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Basic Political Terms Every Citizen Must Know

Updated on February 21, 2019
Saul Grandier profile image

master in political science from ULA. Currently studying a PHD in political science at USB

Avoiding bad rulers

Being a citizen of a republic is similar to being a shareholder of a company; In both cases, both individual interests and collective interests must be ensured, so that the republic / company can be more prosperous every day. That is why it is important that each citizen handle basic notions of politics that help him to understand it better and can defend his republic.

Citizenship is a right but also a duty that is exercised with co-responsibility; and it is a duty to inform and be informed in order to avoid bad governments that affect the stability of the country, slow down the progress and the quality of life of the people.

Capitalism- Socialism- Comunism

Let's start with these concepts so simple to differentiate. It is easy to do it from Marxism. The three economic systems are differentiated with a couple of keywords: Owners of the means of production. In capitalism the owners of the means of production are the entrepreneurs or individuals; in socialism, the owner is the State (usually it has not yielded good results); and in communism (which is a utopia because it has never existed) the means of production belong to everyone, or rather, to nobody (that is, no one can own them).

Capitalism can be really wild and unequal, with unnecessary accumulations of profits. It is necessary to design a moderate capitalist system in which citizens feel satisfied

Republic- Monarchy- Aristocracy

To understand these concepts, it is enough to refer to the work of Aristotle, Politics. The philosopher of Ancient Greece held that the republic is the government where all people govern, the monarchy is the system where one person governs (the king), and the aristocracy is the system where the best are those who govern.

These types of government could be perverted, that is, when they are governed above the Constitution and the laws. Thus, the republic could become demagogy, which is the government of the poor; the monarchy would become tyranny, which is the form of government where only the one who governs benefits; and the aristocracy would deviate in oligarchy, which is the government where the rich look after their interests. In such cases, collective interests are not safeguarded and citizenship is suppressed (demagogy suppresses citizenship to the rich, aristocracy to the poor, and tyranny to all)

The disrespectful politicians of the republics will press for establishing a demagogy (if they are from the left), or for establishing an aristocracy (if they are from the right); that is why it is important that the citizen knows how to identify the populist and oligarchic leaders

State- Government

Many people get confused with these two terms. The State includes territory, population and government. That is why Palestine was not recognized as a State until recently, because it had a population, had a government but did not possess a territory.

The State is designed to be durable over time, governments do not. Governments will change every certain period, either because the Constitution establishes it or because the rulers die.


Hitler said that he was a nationalist but not a patriot. Does this make sense? Of course it does. The Aryans were a nation watered in the European homelands of Austria and Czechoslovakia. Hitler wanted the unification of the Aryan race, as a nation, so he crossed borders and annexed Austria (see Anschluss) and then Czechoslovakia.

A homeland can also have multiple nationalities. The United States is a great example of this, since it receives a large number of immigrants from all over the world every year. With constitutional rank is Bolivia, officially called Plurinational State of Bolivia, because in the country live the Hispanic descendants and several pre-Hispanic indigenous nations.

In short, a nation can encompass several countries, and a country can encompass several nations. Everything depends on the uniqueness of each country or region.

Tiranny- Dictatorship

These concepts seem very similar. But a tyranny bears much more resemblance to despotism, since in both cases the one who governs is not subject to the laws. The dictator, on the other hand, does act according to the laws. Thus, Simon Bolivar had the position of Supreme Chief Dictator of the Republic; charge that returned in the Congress of Angostura of 1819.

It could be said that the dictator has extraordinary powers granted to overcome a difficult situation; while tyranny and despotism are exercised without limitations.

Some positivists are supporters that some people can only progress with a strong hand; that is, with a tyrannical, despotic or, at least, dictatorial government.

The “–cracies”: Plutocracy- Gerontocracy- Theocracy- Aristocracy- Democracy

Now, let's learn a bit of etymology. In politics there are many keywords that come from the Greek languaje. A very important one is the suffix "-cracy" which means power (kratos) in Greek. Combined with several Greek prefixes are concepts that continue to be fully valid until today. There are many “–cracies” so I will mention just a few.

Plutocracy: Pluto (ploutos) means rich. So it's the government of the rich. Currently, due to democracy, they have retreated to the rear, ruling in the shadows. It can be said that plutocrats are the power behind power.

Gerontocracy: Gerontos means old. It is the government of the oldest people. Weber points out that gerontocracy is related to patriarchy. Although such a government occurs in more tribal societies, current governments are not far from gerontocracy. The presidents of Italy usually come to power at an advanced age.

