“Once you have learned how to ask questions—relevant and appropriate and substantial questions—you have learned how to learn, and no one can keep you from learning whatever you want or need to know.”
–Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner (1)
“What if we started asking better questions?”
–Rob Hopkins (2)
Respond to Your World with Questions
Educated people—whether they are political scientists or not—assume a critical mindset with respect to the world. This is not to say that they are always criticizing everything and everyone, or that they are cynical. A critical mindset means that we refuse to automatically accept what we are told or what we read. We may eventually do so, but only after careful consideration and reflection. Also, we should be critical about challenging and seeking to improve the status quo in politics and society. Status quo basically means “the situation as it is now” in any given realm. A good education frees the mind from superstition, magical thinking, tribalism, knee-jerk reactions, and baseless deference. It empowers us with knowledge about history, art, politics, literature, and the varieties of human experience. A good education enables us to participate in the vigorous debates that sustain and enrich a republic. It allows us to recognize the limitations of the status quo and make things better.
Above all, an educated person is one who asks questions. Too often, people start out with a critical mindset—think of the questions asked by young children—but then seem to have it socialized out of them. Why is that? It’s not as though the world becomes less interesting as you grow up. Some blame a mind-numbing mass schooling system that extinguishes genuine curiosity. (3) Others suggest that dogmatic churches snuff out inquiry because religion proclaims to have the Truth. (4) Still others argue that a critical mindset can’t flourish in a society that exalts amusement the way ours does. (5) It is not this course’s purpose to get to the bottom of that problem, although it’s an interesting conundrum. In all likelihood, many factors work together to condition people not to think critically and not to question. However, we must resist that tendency. In this text, we are concerned that you become students of the American political system, that you read widely, that you think deeply, and that you ask questions.
What kinds of questions should we ask? Any will do, really, but a basic toolkit includes the following six very powerful questions:
How Was This Decision Reached?
As we noted earlier, politics involves people making decisions, or non-decisions, about allocating limited resources or rights and privileges within the context of government, the economy, and society. Whenever one of those decisions is made—or not made, in the case of non-decisions—an educated person is as interested in the decision-making process as they are in the actual decision itself. Who made the decision? Were the people most affected by the decision able to participate in the process? Were they able to do so on an equal basis? If not, is there a good reason for the inequality of input? Upon what information was the decision made? Did the decision follow established rules and procedures, or did it deviate from them? Were all the decision’s possible ramifications given ample consideration? Did the decision need to be made at this time?
Qui Bono? or Who Benefits?
There are inevitably winners and losers in the struggle over resources, rights, and privileges. One of the most fundamental questions a political scientist asks is qui bono, which is Latin for “who benefits.” In some ways, this is an addition to our question above about decision-making. Who benefits if a decision is made this way? Who benefits if it is decided another way? Who benefits if no decision is made? Who benefits from the status quo? Does one set of interests consistently benefit at another’s expense? Are the rules of the game stacked so that one set of interests is more likely to benefit? Who benefits if certain beliefs, myths, or ideas are prevalent in society?
Who Has Power?
Asking “who benefits?” is a great jumping off point when asking questions about who has power—either generally or in each policy realm. We are particularly interested when certain people or groups tend to benefit more than others or when they benefit consistently over time. To discover who has power, we can work backwards from a decision or action to see how the winners deployed resources, strategies, and tactics in ways that pushed political decision-makers to act in their favor. Working backwards helps us to see how the political process might have been preferentially structured in the winners’ favor before the struggle even started. Think about who benefits and who has power when you ask the following policy questions: What is the minimum wage? How much of our national resources should go to the military and national security? Should we aggressively respond to the climate crisis? How should we educate our children?
What Is the Evidence?
Assertions should not be taken at face value. You should get in the habit of asking for evidence when someone makes an assertion. If you are reading someone’s argument, always be scanning for sufficient evidence to warrant the author’s inferences. When a politician is claiming that they would be a good representative, senator, or president, you should be asking yourself “what evidence is there to support the claim that this person would be good in that position? Is there any counter evidence?” In most cases, you’ll need to do a little research before you come to a judgment, but don’t let that daunt you. Democracy requires much from its citizens, and one requirement is that we do not simply accept claims on faith.
Of What is This an Example?
In politics, as in life, many things are happening all the time. It is easy to get disoriented by the many political events that seem to occur in a blur—sort of like watching fence posts whiz by your side window when you’re driving on a country road. But the political world is not as complicated as it initially appears, especially if you get in the habit of asking, “Of what is this an example?” Events repeat themselves throughout history, although they may manifest themselves differently each time. Still, by sorting and categorizing events, we can begin to generalize and systematically analyze how similar events manifest themselves somewhat differently each time. Is event A behaving like all those other events in that category? If not, what is different about it?
Take something as basic as an election, for example. Elections come and go, and many people see them as individually distinct events that are entirely new each time—new election year, new candidates, new attack ads, new results. But if you analyze them more carefully, elections fall into patterns as well—e.g., elections with an incumbent defending their seat versus open-seat elections; elections in good economic times versus elections during economic downturns; elections before the invention of the Internet versus elections since; and elections during presidential years versus mid-term elections.
By first asking ourselves “Of what is this an example?” and doing some careful sorting, perhaps in a typology, we can begin to generate interesting research questions, such as “Why is voter turnout so much higher in presidential elections than it is in mid-term elections?”
How Is This Related to That?
Of course, we are not just concerned with distinct events. We are interested in political, social and economic relationships in all their multiple dimensions. How is this event related to that one? How is this politician related to that decision? How are underlying characteristics such as gender, race, or class related to key economic or political outcomes? How is low voter turnout related to whether certain issues are discussed, let alone how they are resolved? Often, the answer to our question will be that there is no relationship, or at least that there is insufficient evidence to support the conclusion that there is a relationship. In many other cases, though, we can be confident in our claims about relationships. By asking, “How is this related to that?” we can open another door in our search for ways in which to make sense of our world.
- Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, Teaching as a Subversive Activity. New York: Delacorte, 1969. Page 23.
- Rob Hopkins, From What Is to What If: Unleashing the Power of Imagination to Create the Future We Want. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2019. Page 121.
- John Taylor Gatto, Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher’s Journey Through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling. Gabriola Island, British Columbia: New Society Publishers, 2009.
- Wendy Kaminer, et al., The Harm Done by Religion. Inquiry Press, 2016. Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. New York: Twelve, 2007.
- Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York: The Penguin Group, 1985.