Seven Theories of Politics: The Rehabilitation of a Loaded Vice Word

Part I:  Foundational Questions and The Centrist Politics: Old Institutionalists, Civic Republicans and Weberian Political Economists

“Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.”
— Pericles, 430 BC


Politics is a slippery set of actions

We normally think art and literature are different from politics, but how do we explain what the difference is? There are occasions when art and literature are banned by the state. What happens to make them political?

Which of these are political examples demonstrate that, and why?

  • House of Commons debating a Bill
  • U.S. ambassador mediating between warring states in the Middle East
  • Elders deciding on the day a nomadic tribe should move on to the next pasture
  • Salesman wondering how to counter a rival’s advertising campaign
  • Man beating his slave
  • Priest giving a sermon
  • Family deciding whether to have a holiday abroad this year or not
  • Small boy pleading with his older sister to buy him an ice cream

Linguistic obstacles to defining “politics”: Politics is a loaded, vague, and ambiguous word

“Politics” is one of those words which is loaded. Whatever your opinion about politics, it is likely to be “charged” and is a good bet to get you to rev your engines. As Adrian Leftwich points out in What is Politics? the word “politics” has gotten bad press. Here are some associations and their implied opposites: Politics can be:

  • Hypocrisy – baby kissing (not saying what you feel)
  • Wheeling and dealing (as opposed to following through on promises)
  • Fraud (as opposed to honesty)
  • Unpleasant squabbles (as opposed to agreeableness)
  • Can be violent (as opposed to being non-violent)
  • Done by professionals (as opposed to by the average person)
  • Character assassination (as opposed to sticking with the issue)
  • Unnecessary “don’t get political” (as opposed to a necessary activity)
  • Temporary (intrinsic and functional activities which are not political)
  • Distasteful “It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it” (as opposed to enjoyable)

Those who claim to hate politics probably draw from at least some of these associations. However, these reservations still have embedded in them their own definition of politics. Even those who claim to be “apolitical” still have a vague definition about what politics is in order for them to decide to withdraw from it. Lastly, many of those who claim to like politics often have a very narrow and conventional definition of what it actually is.

Besides the word “politics” being loaded, it is also one of those words that everyone thinks is commonly agreed upon. I am not talking about specific political positions, for instance, conservative or liberal. What I mean is a simple working definition of the word. The word politics is vague in the sense that the borderline between it and other related terms in sociology is murky.

As Leftwich points out:

There are institutional jealousies, border police, with well-placed and often concealed booby-traps, diversions and dead ends. Some people who attempt to work in such areas never seem to emerge alive. Those who do, often re-emerged tattered and in such a state of shock that they never seem able to say anything about any concrete politics of problems of the world again. (117)

Politics is often used interchangeably with “power”. This term “power” is another hornet’s nest to define which I will take up in an article in the near future. What political theories disagree about are its origins, sources, basis, forms, distribution, measurement, and interpretation. Another sign of vagueness in the word “politics” is to try to identify what the opposite of politics is. If you try this, you will probably see it is not an easy exercise.

Finally, the word politics is ambiguous, meaning it can be categorized in many different ways. Here it is less a question of murky boundaries as it is a choice as to how broad or narrow a range to cover

Seven theories of politics and my sources

There are seven theories of politics: Old Institutionalists; Civic Republicans; Weberian political sociologists; Marxian political economy; Rational Choice Theory; Radical Feminism; and Bio-evolutionary. I have divided this article into two parts. In Part I, I ask twelve foundational questions that all seven of these theories must address. I then cover the more centrist political theories, namely, the old Institutionalists, the civic republicans, and the Weberian political sociologists. In Part II I cover the more extreme versions of politics: Radical Feminism and Marxian political economy on the left and Rational Choice Theory and Bio-evolutionary Theory on the right. At the end of Part II there is a table which compares how the seven theories answer each of the twelve questions. My sources for this article include Politics by Andrew Heywood; What is Politics, Edited by Adrian Leftwich; and Invitation to Politics by Michael Laver.

As a prologue to a definition of politics, the following twelve questions need to be answered. Once we have a more solid foundation of how they can be answered, then we will be able to link them to each of seven different schools of politics. Here are the categories and the questions that follow.

Twelve Questions for Determining What Politics Is

Temporal reach – How far back into human history does politics go? Does politics go back to pre-state societies? Or does politics begin with state societies? Is politics possible before there were political parties?

