On a daily basis, we are confronted with politics and are, to a certain extent, bound to make sense of political developments. From an individual perspective, we need to properly understand these developments, because being aware and informed is one of the core aspects of a well-built personality. In societal terms, the better a society is able understand and process information on political issues, the better the political system is going to function, which, in turn, means that the society as a whole is advancing more quickly.
Unfortunately, most of the information we are exposed to is already processed before it reaches the the citizen, who then only proceeds to consume the information. Logically, this has negative effects on building a proper understanding on the matter at hand, because an external evaluation is merely adopted.
Political events can be quite complex, but they are in any case important and always worth having a look at. Accordingly, it is useful to learn how to properly approach a political event by correctly identifying actors, positions and challenges. This 6 step guide will help you to analyse any political event like a pro!
Step 1 – What happened?: This might sound very basic, but first of all it is necessary to know what has happened. There are very different forms of political events: elections, reforms, controversial judgements, death or assassination of politicians, conflicts and diplomatic tensions, just to list a few. Between the flashy headlines of many other magazines, journals and newspapers, it can be sometimes confusing to recognise the core event. Accordingly, it is necessary to carefully read at least three articles on the examined topic from reliable sources and identify pieces of information that occur in most or all of them – we call that triangulation of information. Among the most reliable and high-quality news agencies are: Reuters (global), Aljazeera (global), Euronews (strong European focus), BBC (strong United Kingdom focus). After that, it should be possible to summarise the political event, that we want to analyse, in one sentence.
Step 2 – What is my position?: Mostly, people make the mistake to think that they can objectively analyse and judge a political event. This is never the case and holds also true for political analysts, experts and politicians. However, this does not impair the quality of our analysis. What does, however, is the unconsciousness about our own subjectivity. In other words, if you know where you are, you be where you want to be. Therefore, as a second step, we need to reflect on our personal (ideological) interests. Because we all have ideological principles that guide us, we tend to subconsciously view events from that particular perspective and we seek to derive meaning from this event in its relation to our ideological world. We can transform our assessment of the event into a very strong piece of knowledge, if we are aware of this and start to treat the matter at hand consciously. The following questions can be helpful to reflect on our own position: What are my personal material and immaterial interests? What constitutes my general ideological preferences and how did I develop those? Do I gain from this political event or do I lose (materially and immaterially)? Does the event support/strengthen my ideological preferences or does it challenge/weaken them? How does my ideology influence the way I view this event? These are extremely powerful question that help us become aware about ourselves and our initial relationship to the event. Further, the quality of the answers that we give to these questions directly correlate positively with the quality of the analysis that we want to conduct on a specific political event.
Step 3 – Who are the actors?: After Step 1 and 2 we know exactly what we are looking at and how we are looking at it. Now, it is time to clearly identify all the actors relevant to the political event. Depending on the event, the actors can be national or international, individuals or organisations/groups, directly or indirectly related to the event or all of the mentioned types of actors are present at once. More complex incidences tend to affect more actors, but not all of them are relevant to a constructive analysis. For example, if we are to analyse the Euro Crisis of 2010, then we do not need to look at every ministry of finance or head of government of every member state in the European Union (short: EU). It is important to filter out those actors whose involvement affected the event and by doing so, we will quickly find out that the position of Slovakia, Poland or Denmark were less important than the German or British stance on the issue. Often, seemingly very complex events, like the Syrian Civil War, can also be simplified by grouping actors together and treating them as one unit, since their goals are more or less aligned.
