Our ideas on politics, or any concepts for that matter, are usually shaped by our experiences—by what we have seen or heard. In a multifaceted world, what can be seen or heard is heavily influenced by power structures, or at least, our access to them. These power structures are the physical embodiment of politics—from actual towers, systems of thought control, and up to representatives in the congress.
This, perhaps, explains why we tend to associate politics with pejorative notions i.e., crooked, power-thirsty, and self-interested politicians. 200 years ago, Samuel Johnson dismissed politics as “nothing more than a means of rising in the world.” History proves that such perceptions are not entirely wrong, but they are also not entirely right. While it is understandable to perceive politics as corrupt from our exposure to violent social forces and negative experiences with politicians, we still have to recognize the potential of politics as an agent of consensus and emancipation or dialogue where conflicting interests can be harmonized as perceived by Plato in his The Republic, or as a means to achieve good government that leads to good life to citizens as originally intended by Aristotle in his magnum opus, Politics.
In claiming that man is a political animal, Aristotle tells us that we exist as part of a broader social structure. This way, politics is not only ubiquitous and all-pervasive, but also the highest form of activity. At present, this is anything that has to do with the government of any country—representation, elections, policy-making, and so on. This is akin to Oxford Dictionary’s definition of politics as “the art and science of government”. For a long time, this definition was accepted as the foundation for studies including political philosophy, constitutional law, and others. However, according to Munroe (2002) in his book An Introduction to Politics, this definition has become inadequate not only because of the developments and inevitable changes in political life but also because it restricts what can be considered as political to only a concern of the government.
The inescapable presence of conflicts springing from differences and scarcity is what make politics an inevitable feature of any society. Swaying from the common notion of politics as an avenue for rival opinions and competing needs or interests, Hannah Arendt’s definition of political power as “acting in concert” exemplifies the idea that we can only uphold the rules we create for ourselves when opposing views are reconciled or when we arrive at a conflict resolution. Over the years, more scholars and experts have tried to create an overarching definition of politics. These attempts, however, seem to have brought more questions than answers. Andrew Heywood , in his book Politics, noted that while politics may be understood as an “essentially contested” term, we must still distinguish the various approaches in defining politics.
Approaches to the Study of Politics
Heywood enumerated the following as approaches in explaining the meaning of politics:
1. Politics as the art of government
In exercising societal control and making or enforcing rules, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck insisted that politics is an art of government. This definition can be traced back to Ancient Greece when independent polis/city-states were divided and Athens was considered as the epitome of democracy. During this time, involvement in politics only includes holding public office and participating in matters that concern the polis. In this sense, politics and government are inextricably linked, if not interchangeable.
This view also influenced David Easton (1970) in defining politics as the “authoritative allocation of values”. The political machinery and power of governments allow them to respond to the pressures and needs of society. Echoing Munroe’s aforementioned critique, while this approach is simple and straightforward at best, it restricts politics into a mere governmental function. Only those that are ideologically motivated to join formal political parties are considered as political actors. This effectively denies those who are outside the legislative chamber, executive departments, or judicial courts access to or even cognizance of their participation in politics. This definition fails to see ordinary citizens as fundamental and indispensable political actors. Similarly, this definition ignores the increasing importance of international relations. An example of this is the all too common understanding of politics as synonymous with ‘party politics’. The Oxford Dictionary defines party politics as that which relates to the interest of political parties rather than to the good of the general public.
Despite this, there remains a general acceptance of political activity. This is because without any kind of mechanism to ensure that resources are allocated and rules are enforced, society would easily disintegrate and we would all be back to what Hobbes argued as the brutish state of nature. Heywood succinctly pronounced that the goal is not to do away with politics or politicians but to ensure that governmental power is not abused.
2. Politics as Public Affairs
Through this approach, what is political coincides with what transpires in the public sphere. This includes state institutions such as government apparatus, court, army, etc.—all of which are funded at the citizens’ expense through a system of taxation. In the same measure, matters concerning the private sphere or civil society are considered non-political or personal. This includes family, private business, unions, community groups, and others that are funded by private and individual citizens at their own expense and for their own interests. While the civil society is private in nature, it still contains open institutions that are operating in and accessible to the public. This transfer of economy from private to public realm essentially broadens political notions.
The public/private divide rests on the moral idea that politics should not infringe on private affairs and institutions. This led liberal theorists in arguing in favor of civil society in the belief that it is the ‘realm of choice, freedom, and individual responsibility’. As a result, a clear line of demarcation was drawn to define the practice of politics as one that involves interaction among free and equal citizens.
