Political Systems

Groups of chairs in a cricule

Political systems are a set of interrelated social institutions that enable the process of collective decision making and the implementation and enforcement of those decisions

A political system is a set of interrelated social institutions that collectively perform the function of public governance within a society.1 Politics is the process through which a group of people make collective decisions that affect all and implement them; the process of doing this we would call public governance.2 A political system is then the set of institutions required to conduct governance within a society. Whenever there is a group of people that are interdependent in some way their actions will affect each other and some form of organization is required to effectively manage this combined organization – thus arises the need for a political system. Political systems are then a response to the question of how this combined public organization will operate; whose opinion will be included? How will the process of reaching a decision be conducted? How will it be implemented and enforced? In order to facilitate this process in an organized and structured manner, a number of social institutions are required which constitute a political system.


Public governance takes place in and between a group of people that are interdependent as they share some commonality. Thus political systems have historically emerged out of a local geographic context and sociocultural organization. All forms of social systems have had some form of political system; bands, tribes, chiefdoms, states, and empires throughout history have all developed institutions for collective decision-making and implementation. People that share common cultural and social institutions and thus identify with each other as a single sociocultural organization have historically formed the basis of political unity. However, political systems do not necessarily need to be based on people sharing a common cultural and social structure. For example, the great agrarian empires, such as Rome, regarded subjects of vastly different ethnic and cultural heritage to be equally subject to aristocratic and central authority. The legitimacy of the emperor, king or aristocracy had nothing to do with what language they spoke.3

With the rise of the modern era, nationalism became a dominant paradigm for political organization. Nationalism means a sovereign state that itself represents one culture or ethnic group over a large area and the belief that this ethnic group or people ought to be self-ruling – this can be seen as a relatively modern idea.4 An ethnic group or ethnicity is a category of people who identify with each other based on similarities such as common ancestral, language, social, cultural or national experiences. The idea that people of the same nation are connected to each other is called nationalism.5 The concept of the nation-state becoming equation to the “nation”, became dominant by the 20th century in Europe. It’s true that humans have always lived in groups that shared a common culture, religion, ethnicity, or race, but these were not what we would call states. They were predominantly local, kin-based associations, perhaps with a dialect of a language spreading over a number of villages a short distance from one another. The idea of a nation is a relatively modern phenomenon. The central idea of nationalism is as Ernest André Gellner stated it “to each people, a state; to each state, one people.” Nationalism when hand in hand with the rise of the commercial class and capitalism during the modern era as a centralized government over a large area can provide an ideal platform for commerce “standardized, homogenous, centrally sustained high cultures, pervading entire populations and not just elite minorities” as Ernest Gellner noted.6

Picture of national flags

Nationalism is a modern construct; an abstract idea that people of a large geographical area share some common culture and bond upon which political governance has come to be based

The idea of nationalism is that people have a right to self-rule, in order for government to be legitimate it has to share and express the culture of the people. This is typically not what occurred in the past, the legitimacy of the ruler’s power over subjects had nothing to do with them sharing a common culture. To say that the Japanese should rule themselves and not be taken over by the Korean is a nationalist idea. We can note that nationalism is, in essence, idealistic in that instead of the foundation of political authority being based on power it is seen to be based on shared culture. The idea of nationalism is to say that the peasant and the nobility share something in common that is greater than their differences, this would have been abhorrent to the nobility of the Middle Ages.7 Nationalism promotes equality within the nation, but may also do this at the expense of inequality between nations. It requires literacy and a degree of education because people over a large area must know that they share a common history and identity; it is unifying and centralizing. Your loyalty to the government is based upon you shared identity. Thus nationalism has had a huge homogenizing effect on culture during its rise as out of the many thousands of cultures that previously existed on the planet today only a small fraction have become national cultures.7

Benedict Anderson’s pointed out in his influential book Imagined Communities the nation is an imagined community, the vast majority of the people will never meet and will live very different lives from each other but they have some conception of a shared identity.8 Anderson traced the formation of the nation state back to the printing press as a key element in its formation, where people consuming the same media came to see they had something in common. The book illustrated how the printing press played a powerful role in the development of a shared sense of identity, that is the nation. Imagined Communities suggested that nationalism is not the awaking of an existing community but the invention of one. The nation is an abstraction, it emphasizes the commonalities amongst a group of people above their differences.8

