Political science

Political science is an academic discipline which looks at the nature of power, systems of governance, and human psychology. Contemporary political science can be traced back to the 1950s when sociologists such as Paul Lazarsfeld took a more systematic approach to the study of group behavior. Lazarsfeld's ideas were further developed during the 1970s by William H. Riker, who introduced mathematical modeling systems like game theory. Put simply, game theory studies how and why people make decisions. 

Many political scientists think game theory is what underpins any form of stable government or ruling power. For example, people living under a democratic rule of law abide by a certain set of rules because they are confident their fellow citizens (or at least the majority of them) will do the same. Moreover, any rewards they might gain from breaking those rules are often outweighed by the potential costs, such as social shaming, ostracization, or even legal punishment.

Game theory also explains why populations can be reluctant to resist dictators and other repressive regimes. Life under a dictatorship is often unpleasant. However, if the revolution fails, things are likely to get a lot worse. Again, this comes down to the risk/reward pay-off, and the relationship between the state and the individual. In a sense, political science is an ongoing conversation about finding a balance between power and freedom that benefits the most people. It is an excellent subject choice for anyone interested in the role of political institutions and upholding democracy and individual liberty.

Law

In a functioning democratic society, the rule of law applies to citizens, private companies, and public institutions. More importantly, the law puts constitutional limits on government bodies, limiting the power they can exercise on citizens. This is why police officers must establish probable cause before they can search a person, location, or vehicle. Trial by jury, supreme courts, and secret ballots are more examples of how the law constraints governmental power.

A study by the Pew Research center found 57% of countries are now classed as democratic, while the number of autocratic regimes has dropped by almost 50% since 1975. This is great news. However, it shows how nearly half of the world's population are still denied many basic freedoms.

Thankfully, organizations such as Amnesty International and the UN are promoting democracy and human rights around the world. Large scale legal firms are also lending a hand. British firm DLA Piper offers over 200,000 hours of pro bono work every year through its non-profit affiliate, New Perimeter. New Perimeter is currently overseeing "access to justice" initiatives in developing countries that score low on the democratic index. In one program, New Perimeter lawyers are working with colleagues in Nambia to provide paralegal training to locals, giving them the skills to challenge state power and advocate for their own rights.

Journalism

Numerous studies have found a direct link between levels of civic engagement and news coverage. This includes a 2014 paper by Professor Lee Shaker titled Dead Newspapers and Citizens’ Civic Engagement. Shaker looked at the quality and quantity of local newspapers in towns across the US. According to the data, citizens who had more access to local news coverage showed an increased interest in community matters, including politics, civic institutions, and charity organizations. A similar study noted a strong correlation between low media access and low voter turnout, while political economist Matthew Gentzkow states how reading a local newspaper can encourage up to 13% of non-voters to exercise their democratic right. Knowledge is power, but knowledge can also keep power in check.

Robert Fisk became a journalist after graduating with a PhD in Political Science from Trinity College, Dublin. Since then, he's spent decades writing for some of the most respected publications in the world, chiefly UK newspaper The Independent, and has won many British and international journalism awards, including the Press Awards Foreign Reporter of the Year seven times. He has reported on abuses of power in Europe, the USA, and the Middle East. When asked about the value of his profession, Frisk said, "Journalism is about monitoring power and the centers of power. We're there to try and get as near as we can, in an imperfect world, to the truth and get the truth out.”

Democracy studies

If you're interested in learning about democracy, then why not go straight to the source? Democracy studies is an increasingly popular subject at the undergraduate and postgraduate level.

Bachelor programs last three to four years and focus on the historical and social aspects of democracy. Students gain a broad insight into the evolution of democratic government, tracing its development back to ancient Greece. In fact, the term democracy comes from two ancient Greek words; demos,  which means 'common people', and kratos, which translates as 'strength'.

Students in the subject learn about what it takes to build and sustain a democracy, as well as its economical and cultural benefits. Democracy isn't perfect; some commentators prefer to call it the "least worst" form of governance. That's why students also examine the downsides of democracy and the best ways to manage them.

Master degrees focus more on the inner workings of political institutions,  globalization, democracy in transition,  and international relations. Graduate studies also explore important ethical questions; namely, whether democratic nations have a right, or even a duty, to project their style of government onto the rest of the world. Other interesting issues to explore include raising or lowering the voting age, whether serving prisoners should have the right to vote, and discussions on what Plato called epistocracy. 

Also referred to as "aristocracy of the wise", epistocracy is a system of power where all decision making is deferred to a small clique of benevolent philosopher kings. Such an idea is an anathema to most people living in a 21st-century democracy. However, political philosopher Jason Brennan updated the idea in his 2016 book Against Democracy. Many of Brennan's suggestions might seem unpalatable at first. For example, he posits the idea of a civics test for all would-be voters. Those who can demonstrate a sound knowledge of the political system get to vote, and vice versa. 

Brennan's book does not try to undermine the democratic process. Instead, it looks at ways to improve the current system. In another work called The Ethic Of Voting, Brennan writes,  "Political decisions are high stakes. These decisions can deprive many of us of property, liberty, and even life. If you do vote, you must vote well. Like jurors, voters have a moral obligation to vote in a competent and morally reasonable way."

For some students, ideas like this are exciting. For others, they're a slippery slope towards something very different from democracy. Either way,  a democracy studies seminar is the best place to explore and expand these important ideas in more detail. 

Democracies are hard to build and easy to break. They require constant attention and should never shy away from scrutiny. Moreover, democracies are ongoing projects that must always adapt to new challenges, technologies, and new types of citizens. So if you want to become part of the ongoing conversation, you know where to start...

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