3. Politics as Compromise and Consensus
This approach to politics looks at the process and way in which political decisions are made. Politics (through compromise, conciliation, and negotiation), in this approach, is seen as a conflict resolution tool. It rests on the belief that society is, or should be, based on consensus rather than irreconcilable conflict.
It is important to note that this approach is what makes politics “the art of the possible”. This definition implies that it is not only possible but also prudent to use peaceful means of compromise i.e., debate and arbitration in attempting to arrive at a consensus instead of violence and coercion.
One of the leading proponents of this approach is Bernard Crick. In his study In Defence of Politics, he argued that opposing ideas and interests must be conciliated by distributing power in proportion to their importance to the welfare of the parties involved. This way, conflict resolution is achieved through power distribution. While compromise is certainly no utopian solution, it is still much better than cold-blooded brutality. Afterall, we are in the civilized age now. Through this, politics must be respected as a civilizing force just as each individual must be prepared to engage in matters concerning the polity.
4. Politics as Power
This approach recognizes politics as a broad discipline and practice that is present in all of human existence. Adrian Leftwich posited that at the heart of any and all collective social activity–be it in private or public spheres, formal or informal settings—lies politics. What differs politics from any other social behavior is the presence (or absence) of power. In effect, this provides for the radical tone of this approach.
This approach enabled the rise of various liberation and civil movements across the world. It stimulated the growing interest of people about what is considered as political. Feminists, for example, sought to expand political arenas, advancing the idea that “the personal is the political”, among others. In holding on the belief that the society is patriarchal, feminists also highlight the power imbalance between men and women. This appears to be a seeming microcosm of the kind of politics that is pervading at the time.
Other scholars viewed politics as power by exemplifying its role as an apparatus of the state—a tool through which the status quo is maintained by a particular class at the disadvantage of another. This means political power is deeply rooted in one’s position in the social hierarchy/class.
In this light, politics may understandably seem as a purely negative concept, but it must also be met with the recognition of the idea that politics can be a means through which injustice and power imbalance can be challenged.
Contemporary Views or Approaches to the study of Politics
Aside from the works of Heywood, contemporary social sciences also view politics as follows:
1. Politics as a Performance (Performative Dimension of Politics)
Politics is, in essence, performed. Generally, political activities are associated with decision-making, power relations, distribution of resources, and the like.  These activities are, by nature, performative as they necessitate public participation. In here, performative refers to the theatrical use of gestures, speech, and symbols to promote an impression of good governance. This coincides with Lewis Lapham’s argument during the 2015 US elections. Lapham argued that the government is representative only in the theatrical sense.  As theatrics go, politics has been seemingly reduced to mere spectacle—a performative reenactment of democracy starring some of the most convincing actors: politicians.
Time and again, we have seen the many ways in which actions or performances are able to influence particular audiences and observers. This has not only been useful in the theater or entertainment industry but even more so in the vast domain of politics.
For one, it is not uncommon for political candidates to utilize mass media in spreading materials of them performing or putting out their best selves to gain supporters. In fact, one candidate infamously danced his way into a re-election bid in the Senate in 2019.  The same works during the much-awaited State Of the Nation Address (SONA) when the chief executive is expected to perform an elaborate presentation of his reports and plans for the country. Other forms of “speech acts” including, but not limited to, debate and/or argumentation and the use of bully pulpit by a President are also seen as prime examples of performative politics. A bully pulpit is a prominent public position or political office that provides an opportunity for expressing one’s views. Suffice to say, these speech acts are capable of instigating transformation of political leanings and personal dispositions.
Meanwhile, in the US, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was considered by some as a politician who has mastered the art of performative politics when she was escorted away from the Supreme Court after a popular protest following the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.  Modern forms of political rituals when it comes to parliamentary practices and procedures are also regarded as examples of performative politics. When the United Kingdom Parliament was suspended in 2019, two sets of performances involving robes, black rod, flamingo, swords, etc took place. These performances emulated the antiquated patterns of appearance, speech, movement, and timing of past ceremonies.  Regardless of the intent, these performances render their actors visible and their actions potentially meaningful and influential. Carefully understanding them would in turn be beneficial in helping us scrutinize the sincerity (or lack thereof) of these performative actions/utterances.
Performative politics is closely tied with ideas of social construction. In language, for example, performing simply means actually doing what is said. However, this is not always the case with politics. So far, we have seen how politicians have used performances that may or may not actually reflect their capabilities just to appeal to the people. Performing does not always mean delivering. This practice must be met with political expressions that influence the government or persuade powerful people to act on any particular issue—a counter performance. This can be seen in the many instances of protest arts and mass movements where aesthetic and cultural performances were showcased along with people’s resistance to performative politics, the kind that spoils the Philippine political system.
