Civics v. Politics

In the recent Senate Confirmation hearings of Judge Amy Coney Barrett for a seat U.S. Supreme Court to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a number of the Senators used the platform as an opportunity to remind themselves—and provide for the American public a primer in civic education. Of course, the civic education nerd in me is always jumping up and down when this oft ignored subject receives the light of day.


It was Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsay Graham (R-SC) that provided the question of “what is the difference between civics and politics?”



Is there a difference? If so, what is it?


A quick internet search provides this definition:

“Civic education is the study of the theoretical, political and practical aspects of citizenship, as well as its rights and duties.”

I would term civics as the internal mechanism of the American democratic republic. It is the system itself and the processes by which items are managed. A

picture of this could be the internal combustion engine of your automobile (assuming it is not total electric, of course). When you crank your vehicle, so long as there is fuel and oil, the mechanism itself does its job—to power and propel the vehicle.

So then, what is politics?


Another internet search provides this definition:


Politics (from Greek: Πολιτικά, politiká, 'affairs of the cities') is the set of activities that are associated with making decisions in groups, or other forms of power relations between individuals, such as the distribution of resources or status.

I would term politics as the external mechanism of the American democratic republic. Using the imagery of the automobile, politics could be seen as the fuel and the driver. Regardless of the fuel type, which I will discuss in a moment, two different drivers could go from location “A” to location “B” and take two different routes to get there—even if their starting and ending locations were exactly the same. Additionally, the driver gets to choose the speed at which he drives, whether or not the radio is on, the windows are down, etc. In this example, the civics is driven by the politics, which comes down to driver preference. Regardless of who is driving the vehicle, the engine (civics) does its job—as it is the process.


I’m no oilman so my friends from Texas may critique me on the finer points of this next analogy. There are lots of different types of fuel for a vehicle: E-87, E-89, E-93, ethanol free, and even diesel. The cost of each of these ‘grades’ of fuel are different based on the additives or purity of its consistency.


In my own vehicle, which has a flex fuel option, I can burn E-85 gasoline. I have done this on occasion because it was cheaper, but what I did find out is that it doesn’t take me as far down the road. In other words, the gas mileage isn’t the same as a higher grade of fuel. So then, that begs the question, is it really cheaper? I digress.


In the case of the American democratic republic, the voter is the fuel. We have different levels of voters. Rather than classifying voters with a “grade”, we will rate them in terms of participation. Without the voter, the American democratic republic stalls.


So back to the original question: what is the difference between civics and politics?

Civics is the machine and politics is the driver. However, it is important to note that the most important part of the equation of the American democratic republic is the fuel—the voter.