Subjects to Study for a Political Science Degree

Once you’ve made the decision to become a political science major, among the questions you undoubtedly want to know is: What subjects will you study as you pursue your political science degree?

Most programs organize coursework into four subsections. The first will contain classes concerned with American government and politics. You’ll study our country from both historical and contemporary perspectives, diving in-depth to learn about the executive, judicial, and legislative branches. You’ll also study state governments, as well as how cities and townships govern themselves. Included in this subsection will be research into how policies are made and implemented.

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The second subsection focuses on comparative studies examining the wide range of political systems, both governmental and economic, around the world; most departments call this subsection Comparative Politics. You’ll take a close look at city-states, capitalism, Communism, dictatorships, feudalism, federacy governments, monarchies, parliamentary governments, presidential and semi-presidential governments, and mixed-economy systems.

The third subsection examines the relationships between governments and their citizens, as well as between governments themselves, and is known as International Relations. You’ll consider a range of foreign governments and politics, including those found in China, the Middle East, Latin America, Russia, the African continent, and in other regions of the world. You’ll take a close look at regions in the world that currently are or once were Communist, as well as those that can be included on a list of developing nations.

No political science program would be complete without in-depth concentration on the philosophy of political thought, an area usually called Political Theory. This area concerns how political and other social sciences have looked at issues of power historically, as well as current theories, thought, and research. In this area you’ll practice gathering and analyzing data, considering trends in migratory patterns, cultural shifts, and changes in religious beliefs over time. Gender politics and the politics of race, ethnicity, religion, and other organizational models are also part of this discipline.

Presidential Politics

As a political science major, you’ll study presidential politics in depth. In a presidential system, the executive branch and the legislative branch coexist in the governing of a nation’s people. Although the two branches work together, they are distinct entities and operate independently. In the United States, this distinction is formalized in the Constitution, whereby the presidential election is separated from Congress.

The legislative branch has the responsibility of creating and passing bills outside presidential control. The president has the authority to veto any bill, but if a sufficient number of legislators override the president’s veto, the bill enters into law.

In a presidential system, the president is elected for a fixed and limited time period. Some countries that operate under a presidential system allow for a president who has broken a law to be removed from office. The president’s cabinet members are nominated by the president to execute presidential and legislative policies. While the president nominates cabinet members, many countries under a presidential system require legislative approval; the same holds true for judicial appointments. The president holds no sway over judges, although executive-branch employees, cabinet members, and the military are under presidential jurisdiction. The president, in most countries that operate under a presidential system, can commute criminal sentences, as well.

A true presidential system requires the free election of the president. There are a number of dictatorships in which the nation’s leader is called the president but the governmental system is not a true presidential one. In other cases, countries that are democratic and parliamentary, such as India, Israel, and Portugal, have a titular president who lacks the power of a true president but retains responsibility for ceremonial functions.

Presidential systems have four primary advantages. Because the president is elected either by direct vote or, as in the case in the United States, by an electoral college, presidential authority is more easily accepted by the citizens, who have mandated that authority. Second, in a presidential system, the executive and legislative branches work together but remain relatively independent, permitting each to monitor the other in order to prevent abuses of power.

Third, an elected president who has been given authority over cabinet members and the military can, in the event of a national emergency, move forward decisively and quickly. During peaceful times, this ability to act as a strong arm is slowed by the legislature. Finally, because a presidential term is of a fixed length of time, there is a greater degree of executive stability than in nations with prime ministers or other leaders who can be dismissed at the will of legislators.

As a political science major, you’ll consider the three primary arguments against the presidential system. The first is that this method of governing allows for a greater possibility of authoritarianism. Citizens who are directly responsible for the election of the president may be less likely to protest presidential decisions through civic participation. A second argument against the presidential system is that, because the executive and legislative branches exist in parallel, political gridlock can be the result when Congress is in favor of an action or bill and the president opposes it. Also, because of the way this system is established, both the president and members of the legislature can point fingers of blame at one another when issues are not resolved in a timely or satisfactory manner. Finally, opponents of the presidential system argue that a president who is not fulfilling obligations and meeting responsibilities in a sufficient manner or who is abusing the power of the station is difficult to remove from office before the term is up.