Cross species scope – Is politics confined to the human species or does it ooze into the life of other species? If so, which ones? If politics crosses species, is it social species that are political? Is it possible to have animal societies which are social, such as lions or wolves but not political? Does a species need to be social to be political? Is being social a necessary but not sufficient condition for politics? Is being social a necessary and sufficient condition for politics? Or is being social neither a necessary nor sufficient condition? In other words, is it possible for a non-social species to have political relationships?

How much does evolutionary biology impact politics? At a macro level, how does natural adaptation impact human politics? In terms of men and women, how much does sexual selection determine politics? At the micro level, how much do genetics and brain chemistry determine the level and the interest and skill in politics? Or is politics primarily a creature of the socio-historical level of reality?

Spatial reachWhere does politics take place? Many political scientists limit politics to what is taking place within states. Is that casting the net too narrowly? Can there be politics through discussions in public space? Is it politics when I get into a discussion about the viability of capitalism while I am at the unemployment line waiting for my check? Are there politics within families? Are there politics between lovers? Or are politics only about public affairs?

Political agencyWho does politics? Is politics done only by politicians? If I argue with my neighbor about police brutality in my neighborhood, are my neighbor and I political beings in this discussion? Do I become political only when I vote on the issue in the next election? Do I become political when I bring police brutality to a town hall meeting next month? Or is the only person who is political the mayor who decides whether or not to make it part of his platform for his campaign next month.

Political actions vs strategiesHow are political actions different from strategizing? If I go to the laundromat to do my laundry and I give a stranger two dollars to put towards the dryer while I go back to my house to grab another load, is that political? If not, how could the situation become political? In the previous example, I think we can agree that in families members engage in strategies as to how do deal with other family members. But are all strategies political? Lovers strategize and negotiate about when the first-time sex might be undertaken. Is this political? If not, what would need to happen to make it political if at all?

The degree of influence in interpersonal processes – Am I being political if I ask my partner if she wants to go to the movies and propose a movie and she agrees to both proposals, is spontaneous agreement political? Suppose she says she wants to go to a movie but prefers another movie. We debate about it, and one of us persuades the other. Has the discussion become political? Suppose you and I are riding bicycles. We reach a crossroads where we have to decide whether to turn left or right. We each want to go in a different direction. Is the process of deciding political? Let’s say we are moving and are lifting boxes to put in the moving truck. Are the mutual complaints about whether or not the other is pulling their weight or whether to stop for a rest political?

Let’s say we both want to go to a movie but neither of us can persuade the other to go to the movie we each want, so we flip a coin. Is flipping a coin political? Suppose we can’t agree and we negotiate. I will go to this movie this time and you promise to go to a movie of my choice next time. Is that political?

Does it make a difference if our disagreement about movie choices has to do with our different race or class origins? Will those influences make our disagreement political? Suppose our discussion about movies became heated. If I recognized that if I get too hot under the collar, she might not want to make love with me later that night and so I calm down. Is that political? if I threaten to not accompany her to her friend’s birthday party (whom I don‘t like) and then she doesn’t go the movie I want, it that politics?

We have seven possibilities. Notice that these topics are not political in a traditional sense. So, the question here is not whether the content is political, but if the interpersonal process is political.

  • a spontaneous agreement
  • a persuasive argument
  • a standoff, which is settled by a chance mechanism
  • a negotiation
  • a standoff based on race or class differences
  • an instrumental strategy for other ends
  • a withdrawal of rewards

Are any of these processes political? Which one or ones (if any)? Where are you drawing the line and why?

What is the relationship between politics and power? Can you have politics without having power? Can you have power without having politics? If power and politics are related, how? Are politics and power interchangeable? Is one a meansto another? Is power the means and politics is the end? Is politics the means and power is the end?

Politics, force and coercion Let’s go back to this movie issue.  Suppose Sandy has been drinking, and in the past, she has been bad-tempered to her partner. She starts drinking while they are deciding on a movie. Sandy’s partner starts worrying and gives in to the movie Sandy wants to watch prematurely to avoid the risk of being potentially yelled at. Is that politics?

This example is a small slice of a larger issue: what is the relationship between politics and force or the threat of force? Is violence an inherent part of politics or is politics what you do to win someone over without being violent?  Some political theorists like Bernard Crick say that politics is the art of compromising when you know you cannot get what you want. Others say that the whole political system is based on violence because the entire class system is based on exploitation and force. All attempts to change things must come up against this militaristic force which protects the rulers. Some say that only force is political and that the state is the ultimate political actor because it has, in Weber’s words, a monopoly on the means of violence.