Politics has long been used as an avenue for direct democracy and protest. It is an actual stage with actual performers. In this stage, every position, body language, speech, visuals, and other performative displays are perfectly curated to appeal to the sensibilities of the mass. While this is not inherently bad as performance is still essential to the establishment of relations of representation, to some extent, there needs to be a clear boundary between performance and reality—between what is promised and what is achieved. Although reality is fundamentally constituted through the process of performance or performativity as famously noted by Judith Butler and other theorists of performance studies, we should not allow our political realities to be completely shaped by performative actions and utterances of those in power. These performances must be critiqued or challenged through counter-performances if necessary.
2. Politics as a Discourse (Discursive Dimension of Politics)
In essence, politics is not only performative but is also discursive. Language, be it verbal or written, is sine qua non to the practice of politics. As Chilton and Schäffner posited , politics cannot be conducted without language. This effectively means that the use of language in the establishment of social groups is precisely what makes politics possible. In deliberating, making, and enforcing policies, among the many goals of politics, discourse is essential and indispensable.
In his book Language and Politics, political scientist Noam Chomsky explained how words are the currency of power in elections. Communication is the key to persuading voters as can be seen during campaigns when people are encouraged to buy into whatever politicians are promising at the time.  Through discourses and arguments, elaborate speeches, and manifestos, politicians are able to express and sell themselves. Communication is therefore the currency of politics. Without this currency, the practice would disintegrate.
This view has thus far provided a positive dimension of language in politics. However, apart from this basic and generally-accepted fact, discursive politics has been used in enabling different forms of domination, oppression, and aggression through sexist language, ableist remarks, r*ape jokes, and etc. Here, we should look no further than the examples provided by the former president Rodrigo Duterte and the many instances he expressed misogynistic and unscrupulous statements against particular groups.  Since such statements were always dismissed as mere jokes, the former president was never really held accountable for the things he said. In fact, the whole institution enabled such utterances by trivializing them, by minimizing their effect on people. This only goes to show that the power of language, while providing many opportunities for political development, rests on those who wield it.
3. Politics as Affect (Affective Dimension of Politics)
More often than not, we form our political opinions through conscious and rational thoughts. This is primarily because we tend to consider reason as essential requisites for attaining the ideals of democracy through decision-making, crisis management, and the like. This led to the false but unfortunately generally held notion that women cannot be leaders because they are emotional. Despite the strict rationalist tendencies in the conduct of politics, recent studies  suggest that emotions and reason are actually more related and inseparable than we think. Politics, like any other social activity, is fundamentally shaped by emotions or affects.
Tobias Widmann, in his study, argued that affective reactions influence a variety of cognitive processes including, among others, political behavior, attitude, and ideologies. His findings suggest that political actors, in order to influence citizens, should appeal to their emotions. This means politicians should utilize strategic emotional rhetoric in communicating or performing their duties. In other words, politics must not only be made accessible but also comprehensible and relatable to the public. But where do we draw the line between the relatability and bastardization of politics?
During any political activity, particularly elections, emotions run high and many are taken with a strong sense of faith and belief for the politicians they support. As tallies inch closer to the proclamation of winning candidates, many nervously wait with tears of jubilation and sobs of disbelief.  While there is nothing wrong with supporting political candidates and sharing their ideals, it is also important to have a good faith and critical examination of their platforms. Failing to do so leads to blind fanaticism, idolatry, and irrational behaviors. At present, words like “diehard”, “apologist”, “loyalist”, and others to pronounce unfaltering faith in certain politicians are often thrown around casually. Some even openly embrace and take pride in the terms, as if they do not have pejorative overtones.
Since many are only emotionally involved in politics and political participation ends immediately after the election day, politicians are emboldened to evade accountability and proceed with their usual orders of business. This behavior is also precisely what further impedes in its attempts to attain political development.
Summary: What is the Importance of Politics and Why is it Necessary to Understand its Different Meanings?
Politics is a loaded term. We may get an inkling of what it actually means through the use of various approaches, but it remains a complex idea. Nevertheless, this should not stop us from pursuing politics as a discipline and practice. As a matter of fact, these approaches are more similar than we think. For one, the above mentioned approaches help explain why negative perceptions are often attached with politics. In the general mind, politics is closely linked with activities of politicians or government officials that are detached from ordinary people’s lives. This is because when we feel excluded on matters concerning the state, it becomes easy to dismiss politics as a mere hobby for the rich rather than a natural tendency for all citizens. This leads to an atmosphere of public malaise and public distrust of politics—anti-politics. Despite this, the approaches are also similar in sense that they still recognize the inevitability and necessity of politics in the civilized world.