American Government

As every political science major knows, the federal government of the United States contains three separate and unique branches of power: the executive branch, the legislative branch, and the judicial branch. The responsibilities, powers, and interrelationships of these three branches are described in the Constitution signed in 1789.

The president of the United States, selected indirectly by American citizens through the Electoral College, heads the executive branch. The president nominates cabinet members (who are approved by Congress) and has authority over the cabinet, employees of the executive branch, and the military. The president is elected for a four- year term and can serve for no more than two terms. Among the responsibilities the president assumes is ensuring that laws are properly executed, defending the Constitution, and signing or vetoing new laws that have been passed by Congress. Should the president veto a proposed law, it is returned Congress, where a two-thirds vote in both the House of Representatives and the Senate is required to override a presidential veto. A two-thirds Congressional majority vote is also required for the president to forge treaties with other countries. In the event a president is charged with high crimes and misdemeanors, a House of Representatives majority vote can impeach; a two-thirds Senate vote is required to remove the president from office. While both the power to pardon criminals and to appoint justices to the Supreme Court with Senate approval is granted to the president, he or she does not have the power to dissolve Congress. Should the president be unable to lead, the second in command is the vice president, who is also constitutionally mandated as president of the Senate and is given one vote in the event of Senate ties. The highest ranking cabinet member and third in line of succession is the secretary of state, who is chief foreign policy advisor and responsible for negotiating treaties and managing embassies.

The legislative branch, which is composed of the Senate and the House of Representatives, has authority in taxation, printing and regulating money, establishing roads and post offices, assigning patents, declaring war, providing militia with weaponry, and creating laws. The larger of the two houses is the House of Representatives, whose members are elected for two-year terms and represent congressional districts, the number of which is determined by state population. Representatives are not limited in the number of terms they may serve. Each of the fifty states selects two senators by vote to represent them for terms of six years. To maintain stability, every two years sees the end of term for a third of the Senate members. The Senate is charged with seconding presidential appointees and approving or denying bills sent up from the House. Congress is also given the power to oversee protection of civil liberties, executive legal compliance, and other areas requiring oversight through committee hearings and formal presidential consultations. It is also within the power of Congress to establish or eliminate federal courts, but not the Supreme Court.

The judicial branch is charged with interpreting and enforcing laws through court cases. The Supreme Court is the number one federal court in the nation. Supreme Court justices are chosen by presidential nomination and Senate approval and are given lifetime appointments. Beneath the Supreme Court are appeals and district courts. The Supreme Court is led by the chief justice; judges hear cases that relate directly to the federal system, current U.S. Constitution interpretations, and arguments between states. It is within the power of the judges who sit on the Supreme Court to nullify any law previously made by Congress; doing so establishes a future precedent.

Federal and State Courts

As a political science major, you will be expected to possess a thorough understanding of the state and federal court systems in the United States, both today and historically.

The original division of the United States into jurisdictional districts was accomplished by the first Congress of the United States in 1774. In a little over two centuries, the organization of the federal court structure has been slowly modified into the current system in which the Supreme Court is the highest court in the land. Beneath the Supreme Court are 13 courts of appeals as well as 94 district courts. In addition, there are also two special jurisdiction courts that are solely empowered to rule on very specific types of cases.

While Congress can eliminate or create most federal courts and decide upon how many judges participate in the federal courts system, the power of Congress to abolish courts does not extend to the Supreme Court. The role of the Supreme Court is to hear and rule on issues involving the federal government, disagreements between two or more states, the constitutionality of executive or legislative decisions, and the intentions of the Constitution.

The courts of appeals, also known as circuit courts, hear district court appeals; their decisions can result in legal precedent. They handle most of the 10,000 cases that are originally filed with the Supreme Court on an annual basis; the Supreme Court rarely hears more than 1% of those cases.

On the next level down are the district courts. These trial courts hear cases concerned with federal law as well as civil and criminal lawsuits involving disputes between citizens of different states. Below the district courts are tax courts and bankruptcy courts.