Interdisciplinary span of politics. How (if at all) is politics related to economics? What is the relationship between technology and politics?  Does the economy dictate politics? Does politics determine economics? Does technology determine politics or does politics determine technology? The same question could be asked about religion or mass media.

What, if any, is the relationship between theories of politics and the schools of political sociology? Is there a relationship between our answers to these political questions and schools of political sociology? In other words, are there consistent answers to these questions which are given by political pluralists? Is there a consistency in the managerial/elitist point of view that answers the same questions? Is there a thread which runs through the class perspective which will answer these questions quite differently?

What, if any, is the relationship between theories of politics and political ideologies? Is there a relationship between a consistent set of answers to these questions and whether you are a liberal or conservative? How will the answers of social democrats, communists and fascists be different than that of either anarchists on the left or libertarian capitalists on the right? We will see that the answers the schools of political sociology give to these questions will have overlap but are not the same as the answers political ideologies might give. For example, the bio-evolutionary reading of politics has, in the past, been connected to fascism. However as feminist evolutionary psychologists point out, it is possible to have a Darwinian take on answers to political questions and be a conservative, liberal or even a Marxist in political ideology.

As it turns out these questions can be answered with some consistency and coherency by seven different theoretical tendencies within the study of politics. We will now turn to these schools and their theoreticians.

Old Institutionalists (mainstream political science)

If you care to recall your high school or college civic classes, the manner in which politics was presented was probably derived from the institutional theory of politics. Of all the schools of politics, the institutionalists address the twelve questions above in the narrowest way. Politics for this school involves only state organs and state processes.

State organs: government

Institutionalists focused on government organs – constitutions, legal system, the branches of government, political parties, pressure groups and elections. The early institutionalists referred almost exclusively to the political institutions of the United States and western Europe. These “democracies” were taken to be the best of all possible worlds, and were taken as given, rather than studied critically. The old Institutionalist understanding of historical change was based on modernist assumptions of gradual linear progress with Western “democratic” politics at the apex. This has changed somewhat in recent years. Government is seen as the vessel of politics.

State processes: governing

The process of politics is governing. Governing is a larger process which refers to general patterns and interlocking systems across both public and private spheres by which all social life is organized and managed, whether it be a monarchy, aristocracy or a democracy. Governance is a process; government has institutions for implementing and sustaining that process. Some scholars say that there can be governance without government and that networks might replace them. Institutionalists counter that networks are incapable of coping with conflict and reconciling collective goals.

Governing involves two tasks:

  • deciding on collective goals for society
  • devising mechanisms through which those goals can be attained

These two tasks must satisfy four conditions:

  • policy setting – setting collective goals for society and reconciling competing wants and demands by prioritizing goals and acquiring resources to realize those goals. This is done by representative political process. When policies are not worked out, governing bodies will work at cross purposes. One example would be the simultaneous funding of subsides for tobacco farmers and anti-smoking advertisements.
  • decision-making steering – this involves making concrete decisions and implementing them efficiently by using a public bureaucracy and administration.
  • coherency – which involves the coordination among the institutions. Often when coordination problems are not resolved, governments fragment and involve unnecessary duplication. Sections of governments perpetrate themselves, maintain their own budgets and pursue their own policy latitude in the face of perceived threats
  • monitoring and acquiring feedback – acquiring mechanisms for detecting and assessing the action of the governance system as a whole.

Politics is limited to the state

While government cannot exist without governing, institutionalists do not believe that governing can exist without government, more specifically the state. If the state is a necessary condition of government and all politics must include the state, then societies in social evolution without a state, that is, tribal societies, are pre-political. So too, spatially, issues that come up in family and in public discussions are not seen as political.

Politics is limited to competitive elections

Furthermore, politics only occurs in state societies with competitive elections. From a Marxist point of view, this is bourgeois democracy. While societies without bourgeois democracies may have politics, typically they are seen in an unfavorable light, and labeled as authoritarian, totalitarian, dictatorships and despotisms.

Liberty as private rather than public

For institutionalists, liberty is a private pleasure which exists only through state protection. This goes back to social contract theory which has its roots in conservative individualism and in the work of Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher, considered to be one of the founders of modern political philosophy.

Political science excludes economics, history, and anthropology

In an interdisciplinary sense, politics generally excludes economics and historical factors. The only people who are political are professional politicians who win elections, and the only political issues involve the four processes of governance – goal setting, steering coherency, and monitoring.

