Definition, Component, Types and Functions of Political System


Definition, Major Component, Types and Functions of Political System

Definition of political system

Political system may be defined as that system of interactions to be found in all independent societies which performs the functions of integration and adaptation by means of legitimate physical compulsion.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Sociology (1994) defines it as, ‘a political system in any persistent pattern of human relationship that involves (to a significant extent) power, rule and authority.’ It is a collectivity of political institutions (e.g., government), associations (e.g., political parties) and organizations performing roles based on a set of norms and goals (like maintaining internal order, regulating foreign relations, etc.).

Sociologically, the term political system refers to the social institution which relies on a recognized set of procedures for implementing and achieving the political goals of a community or society.

In political science, a political system defines the process for making official government decisions. It is usually compared to the legal system, economic system, cultural system, other social system.

In any political system, there are basic components that must work in a state of harmony before the system can be said to be stable or in a state of equilibrium. It is also possible disaggregate a political system into its components with a view to knowing which of the components is malfunctioning, which may contribute to system breakdown, failure or collapse.


Major components of Political System

A checklist of the main elements and themes most commonly studied in any political system, and which are relevant in politics and the political process include:

1.  Political Institutions

2.  Political Elites

3.  Masses

4.  Political culture.

1.  Political Institutions:  Perhaps the most important and visible foundations of the political system or process are the formal institutions of government such as: the Constitutions, Parliaments, Court, Bureaucracies, and Executive structure. These political institutions serve as the focal points for deciding, “Who get what, when and how.” They also serve as the arena of the political process, the structure of a nation’s political system undoubtedly influence and shapes its policy-making processes.

The questions could be asked: to what extent can the political stability in USA and Britain be attributed to the specific structure of their political institutions? Could the political instability that besets third world counties be remedied by changing their political system to make them more like that of the Americans or English? Providing answers to these questions was a major challenge and pre-occupation of Political Scientists, until the advent of the Behavioral Revolution.

One of the most significant contributions of the Behavioral Revolution to the development of political science is to stress the importance of the human element over and above institutions, systems, and structure and the realization that they cannot be understood in isolation. They can only be meaningful, and be better appreciated within the context of the operators, and cannot work if the human behavioral element is not conducive to the systemic or institutional requirements.

In other words, no political structure can endure in the absence of corresponding values. The character of Nigerian politics in the First Republic when the parliamentary system was used, and the second when the presidential model was adopted as a possible, better alternative goes to show that explanations for the success and failure of political systems are located beyond a system or its structure.

2.  Political Elites: The formal structures of the government are central in explaining the three basic questions posed by Harold Lasswell: “who get what, when and how? However, the study and the understanding of the primacy of the elites are more important in analyzing the relationships among the other components, especially the masses. Elites dominate formal institutions of government, they get most of what is available to be shared or allocated authoritatively.

Indeed, a significant school of political scientists suggests that elites, defined as decision makers, are perhaps the single most important elements in the political process. In their view, the American and British political systems are stable because of high level of consensus among the elites as to the rules of the game. The dominant elites always stick together; they are conscious of their enlightened self-interest and know how to use their privileged positions, in addition to the dominated or weakened status of the masses to advance these interests. On the other hand, the chaos and the mounting violence in the politics of third world countries can also be attributed to the lack of consensus among competing political elites.

Elite theory

 Geraint Parry in his Political Elites stress that elites are the “decision makers of the society whose power is not subject to control by any other body in the society”. He then defined Elite as the small minority who appear to play an exceptionally influential part in political and social affairs of that group which appears to wield control over crucial policies. In political science, elite theory is class approach to the understanding of political process. The elite can be divided into governed elite and non-governed elite.

The assumptions underlying the elite theory are:

• That in every society there is always a minority of the population which takes major decisions. Such decisions are usually referred to as political decisions

• That elites include those who occupy political power or seek to influence government decisions

• That there is circulation of elites

That there are no changes in society about the composition or structure of the elites Robert Michell in 1942 formulated the famous “Iron Law of Oligarchy”: “He who says organization says Oligarchy”. According to the elite theorists, “government by the people for the people” is a farce. On their part, the ruling elites always self-righteously argue that they are not anti-masses, but they as the leaders of their various factions have the right to determine the orientation of policy to be pursued by the government in power.