The relationship between federal and state courts is complex. Both federal and state courts have exclusivity in specific types of cases, and both are considered to maintain independence. While most cases involving the laws of a state are heard within that state’s court system, if the litigants are from two different states, the case can be heard in a federal court. At the same time, while most federal issues are addressed in a federal court, there are exceptions that federal statutes have held in reserve for the courts of the states.

Overall, most disputes that affect citizens are heard within their districts; in fact, the 10th Amendment of the Constitution disallows federal execution of power unless that power has been delegated to it by state decision.

All fifty states of the United States have created their own constitutions and operate their own governmental systems, including a court system. There can be a wide range of differences from state to state. For example, not all states elect their court justices. Native American tribes have been designated domestic dependent nations and are permitted to determine their own forms of government, although those forms are bound to the authority of the federal government.

Research and Analysis of Politics

An important area to you as a political science major is learning about all the ways in which pertinent research is carried out, and results obtained, organized, and, finally, analyzed. In particular, policy analysis chooses from among these methods to consider which is most useful in evaluating policies and their outcomes.

Policy analysis can be looked at from two points of view. The first uses analysis and description with the goal of clarifying or explaining an existing policy. The second uses analysis of pertinent data in proposals aimed at creating new policy with a specific goal. It is likely that your political science program will merge program evaluation with the analysis of policy into a single set of classes concerned with studying policy via three approaches: the policy process approach, the meta-policy approach, and the analycentric approach.

The policy process approach looks at issues or problems in a political process through a wide lens to identify the degree of influence the stakeholders possess and the role they play in order to determine how solutions can be located by a shift in power.

The meta-policy approach considers both the structure of the system under examination and context in order to determine and resolve problems in interpretation. If this type of approach is successful, the problem is located within the system’s architecture and can be resolved by reconfiguring the structure itself.

Using the analycentric approach, a unique policy issue is examined under the microscope. This approach is most useful when the problem under examination is technical in character. The analycentric approach to resolving policy issues seeks the most efficient and therefore economic resolution.

As a political science major, you’ll learn that both qualitative and quantitative means can be useful. These will include statistical analysis, case studies, surveys, and creating models.

Among commonly used models is the institutional model, in which a political organization creates public policy, thereby bestowing legitimacy upon it. An example of this is found in the three branches of our own government that grant authority to any area of public policy.

Another model is the process model. This finds that policy is generated through a series of steps. The first step is to identify a problem that requires governmental response. The second step in this model is the gathering of proposals via multiple avenues, such as from public interest groups, think tanks, and legislative committees. The third step, called policy legitimating, is to select from among the proposals in order to construct and establish policy. Following this step, the policy is put into practice. The final step in this process involves evaluating the outcome of the policy. It should be noted that this model is an ideal. In practice, the process is rarely this linear; steps can overlap or be ignored.

The rational model is applied in both public policymaking and the private sector. It begins by assuming that the system under examination is stable; that the government is recognized as rational; that the policy problem being studied is clear; and that neither time nor expense is a factor that will compromise the application of the model. These factors in combination assure that the decision arrived at will logically be the best and most stable solution.

Another model is the group model, in which the political system creating the policy considers the conflicting needs and desires of two or more subgroups in order to determine those compromises that will resolve differences successfully.

In the elite model, public policy is found to serve social groups or individuals with the greatest power and wealth, rather than those with the greatest need. This model does not attend to citizen demands, regardless of number of citizens.

The six-step model, like the process model, is an ideal that in practice is often not so linear. The steps, in order, include discovering the problem and detailing its nature; determining the criteria to be used in evaluating the problem; identifying potential alternatives to the policy under consideration; evaluating those alternatives; adjusting current policy; and ongoing assessment of the newly created and implemented policy.

Gender Politics

In recent years, the field of political science has turned its attention to gender politics. As a political science major, you may have given thought to this, but you may not understand why it is important or when it entered the field as an area of study.