Authority rules, power is violence

As far as the use of power goes, institutionalisms act as if power could be dissolved into authority. In other words, whatever regime is in office wields political authority. Anyone challenging political authority is behaving in an extra-political way, that is – violently. For institutionalists, strategizing only becomes political when it is involved in public affairs which affect an entire community. What is public is inseparable from the state. Any interpersonal processes such as convincing and persuading which is done outside public institutions of the state is not political. Relations with family and lovers is outside the bounds of politics and is more in the domain of sociology.

Political sociology of pluralism; political ideology of liberals and conservatives

The political sociological school which corresponds to the old institutionalists is political and functional pluralism. The work of Robert Dahl and Gabriel Almond are classic examples. It also goes with the political ideology of conservatives and liberals. For institutionalists, politics is the provision of direction to the economy and society through goal setting and steering which brings coherence and monitoring. Institutionalism has focused more on the processes that make political systems stable. It has had a difficult time explaining how political processes change.

Civic republicans

Politics as the art of the possible

For the second theory of politics, civic republicans, the arena in which politics occurs, at least in its initial stages, is not in states in political debates between professional politicians. Rather it takes place in the city in debates among citizens. Yet politics is a very complex, dense process rather than merely giving reasoned arguments and listening to opposing sides about public issues. Argument becomes political when:

  • collective policy-making is necessary (rather than optional)
  • resources are at stake
  • the conflict is at a stalemate
  • the perceived costs of continuing the conflict are too high
  • withdrawal is not an option
  • coercion, force or violence is not an option – as in dictatorships or despotisms

Under these conditions, politics is the art of compromise, negotiation, and persuasion – what Bernard Crick calls “the art of the possible”. For civic republicans, politics and force, threat, bribery are opposites. Where compromise is abandoned, so is politics.

What is the relationship between politics and power?

For institutionalists, the ability to do work to get things done is authority, not power. Power is understood by institutionalists as outside of politics because it uses force. For institutionalists all revolutions are illegitimate assaults on politics. Civic republicans have a more positive view of power. Power is the ability to get things done, but politics is both the process and result of the political use of power. If extrinsic motivators — force, coercion, bribery, or manipulation — are used to reach ends, politics has been corrupted. The use of violence demonstrates lack of power rather than power.

Civic debate humanizes humanity

Civic republicanism is best typified in the political writings of Aristotle, in Hannah Arendt’s work as well as the work of Bernard Crick in his In Defense of Politics. According to Aristotle, life in cities frees the citizen from the blood relations of family, kin group and village where they can think critically without the ignorant and superstitious, emotional practices which are at play in sexual and familial life. Engaging strangers with different perspectives from other regions are the seeds for the best political debate. Civic republicans, like institutionalists, have little patience with any claims that politics can be familial or sexual. Politics begins where the family and sex end. It is becoming political which makes us human. Those who refuse to identify with politics are not quite human, according to Aristotle.

Republicanism vs institutionalist democracy

For civic republicans, an active citizenry practicing politics in city debate is a precondition for democracy. Republics are not just logically prior to democracy; they are historically prior. Classical Greece, early Rome, the 16th century Italian and German city-states, and the 17th Century Dutch society were republics, not democracies.

If the institutionalists ideal is a liberal democracy, for civic republican theoreticians the ideal is a republic. Civic republicans are broader than institutionalists in that the ultimate political actors are an active citizenry, rather than professional politicians. The place where this active citizenry engages is not in elections but in public debates, with or without legislative bodies. Lastly, each has a different conception of individual liberty. For democratic institutionalists, liberty for the individual is to engage in private pleasures and guaranteed protection from the state. This is rooted in Hobbes version of a social contract as an agreement between miserly, self-subsisting individuals. For civil republicans, following Rousseau’s version of the social contract, the ultimate liberty is politics in public discourse using rational persuasion. Please see Table A below.Like institutionalists, civic republicans tend to be less sensitive to history and they make a separation between politics and economics. Among political sociology schools civil republicans are matched easily with political pluralists. On the political spectrum, civic republicans are most likely to be liberals.

Weberian political sociologists

Peter Nicholson argues that in defining politics we should strive for a criterion which is comprehensive, distinctive and fruitful. It must include all politics, exclude everything else and suggest areas for research. Some definitions fail because they include too little and exclude too much while others fail because they included too much and exclude too little.