3. The Masses:  The Microsoft Encarta dictionary 2008 defines the word masses (a plural form of mass) as a body of matter that forms a whole but has no definable shape. Therefore, the downtrodden, ordinary citizens (known as the average person) who are pliable to manipulations by the elites in the society could be defined as the masses. Unlike the formal institutions or the Elites, the influence of the masses upon policy is usually indirect and difficult to measure. Rather than the movers and shakers of society, the masses tend to be the moved and the shaken.

The masses do influence policy, because it is the masses that the elites must control if they are to remain in power and it is the masses that must be mobilized if the elites are to achieve their goals. As an illustration, although elites make the formal decision on whether to declare wars, it is the masses that fight wars. The motivation` and skill of the masses do make a difference in the outcome of war. Indeed, the profound willingness of the masses in advanced countries to play by the rules and support their respective systems offers at least a partial explanation for their stability. The reverse is also true for African states. How readily the masses can be mobilized to support elite goals, then, depends, in large measure upon their perception and evaluation of the political system.

The more that the masses are deeply committed to the political system, the more stable a regime is likely to be. The less committed the masses, the less stable the political system is likely to be. The overall assessment of the manner in which the masses perceive and evaluate the political system is often referred to as political culture. The process by which individuals learn or otherwise acquire their political culture is often referred to as process of political socialization.

4 Political Culture: A political culture according to Allan Ball (1979) is composed of the attitudes, beliefs emotions and values of society that relates to the political system and to political issues. In short, it is the study of a people’s orientation to politics or what people think about it, as distinct from the actual political behaviour.

Two components are critical in understanding political culture, the attitude to the political institutions of the stateThe degree to which citizens feel they can influence and participate in the decision making process. The latter is otherwise called the degree or level of political efficacy. In liberal democracies, political culture is transmitted from one generation to another, through established societal institutions. This is achieved through the process of political socialization.

What is relevant to a democratic system is what has been called “the civic culture” which is most likely to ensure political stability. In a parochial political culture, citizens are dimly aware of the existence of a central government.

In a subject political culture, citizens see themselves as subjects of a government, and not a participant, while in the participant political culture citizens are keenly involved in political activities, contribute to it, and are affected by it.

5.  Political Linkage: The ability of the elites to control and mobilize the masses, including their ability to socialize the masses to believe in the political system, depends in large measure upon the elites who dominate those instructions.

The more that the political system penetrates the masses, the more readily the elite can communicate its wishes and coordinates the mobilization of the masses in fulfillment of these wishes.

The more that the political system can penetrate the masses, the more readily the elite can assess mass demand and either take steps to meet them: thereby building supports for the system, or take defensive action.

The more that the political system penetrates the masses, the more difficult it is for opposition to the system to develop un-noticed by the dominant elite. The linkage mechanisms that link the masses and elites include political parties, pressure groups such as labor unions and professional organizations. In less developed societies, the linkage process often relies on kinship and religious networks.

Through public opinion, the citizens of a country can also influence the conduct of government officials. It is a popular axiom that the glory of the king or government must find its expression in the welfare of the people

Political Systems tends to reflect the interests of those who have created them, and in most instances, it is the powerful actors within a society that creates its political institutions. The stability of every political system depends on how the different components seamlessly fit together in a manner that the system performs the four main functions of goal attainment, pattern maintenance, adaptation and integration. Also important, for any political system to perform optimally and avoid system decline, decay or break-down, it must in addition enjoy the interdependence and equilibrium of its different parts or components.


Types of Political Systems

1. Monarchy

The first and earliest form of government is monarchy. Simply, it is a form of government that is headed by individual who is not subject to legal limitations, or who does everything according to his own will. Monarchy is a type of government headed by a Queen a King or an Emperor. Examples are the United Kingdom and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

A constitutional monarchy is one that is subject to legal limitations like that of the United Kingdom, in contradistinction to the absolute monarchy of Saudi Arabia. However, it should be noted that hereditary monarchy is the normal type but elective forms do exist also. Therefore, the essence of monarchy is the personification of the majesty and sovereignty of the state in an individual. Monarchy can bring about a stable political system; it is also a natural institution, where obedience to the king is seen as obedience to God.

Britain probably offers the most contemporary example of a country operating a monarchy. Indeed, British monarchy had evolved from the days of absolute monarchy of the Tudors to that of the constitutional monarchy of Queen Elizabeth. This transition was a consequence of the Puritan revolt that erupted between the King and the parliament. It was later resolved bloodily after what came to be known as the Glorious Revolution in 1688. The characteristics of monarchy include the following: monarchy is an age-long form of government; the government of the country is in the hands of a king, emperor or queen; it is a type of government that is based on hereditary pattern. In some forms of monarchy, e.g. absolute monarchy, the ruler has no constitutional limitation. In some monarchies, e.g. constitutional monarchy, the ruler is under checks by the constitution.

