What is a political STATE?

Broken states

Delaware is a state. So is Florida, Minnesota, and Idaho. They are, but, if you’re serious about understanding politics, a state is a more complicated subject than that. All you hardcore political know-it-alls, hold on to your butts!

In super-general terms, a state is an organized political community with an identifiable and accepted government.

HEY MAN! What is the point of a government AT ALL!?

A: Good question. It is actually a question that is rarely considered outside of nerdy political-science-type circles and theorists. However, it’s a legitimate question. GOVERN ME!? WHY!?

So dig this. Imagine that the year is way back in the day. Like, all pre-civilization ’n stuff. Let’s pretend there are people who walk around all naked, have no conception of language, and generally just hang out doing instinctual people things … the whole hunting, eating, sleeping, sex thing. The real point is to imagine a completely stripped down society with no laws, structures, mechanisms, language, or unified understanding of anything.

So, in a world like this, we can assume a few things. First, that people are completely equal because there are no titles, language, nobody is a rock star, and nobody has any idea what money is. Everybody just wants what they want, and they probably have little regard for pleasantries. We can also assume that freedom is maximized, and everyone has complete and absolute freedom to do WHATEVER they want.

So, what’s the problem? Well, now it’s a world where people can steal stuff, because there are no laws, and people can do anything. Killing? No problem. No consequences. This is an environmental condition called, anarchy. In fact, all sorts of movies and TV shows assume this world — think the entire zombie genre, Mad Max, The Purge, and, to some extent, The Hunger Games.

OK, so you’re justifying GOVERNMENT as an option!?

A: Well … a form of governance. More specifically, a form of government that the people in the area consent to (if there is a legitimate government). People must give consent to limit freedom to some degree. By giving up some absolute freedom, this allows people to operate on some level of normalcy and security, and that effect is mutually beneficial for all persons involved.

After running through all this human nature/anarchy stuff, an old, crusty Englishman from back in the day wrote a book describing an authority that overcomes anarchy — and it’s written in really flowery language. The book was called The Leviathan.

Check out the book’s cover picture:


The picture depicts a human (created from many people) towering over a community. This decision-making structure (represented by a person) is meant to act as some form of authority that is greater than any one individual. This idea was in reaction to constant wars between groups — groups of kingdoms and such. Specifically, this author was reacting to the English Civil War. YES, They had one as well.

However, the Leviathan would work best with popular** consent. Thus, the idea of consent became a fad. This is the base idea for social contract theories — where people agree to give up some things to get something else in return. Why am I telling you this? To explain some of the ideas leading up to the creation of the American state (yes, all the little states put together form one state — because the federal system sets rules for all other states, thus making it one coherent state). Also, it helps to understand where some of the primary world views (isms) regarding American politics developed. After all, this blog is aimed at American audiences (though other countries can learn plenty from this as well … so go make me famous).

**Popular, but the way, does not mean better or more-talented. It actually is a term that means “from the people,” or, “the people choose.” It is derived from the concept of population.


Here is an exercise of how to organize a state, and how states can have cultural impact. It’s all about who gets to make the rules and policies.

Imagine a family: A father, mother, two brothers, and two sisters. The siblings are all in the 15-20 year range … so, big enough to start making substantial decisions.

There are politics in every household and therefore every family. There is a pecking order and a culture formed in the house. Here are illustrations of how some governance structures can contribute to the overall culture:

Dictatorship: There is an extended definition here. Quickly though, it’s the absolute rule of one decision maker.

In this setup, the father or mother would be the absolute decision maker. In this structure of family, one “dictator” may consult with someone, but, at the end of the day, all decisions are made by one person. Once the decision is made, it becomes policy. So, if that means everyone must meet for family time 2 hours a week in the living room, then that’s policy dictated by the only decision maker.

Here, there may be rule by fear, or love, for the dictator. Each one is effective, but love is better because there is less of a threat that somebody will overthrow you. Depending on the policies.

IF you are interested in this, you MUST read The Prince by Machieavelli — it’s essential.

Democracy: Derived from ‘demos’ in Greek meaning ‘the people.’ The suffix ‘cracy’ means ‘rule of.’ Thus, democracy is the rule of the people. The most-famous absolute democracy was Athens, Greece.