Nationalism creates one dominant culture over a large geographical area and promotes this as the foundations to political legitimacy. For example, today Ethiopia is composed of more than 80 different peoples and cultures but the government still promotes itself as representing one people. A nation defines itself and others through race, history, culture and common language. For example in contemporary France, if you know the language and the history you can be considered French.9 This can be called cultural hegemony. Hegemony is when one element rules without question. Cultural hegemony is when one cultural perspective dominates all others. The political theorist Antonio Gramsci argues that the political state produced cultural hegemony to maintain its rule.10 Culture influence is a crucial part of the maintenance of a state and that is why language and culture feed into the power structure and the state will try to control them to varying degrees. He posited that the state uses an often subtle array of means and cultural institutions to do this – from the media to the educational system – to create a cultural assumption of its validity and the validity of the cultural narrative that supports it.11


For a political system to operate and exercise governance it must have the institutional means to affect or influence the members it governs. This set of political institutions can take different forms from bands to tribes, chieftains, and empires, but the contemporary form through which governance is exercised is called the state. In terms of a political entity, a state is any politically organized community living under a single system of government. The Oxford Dictionary defines the state as a “territory considered as an organized political community under one government.”12


Patrols of two police officers in the Trocadero gardens near to the iconic Eiffel Tower. Control over a fix territory and people is a key characteristic of the nation state

The key aspects of statehood are population, citizens, territory, and government.13 States are defined by a given territory with boundaries to it and they exercise governance within their confines. States have a permanent population, a defined territory and a government that is capable of maintaining effective control over the corresponding territory and of conducting international relations with other states. These elements are summed up in Max Weber’s definition which describes the state as a compulsory political organization with a centralized government that maintains a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within a certain territory.14 For most of human history, people have lived in stateless societies, characterized by a lack of concentrated authority, and the absence of large inequalities in economic and political power. The earliest forms of the state emerged whenever it became possible to centralize power in a durable way. Agriculture and writing are invariably associated with this process: agriculture because it allowed for the emergence of a social class of people who did not have to spend most of their time providing for their own subsistence, and writing because it made possible the centralization and dissemination of vital information.15

It is only in relatively modern times that states have almost completely displaced alternative “stateless” forms of political organization of societies all over the planet.16 Roving bands of hunter-gatherers and even relatively large and complex tribal societies based on animal husbandry or agriculture have existed without any full-time specialized state organization. These “stateless” forms of political organization have in fact prevailed for all of the prehistory and much of the history of humans and civilization. Initially states emerged over territories built by conquest in which one culture, one set of ideals and one set of laws have been imposed by force or threat over diverse nations by a civilian and military bureaucracy. The modern state arose from the break-up of European Christendom during the early sixteenth century. The Reformation instigated a century of religious wars between Catholics and Protestant powers. By the end of the century, the modern state had been established in Western Europe: a centralized power with exclusive lawmaking and law-enforcing authority over a territory. Conventionally, however, the modern state and state system is dated from the Treaty of Westphalia (1618–48) after a long period of inter-European warfare. Westphalia established the key principle of modern statehood: sovereignty. Since the late 19th century, virtually the entirety of the world’s inhabitable land has been divided out into areas with more or less definite borders claimed by various states.17

However, even within present-day states, there are vast areas of wilderness, like the Amazon rainforest, which are uninhabited or inhabited solely or mostly by indigenous people. Also, there are states which do not hold de facto control over all of their claimed territory or where this control is challenged, what we call failed states, such as Somalia or contemporary Syria. Currently, the international community comprises around 200 sovereign states, the vast majority of which are represented in the United Nations. Nation-states often force into a single mold a diverse set of people and cultures that historically have little to do with each other. The state tries to mold them into a single entity under a single rule of law and subject to the same fixed rules. To achieve this nation states often worked actively to foster a sense of national culture over that of local cultures.

