sabotage - intentional obstruction or destruction of organized activity.

sacred cow - any principle or thing that is regarded as being beyond attack, or untouchable. Sometimes also called "third rail." In the U.S., the Social Security program used to be considered a sacred cow, and no politician would dare risk proposing to cut it. That however, has changed during the twenty-first century as more people regard Social Security as in need of reform. 

sanctions - punitive measures, usually taken by several countries in concert, designed to put pressure on a country to change its policy. The U.N., for example, has put economic sanctions on Serbia in order to deter it from supporting the Bosnian Serbs in the war in Bosnia. Sanctions may be economic (banning trade, for example) or diplomatic (withdrawal of relations). They are usually imposed because a country is considered to be in violation of international law.

sanctuary - a place of refuge or protection, where a person is immune from punishment by the law.

satellite country - a country that is in effect, although not in name, controlled by another, usually larger country. Before the fall of communism, the countries of Eastern Europe were satellites of the Soviet Union, that is, they could not pursue any economic, social or foreign policies that the Soviet Union did not approve of. [The following is a comment from one of our readers, Richard Pond, who argues that Latin American states could also be described as satellite states of the United States during the Cold War: "When Chile elected a government Washington didn't like, in the early 70s, Nixon and Kissinger instructed the CIA to overthrow the Chilean government. When Castro came to power in Cuba, the US slapped on an economic blockade and attempted unsuccessfully to overthrow the government. When the Sandinistas came to power in Nicaragua, the US funded and trained the Contras, and carried out a war of economic and paramilitary aggression against Nicaragua until 1990 when it finally got its way (tactics that were condemned by the World Court as illegal)."]


scarcity - an axiom of economics is that there are not enough resources to go around. There is always a situation of scarcity in that there are less goods available than there are people who want them (even if there are plenty of goods, there are always people for whom the goods are too expensive). In this sense, economics is the science of the allocation of scarce resources.

secession - the act of seceding, or withdrawing (from some organized entity such as a nation), as when Slovenia and Croatia decided to secede from Yugoslavia in 1991.

secondary boycott - a boycott in which oneof the parties involved attempts to exert an influence over a third party. Usually this is when a labor union, in a labor dispute, attempts to put pressure on an employer who is not direcly involved in the dispute, in the hope that this will eventually produce pressure on the employer directly involved. Most secondary boycotts are illegal under the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. See also boycott.

secret ballot - a vote that takes place in secret, that is, one where the voter does not have to disclose for whom he voted.

sect - a religious group that breaks away from a mainstream church. Can also refer to any group of people that have a common philosophy and common leadership.

sectarian - characteristic of a sect; devoted to a sect. The term is often used to refer to conflicts where religious allegiances play a large factor, as in sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.

secular - not connected with religion or the sacred, as, for example, a secular education would be one that is not based on religious teachings or principles.

secularization - the process of becoming secular; the separation of civil or educational institutions from ecclesiastical control.

security - something that gives protection or safety. National security, for example, relates to policies that provide for effective national defense against an external or internal threat.

sedition - plotting or rebelling against, or stirring up resistance to, a government.

segregation - the separation of people in society-in schools, the workplace, and public places-on the basis, usually, of race. The system of apartheid in South Africa was based on the principle of segregation, and segregation was the norm in the American South until the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s brought it to an end.

self-determination - the principle that no nation should in peacetime interfere in the internal affairs of another nation. The principle is not always adhered to, particularly when a great power considers that a particular country falls within its sphere of influence. See also non-intervention.

separation of powers - a system of government in which the three branches of government-executive, legislative, and judicial-are independent of each other. Each has powers that the others cannot impinge upon. The doctrine was first formulated in the eighteenth century by the French philosopher Montesquieu. The Founding Fathers thought that the separation of powers, which is the system of checks and balances that is enshrined in the constitution, was the best way to prevent tyranny.