In the 1970s, feminists and other social scientists argued that an observer’s position is never truly neutral; therefore, data collected and analyzed, patterns discerned, and conclusions drawn are necessarily shaded to some degree by the scientist’s unique perspective. Feminist, black, and Native American students and political scientists further pointed out that since an extremely high degree of research and analysis at that time was conducted by white males, the data would contain blind spots regarding issues of importance to other identities.

Gender politics is more than simply considering issues of sex. Gender is broader and concerns the behaviors, beliefs, and expectations that are culturally expected and that children learn in the process of socialization. In other words, the concept of “gender politics” is socially bound, can vary from social group to social group and from historical perspective to historical perspective, and is self-perpetuating only to the degree that those who follow it permit.

When factories were left shorthanded during World War II, the media glorified American women as strong, intelligent, and capable. This position shifted after the war ended and returning male veterans needed work. Suddenly, women were again expected to be adoring housewives who took care of the home and children while their husbands handled the difficult work world. In the same way, regions of the world that were previously communist or socialist have experienced a shift in perspective.

Gender politics seeks to identify the characteristics that are stereotypically assigned to men and women. Identifying these characteristics is necessary in order to truly be able to understand the political negotiations and shifting power in any situation. For example, American masculine characteristics stereotypically include being ambitious, assertive or even aggressive, logical, firm, determined, and tough. Stereotypical feminine characteristics, on the other hand, include being passive, emotional, gentle, cooperative, weak, and caring. While there is no question that these stereotypes are broad and that, in actuality, men can possess a feminine side and women can display masculine qualities, the cultural stereotype does persist.

When the study of politics prioritizes a white male perspective without giving consideration to gender, race, or other social and cultural identities, it not only creates blind spots in research, but also places a white male perspective in a privileged position of superiority.

Gender politics has had a far-reaching affect on the field of political science, not just in terms of what the field studies, but also in how it studies. Previously, political science looked almost exclusively at public institutions and their governments. Relationships between individuals or groups weren’t seen as “political” and weren’t, therefore, considered as research- or study-worthy. Little or no interest was shown in introducing nonpublic politics, such as the ways in which family members exert or give up power, or in how the elderly are treated in nonpublic arenas. Gender studies rapidly developed an interest in the politics of personal or private relationships— the politics of domesticity.

Local Politics

If you’ve decided to pursue a political science major, there’s a very good chance you’re already involved with, or at least knowledgeable about, politics at the state and local levels. If you stop to think about it, there’s a good chance you participate, to some degree, in government nearly every day. If you have children who attend public school, if you visit the library or have ever gotten a parking ticket, if you’ve renewed your driver’s license or registered a car, you’re interacting with government.

Each of the fifty states is given the authority to govern its citizens through its unique constitution. While the Constitution of the United States is a fairly simple document, state constitutions are far more complex. In part, that’s because the 10th amendment puts all powers and decisions not reserved for the federal government into the hands of the states. Every state has an executive, a judicial, and a legislative branch, just like the federal government, because each state has chosen to follow the federal model; it’s not mandated by the Constitution or another legal document.

The state governor heads the state’s executive branch, just as the president heads the federal executive branch. Governors are chosen through direct and free elections, as are lieutenant governors, who are the state equivalent of the vice president. Most states also permit the citizens to elect the secretary of state, attorney general, commissioners, and state auditors.

In every state except Nebraska, congress is composed of elected representatives, who are members of the “lower house” and are greater in number, and senators, who occupy the “upper house” or “upper chamber.” Typically, state senators are elected for four years. In most states, representatives serve two years. As in the federal model, they are tasked with proposing and examining legislation that may, with a sufficient number of votes, become laws. The legislature also finalizes the state’s annual budget and can initiate impeachment.

The state judicial branch is, in most cases, under the jurisdiction of the state Supreme Court. In some cases, the state’s constitution determines how judicial appointments are made. In others, it’s the state’s legislature that makes the decision. The job of the state Supreme Court is to oversee judgments made by the lower courts and to review those that are controversial to ensure that no error in law has occurred. While state Supreme Court decisions are binding, they can be challenged and overturned at the federal level.

Locally, government is most often organized into two levels. The larger type of local government is called a county, borough, or parish. The smaller is called a municipality, township, borough, town, or village. The structure of each is determined by the state’s constitution.