Step 4 – Examine Background Information: The previous steps helped us to prepare for the main part of our analysis – the part where we start to develop a deeper understanding and derive meaning. One of the most underestimated aspects of any political occurrence is the role of its history. Just as we are shaped by our past experiences, events are deeply intertwined with their past; often, also events that have little to do with our matter of interest at first glance. For example, in the article Islam in Europe (from 3 Oct. 2020), it became clear that this particular contemporary societal problem has its roots in political developments from over 500 years ago. To a greater or lesser extent, all political occurrences are connected to past events that trigger a series of other events, which lead to the developments that we have to deal with today. In a lot of cases, the line of development is neither linear, nor is it uni-layered, but rather an interplay of many factors that affect each other in a multi-paced evolutionary dynamic. Identifying the roots of a political event, therefore, can be very difficult. However, Process-Tracing is a method that helps us to simplify this procedure. Instead of looking where the possible roots of the issue, that we want to analyse, might lay, we can look at the immediate incident that triggered this particular event and then move on to the event that caused this incident and so on. We do this until we reach a point where we can reasonably defend that all occurrences before that had negligible effects. Referring to the problem in the article Islam in Europe, process-tracing takes us all the way back to the first capitulations in the Ottoman Empire, but not further, because this event marks a turning point in the political course of the empire and disconnects the analysed issue from the developments before the adoption of the capitulations. By applying the process-tracing method, we can also make a better judgement on the complexity of the matter of our analysis.
Step 5 – Who gains, Who loses?: In this world, there are no such things as coincidences. We can describe some occurrences as ‘unlikely’ at best, but not as truly random incidences – especially not, after having reviewed the past developments in such detail. Accordingly, there are always identifiable interests behind every occurrence. Some are more straight-forward (e.g. signing of an international economic agreement for mutual cooperation), while others remain rather unclear (e.g. invasion of a peaceful country that has little natural resources). A main characteristic of political events is that they alter power distribution and/or power relations among actors. Consequently, every political event affects some actors positively and some actors negatively. Here, the positive effects are positive to the same degree the negative effects are negative to other actors. However, this is not a quantifiable function. We cannot simply say: Actor A gained X amount of money, while actor B lost X amount of money. Gains and losses can be material or immaterial, short-term or long-term, visible or invisible, intended or unintended and they can be mixed up all at once. For example, when state A imposes economic sanctions on state B, state B mainly (but not exclusively) incurs material losses, but state A is primarily immaterially affected, because it asserted its power, which adds to its diplomatic capacity in the future. To put it in mathematical terms: TotalGains(A) – TotalLosses(A) = TotalGains(B) – TotalLosses(B). Accordingly, by looking at the winners and losers of political developments we can not only identify, who is likely to be responsible for the incident, but also derive information on political agendas, alliances, interests and intentions. In the sanctions example, it is absolutely clear who triggers this event, but by analysing the qualitative properties of the sanctions (important to understand the gains and losses) we gain insights into the political goals of the sanctioning country. For example, the underlying intention can be to punish the country for violations of international law or maybe just to contain the other power, because it is becoming too powerful.
Combining Step 4 and Step 5, we can now understand the nature of the event, identify the gains and losses of the relevant actors and potentially identify the underlying interests and political agendas of those relevant actors, which also gives us some sort of idea about potential developments in the near future.
Step 6 – How does that relate to me?: In Step 2, we analysed our own ideological preferences and now it is time to put the findings from our political analysis into the context of our own ideological world. The individual citizen is in most cases not to be seen as a relevant actor in political developments, which can be different for larger groups of citizens. However, we somehow feel affected by political events. People with rather authoritarian views will more likely support physical intervention by police forces against demonstrators, whereas more libertarian people will oppose this. If we analyse such an incidence of violent police behaviour according to the steps before, we can better understand why the incidence occurred and what interests are at play. Knowing that helps us to shape a better argument in favour or against this particular occurrence. Sometimes, our views might change in the course of our analysis, but that is not necessarily always the case. The content of our views is also secondary. This guide rather helps to build a stronger argument by familiarising oneself with the key aspects. Being conscious about the own ideological preferences also helps defending our views against critique and even convincing the counterpart that our own views are more well-founded than his. On a psychological level, this guide also promotes mutual respect. Since we are analysing political events in great detail, we can relate to the interests and agendas of the opposition, which improves our empathy for them. It does not mean that we are abandoning our position or that we even adopt a different stance, but it enables us to respect the opposition to the same degree that we respect ourselves. In other words, we are enable ourselves to professionally disagree with one another. In the end, politics is a continuous re-ordering process of power relations and it is in everyone’s interest to constantly improve the own power position towards everyone else – especially towards the opposition. By being able to properly analyse and understand political events, we gain a significant advantage in this game.