Decline of Political Theory

Political theory was an old concept that evolved during the ancient ages in Greece. It has occupied a place that has long been intertwined with philosophy and focused on normative questions about how society should be organized. Ancient Thinkers like Plato, and Aristotle and modern thinkers Like Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Marx, and others wrote their theories on Political Philosophy and Theory. Their writings often aimed to both understand and shape the political conditions of their times. 

But, Later on, in the Mid-20th century, Some scholar provided their theories and argued that political theory had gone into decline, becoming overly focused on the history of ideas rather than generating new theories and perspectives. These Thinker’s theories brought debates on political theory whether traditional political theory remained relevant in modern times or if the field needed to take a new direction. Thinkers like David Easton, Alfred Cobban, and others critiqued the state of political theory and pointed to factors they felt contributed to its decline. 

Decline of Political Theory

There are some thinkers, who had brought debates on politics and they became the causes of the decline of Political Theory. So Thinkers are 

  • 1. David Easton
  • 2. Alfred Cobban
  • 3. Dante Germino
  • 4. Isaiah Berlin and S.M. Lipset

1. David Easton

David Easton provides 4 factors in the mid-20th century and argues that these 4 factors are the causes of the decline of Political Theory. These 4 factors are- 

  1. Historicism
  2. Moral relativism
  3.  Confusion between science and theory
  4.  Hyperfactualism


In his influential works like “The Decline of Political Theory” (1951) and “Political System: An Inquiry into the State of Political Science” (1953), American political scientist David Easton argues that traditional political theory was primarily speculative in nature rather than grounded in empirical research. He argues that ancient thinkers showed their focused on the history of ideas rather than developing new values and goals. All these political thinkers studied and analyzed old ideas and developed their ideas. David Easton, for this reason, criticized scholars such as Dunning, Sabine, Lindsay, and Mcllwaine, who constructed their theories predominantly through historical analysis.

Moral relativism- 

In the mid-20th century, an empirical approach was adopted and some values were excluded from the political theory to make it more scientific. But David Easton was not in favour. David argued that neglecting the consideration of values in political theory led to an overemphasis on scientific methods, which contributed to its decline

The confusion between science and theory

The most significant factor contributing to the decline of political theory is the excessive dependence on the scientific method in order to take political science to the level of science. Modern thinkers were using the scientific method to gather information on subjects, but they were unable to explain all the factors that work were behind the Phenomenon. David Easton agreed that the scientific method was crucial but the scientific method did not equate to theory development. 


Political scientists successfully apply complex methods for understanding public opinion and behavior but fail to add theoretical dimensions to their studies. Easton termed this an imbalance between facts and theory.

Alfred Cobban’s Views on the Decline of Political Theory

Alfred Cobban states that political theory has lost its significance 

in capitalist as well as communist systems, in his paper, The Decline of Political Theory (1953). In this paper, he also identified several factors that contributed to the decline of political theory in the 20th century. Several factors are 

  • Unrestricted expansion of the state activities. 
  • Totalitarian control of the bureaucracy and overall the activities of the state. 
  • The creation of a large-scale military organization

Cobban highlighted the problem of totalitarian control by the state bureaucracy. In many countries, bureaucrats have amassed a great deal of power over the lives of citizens. They could dictate rules, programs, and policies with little restraint. This authoritarian grip of bureaucracy curbs independent political thought and principle. The political theory had to play an important role in providing a good system for these people. However, Political theory had taken a back seat under these systems. 

Coban described the growth of large-scale military organizations as a hindrance to political theory. Large-scale defense establishments emerged, consuming large portions of national budgets and resources The military’s influence extended into politics and policy. This militarization of society freed up space for constructive political philosophy and discourse. 

Dante Germino’s Views on Decline of Political Theory

Similar to David Easton and Alfred Cobban, Dante Germino in his book “Beyond Ideology: The Revival of Political Theory” addressed the decline of political theory, pinpointing two primary causes.