If we look around the world most of the nation-state borders are those that were imposed in a very artificial way by the colonial powers and today remain fragile. Iraq is one such example being a product of the British carving out of a territory according to their own interests, not in the interests of the indigenous people. For example, the northern border of Iraq was drawn so as to enable the British to exploit the oil, or the line that the British drew separating Pakistan from Afghanistan cuts right through the Pashtun area. The colonial empires had little interest in developing the institutional capabilities required for the state before leaving. In the absence of the required institutions, many nations around the world have remained weak, particularly in Africa and the Middle East.18 However, the nation state remains the dominant institutional framework on a global level through which political order and organization is maintained and are the primary unit of analysis of much contemporary political science.

Government building of China

A Sovereign state like that of China is seen to have complete control over its territory without interference from extranational political organizations

States may be classified as sovereign if they are not dependent on, or subject to any other power or state in exercising influence over their territory. States may or may not be sovereign.19 For instance, federated states – like that of contemporary Germany – are members of a federal union, and may have only partial sovereignty, but are, nonetheless, states. Some states are subject to external sovereignty or hegemony, in which ultimate sovereignty lies in another state or some super-state institution. States that are sovereign are known as sovereign states. Sovereign states exercise supreme authority within a limited sphere, the ability to rule absolutely within a territory, where no outside force can dictate the inner working of the state.20 Sovereignty implies supreme rule or authority, this authority can be achieved through what the people see as legitimate or illegitimate means. Illegitimate means are those that people do not see as correct, the most obvious being the arbitrary use of physical force. Legitimate means are those that the people see as being right or correct when a government is seen to be legitimate people act in accordance with the government’s will because they recognize its authority as deriving from something higher and more valid than their own specific interests.

Max Weber identified three main sources of political legitimacy in his works.21 The first, legitimacy based on traditional grounds is derived from a belief that things should be as they have been in the past, and that those who defend or continue in some way these traditions have a legitimate claim to power. The second is legitimacy based on charismatic leadership, which is devotion to a leader or group that is viewed as exceptionally heroic or virtuous. The third is rational-legal authority, whereby legitimacy is derived from the belief that a certain group has been placed in power in a legal manner, and that their actions are justifiable according to a specific code of written law. Weber believed that the modern state is characterized primarily by appeals to rational-legal authority. Cultural and national homogenization figured prominently in the rise of the modern state system. Since the absolutist period, states have largely been organized on a national basis. However, even in the most ethnically homogeneous societies, there is not always a complete correspondence between state and nation, hence the active role often taken by the state to promote nationalism through emphasis on shared symbols and national identity.


A state can be distinguished from a government. The government is the particular group of people and organizations that control the state apparatus at a given time. That is to say, governments are the specific means through which state power is employed. States are served by a continuous succession of different governments.22 States are immaterial and nonphysical social objects, whereas governments are groups of people with certain powers. A government is the means through which the abstract concept of governance is realized within a particular community. The government is the organization within the state framework that manages the process of governance. The relationship between a government and its state is one of representation and authorized agency.23 Governments manage societies and they do this by defining the protocols or rules under which that society will operate. They then have to implement those rules, enforce them and adjudicate them.

Governments firstly need some system for defining who gets participation in the decision-making process; what may be called an electoral process. Secondly, in order to make decisions and create rules, a decision-making body is required; what can be called the legislative. Third, there needs to be some organization for executing on the initiatives and rules agreed by the group; what may be called the executive or public administration. Finally, there needs to be some organization for ensuring that members adhere to the rules of the government and adjudicate on disputed issues; which is the judiciary and law enforcement agencies. In political systems based on the principle of separation of powers, authority is distributed among these several branches in an attempt to prevent the concentration of power in the hands of a small group of people. Although it should be noted that the mere existence of such institutions in law does not guarantee a separation or balance of power. Many autocratic political systems have all the institutions designed for a balance and separation of power, while behind this power remains concentrated within a central group.24

Electoral System

While most countries in the world purport to be democratic republics with representative parliaments, in many countries democracy is still an ideal while autocracy plays a major role in the actual exercise of political power

Governments manage the public sphere and they have to decide the best choices to make or what is the best direction to go in. This starts with deciding who gets a place at the decision-making table; whose opinions are included in the final decision. Different political systems will decide this in very different ways. Some will be restrictive, reducing the number of people, some will be expansive; some will be based upon the use of force some on individual rights and representation. In an autocratic system decision making is concentrated in a single center with a limited number of members having representation within the decision-making process based on their access to the source of power.25 However today almost all political systems around the world purport to be based upon the interests of their people and display the institutional apparatus for public opinion to be expressed within the decision-making process – of course in autocratic systems this is merely for appearance only.