Definitions which are too narrow

For example, Nicholson argues that Marxists define politics too narrowly because they limit it to class societies. This excludes tribal societies. At the same time, civic republicans define politics too narrowly by limiting it to rational discussion leading to persuasion and assent rather than violence and compulsion. This means that politics can only occur in a truly representative democracy. This excludes dictatorships and authoritarian rule from politics. For civic republicans as for institutionalists, politics depends on whether a society is democratic or not.

Institutionalists claim that all politics is synonymous with government. But schools and banks have governance too. It is also insufficient to say that all politics is decision-making for there are also non-political decisions. Politics is also wider than the allocation of resources, for resources are allocated outside politics too, such as in businesses and families.

Definitions which are too wide

On the other hand, some political theorists cast their nets too widely when they say that spontaneous agreement or coming to a consensus is political too. With these standards, everything would be political and then it becomes questionable why we even have the word at all. Others may rein in their nets a little and say that disagreement and conflict need to be present for there to be politics. But can’t there be politics even when there appears to be no explicit conflict? Can’t there be disagreement which has nothing to do with politics such as mathematicians contesting a proof?

Politics as coercion and force directed at the public as opposed to conflict and decision-making

The political sociology based on Max Weber’s work is more pessimistic than either the Institutionalists or the Civic Republicans about what politics is about. The distinctive mark of a political action is that it can be directed and enforced towards all members of society. Every kind of law, directly or indirectly, can potentially involve the exercises of force. In tribal societies coercion or force existed at a group level. With the rise of the state, the means of violence is monopolized which means that force is legally used to settle certain conflicts, sanction certain rules, back certain decisions, and guarantee certain policies.

Some counter that other groups and individuals use force as well as the state. What about rebels, armed robbers or a parent chastising or battering a child? The difference is that this is private force. Not all members of society are affected by this. Politics is the force or coercion used by the state in public affairs.

Force differs from conflict as a criterion of politics. There is no room for two or more exercises of force. By the very nature of force, only one body is able to consistently back its will by force. Certainly, there can be more than one kind of decision-making coexisting in the same society. But only those decisions which are backed by force are political. The running of businesses, trade unions, schools, universities, banks, churches and families certainly disagree, and come into conflict.  However, none may use force legally except with the permission of the state. All strategizing by groups in society is not political because convincing and persuading does not use force. Only when force is used does it become political and that force must be monopolized by the state.

Politics is about power, not authority

For institutionalists, politics is a process and the result is the authority of the state. In the case of civil libertarians, politics is the process and the result is power to get things done by the civic community. For Weberians (Max Weber), all politics is rooted in power and power is based on force or coercion. Furthermore, all force is concentrated in the state. Authority is one kind of power, but it is not the ultimate source. Legitimate authority and charisma are other kinds of power. If anything, power is the end and politics is the means. Unlike the institutionalists, for Weberians, professionally elected politicians may or may not be the ones doing politics. The real politics is going on not in debates in parliament but behind the scenes in the wheeling and dealing of elites competing with each other.

Unlike either institutionalists or civic republicans, Weberians are more sensitive to changes in politics over the course of history. So too, they do not make an absolute separation between politics and economics. While they understand all politics involves economics, they think that the maneuvering among elite state actors controls the economy.

In political sociology Weber represents what has been called the “managerial” school, both political and functional wings. Weberians are difficult to classify in terms of political ideology. On the one hand they are radical in their critique of the existing order. But on the other, there is a pessimism about the working class or the lower class’s ability to participate in democratic process or public civil discussion.


At the beginning of this article, I pointed out how difficult it was to define politics, both in political actions and political theory.  I then posed twelve questions that all seven theories have to answer. I then named and described three theoretical schools of politics: institutionalists, civil republicans and Weberian political economists. Despite their differences, all three theories occupy the centralist section of the political spectrum. That is, all three theories are liberal or conservative. In Part II of this article, I will address other theories of politics. Radical feminist and Marxist theories will represent the revolutionary left side of the political spectrum, that is socialist theories of politics. On the right side of the political spectrum, we will address rational choice theories and bio-evolutionary theories of politics. Rational choice theory would be right libertarian, as would Darwinian theories of politics.

Bruce Lerro has taught for 25 years as an adjunct college professor of psychology at Golden Gate University, Dominican University and Diablo Valley College in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has applied a Vygotskian socio-historical perspective to his three books found on Amazon. He is a co-founder, organizer and writer for Socialist Planning Beyond Capitalism. Read other articles by Bruce, or visit Bruce's website.