It is important to know the different meanings of politics as it allows us to widen our perspectives in dealing with problems concerning the state. This reminds us that there really is no single formula for handling state affairs. At times, we would find ourselves arguing, lobbying, compromising, or even facing naked force. Politics, regardless of the approach or lens we view it, ensures that we can uncover the principles on which society should be based. Disagreement on the nature of politics should not even be taken as a bad thing. Such contentions only prove that politics as an academic discipline is continuously evolving to fit present circumstances.
Finally, politics is important in our society for the simple fact that it is what made civilization possible. While not everything is about politics, anything can be politicized. In politicizing anything, problems are no longer problems that require simple resolution, but are now events subjected to the acquisition of power. It is through politics that ideas become open for contestation in the marketplace of ideas. This is precisely what makes politics exciting. As distinguished political scientist Harold Lasswell asserted, “Politics is who gets what, when and how.” It is through politics that we decide how power and resources are distributed, if society would be based on conflict or cooperation, and how collective decisions would be made. Therefore, politics is the tool through which we improve our lives, establish rules, and create a harmonious society.
Government and Governance Defined
These two terms are usually interchangeably used in common language as defining the exercise of power or authority in an organization, institution, or state. Nevertheless, there is (or should be) a clear distinction between these two terms to avoid confusion.
According to the World Bank , governance is the way in which “power is exercised through a country’s economic, political, and social institutions.” The term is used here as an ideal that does not hold any tangible structure but is indispensable in handling social relations. On the other hand, the government is defined by Heywood as one of the institutions involved in governance. The term is used here as merely one of the (presumably) many institutions enabling governance. This implies that there can be governance even without a government. It is through this that we can see its close relation with politics. In studying politics, we are, in essence, studying the government or the means of developing public policy or delivering public services.
With the advent of industrial revolution and modern technology, societies have become more complex. New approaches of governing that rely less on hierarchical institutions and more on the market were created. This essentially weakened the stiff demarcation line between the state and the civil society, resulting in a more cooperative relationship. This may be seen as the start of the shift from government to governance. It is no longer just about the people or administration in charge but about the ways through which state decisions are coordinated. According to Heywood, this marked the ‘reinvention of government’—doing away with the practice of directly providing services and merely assuming a regulating role.
This development on the way government and governance are defined led to the transformation of the state. It paved the way for the creation of a competitive state market. This also strengthened, contrary to the public-private divide previously discussed, what is called the “public-private relationship”. All of this lends to the advent of not only industrial revolution but also liberal ideas on the essence of democratic governance built on compromise and negotiation.
Purpose and Significance of Government
While it is true that governance can exist without government (as the civil society can easily take over), the latter remains significant in ensuring that the interests of the citizens, despite their inevitable differences, are reconciled. The government provides liberty to encourage the creation of products and services just as it imposes limitations to inhibit possible abuses to resources. Therefore, only a genuine government with public service at its core can guarantee good governance. As government rules, governance orchestrates.
A government that relies on its authority and power also relies on force (legitimate violence) to guarantee compliance. The government enacts laws and sanctions that are binding across the state—from territory to citizens. In retrospect, to orchestrate through governance is to encourage citizens to assume a role in steering the society. It is therefore built on trust, transparency, and cooperation. In the same breath, accountability is shared and those who were relegated with greater power hold greater responsibility.
According to the United Nations Development Program , advancing good governance is key in eliminating poverty. The link between governance and sustainable human development provides us a clear picture of how good governance creates a robust future for an organization. Good governance is present when governing institutions are actively steering towards a vision and making sure that goals are met.
From this, we can clearly see that good governance is important in the lives of the people as it exists when we come together to accomplish any end. Characterized with prudent decision-making, good governance enables people to direct collective efforts for collective gain.
All governing is an act of leadership, of moving a society towards a preferred direction. While government can have a connotation of being interested only in maintenance and in preserving peace and order, governance implies leadership toward societal development.
WORD SEARCH : Indicators of Good Governance
Locate the indicators of governance in the grid, running in any possible directions horizontally, vertically, or diagonally.
Read the summary of President Bongbong Marcos’ first SONA, and explain how his SONA embodied, demonstrated, or reflected the various concepts of politics and governance.
Divide the class into three groups that correspond to the three views, perspectives or dimensions of politics (Politics as discourse, affect, and performance). Each group will demonstrate through role playing or other creative ways the dimension of politics assigned to them.
Group 1 – performative dimension of politics (Politics as Performance)
Group 2 – discursive dimension of politics (Politics as Discourse)
Group 3 – affective dimensions of politics (Politics as Affect).
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