Here, our family would all go in the living room and make decisions. What new upgrades will be done to the house, what meals should be made when, who is responsible for what chores, and it all would be approved with a 51%, majority-vote threshold.

This system generally fosters an environment where consensus is fairly difficult to achieve with large numbers. This is why the United States has some elements of oligarchy and dictatorship to induce decision-making. At the end of the day, decisions must be made.

Oligarchy: Rather than the rule of ‘the people,’ only a few people rule in this system — thus an oligarch is someone involved in the decision making of the few.

Most families, I am assuming, are like this. There are six people in our family, so a minority rule would be two — the parents. In this form of governance, the parents are the absolute decision makers, and generally duke it out at the top levels to come to an agreement. “NO! You can’t go to Timmy’s for a sleepover. Your mother and I have discussed it!” Boom. Decision made, and the few have spoken.

This system may encourage fighting among the highest levels — therefore hindering policies aimed at everyone else. It also could degenerate into a system of haves and have-nots.

Aristocracy: Another ‘rule of.’ This is the ruling of aristocrats. What are aristocrats? The elite of society; high-fallootin’ peeps; those with a culture different than workers, middle, or the poor classes. The ones who decide how a culture is defined, and what is upper and lower class.

In this setup, the mother and maybe the eldest sister are in cahoots. Maybe they get along together, and set standards for the other daughter to follow. This could be fashion or beauty standards. Or perhaps behavioral standards. However, the point is that those two decide who gets to be in the “in” club to be able to make decisions. This means that Amy is always trying to be like her mom and Debbie, but can’t because she is never making decisions.

The cultural effects may can be similar to the oligarch system, though aristocrats generally have more cultural influence for everyone else and tend to separate classes distinctly.

Theocracy: Rule of religious authority. This could also be intertwined with a monarchy — if the monarch is considered to be in connection with divine authority. This rule is from ‘theos,’ or the Greek word for a divine representative.

The kings in Britain used it to dictate all sorts of policy from taxes to ethical conduct based on Christianity. In our family model, decisions are made by some representative of the divine. Maybe the father runs the household based on Christian ethical interpretations, Muslim law, or Jewish tradition. Think of the movie Carrie when the mother locks her in the room with all sorts of religious paraphernalia — though that is a creepy case.

This system would work if everyone buys into the religious authority that makes the system possible. Otherwise, it could turn into a multitude of other systems.

Overall, the way decisions are made has an effect on the culture. Also, systems of governance can all be considered Leviathans — and consent is important. Why do you think North Korea has elections with a single person on the ballet? To 1) claim consent, and 2) claim legitimacy to rule.

Also, all Leviathans are states — because there are people, territory, and an identifiable form of rule. In world politics, sometime states don’t recognize other states — because there is no consent from the population, or they have some other interest in saying they aren’t a state.

Click here for more on different ruling systems.

Wrap it up dude!

OK, so a state is a generic term for something that has people (in our example, a family), territory (assuming a family house), and a defined political organization (one of the few mentioned).

States are also the same things as provinces — provinces are just a localized term. Lots of countries have one supreme authority (the Federal government in the US). However, most of the time, there are localized Leviathans (states) as well. Because maintaining absolute control over the state this day in age is becoming a difficult task.

It’s important to recognize that the United States is a system where they assume that nobody wants one unified central authority. DESPITE THIS, the federal is superior to the states — because it is suppose to ensure the overarching principles of life, liberty, and property if the local state can’t. Throughout history, there are multiple instances where the state wanted to take land, or prevent individual liberty (slavery and Jim Crowe are the most-obvious examples). Most of the time, the constitutionality of these big questions are decided the the Supreme Court (remember that thing?).

The state system in the United States ensures that there is central control over core principles, but also that states can implement policy according to local culture and preferences. Also, most states’ political systems mimic the federal government anyway (EXCEPT Nebraska, and one other one … I should really find out which state that is).

The core concept is that 1) there is territory, and 2) there is an identifiable political structure.

And I just BLEW YO’ MIND!


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