I need a "politics for dummies" book.
October 25, 2010 10:10 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to be knowledgeable about politics enough to be able to state my opinion, engage in debates, and the like. I'm a one-issue person (gay marriage) and I'd like to discover my own beliefs about politics so that I no longer have to sit quietly when my friends get into it.
posted by Autumn to Law & Government (15 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Start reading!

Slate has some good summaries as does the NYT. I find the "political" blogs to be too "inside baseball" for me to keep up in.
posted by k8t at 10:11 AM on October 25, 2010

Take the Political Compass Quiz.
posted by dhruva at 10:14 AM on October 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

Also, if you have some specific queston about gay marriage, chances are we can answer it.
posted by grizzled at 10:18 AM on October 25, 2010

Best answer: Perhaps start with an introductory political science or philosphy courses as presented by one of the universities that does open courses. I haven't even looked at it, but Yale seems to have one.
posted by Ahab at 10:21 AM on October 25, 2010

(Ahab reads own spelling and grammar and feels compelled to apologize.)
posted by Ahab at 10:22 AM on October 25, 2010

Best answer: I'd strongly endorse either reading the book version, or watching the videos of, Michael Sandel's famous Justice course at Harvard, which explores the varieties of political thinking in a way that is very accessible and fascinating. (I belong to a reading group whose members include both the entirely apolitical as well as people who work in politics for a living, and everyone loved the book.)

Sandel fairly examines many of the beliefs your friends are getting into, whether they're aware of it or not, looking into the arguments for and against libertarianism, right- and left-wing utilitarianism, rawlsian liberalism, etc.

Be aware that Sandel does end up advocating for a particular political viewpoint, but a. it is a relatively obscure one in the United States (communitarianism), and b. he's just as harsh on its failures as well, anyway.
posted by Ash3000 at 10:30 AM on October 25, 2010 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I've set out in the past to 'learn politics', and stuttered pretty quickly, by turning it into a chore.

My advice is first to find a good source of news to follow what's going on, and then read more widely about the other issues that interest you. I like the economist, because I don't always want to read the daily back and forth you get in newspapers. The US section has about 10-15 articles each week on what they think are the important events. Having said that, the magazine has a clear bias (socially liberal and fiscally conservative). And the business and economics sections assume a high level of understanding.
posted by Marlinspike at 10:46 AM on October 25, 2010

Best answer: I vote you start reading the op-ed page of your favorite city newspaper, either online or in print (save the old gray lady!), and think about how much you agree with each one, or how much sense it makes. Take a soft stance, and talk with your friends about it. Eventually, you'll find yourself getting a firmer grasp on where you stand. Or pick out another contentious issue, research it, and pick a side.

Just remember to be civil and respectful when you talk politics. Political arguments can get very nasty and out of hand.
posted by MuppetNavy at 10:48 AM on October 25, 2010

Best answer: I'd respectfully disagree with anyone who tells you to read mass media to become informed about politics. That will likely arm you (to the teeth!) with platitudes and nice-sounding-but-ultimately-wrong assumptions about political issues... which will be great for when your friends get into it, but not great for either understanding the issue or taking part in a real political discourse.

First start with learning a bit about civics. It can be a little arcane and detached from the politics of the day, but it can help you understand a lot more about what is happening and why. For example, in the American context, single member district representation is accountable for a ton of our political eccentricities. Without knowing that system even exists, it's easy to blow into a lot of puff and bluster over pork barrel spending. Or it is easy to get confused by strange bedfellows.

And as silly and basic as it seems to learn "how a bill becomes a law" (or "the enumerated powers of the federal government" or "how a veto works" or any other basic subjects that will show up in an into text), they have a way of cutting through a lot of the political bullshittery that goes on. For example, concerning gay rights, knowing which branch of government *can* legally act to repeal or limit "don't ask, don't tell" is very important. Is it Obama as Commander in Chief? Or is it Congress, authors of the current law? And why exactly does Obama keep appealing gay marriage decisions like that? (It's not an issue of gay rights. It's an issue of separation of powers, and failing to support or oppose it in one direction could set a precedent that would change the relationship between the branches or levels of government.)

If you feel like you're comfortable with those nuts and bolts based on your previous education, then you might start practicing by diagramming a couple political issues. Pick something in the news and just take some notes on it. Who are the actors? Who has taken an interest in the subject? How do they all feel about it? What are the potential outcomes - and what steps are there left in the process? There's really no substitute for just taking the time to figure out what other people are saying about something. But here I feel like I should caution you again against mainstream media. Or more accurately, tell you to look into it, but read it all with a skeptical eye.

And then, finally, get involved. I don't mean volunteer for a political campaign or make phonecalls for a candidate. Get involved in your community. All politics is local, and if you know more about the people you live with, you'll be better equipped to understand why they make the decisions they make. Visit some churches and listen to what issues have them fired up. Volunteer for a homeless shelter or a nursing home or a domestic violence survivors group or an English as a Second Language group and get to know demographics that are different from your own. Beware making sweeping decisions about those demographics based on a handful of individuals you encounter, but begin to see who they are and why they might think the things they do.