separatism - a movement by a region or territory or ethnic group to break away from a country of which it is a part. After the fall of communism in the 1990s, separatism broke out in many regions in Europe, as groups of people with a distinct cultural identity sought to free themselves from the larger nation that formerly contained them.

servitude - the state of being in slavery or bondage. It can also mean compulsory service or labor, such as a prisoner may undergo as punishment.

show trials - trials held in totalitarian societies that are a travesty of justice and a mockery of a fair trial. The defendants are certain to be convicted, whether guilty or not, the trial merely serving as a pretext to dispose of them, and a warning to others. The most notorious show trials were held in the Soviet Union under Stalin from 1935 to 1938, in which many of Stalin's fellow revolutionaries and Russian army leaders were charged and convicted of treason. Historians doubt whether any of them were in fact guilty.

short-range missiles - missiles that can carry nuclear warheads over a distance of 300-600 miles. The numbers of these missiles was greatly reduced by the INF treaty in 1987.


shuttle diplomacy - first used to describe former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's personal role during the period following the 1973 Yom Kippur War when he was helping to negotiate a disengagement agreement between Israel and the defeated armies of Syria and Egypt. Shuttle diplomacy is now widely used to describe a process whereby a diplomat, envoy, or other negiotator from one nation personally travels back and forth (i.e. "shuttles") between different states that are in conflict and meets with the leaders of each side in an attempt to broker a ceasefire or forge some other diplomatic solution. Examples of U.S. shuttle diplomacy include the work of U.S. Middle East Coordinator Dennis Ross in 1995 and 1996, who "shuttled" many times between Israeli leaders and those in the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) in an attempt to further the Middle East peace process. Other instances include the attempts in 1998 of U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke to bring peace between Yugoslavia and its secessionist rebels in Kosovo province. In November 1998, U.S. envoy Anthony Lake practiced shuttle diplomacy when he traveled back and forth between Ethiopia and Eritrea in an effort to end a border conflict.

silk stocking district - an area where wealthy, aristocratic people live.

silver-tongued - eloquent and persuasive. Used of politicians or others who have persuasive oratorical skills.

sit-down strike - a strike in which striking employees take possession of the employer's property (machinery, etc.) and prevent it from being used.

sitting on the fence - refusing to take a stand one way or another. Politicans are often accused of sitting on the fence when, nervous of offending powerful interests on both sides of an issue, they try to avoid stating a clear position one way or the other.

skinheads - skinheads, so-called because of their shaven heads, originated in England, but are now found worldwide. Most of them are aged between 13 and 25. Many groups of skinheads espouse a crude form of nationalism, and have been responsible for thousands of incidents in Europe and North America of beatings, fire-bombings, and race-baiting. Many skinheads, who tend to hang around in small groups, are linked to other political right-wing groups, and to each other, through shared music (a form of rock called "oi", originating in England) and skinhead magazines.

social contract - the political theory that a state and its citizens have an unwritten agreement between them, a social contract into which they voluntarily enter. In the theory of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), such a social contract was necessary to lift mankind out of a primitive "state of nature" in which life was "nasty, brutish and short." Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) also postulated an original state of nature before there was organized government, but for him it was an idyllic, carefree condition. The state became necessary as individual inequalities developed, but the only social contract that would not corrupt mankind was one based on direct democracy in which the general will was the basis for law.

social Darwinism - the evolutionary theories of the natural historian Charles Darwin (1809-18820), especially the idea of the "survival of the fittest" and "natural selection," applied to the sphere of human society. Social Darwinists, who in America were associated with the British philosopher Herbert Spencer, advocated an extreme form of laissez faire economics, and supported individualism to the extent of opposing compulsory free education.

social justice - a situation in which all individuals and groups in a society are treated fairly and equally, regardless of race, gender, or any other factor that could be used to create situations of injustice.

