How To Study Politics

Politics is a fascinating subject that is guaranteed to elicit a rousing debate at the dinner table or cocktail party. It is also a field ripe for self-study and for mastery, if one applies critical reading skills and analysis to certain resources. This article will provide suggestions and resources for self-study of politics in the United States. If the goal is to study formally and earn a degree, you should consult other articles regarding application to undergraduate and graduate programs. 

  1. Clarify your interest. Are you intrigued by the electoral process, by which representatives and Presidents are chosen? Are you confused by campaign finance and strategy decisions? Do your interests lie in the subjects of legislative process (how bills become law) or federalism (how states and the federal government interact)? Or is it all fascinating to you? Clarifying which specific subjects you wish to study will help you create a plan for study and focus your search for resources more effectively. Helpful tip: start with a general overview of United States politics, such as that found at Wikipedia, and use its outline format to help you create an outline of topics that you wish to study.
  2. Brush up on the basics. Remember Schoolhouse Rock - "I'm just a bill?" Refresh your memory on the basics of American government: the three branches, the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the states' relationship to the federal government. A few good online sources for this basic information are the aforementioned Wikipedia article and other articles within that same free online encyclopedia site such as "Federal Government of the United States," "U.S. State," and "United States Constitution."
  3. Delve into political theory. This is the meat of political process in any country. No system of government evolves in a vacuum, or simply by virtue of a few people sitting around brainstorming ideas for legislative methods. Scholarly debate and literature abound on the topic of classical and modern political theory. Understanding theory helps give nuance to your study of modern U.S. politics and puts the system into context. Additionally, when you examine the political philosophies prevalent at the time of the American Revolution, you begin to understand just how radical the Founding Fathers really were. Some places to start include Wikipedia's "Political Philosophy;" an article titled "Political Philosophy" by Paul Newall courtesy of the Galilean Library; and the free online texts of some important political works such as Paine's Common Sense and Rousseau's The Social Contract, found at MondoPolitico. Other classics of Western political thought include Locke's Second Treatise of Government and Mill's On Liberty
  4. Research the parties. Compare and contrast the political platforms of the major U.S. parties - the Democrats, the Republicans, the Libertarians, the Greens party, and various others - by consulting their websites.
  5. Get "into" Congress - not by election, but by studying the various websites that are associated with "the Hill." Visit the House website and the Senate site to explore the various committees and structure of our bicameral legislature.
  6. Read The Federalist Papers. In our country's early history, a series of letters began showing up in newspapers and publications signed by "Publius," who came to be known as "The Federalist."  In reality written by three men, the collection of writings explored the various aspects of the Constitution that had been proposed for the young country. The collection has come to represent some of the finest thinking on political process and Constitutionalism ever put in writing. The three men, by the way, turned out to be James Madison, John Jay and Alexander Hamilton. Available in many compilations, as well as on the web in portions, the collection is a must for any serious student of politics.
  7. Go back to "college" - the Electoral College, that is. Understanding the Electoral College is mandatory if you want to truly appreciate the excitement of watching election returns in the U.S. Start with the Wikipedia article on "Elections" and then explore books such as Enlightened Democracy: The Case For the Electoral College by Tara Ross and Why the Electoral College is Bad for America by George Edwards III.
  8. Stay abreast of current political events. The winds of change are always blowing in politics. Yesterday's rumor becomes today's headline, which might evolve into tomorrow's legislation. Keeping on top of what's happening in politics might seem like an exhausting proposition at times. Try focusing on a couple reputable media sources. Look into headline clipping services; many websites will send you headlines on your selected topics of interest for free via email. Then you can explore the subjects of interest to you at your leisure.
  9. Get involved. The best way to learn about politics is to get involved with a political campaign, or consider running for office. There is no substitute for on-the-job training!

 

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