  1. The rise of positivism which led to the craze for science 
  2. The prevalence of political ideologies culminating in Marxism

Germino argues that the positivist philosophy propounded by thinkers such as Auguste Comte was a major factor in the decline of political theory in the 19th century. Positivism believes that knowledge comes from sensory experience and the logical and mathematical treatment of such knowledge. It rejects metaphysical, religious, and ethical speculation

Germanino believed that this empirical and scientific approach left little room for a general theory about politics. Its purpose was to describe political reality, not to establish political ideals. According to Germino, the decline of the idealist philosophical tradition also contributed to the decline. Idealism in earlier eras emphasized theorizing on moral and political principles. Its collapse removed an important foundation for political theory.

Isaiah Berlin and S.M. Lipset’s Views

The main cause of the decline of political theory, as stated by Lipset in “Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics” (1960), was the triumph of the democratic social revolution in the West. Lipset contended that the widespread acceptance of liberal democracy effectively put an end to ideological debates, leading him to question the continued relevance of theory in contemporary times. He argued that universal recognition of liberal democracy ended the debate. That’s why Lipset too questioned the continued relevance of theory in those days. 

In his view, the triumph of liberal democracy signaled the end of “the centuries-old quest for the good society” because liberal democracy itself represented the good society. Classical political theories of the past focused on debating and explaining the characteristics of the ideal state. Berlin and Lipset argue that this debate has been resolved with the emergence of liberal democracy as the dominant political ideology in the West.

Revival of Political Theory 

By the mid-20th century, political theory had declined significantly, leading many to question how the field could recover. The publication of John Rawls’s seminal work, A Theory of Justice, in 1971 marked a turning point by demonstrating the power of standard methods.

Resurgence of Political Theory

  • 1. Political Theory is declining but not Dead.
  • 2. Europe hosted a huge number of scholars who moved to America and most of them began a research work on political theory. The interest of these scholars was not in the study of political theory in the traditional manner.
  • 3. According to them, previous methods of examining political phenomena and theory were inadequate to support new reforms and revitalization of political theory.
  • 4. Devising new techniques is the task at hand. This tendency was the first attempt to explore new ways of political theory.
  • 5. The US Political Science Association and Rockefeller Foundation paved the way as the main resurgence was found in the country.
  • 6. Renaissance of Diversified Pluralism – Pluralism embraces the reality that there are many people in society with different preferences, tastes, and cultural values. Pluralism is a generally liberal phenomenon.
  • 7. Pluralism, as I had known, turned out to be the best option of all, as the pluralist setup was far better than a regimented one.
  • 8. Behaviouralism is not only a major part of the political theory revival but also one of the key parts.
  • 9. Rawls’ “A Theory of Justice” published in 1971, is one of the most profound philosophical works of the 20th century. 
  • • Rawls does not see any contradiction between moral theory and science or moral theory and normative theory.
  • 10. Revival of traditional theory has appeared in many forms. There are classical political theorists like Leo Strauss, Michael Oakeshott, and Hannah Arendt, liberals like Karl R. Popper, and Isaiah Berlin, and libertarians like F.A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, Robert Nozick, etc. who played important role in the resurgence of political theory.
  • 11. On the other side communitarian political thinkers such as Michael Walzer, Charles Taylor, Benjamin Barber, and Michael Sandel developed new ideas in political theory.
  • 12. Neo-Marxism has appeared in the form of postmodernism or critical theory. It appears in the writings of Antonio Gramsci, George Lukacs, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Louis Althusser, Eric Fromm, Jean-Paul Sartre, Che Guevara, Herbert Marcuse, and Jurgen Habermas.
  • 13. Critical theory is a way of thinking that encourages us to critically approach our assumptions about ourselves and the world.

From the above discussion on the decline of political theory, it can be concluded that the decline of political theory in general means the decline of general or philosophical political theory which is based on values. In another way, you can say that it refers to the decline of value-based political theory. But in social science, the question arises of how appropriate is it to create a theory without value.

Therefore, political theory almost came to an end in the middle of the 20th century. The question arose among political scientists about how to stop the decline of political theory. Ultimately, this question was addressed by John Rawls’s famous book “A Theory of Justice”, published in 1971.