Social Security - the Social Security Act was passed in 1935; it established a national social security service, which included benefits for the elderly, unemployed, and also aid to the states for the care of the old, dependent children, and the blind. At first benefits were for private sector employees only, but in the 1950s Social Security was extended to self-employed, state and local employees, household and farm workers, and members of the armed forces and clergy. Disability insurance was added in 1954. In 1965 Medicare, which provided health insurance for those over 65, and Medicaid, which provided health care for the poor, were added. In 1972 a law was enacted that linked Social Security benefits to the rise in the cost of living. The result has been that over the last four decades Social Security has taken up more and more of the federal budget. As of 2010, Social Security takes up nearly 21 percent of the federal budget, and Medicare/Medicaid takes up just over 20 percent.

social services - services provided by the government to improve social welfare for those who need it, such as the elderly, the poor, the disabled, and children. Services might include insurance, subsizided housing, health care, family allowances, food subsidies.

social stratification - the layering of a society, in the sense that some people will be above others in the social scale, in terms of class, income, education etc. For example, societies in which a class system is strongly present can be said to be highly stratified.

social welfare - the well-being of the community. Social welfare is an intangible; it is hard to quantify. It cannot be measured in terms to the quantity of goods and services available, because this is to equate welfare with material abundance. Social welfare is not the same as standard of living. The utility of something, the ability of a good or service to satisfy human want, will vary from person to person. A more accurate evaluation of social welfare would have to be something like a quality of life index, and include such things as environmental factors (quality of air and water), social indicators like levels of crime and drug abuse, availability of essential services like education and hospitals, and other non-material factors like religious faith. The more diverse the community the harder it is to evaluate social welfare, since different groups may place widely varying values on different aspects of community life.

socialism - a political system in which the means of production, distribution and exchange are mostly owned by the state, and used, at least in theory, on behalf of the people. The idea behind socialism is that the capitalist system is intrinsically unfair, because it concentrates wealth in a few hands and does nothing to safeguard the overall welfare of the majority. Under socialism, the state redistributes the wealth of society in a more equitable way, with the ideal of social justice replacing the profit motive. Socialism as a system is anathema to most Americans, although many social welfare programs like Medicare and Medicaid (once derided by their opponents as "socialized medicine") and Social Security are socialistic in effect, since they are controlled by the government and effect a measure of income redistribution that could not happen if market forces were the sole factor in the economic life of society. See also communism; Leninism; Marxism.


socialization - the process by which individuals adapt themselves to the norms, values and common needs of the society.

society - any group of people who collectively make up an interdependent community.

sovereign - one who exercises supreme power in state???a king or queen; also means independent of others, as in a sovereign state.

sovereignty - independent political authority, as in, those who oppose their country joining the European Union fear the loss of national sovereignty to a central, European body. Also means the quality of being supreme in power or authority, as in sovereignty was vested in the National Assembly.

speculation - the practice of buying something (usually securities, commodities, or foreign exchange) at a fairly high risk for the purpose of selling the same thing later for an above average return.

sphere of influence - areas in which another state wishes to exert its influence so that no hostile government or ideology can take root there. For example, the U.S. regards Central America as coming within its sphere of influence, which accounts for its attempt during the 1980s to overthrow the communist Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. Before its demise in 1991, the Soviet Union regarded Eastern Europe as its sphere of influence, which is why it felt justified in invading Czechoslovakia in 1968 when that country appeared to be adopting more liberal policies. By and large, each superpower acccepted the validity of each other's clearly defined spheres of influence, although there were many areas where spheres of influence were disputed.

stagflation - in economics, high unemployment and inflation taking place at the same time.

standing orders - the rules for parliamentary procedures that apply to all sessions until changed or repealed.

Star Wars - see Strategic Defense Initiative

stare decisis - a Latin phrase which literally means "Let the decision stand." It refers to a legal doctrine that emphasizes the binding force of precedents. If there is a legal precedent, that precedent should be followed in all similar cases.

START - Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty I was signed in 1991 by the U.S. and the Soviet Union. It provided for a one-third reduction of nuclear missiles, over a seven-year period. It was the first treaty to mandate reductions in nuclear weapons by the superpowers. START II was signed by the U.S and Russia in 1993. It called for both sides to reduce their long-range nuclear weapons to one-third of then current levels within ten years, and to eliminate land-based multiple warhead missiles. START expired in 2009, and a new treaty was signed in April 2010 by the United States and Russia. As of late 2010, it had not been ratified by the U.S. Senate.

states' rights - in the U.S. system of government, the rights that are given to the states rather than the federal government. Often the phrase states' rights is used by people who feel that federal policies are interfering with their own rights. Opponents of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, for example, invoked the idea of states' rights to block federally mandated desegregation.

statesman - a person who shows great wisdom and skill in the handling of the affairs of government. Being a political leader does not of itself make a statesman, and few would attain to such a designation without internationally acknowledged wisdom in foreign affairs. Statesmen are often perceived as being above the partisan fray of politics, able to discern, and having the courage to articulate, what the real long-term interests of a country are. See also leadership.

status quo - the existing state of affairs, at any given time, as in "people opposed to the proposed changes fought to maintain the status quo."

status - condition or position with regard to law, as in his status was that of a legal alien; position or rank, as in his high status in the academic world was unchallenged.

statute - in the broad sense, any law or rule. More specifically,a statute is a law enacted by legislation.

steering committee - a committee within a legislative body that facilitates the passage of legislation, by arranging the order of business, mobilizing votes, etc.

stimulus - an aspect of fiscal policy, in which a government creates more spending power in the economy by reducing taxes or increasing its spending. In 2009, for example, the Obama administration passed a $787 billion stimulus bill designed to help the U.S. economy recover from severe recession.

storm in a tea cup - a big fuss about a small matter.

straddle the fence - to adopt an ambiguous position on an issue, in the hope of winning support from both sides.

Strategic Defense Initiative - also known as S.D.I. and Star Wars. S.D.I. was announced by President Ronald Reagan in 1983. It was designed to create a completely new form of national defense, through the creation of a defensive shield around the United States, which would allow incoming nuclear weapons to be destroyed by laser guns before they hit their target. Reagan believed that S.D.I. could put an end to nuclear weapons by making them useless. However, many experts were certain that S.D.I. could not possibly work at all; others said it could not protect the entire U.S. population and would merely force the Soviet Union to aim more nuclear warheads at the U.S. But in spite of these concerns, the Reagan administration committed large resources to the development of S.D.I., and it was an importnat factor in negotiations with the Soviet Union during Reagan's two terms of office. (The Soviets opposed the development of S.D.I.) The administration of President George H. W. Bush (1989-1993) was less enthusiastic about Star Wars, and the idea gradually was dropped, especially since the end of the Cold War made a nuclear attack on the U.S. less likely. Research into anti-missile defense systems still continues, however.

strategy - the science of planning military operations, as in U.S. strategy during the Iraq War. Also used more loosely to refer to any form of planning for action, as in the President's strategy for the election campaign.

straw vote - an unofficial vote that is used to either to predict the outcome of an official vote, or to gauge the relative strength of candidates for office in a future election. For example, long before the Republican caucuses take place for the selection of a nominee for president, straw votes will have been conducted in various states. A good showing in a straw vote can give a candidate a boost, but does not necessarily predict later success.

strawman - a weak argument or opposing point of view that is set up by a speaker so that he can knock it down easily and appear to win an argument or debate. Sometimes a strawman may represent an exaggerated position that none of the speaker's opponents is in fact advocating-but the speaker hopes that his listeners do not know this.

strike - the withdrawal of labor by a group of workers, acting collectively, in order to achieve some goal such as higher wages or better working conditions, or to resist management proposals for changes that they oppose.

structural unemployment - job losses caused by major shifts in the economic environment, and which are hard to alleviate. For example, if the coal mining industry in a country is in a long-term decline, it will create structural unemployment: a body of workers who are not easily retrained, centered in particular areas, where new industry cannot be quickly introduced. Structural unemployment is to distinguished from short-term fluctuations in unemployment caused by workers moving between jobs.

