I know there won't be a short answer for this. But still, I want to ask this question. I have always come across two kind of people. The ones who are much more knowledgeable about politics and the ones who are totally indifferent.

I belong to the latter category. But lately, I have started taking an interest in it.

My Question: What are the things that every individual should know about their country's politics and governance in general?

  • 2
    I think the question would be more interesting if changed from "in general", which is vague, to "make educated votes on the elections", which is maybe less vague and possibly the main way in which most of the people people get (most) involved in the politics of their respective countries. This is just my opinion.
    – Trylks
    Dec 5 '13 at 16:37
  • 1
    @Trylks that's actually a fairly decent stab at a good answer. I think you should write one up and center around the idea of enough to make educated votes in elections. Dec 5 '13 at 16:48
  • Trylks and Ben's suggestions are probably more what the question author intended. For a specific answer to the Author's general question, see mine below. Dec 6 '13 at 21:57

What should you know?

When this site was founded, I suggested that the term "politics" should be defined as:

The end result of conflicting egos working themselves out over matters of policy.

I came up with that definition in College, and have found it a very useful model ever since. I like it, because it defines politics in terms of personalities, processes, and policies - what I consider to be the essential points of understanding anything about how a society governs itself.

Extending that model, I would argue the basics for any educated member of a society would be the following:

  1. Know the mechanics of how an idea is turned into legislation (i.e. the legislative process), how that legislation is implemented in practice (i.e. the executive process), and how that legislation is interpreted, applied, and extended (i.e. the judicial process). Note, I am using American terms, but even in a parliamentary system, these roles still exist.

  2. Know the key personalities in the equation. At a minimum, knowing who the people who influence the legislation (e.g. your Congressman / MP) and the demographics / constituencies who are most affected by it. For example, in environmental legislation, who is the administrator, who are the environmental groups, who lives there, and knowing what economic actors are affected are vital for predicting the outcome. Personally, I would argue that any American who cannot name his or her Senator, Congressman, State Governor, Local Representative, and at least five members of the Supreme Court should be ignored. But then again, I've been called an arrogant SOB before too, so take what I say with a grain of salt.

  3. Know the arguments both for and against the policy matter in question. A reasonably educated person should be able to identify key issues that differentiate people, and the reasons for and against any individual matters of policy. Take a "simple" issue like the Keystone pipeline. A reasonably educated person would understand the arguments for both the environmental impact and the economic one. A highly educated person would also understand the mechanics of a pipeline, the regions through which it would run, and be able to evaluate the impact in more concrete terms than a person who has simply been exposed to the idea. Consideration of alternatives is also the mark of an educated person.

Beyond this, the truly internationally educated person should be able to contemplate the effects of variations in society. I was born near and continue to live outside of Washington, DC, but I've also lived in Germany, Nepal, Kazakhstan, and even more remote, Orlando, Florida. I would argue I understand poverty better than many people, for example, because I have first-hand experience living with total systemic failures, due to infrastructure, corruption, and ideological frameworks. If nothing else, it moves the Black Swan Effect (or Murphy's Law for that matter) from the realm of theory to useful tool.

That's what makes an educated person able to understand policy as an engineer - being able to identify and master the details that have a generalized ripple effect on everything.

Why is this important?

Being able to see a political system as a neutral observer is useful for gauging the predictable outcomes, but ultimately, there is reason to become smart on this. AS Teddy Roosevelt famously said, it is not the critic that counts, but the man in the arena. The point of politics is simple - people in a society shape the society to further "secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our prosperity". They do this by getting ideas adopted, and hopefully even institutionalized. There is no better measure of influence than that - can you get your ideas implemented?

If you think your society is perfect, than by all means, you should care about the Kardashians and Miley Cyrus' latest hairstyle. But to the extent you believe your society should be better, you should know politics. Like Mark Twain is credited with saying, 'Everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.' I will admit to being dismissive of people who don't their own country's politics, because the moment an uneducated person complains, I think, 'And what are you doing about it?' Again, arrogant? Maybe. But this engineer prefers men in the arena to the critics.

