Politics is about power.
Politics is about how decisions are made and who makes them.
Politics is who benefits and who suffers from decisions.
Politics is the way that important decisions about resources and actions are made.
Politics is who has vital information, why they have it, as well as what they are allowed to do with it.
Politics is elections and the leaders we select.
Politics is all the ways we build and use power to shape society.
Politics is the difference between an affordable, safe place to live and precarious, dangerous housing, or no housing at all.
Politics is the difference between a shaded sidewalk and a dusty, blazing hot path through an empty lot.
Politics is the difference between the military invading a country on the other side of the world and using resources to transition the world to renewable energy sources.
Politics is the difference between a school system that makes sure students have what they need to thrive versus a school system that is underfunded or segregated.
Politics is if housing or businesses are built in a place, who they are built for, as well as who profits by their construction.
Politics is where and when the bus runs, and how much it costs to ride.
Politics is police department budgets, where police are assigned, and whether there is effective public oversight or large budgets and no way of holding them accountable.
One Particular History of Politics
In Two Treatises of Government, one of the most influential pieces of political writing of the last 400 years, John Locke wrote that “political power did not begin until families began to be gathered together into one perfect community…” This story of what politics is comes from a Christian and European worldview that tried to establish the authority of certain people over others as part of a divine, righteous story that had been playing out since the Christian God created the world (according to them). The story was that God (the most powerful, the all powerful) created Adam, and Adam was the head of his family, and so on, creating a hierarchy that included all power relationships all the way from the “top” to the “bottom.”
For Locke and many other thinkers and leaders of the post-Enlightenment era, the time when the form of government and society we have now began to take shape was when humans started to live in groups that were bigger than just particular family units. According to Locke, once these groups formed, the defining aspect of political activities was the preservation of private property. Government’s primary role, the primary purpose of politics, was to make sure certain people had private property that was protected by laws and force, usually organized into a “state” or “government.” Those people could then decide how and where and for whose benefit they wanted to use their private property.
All of this “history of politics,” which is taken for granted by so many throughout the world, completely ignores the historical fact that there were (and are) groups of people who organized their lives and resources in very different ways. I will write about other ways that people define politics in the future, but it is important to understand the dominant way politics is understood and constructed in the US, which has its roots in thinkers like Locke.