Advantages of monarchy

A monarchical form of government has some advantages

·  Monarchy can bring about a stable political system.

·  It is a natural institution where obedience to the king is seen as obedience to God and thus promotes total loyalty to the state.

·  A stable political system and can best be secured only where supreme authority is vested in a single ruler.

· Monarchy could be adopted to make for emergency situation when the state requires undivided loyalty of the people to the government of the day. In a monarchical system decision-making is faster since the monarch need not consult anybody before necessary and urgent decisions are taken.

·  Monarchy helps to harmonize different interests and prevent social strife.

·  In some circumstances, the king may serve as the protector of the people at large, from the tyranny of the few.

Where a hereditary kingship has been in existence for a considerable time like in Britain it may be unwise and unnecessary to abolish it. Democratic principle can be grafted into as it was done in Britain with admirable success.

Disadvantages of monarchy

The disadvantages of monarchy include the following:

· Good intentions, ability, industry are not hereditary.

· Therefore, a monarch could be a bad leader.

· A monarch could also be despotic to keep the people weak so that they may be unable to resist him.

 Types of Monarchy

·     Hereditary

·     Elective.

Forms of Monarchy

There are two Absolute monarchy:

Absolute monarchy: This occurs when there is established constitutional authority to check the king’s power. The king rules as the head of government and head of state. Examples are Frederick the Great of Russia, the Queen of England, Louis XIV of France, before the French Revolution.

Hereditary monarchy: can be found in countries such as Britain or even in the old Oyo Empire where the Alaafin of Oyo or the Hausa Fulani Empire, where the Sultan of Sokoto were regarded as the personifications of the state. Despite the incursion of foreign rule and the displacement of traditional rulers under the post-colonial dispensation in many African states, monarchy has survived even with diminished power and authority. The phrase “the king reigns but do not rule” aptly captures the present position occupies by monarchs in contrast to the days of unlimited absolutism.

Constitutional Monarchy: The power of a constitutional monarch is regulated by the constitution. The monarch can promulgate only those laws that are agreed upon by the resolution of the elected parliament as in Britain. Also, he or she is bound to respect not only the spirits of the constitution but also the laws of the state. He assents to only those laws that passed by the elected parliament. Britain is a good example of a constitutional monarchy.


2.  Aristocracy

Aristocracy is a government that is led by the best citizens; the quality, which marks out the aristocrat from others, is virtue: moral and intellectual superiority. Because the aristocrat possesses these qualities in abundance, he only assumes leadership; he does not need to explain or justify his claims to superiority or leadership positions. In short, his deeds, not his words attest to his preeminence. In the view of Appadoria (2004), any time an aristocrat is compelled to justify his power, “it will be proof that his position is crumbling.”

The distinctive qualities which characterize an aristocracy include noble birth (aristocracy of family), culture and education (aristocracy of priest or of scholars), age (aristocracy of elders), military distinction (aristocracy of knight), or property (aristocracy of landowners). Several Scholars have tried to justify aristocracy as a form of government. Carlyle said “it is the everlasting privilege of the foolish to be governed by the wise’ Rousseau also contended that it is the best and most natural arrangement that the wisest should govern the many. Montesquieu equally noted that aristocrats usually possess the great virtue of moderation. This quality also makes them to be cautious in their leadership role in order not to ignite resistance from the rank of the masses, who have the advantage of number.

Plato indeed likened democracy to a mob rule, and argued that a few people with high quality, if allowed to rule could do better for a society. Although Aristotle was not as cynical about democracy like Plato, yet he preferred aristocracy to a democratic government. He even contended under certain conditions, the judgment of a few could be equal to or wiser than that of the will of many. According to Aristotle, the upper class contained people of the greater refinement or quality and as such they were best equipped to provide better government for the society as a whole.


3. Theocracy

Theocracy is a government by divine guidance or by officials who are regarded as divinely guided. Theocracy means literally ‘the rule of God’ and the term was invented by Josephus (AD 38-c. 100), to describe the ancient Hebrew constitution and the role of Mosaic Law. Theocracy can also be defined as a government by a priesthood or religious leader. It is divine and the laws made are of divine inspiration. In many theocracies, government’s leaders are members of the clergy or Islamic clerics, and the state's legal system is based on religious laws. Theocratic rule was typical of early civilizations. However, the era of Enlightenment marked the end of theocracy. The Vatican City in Rome, for example, is a theocratic state headed by the Pope. Other contemporary examples of countries practicing theocracy include Saudi Arabia and Iran. A more secular version of the meaning of theocracy is that it is priestly rule.

