits? An obvious question, but not always one with obvious answers. The beneficiary may not be immediately involved in whatever event is under analysis, and may seem counter-intuitive (especially when internal and external politics are both involved—for example, a ruling group may benefit internally from an external attack upon their domain).
(“Who benefits?” is often expressed in Latin, cui bono?)

The second question: what resources are involved? In contemporary settings, this can often (not always) be rephrased as “follow the money”. Resource control is fundamental to political conflict, and so figuring out what those resources are helps with any analysis of a specific event or situation.

The third question: what emotions are being encouraged? Politics is almost never the naked struggle over resources. So various tricks are used to disguise the real issues, and the most common way of ensuring that people don’t think about how to penetrate the disguise is to get them too emotionally worked up to think much. Fear and anger are probably the most common ones, but more or less all human emotions get exploited this way. So, in analyzing a situation or event, examine what emotions are appealed to, and how the various agents involved attempt to make people feel.

Those are the basic ones that I tend to start with. I really think that asking just those three helps a lot.

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One Response to “Tools for Political Understanding”

  1. lusciousblopster Says:

    good conversation is good for the mind… reading this a few months later, following the link from the legotown article. one thing that struck me reading both that post and this, is to utilize a basic element of feminist analysis, which is to ask, whose voices? whose voices are being heard in the situation – this give an immediate clue to who holds the power. the converse is to ask, whose voices are absent – both actively silenced, and passively not present – where the discourse has been framed so that is does not even occur to the audience that alternative voices or views are possible. as presenting only one view makes obvious that any opposition is absent, usually there are two views portrayed as the only ways of seeing an issue, in opposition to one another – the discourse is determined as (usually, particularly in the Western political/philosophical tradition) a narrow forum of ‘debate’ between two views, and the audience is caught up in that opposition and forgets about even the possibility of any other forms, particularly a more radical voice that would question the structure or definition of the issue as a whole. another aspect is to think about the voices that are present but hidden, and others that are ‘voiced’ but not heard. asking ‘whose voices?’ has been useful to me as a basic tool of political understanding.

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