The Critical Importance of Theoretical Foundations in Politics

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I’ve started teaching college classes in person again, and one of the first things I emphasize to my students is the importance of theory. Humans truly do have a theory (set of beliefs) about everything in life and that theory then informs every decision they make.

While I’ve been spending a good bit of time unpacking and digging into the Constitution, its meaning, importance, use and application, my teaching reminded me that sometimes, it’s good to remind everyone about the basics. So, I decided now is a good time to bring back one of my first posts. I need to remind everyone just how important it is to know and understand theory and how it affects everything in politics.

Things are getting interesting, not just in the United States, but around the world. We’re seeing governments of all different kinds responding to and handling the coronavirus, vaccines and testing in various and unique ways. And every response is unique because each government’s job description is based upon a different theory, understanding and expectation of government.

Definition

So, let’s start with the basic definition of “theory”. “Theory” is defined this way: “a theory is founded on inferences drawn from principles which have been established on independent evidence”.

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Ok, for example:

Let’s say I watch the behavior of voters on election day for five consecutive election cycles. I notice a trend as I watch. This is the trend: when there is bad weather, people aren’t coming out to vote as much as they are when there is good weather. I think, hmmm, I wonder if this applies to more than just voting.

I then look at other activities (i.e. shopping; eating out; going to movies) and notice a similar trend. So, I can then theorize, based on the initial observation and the other activities I observed, that people are less likely to vote (or go out in general) when there is bad weather. In other words, bad weather leads to lower (voter) turnout.

In essence then, I theorized about a broader principle (bad weather stops people from going out) that then affects the specific topic (people are less likely to go out to vote during bad weather) at which I’m looking. In other words, I came up with the theory from some basic trends I observed about how the world works. The key phrase here is “how the world works”. A theory is a belief about “how the world works”. Obviously, a theory cannot come out of thin air, but it is, nevertheless, a “belief” based on observable reality.

Application to Government and Politics

Have you ever thought about the why behind government?

Yes?

Good.

No?

You should.

Everything in life is founded on the answer to a why question, AND the answer to the why question as it pertains to government has very literally determined the success or failure of governments around the world—-throughout history.

And you really can’t judge government’s behavior if you don’t even know what it’s supposed to be doing or why it exists in the first place, right?

Let’s try something out. Answer this question for me: Do you think humans are naturally good or naturally bad?

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If you answered “good”, then the type of government you likely support would be drastically different than the type of government some who thinks people are “bad” would support. THIS belief about human nature is theory. If you, based upon your observations of human behavior, believe that humans are naturally good, then the very foundation of your government (or lack thereof) is based upon this core and foundational belief. If you believe people are naturally good, you are more likely to believe government is not necessary, or if it is necessary, it is only necessary to organize and promote the naturally good and benevolent actions of the citizens in your country.

If you believe people are naturally bad, then you are more likely to think government is necessary. BUT, if you think people are bad, and you know government is made up of people, you run into yet another issue. Bad people are tasked with managing and controlling other bad people. So, naturally the set up of your government is going to be quite different than the set up of a government for someone who believes human are innately good!

I believe that the theory of human nature is absolutely the most important part of someone’s theory of government. But there are many other theoretical aspects of government and politics.

Theories Behind Specific Institutions and Politicians

Why do politicians become politicians?

Why does America use the electoral college rather than popularly elect the president?

Why is the US Constitution the longest lasting written Constitution in world history (when similar constitutions are continually thrown out and overthrown in other countries)?

Why is Congress the most important branch of government?

Why is Congress slow?

Why does the Constitution require that the president be a natural born citizen?

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Why doesn’t the US have a parliamentary system when almost all other countries in the world do?

Why does the US continually enjoy peaceful transitions between US presidents when other countries throughout history never did?

Guess what? Every single one of these questions can be answered by…?

You guessed it.

THEORY.

Every one of these answers is based on some core theoretical belief about something, whether it be human nature, or democracy, or the reason government exists. I’ve given you many of these answers with my posts in order to help build your theory into more than just a fleeting “belief”.

The U.S. founding fathers thought through everything and had a reason for everything they did in creating the U.S. government (Now, the answer to this “why” question as it pertains to other governments will be vastly different in every country–again, which is why we’re seeing such different responses and expectations to COVID). Our founders didn’t throw our government together on a whim. It took careful thought and ultimately it was based on their beliefs about how the world and people work. And they used other theorists and past governments to base their beliefs upon.

So, understanding the theory, not only behind the US government, but also all government, can go a long way for you if you are wanting to be an educated American citizen. Knowing theory will not only give you a firm foundation supporting what you believe but why you believe it.

Conclusion

Ultimately friends, we have to fully grasp the theoretical foundations behind our government if we’re going to be equipped to judge our government’s behavior and further, keep her behavior accountable to something, The Constitution.

The Liberty Belle

 

 

 

 

 

 

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