In theocracies, the religiously revealed laws or policies are unchallengeable, even by a popular majority or by an inherited monarch. It should however be noted that even such regimes which claim that their laws are divinely ordained and thus immutable, do not make this claim in respect of all laws. Theocracy is a form of government in which a god or deity is recognized as the state's supreme civil ruler, or in a higher sense, a form of government in which a state is governed by immediate divine guidance or by officials who are regarded as divinely guided. For believers, theocracy is a form of government in which divine power governs an earthly human state, either in a personal incarnation or, more often, via religious institutional representatives such as the church, replacing or dominating civil government. Theocracy should be distinguished from other secular forms of government that have a state religion, or are merely influenced by theological or moral concepts, and monarchies, which is based on divine rights of king. A theocracy may be monist in form, where the administrative hierarchy of the government is identical with the administrative hierarchy of the religion, or it may be dualist, having two arms, in which the state’s administrative hierarchy is subordinate to the religious hierarchy. Theocracy is also a form of government where people do not govern; it is God who governs through the priests. By not separating religion from the state, Islam also sanctions theocracy.


4. Totalitarianism/Dictatorship

Since the 1950s, some scholars have argued that the extreme type of authoritarianism is best described as “totalitarianism.” Robert C. Fried (1966) noted that totalitarian and dictatorial institutions related, but they differ in one respect. The characteristics of the former include complete control over government, complete autonomy from outside and total control of social life. The latter shares the first two characteristics of the former, but does not possess control over social life. The nature of government of government is important, since it determines the burden the political leadership shoulders. If a government is dictatorial, the burden is heavy. This is unlike a democracy where the burden does not disappear but the people share it.

In addition to the characteristics already cited above, “totalitarianism” implies “an official ideology which members of the society must adhere to and which covers all aspects of life in the society”; “a system of terroristic police control which supports, and supervises on behalf of the leader, and which is directed against the ‘enemies’ of the State”; and “central control and direction of the entire economy.” Other characteristics of totalitarianism include the subordination of all to the interest of the political elites and to the specification of the ideology designed and adopted by them. In a totalitarian state, all groups the youth, labor unions, cultural associations and other intermediate social structures including the educational system are organized to serve the interest of the state and its rulers. Indeed, there is no distinction between the state and society. While the ruler controls sophisticated state apparatus of propaganda to communicate and force the will of the political leadership on the citizens, there are no institutional channels for assuring feedback communication from the population to the elites. In short, authoritarian governments are content to control the overt behaviour of the citizen and to eliminate any sign of organized opposition. Totalitarian governments attempt to control not only their citizen behaviour but their thoughts as well. So instead of the dictators giving the people cutleries to make them survive, they throw cutlasses at them to make them fight the war to defend their rulers.

But ironically, history is replete with major achievements recorded by some dictatorial leaders: In spite of the notorious Nazi concentration camps Hitler rebuilt a shattered German economy and conceptualized a Volkswagen, a “people’s car”; while Stalin’s desperate struggle to even out with the United States at the onset of the cold war did not stop him from transforming the Soviet Union from a backward agrarian to a military superpower. Chairman Mao also put China out of a primitive state, and transformed it into an atomic power.


5. Democratic system

In its broadest sense, democracy is a way of life in which an individual feels free to act within accepted boundaries of norms and also equal in respects of his/her rights. In the narrower sense, it is a form of government, a power structure in which people govern themselves. People participate in the government through their representatives that they elect. In other words, people represent themselves and take their own decisions. It is an imagination of the replica of an equalitarian society.


Functions of  Political System

Almond and Coleman (1960) have described the following three main functions of a political system:

1. To protect the integrity of the political system from outside threats.

2. To adapt and change elements of social, economic, religious systems necessary for achieving collective (political) goals.

3. To maintain integration of society by determining norms.

 These functions are into two categories:

(a) Input functions—political socialization, interest articulation, interest aggregation, and political communication; and

(b) Output functions—rule making, rule application and rule adjudication.

Eisenstadt (1966) has classified the functions of a political system as:

1.  Legislative

2.  Decision-making

3.  Administrative




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