And above all, ask questions.
posted by jph at 11:35 AM on October 25, 2010 [4 favorites]

I do not agree that the "don't ask don't tell" policy is, as claimed above, not an issue of gay rights, but is actually an issue of separation of powers. It's both. Certainly there are issues about who gets to set the policies of the American military, but the greatest impact of these issues is on gay people who are either serving in the military or who would like to do so.

Many of the above replies suggest that you broaden your interests. Even though you state that you are a one-issue person, you are advised to interrest yourself in other issues as well. I have no doubt that you will understand the issue of gay marriage better by placing it into the broader context of politics in general - but exactly how much effort you would really like to invest in that educational process is up to you. I would not normally have thought that a person who would like to be able to debate the issue of gay marriage more effectively should start by volunteering at a homeless shelter - but I guess that does help you to get in touch with certain political realities, and in any event it is good to help the homeless. Although few of the homeless are concerned about their chances of entering into a same-sex marriage.
posted by grizzled at 11:51 AM on October 25, 2010

You don't want to be a "one-issue" person.

Whether you know it or not, you have a personal philosophy which gives you a "right from wrong" framework that will help determine what you believe when presented with *any* political issue. Take the time to see what the issues really are - the political blogs on all sides will often berate members of the media for missing what the real issues are, in favor of what they "think" they are/should be. As you encounter different arguments and topics, you'll start to see a binding pattern that serves as a predictor for what your beliefs are going to be.

If you've done it right, you'll find that you're not entirely in agreement with any particular group, but you'll likely agree a bit more with one than with the others.
posted by Citrus at 12:46 PM on October 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers so far. To clarify: I'd like to learn more about politics so that I can move away from only being able to discuss one issue. I just mentioned that to give you all a glimpse of my limited political scope.
posted by Autumn at 1:29 PM on October 25, 2010

This is very much a Solved Problem. Here is what to do:

(1) Get a subscription to the Economist.

(2) Read it. If you want, follow up unfamiliar but interesting things with wikipedia and the like.

That's it. In a few months, you will be well informed.

The Economist is not what you would call unbiased. But it is very up-front about what its biases are, and mostly it displays its biases by directly telling you that something is good or bad instead of applying slanted sets of facts to lead you to their favored conclusion. It still approaches US politics from a somewhat foreign perspective, and it is relentlessly international.

The Economist has the advantage of mostly being good reading. Sometimes especially if you really disagree with their editorial biases. And they're mostly good about stopping from time to time and giving a primer on underlying policy concerns or other base analysis.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:55 PM on October 25, 2010

Best answer: A year's subscription (in the US) to The Economist costs what two months of the New York Times costs (~$120), and as a subscriber you can download an audio version of each week's issue. (They now have people whose voices you recognize from audiobooks reading the articles.)

It's the smartest magazine...er, newspaper (what they call themselves, for some reason) out there. As ROU_Xenophobe says, they are honest about their positions, and regularly state their stance on things (which is essentially Libertarian since they favor the free market and liberal social policies, except for guns).

I've been reading it since high school, and I can say without boasting that my knowledge of recent political history across the globe is better than any non-specialist I've met.

But The Economist isn't the only way to become informed, of course. Just reading online newspaper articles is a good start. Skim Google News every morning.

Also, as other people have suggested, get some of the boring, heavy-lifting-type reading out of the way: buy Politics For Dummies and Congress For Dummies. Constitutional Law in a Nutshell is a bit more technical, but still readable.

Lastly but not leastly, take the occasional gander at http://volokh.com/ and http://www.scotusblog.com/. The latter has a "Plain English" contributor which is very enlightening.
posted by luke1249 at 4:16 PM on October 25, 2010

Best answer: The Economist, BBC news, and the NYT are all great starts. Planet money is a great blog/podcast to learn about the economy. You need to get some economics chops in order to effectively talk about politics.

I joined my school's debate team two years ago, and felt woefully unprepared to talk about anything. You can do it. Being educated isn't hard, it just takes persistence and an desire to learn.

One thing about the all the sources recommended above: They're not going to give you enough information to make an informed stance on an issue. The economist will give you a list of everything that's going on, but if you don't have years of background information, you're not going to be able really figure things out. Simply reading a story about the Chinese messing with their currency isn't going to mean enough to you to allow you to make a judgement call.

You've got to learn how to research online: figure out what the most relevant issues on a topic are, and dig. Moreover, learn the value of different perspectives on issues. On Iran giving cash to the Karzai government: what does Iran stand to gain from this? Why were government officials in the position in which they thought that was OK? How will local Afghani people take this news? How will this effect Americas state building efforts How will this affect domestic US politics?

Most of those questions are not answered in a single article. You have to be willing to ask yourself those answers, and find them yourself.

Also: maybe start trying out the whole 'talking to friends about politics' online? It'll give you time to research, and contemplate your own view. Its as easy as posting links on friends' Facebook walls.
posted by justalisteningman at 5:40 PM on October 26, 2010

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