At the municipal level, decisions are made concerning recreational services, including parks, housing, fire and police departments, ambulance and other emergency services, local courts, public transportation, signage, sewers, streets, and snow removal.

Any powers the local municipality, city, or township holds is granted to it by the state. Public servants such as city council members and mayors are chosen in open and direct public elections.

Foreign Politics

As a political science major you will spend time studying foreign politics and gain a deep understanding of the wide range of systems of government. While the Unites States is a democracy in which citizens elect their leaders, many countries work under a different model. In some parts of the world, very different types of government coexist with greater or lesser degrees of compatibility.

The Middle East is a case in point. Many countries that make up the region are currently experiencing political instability; others are relatively stable or are moving from one form of government into another with minimum disturbance. Recent events in Egypt are evidence that while not all change occurs easily, it can be achieved with a minimum of violence. Although Egypt’s former leader, Hosni Mubarak, assumed the title of president, for many years he ran unopposed in elections that the rest of the world saw as far from democratic. After tremendous public demonstration, he agreed to step down and allow military rule while the country prepares to transition. In Iran, the president, who is elected by popular vote, is secondary to the Supreme Leader. While the Iranian president is constitutionally charged with fulfilling executive functions, other tasks must be approved by parliament. The president doesn’t have control over the military or foreign policy; these are managed by the Supreme Leader.

Iran’s neighbor Iraq operates within a multiparty system and is, according to its constitution, an Islamic, democratic, federal, parliamentary republic. The prime minister heads the government in terms of executive power and appoints the country’s cabinet, the council of ministers. The country of Jordan is under the rule of a monarch who inherits his power. He appoints senate members, while house members are elected. Kuwait is also a monarchy whose emir, or king, selects the ministers and prime minister. Members of parliament are elected.

Latin America, like the Middle East, is composed of countries that operate under a number of types of government. Dictatorships such as Cuba and Venezuela coexist with democracies in which public servants are elected by popular vote, as well as with countries that exist under socialist rule.

Despite the fall of the Soviet Union and radical political changes in other parts of the world as well as in China itself over the last decades, China remains a Communist-run country. The party continues to have control over the military, as well as over all major media. The Communist Party also controls ministries, business, and universities.

Politics in Developing Areas

Politics in developing areas are fascinating to most political science majors because they can watch the rapid changes and multitude of choices in terms of the economy, social structures, and power arrangements such areas face. Developing regions were previously called “Third World countries,” a Cold War term for nonaligned nations that did not tend toward either communism or capitalism. The term has fallen into disfavor because it carries prejudicial overtones in its suggestion that the “third” world exists beneath the first world (capitalist countries) and the second world (communist countries).

Developing nations share a few commonalities, such as a greater degree of poverty as well as increased independence upon developed nations. Many regions that can be described as developing were previously colonies of developed, economically stable countries. It is difficult, if not impossible, to accurately define what regions and countries are “developing”; while some are economically impoverished, others have developed a higher standard of living. While some are in political flux, others have created relatively stable governments. Along the extremely large continuum of developing nations, those that are closest to achieving what could be seen as a sufficient degree of development to be fully independent are currently called newly industrialized nations.

Developed areas are identified by NATO as Japan, Canada, the U.S., some countries in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Israel, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore, among others. The World Bank considers countries that are low to middle income, most of the world’s countries, as developing countries. These areas lack the higher ratio of industrialization to population found in developed countries. In many cases, the higher the population growth, the lower the standard of living in developing nations.

Although they share the label of developing nations, there are also many differences among these countries in terms of politics. As a political science major, you’ll examine developing nations with a strong central government, such as India, as well as those governments that are weaker. Among the latter are countries controlled by dictators or military regimes, those that are ruled by a single party, and those that are democracies with multiple parties. You will also examine failing or failed areas whose political and human infrastructures are unstable, which in turn leads to political instability. An unstable government results in risky investments. Other problems facing weak or failing developing nations are distribution of scarce resources for political gain; unproductive, inefficient, or dysfunctional state institutions; and top-down corruption.

Last Updated: 05/22/2014

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