Political scientists rely on several important concepts:

  • Power: The ability to get others to do what you want. Power can take many forms, from brute force to articulate persuasion.
  • Government: The organization of power within a society, specifically how power is divided and used.

Example: The government of the United States is a democracy established by the Constitution.

  • Regime: Any particular government.
  • Legitimacy: Occurs when citizens accept the political decisions made by the governing body. A government is considered legitimate if its citizens think it right, lawful, and proper that the government should hold power. A threat to legitimacy seriously undermines the power of the government.
  • Authority: The ability of the government to exercise power without resorting to violence. A government with a high level of legitimacy tends to have a high level of authority. Its citizens usually obey the law because they think it is the right thing to do, not because they are afraid of punishment.

Example: When asked by a police officer to clear the street, most Americans will do so because they respect the right of the officer to use power.

  • Sovereignty: The right to exercise political power over a group of people or a geographical area. A government is considered sovereign if it has the final word on political decisions within its boundaries. When citizens can appeal to a higher body, the government is not sovereign.

Example: State governments in the United States have a great deal of power, but ultimately they are not sovereign because the federal government can overrule them.

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