Note this doesn't mean that you need to run for office or start an NGO. Maybe you just think that a road could be made safer or that more of your trash should be recycled. You can influence the people who see these things get attended to every day. But an educated person needs to know who should be influenced. It is amazing how many times a Congressman's LA has to write to a citizen and say "Your state handles the roads" or "Your county handles school funding" and politely encourage them to influence the correct person. If you love your kids and you like your house, you probably should know a lot more about your local elected officials than your national ones. (Hint: If you like your armies and your saftey, then you should care about the national arena.)

By being knowledgable about the course of politics, you can influence the politics of the things you care about. By knowing the details, you can avoid the pitfalls and maximize your strengths. In the end, politics is about making society better. The problem is, not everyone agrees on what that means.

  • Lifehacker had a really good tool to see all of your elected officials yesterday. If someone could link to it, I would appreciate it. Dec 5 '13 at 17:03
  • I'd remove the bit about first hand experience: the utility of anecdotal experience is questionable at best. Otherwise I liked the answer, +1. I worried that the question was too vague to produce a good answer, but I think this covers the necessary bases in a pretty noncontroversial way (especially because I'd still get to vote, as would most regular users on this site I imagine).
    – Publius
    Dec 6 '13 at 0:09
  • I'm tempted to downvote. I agree with everything you said (or most) but don't see how ANY of it leads to the conclusion that knowing about politics increases anyone's chances of influencing the outcome. I know who my corrupt senator and clueless congressman are. The fact that they want to implement policies 100% of which are detrimental to me in one way or another is in no way shape or form influenced by the fact that I know more about geopolitics than most senators or know who Supreme court judges are. If I was an expert at convincing other people, I'd be a lawyer/politician, not a programmer
    – user4012
    Dec 7 '13 at 5:42
  • @user4012 I wonder if the reason why your comment didn't change my mind is that you're not "an expert at convincing other people". Mar 17 '17 at 22:09


You will note that nowhere on Maslow's hierachy of needs does knowledge of one's countries politics appear. In general, you are better served focusing on things that will get you paid or get you laid. This doesn't mean that everybody should know nothing though. If you are shooting a film in a city, it is probably very important to know which city officials you need to bribe talk to so that you can block off streets.

Most individuals will have limited influence on politics, so you are much better off focusing your time an effort on more productive endeavors. Individuals are far more effective at executing political change than any government, which appear to excel at doing nothing and overreacting.

  • Shouldn't citizens of a democracy know their politics? Or should they just not vote, in which case, nothing would happen? Mar 17 '17 at 22:01

If voting changed anything they'd make it illegal.

Is a piece of knowledge most working class people come to with reasonable rapidity. For the more political left-wing version, see Bump me into Parliament. "Politicians are all the same," seems to be phrased in a class sense to me, which means that people are broadly aware that the boss class (to use the term corresponding to Bump me) control both sides of parliament.

These systems of knowledge about the function of parliament seem to be better informed than attending to the minutae of either side of the house, neither of which represents the economic interests in work of the majority of voters. Unless an elector feels strongly on a social issue that culturally divides the boss class and is in play, abortion for instance in the United States, attending to electoral politics is probably a waste of time.

The two exceptions, of a functioning party for labour and the concept of a "tribune of the people" in parliament are worth dealing with. (cf: Labourism, Leninism).

I'm not sure the first exists anywhere anymore, and, even when it did the conduct of labour parties in parliament was so amenable to the interests of the boss class that the party of labour may as well have been the less Tory bosses' party. Instances where labour parties acted otherwise involved extra-parliamentary discipline. The limits of parliamentary politics are the limits of 1789 liberalism. Exceed those limits at peril of in-flight ejection from helicopters.1 Which essentially is the point that making demands in deep favour of labour in parliament result in the abolition of parliament as we know it. There is no way to make a Chartist demand without physical force. Moral force is not merely insufficient, but making a claim with moral force in parliament will result in the dissolution of parliament.