In a modern republic based on a social contract, the law ensures that the decision-making process is open to those who have citizenship within that nation. In such systems, the decision making power of the citizens has come to be mediated through a representative body that is elected by the people. Broadly speaking, an electoral system can be defined as the regulation of the election of public officials. In a more constrained definition, an electoral system can be seen as the regulation of the relation between voting and the elected officials. Therefore, an electoral system is the way in which public opinion and interests through votes can be translated into elected representatives and ultimately the decisions that the citizens wish to see enacted; even if this is a highly mediated process. The design of electoral systems determines the ways in which votes are turned into public offices.26 The constitution of most countries today both provides the legal framework for that country and serves as the basis for the conduct and delivery of free, fair, credible and legitimate elections – although this is only realized in practice in a subset of political systems.27


Those who are elected to government form part of the legislative system. The legislation makes laws that are binding for the community. Modern democratic political systems based on law, are designed to formulate new rules based upon the use of reason through debates; this process is called argumentation. Individuals have particular perspectives from which they derive opinions on a topic, they then construct a case for a particular action or set of rules. In reasoned argument, people construct a case by presenting data and creating premises and drawing inferences that lead to conclusions.28 However, not all arguments are reason based in which case people resort to various other means, such as persuasion and manipulation.

People present their various cases before an audience with the hope of persuading them to adhere to their course of action. Ultimately the outcome of the process depends on the audience that will in some way express their approval of some options over others which then go on to be implemented by other governmental institutions. What the legislators can and can not do is governed by the constitution. Indeed the constitution is the expression of the social contract made by the people in forming the government and thus defines what the whole government can and can not do. A constitution is a set of fundamental principles or established precedents according to which a state or other organization can legitimately operate. These rules together make up what the entity is.29 When these principles are written down into a single document or set of legal documents, those documents may be said to embody a written constitution. Few states in the modern world have constitutional arrangements that are more than a century old. Indeed, the vast majority of all the world’s states have constitutions written in the 20th or 21st century.30


Modern public administrations virtually all take the same bureaucratic form, where the various functions and public services that they provide are broken down into departments with many layers of hierarchy

The executive is the organizational structure through which management over the state is executed. The executive is the element within the political system exercising authority in and holding responsibility for the management of a state. Modern public administrations take the typical bureaucratic form found within most organization such as a corporation. As per a typical hierarchical bureaucratic system of management the operations of the executive are broken down into various departments with department ministers or heads responsible for the provision and maintenance of various public services. In a presidential system, the leader of the executive is both the head of state and head of government. In a parliamentary system, a cabinet minister responsible to the legislature is the head of government, while the head of state is usually a largely ceremonial monarch or president.31


It is very often said that politics is about power and power is the ability to impose one’s will on another. For the state to have power it must have some apparatus for influencing or controlling people towards its decided ends. Ultimately politics involves power in that it requires the implementation and enforcement of rules made by the collective on the individuals of the group. The origin of the state is to be found in the development of the art of warfare. Historically speaking, all political communities of the modern type owe their existence to successful warfare. The exercise of power through the use of force is the origins of the state and it remains a critical element of it; this power of the state is exercised through the law enforcement agencies.

Law enforcement is that element of the political system by which members of government act in an organized manner to enforce the law by discovering, deterring, rehabilitating, or punishing people who violate the rules and norms governing that society.32 A modern law enforcement system will include such elements as a police force, courts, jails, intelligence and surveillance agencies, army etc. Law enforcement agencies are largely limited to operating within a specified jurisdiction, outside of this the military is responsible for state security. Questions of interpreting and applying the law within a specific context are managed by the judiciary, which adjudicates between the written code and its application. The judiciary is the system of courts that interprets and applies the law in the name of the state, while also providing a mechanism for the resolution of disputes. In some nations, under doctrines of separation of powers, the judiciary generally does not make law or enforce law but rather interprets law and applies it to the facts of each case. In other nations, the judiciary can make law, known as Common Law, by setting precedent for other judges to follow, as opposed to Statutory Law made by the legislature. The Judiciary is often tasked with ensuring equal justice for citizens under the law.

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