Theocracy: Theos means God; A theocracy is the government of God which is represented as a religious elite in the land that governs the country according to the sacred texts. It is common in Islamic countries. The Vatican and Iran are theocratic governments. Theocratic governments are usually also gerontocratic.

Aristocracy: Aristos means excellent, therefore an aristocracy comes to be the government of the best people, that is, the most prepared people.

Democracy: Demo means people, so democracy is the power of the people. The best definition was given by Lincoln who said that democracy is the government of the people, by the people and for the people.

Of course the best option is democracy (even if it is not perfect), and citizens must choose a leader with strength and cunning (the combination of the lion and the fox that Machiavelli pointed out); the first is obtained in youth but the second is obtained over the years.

Power -Authority

Power has several meanings, but we are really interested in social power, the power that links one person to the other. This power has to do with domination and necessarily requires the existence of A (who commands) and B (who obeys).

Then power can be defined as A's ability to make B do something that B would not otherwise do (Stephen Luke's concept).

On the other hand, authority is a source of power, or a type of power. The authority is impersonal, it does not depend on the person in himself but on the structure of the organization. A person who get in a pyramidal organization obeys his superior without having to know who he is. The authority usually has a charge, a uniform, is usually legitimate (and therefore accepted by the population).

Erich Fromm affirms that authority is not inherent to the person; therefore it is impersonal. One respects someone because he has an authority (he is the holder of an authority) as a teacher or a boss would be. But that person is not always a teacher or boss, when the teacher meets the apprentice in other environments they are probably in an equal condition. Although there are authorities who never rest, for example, parenthood.

A person can have power without having authority; it may even be otherwise. A subordinate who exercises power over authority. Imagine the case of a plutocrat who is not president but influences the president. He is not authority but he has power.

A person can have power without authority but a person can also have the rare case of having authority without power or limited power (for example: puppet presidents). These cases refer to flimsy rulers as it has happened in some reigns and in some presidencies. Leonidas Trujillo was the true power behind Balaguer; the Somoza family also had several puppet presidents to pretend that there was democracy in Nicaragua.

Legality- Legitimacy

These terms are often confused. But Norberto Bobbio makes an unmistakable difference. If a government is legal, it is because it acts according to the laws and is not arbitrary. If a government is legitimate, it is because it is legally founded.

A government may be legally founded (legitimate) but acts arbitrarily (illegally); just as there may be a government that is not legally founded, that is de facto (illegitimate) but that does not act in an arbitrary (legal) manner.

In more clear terms, a tyrant (one who transgresses the laws) can have legitimacy but lacks legality.

In short, to ensure political stability, the ideal is that there is a correlation between legality and legitimacy, but a ruler or an institution can be legal but not legitimate, and you can have legality but without legality.

But legitimacy can also be understood from a conception that in my opinion is more appropriate. A government has legitimacy when the population obeys it without resorting to violence. The population recognizes that this government is the one that commands.

Thus, Weber has said that legality is nowadays the most common form of legitimacy. That is to say that popular support is not given to the stronger, richer, more charismatic, traditional government, but it is legitimate because it is within the framework of laws and rationality.

To simplify all this, let's think about a gang ruling a community. This gang:

has power: because many people obey it without being the authority.

has no authority because you do not have competences established in a legal framework

is not legal because it is acting outside the law

is legitimate because the population obeys it and many people (because of their traditions, values and beliefs) consider it to be the true authority.

This last point is significant because legitimacy can have norms and values of the ruler with which the community agrees. Such norms and values can be traditional (a family dynasty for example) or, in the best case - as in democracies -, previously established based on law and rationality.

Last but not least

A very interesting argentine writer, Juan Bautista Alberdi, taught that the citizen also governs, so he must make use of and defend the counterweights that prevent a government from becoming despotic. First, sovereignty is divided into several powers: executive, legislative, judicial, governorates and mayorships. The second counterweight is the right and duty to elect rulers through elections. The third counterweight is the responsibility, that is, the rulers must be responsible before the law for their actions. The last counterweight is the publicity of the acts of the government, that is to say, that the rulers must be transparent in their management

P.S. ¿Left and right?

Unlike what is believed, nowadays governments are mixed, that is, they are not entirely from the left, nor entirely from the right. In the next article I will show that these concepts are not enough to understand reality.

© 2019 Saul Guaimara


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