Regarding the tribune of the people conception of getting one good leftie elected to parliament, this is a marginal case. You might see it happening with dedicated and excellent parliamentary individuals, Australian Greens in Senate Estimates is a current example, but it obviously hasn't out-weighed the general popular sentiment on the worthlessness of parliament. Moreover, when there isn't a tight duopoly of power, this situation emerges from the activity of those too stupid to not pay attention to parliament. It still isn't an adequate reason to pay attention to parliamentary politics.

The question then is if not in parliament, then where do real politics lie?

The "left" answer from Bump me is in industrial organisation for social change. There's a reasonable case here, particularly in states like Britain or Australia where wage determination and conditions of labour were highly politicised for a long period of time, and the politicisation had deep system wide effects such as the general wage level, return to labour, and a proxy of power stronger than parliamentary votes. (The Tories never attempted to abolish the NHS, for example).

Another answer, popular since the mid-1960s with well paid white collar left-wing workers is in social movements: I am not convinced of the efficacy of this, since they go begging to parliament for liberal laws. The other problem with these claims as a "real" politics for the majority of people is that many, if not most, of the social movement's claims are in the general form put amenable to the boss class. They're usually advocated by the less Tory party in parliament anyway. In the form they're implemented they reinforce the existing structures of social power. At their best these movements do cohere a power in ordinary people's lives. That is a politics.

On the right, I've heard one argument put that the right of the working classes' real politics exist in an imaginary moral economy. "Imaginary" here means a shared belief, it isn't pejorative, but describes more a systematic reinterpretation of daily life giving it meaning. "Moral economy" meaning an ordering of economic life that is centred on an idea of how people ought to live, rather than "political economy" which is much more about to what extent can one reduce another's living. This is a persuasive argument, but I'm not yet convinced here.

1 See, for example, a non-Marxist socialist account of the revolution, liberalism, and the liberal political institution being restricted to private property in David W. Lovell. "The French Revolution and the Origins of Socialism: the case of early French Socialism." French History (1992) 6 (2): 185-205 doi:10.1093/fh/6.2.185; or in real property, David Hunt, "Peasant movements and communal property during the French Revolution," Theory and Society (1988) 17 (2): 255-283; or in intellectual property Carla Hesse, "Enlightenment Epistemology and the Laws of Authorship in Revolutionary France, 1777-1793" Representations (1990) 30 Special Issue: Law and the Order of Culture, 109-137. The claim that the limits of the parliamentary are restricted to private property; and so that parliamentary politics can only be a politics of private property is commonplace.

It is particularly notable in Lenin, "The reason why [Capitalists] can do nothing about [workers' growing resentment] is because private property is most strictly safeguarded, is “sacred” there. […] Nothing can be achieved by isolated strikes, the parliamentary struggle, or the vote, because “private property is sacred”, and the capitalists have accumulated such debts that the whole world is in bondage to a handful of men." (Lenin, "Report On The International Situation And The Fundamental Tasks Of The Communist International July 19" The Second Congress Of The Communist International July 19-August 7, 1920 Marxists.org 2002 following the Progress Collected 4th English ( http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/jul/x03.htm#fw01 )).

  • Can you back up the claims in paragraph #5 with some sort of examples?
    – user4012
    Dec 7 '13 at 5:36
  • Also, the last paragraph is a bit vague, but interesting. Care to expland on it (perhaps in chat)?
    – user4012
    Dec 7 '13 at 5:38
  • @DVK re para 5, is that counting the quote (on "labour" parties and social democracy), or not counting the quote (on workers "tribunes")? Dec 7 '13 at 5:40
  • Yes. The "1789 liberalism" one.
    – user4012
    Dec 7 '13 at 5:49
  • Expanded with footnotes, available for chat if you need it. Dec 9 '13 at 22:25

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