Politics: A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage. - Ambrose Bierce (The Devil's Dictionary)
The above quote by Ambrose Bierce, though loaded with sarcasm, talks more about what politics has become, rather than what it ideally should be. As a student of political science, you need to know the difference between government and politics. Separating out two closely intertwined concepts can be a difficult task, but that is what I am going to try doing in this Buzzle article, by differentiating 'Government' from 'Politics'.
We are all social and therefore political animals, but primarily living beings capable of rational thought. Instead of taking each concept at face value, it is good to go deeper and understand what it really is. It's essential for students of political science to have a good grasp of core concepts. Therefore, being able to tell the difference between politics and government is necessary. While government is a very specific term with a narrow range of meaning, politics is a much broader term with wider applicability and therefore even wider ambiguity. So, let me define what is meant by politics, followed by a definition of government, after which identifying the differences will be a simpler task.
What is Politics?
If you would be asked to name one word which encompasses all the ideas, activities, entities and theories that concern themselves with the management of a social group and division of power within, it would be 'Politics'. More broadly defined as 'Political Science' it concerns itself with how a group of people come together to create a society by creating and sustaining a balance of power to hold it together. It is the branch of social sciences that devotes itself to the study of how 'power' is shared among a group to achieve greater good of a society. It studies the various ways in which people devise mechanisms and elect representatives for effective decision making.
While politics is primarily related with how human groups at the level of states and nations govern themselves, it also involves the dealings of people in small groups that come together as part of various organizations like offices, industries and educational organizations. Where there is power to govern people, there is politics involved. There are various templates adopted for the distribution of power which include democracy (people elect representatives to govern themselves according to an accepted set of principles, which are encoded in a constitution), autocracy/dictatorship (one person decides the destiny of the whole group; he is pretty much the law) and various other systems varying between these two extremes. Politics also refers to all the activities that people engage in, to achieve personal gain and power.
What is Government?
According to the kind of political system which a group, organization or nation adopts (or in some cases the one that is forced upon them), they grant power to an entity called a government, that has legislative and executive powers to manage all public affairs. The term 'government', 'state' or 'establishment' thus refers to the organization that holds the power to make decisions. Depending on the details of the power sharing political equation which is adopted, there are various types of governments, ranging from federal democratic governments (like the one in USA) to autocratic regimes (like the ones being currently overthrown in countries like Libya). Let me now point out the difference between politics and government.
Difference Between Politics and Government
The prime difference is the one that exists between a philosophy or theory and the embodiment of its adoption. A government that takes shape in a country is a reflection of the political philosophy that has taken root there. While government typically refers to the established legislative and executive departments of a nation or state, politics is a broad term which is related to the power sharing in any organization. Where there are many people in a group, there is struggle for resources and authority, leading to politics. Governments arise through the political activity of groups engaged in struggle for power.
Thus, both politics and government are interrelated. While many times, these two terms may be used as synonyms, they are inherently different concepts. While politics is theory of power sharing, government is what results from the application of political principles. Hope this short write-up has helped in clearing out your confusion about these two concepts in some measure.