subpoena - a writ ordering a person to appear in court.

subsidy - a grant made out of public funds to support some private enterprise that is considered to promote the public good. Often debated in the U.S. is the question of whether the government should continue to subsidize the arts, through organizations such as the National Endowment for the Humanities.

subsistence - means of support or livelihood; means of living. People who have enough only to cover basic needs are considered to be living on a subsistence income.

subversive - tending to undermine, disrupt or overthrow something already established, as in lawlessness and violence are subversive of public order. A subversive individual or group is one that tries to undermine the existing form of society or government.

succession - the assumption of an office, after the previous incumbent's period of authority expires, for whatever reason (incapacity, resignation, death). Also refers to the order in which persons will replace a king or president if those figures are no longer able to perform their functions. For example, in the U.S., the Vice-President is first in the line of succession to the presidency; the Speaker of the House of Representatives is second. In Britain, Prince Charles is first in the line of succession to the throne.

suffrage - the right to vote. Democratic societies are characterized by universal suffrage, which means that all adult citizens have the right to vote. The U.S. has had universal suffrage since 1920, when the Nineteenth Amendment was enacted, that extended the right to vote to women.

summit diplomacy - meetings between the heads of governments of major powers that discuss the relations between them. During the Cold War, summit diplomacy developed as a major means by which the U.S. and the Soviet Union tested each other and tried to reach a rapprochement, or at least understanding of each other's position, on a variety of issues. Summit meetings were dramatic and comparatively infrequent events, and the hopes and fears of the world often seemed to hang on the outcome. Since the end of the Cold War, the importance of such summit meetings has vastly decreased and now they seem merely routine matters.

superpower - a superpower is a state that is powerful economically and militarily, that can act influentially over most of the globe, that can influence the behavior of other states and maintain that influence for an extended period of time, and can also take effective action on its own, without needing the consent of other nations. In the post-World War II era there have been two superpowers, the United States, and the Soviet Union. Since the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, the U.S. is the only state that could be called a superpower. However, even a superpower faces restrictions on what it can do to accomplish its goals. The U.S. felt compelled to assemble an international coalition to fight the Persian Gulf War in 1991, rather than go it alone. This also applied to the war in Afghanistan, in which the  U.S. established an international coalition before invading in 2001. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was also a multinational effort: 39 nations were part of the U.S.-led coalition. Some of these nations may have felt compelled to join to keep their powerful U.S. ally happy, but generally speaking, now there is no longer a Soviet Union as a common enemy, more nations feel free to pursue their own course, without reference to Washington. And in spite of the fact that the U.S. is the sole standing superpower, the political world is now multipolar rather than bipolar: other powers are on the rise, such as Japan, Germany, China, and India, whose status as economic superpowers gives them an increasing influence in world affairs.

supply and demand - the economic mechanism that operates in a free enterprise system, and that is responsible for prices, based on the assumption that sellers want to sell at the highest price they can, and buyers want to buy at the lowest possible price. If something is in heavy demand but short supply, prices will go up, and vice versa. A rise in price will reduce demand and expand supply, and vice versa (i.e. a fall in price will expnd demand and contract supply.) Prices tend to stabilize at the level where demand equals supply.

surplus value - the difference betwen a worker's wages and the value of the goods he produces. According to Karl Marx, surplus value was a measure of the exploitation of the worker by the capitalist, i.e. the worker contributed more than he received, and the profit went to the employer.

symposium - a conference organized for the discussion of a particular subject.

syndicalism - a form of socialism that aimed to combine public ownership of the means of production with the elimination of central government. This was to be accomplished through the labor movement, which would overthrow the government; labor unions would then become the fundamental element in the new society. Syndicalism originated in Europe during the 1890s, and had some influence up to World War I; the movement petered out in the 1920s.

syndicate - an association between two or more companies to carry out a joint enterprise that requires large capital, often to establish control of a particular market.

synthesis - the putting of two or more things together to create a whole, as in the bill before Congress represented a synthesis of many different proposals.

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