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Free On-Line American Government Text, Chapter 1: Defining Politics

I’m (slowly) putting together a free on-line American Government text. My reasons are:

1. American Government textbooks discourage student reading because they are stuck in an outmoded style of having 40-50 page chapters that cover the whole of a particular institution, rather than breaking coverage down into smaller, more easily digestible and referable, chapters covering particular aspects of an institution.

2. The price of textbooks is too high, discouraging some of my students from buying them. The high prices come from use of full color, copyright fees on images, a two-three year cycle on updates (rarely do we have a major change in our political system that requires an immediate update), and a perverted market in which the chooser are not the users and have no incentive to concern themselves with price.

I committed to not ordering a textbook for this fall, which means I have to get s**t up on the website within the next couple of weeks. Given that I’ve written almost nothing all summer, I’m now in crisis mode. That is, I’ll be frantically writing all through the semester trying to stay ahead of the reading schedule, and a lot of what’s going to go up will be very rough drafts. I have no one to blame but myself, of course.

Anyway, I thought 1) some of you might be interested in reading what I develop, and 2) I know that more eyes on a project are always helpful, so I thought I’d put them up here, as I get them written. Comments and critiques are welcome, particularly if you think I’ve overlooked something that ought to be discussed, if you think the organization of an essay is confusing, or if you think I’m interpreting something incorrectly (although I may be hard to persuade on that latter point).

This first essay is about understanding the concept of politics. Idiosyncratically, I tell students that American Government is but one example of government, and that government is but one example of politics, so they need to get a broader understanding of politics, then of government, and then we can start talking about the American Government. (This may limit the use of my free text by other American Government instructors, but of course they should do it my way.) I’ve been using this essay for several years now, and am planning to revise it to make better use of topic sentences (one of my writing weaknesses), but the essence and structure won’t change. By the way, I know some people hate the definition of politics that I use, but that’s non-negotiable, as it’s carefully chosen for my particular purposes.

So here goes, and by the way, the featured image is of the Justice Department Building, copyright 2007, Scott Hanley. Thanks to my brother for letting me use it for my textbook website.


Defining Politics

Politics has multiple competing definitions. Here we use the broadest of those definitions to help us see three broad categories of political problems–conflict, coordination, and collective action problems–and to recognize that politics is an activity that is not solely confined to the human species.

The American Federal Government is just one example of government, and government is just one manifestation of politics. So it is useful to have working definitions of both politics and government as we discuss American government. Here are some of the definitions used by political scientists.

  • Politics is “the authoritative allocation of values for the society”  (David Easton).1
  • “[T] essence of politics lies in power…of relationships of superordination, or dominance and submission, of the governors and the governed“ (V.O. Key).2
  • “[P]olitics is the process through which individuals and groups reach agreement on a course of common, or collective, action—even as they disagree on the intended goals of that action” (Samuel Kernell, et. al).3
  • “In its broadest sense, the term politics refers to conflicts over the character, membership, and policies of any organization to which people belong.” (Theodore Lowi, et. al).4
  • “The study of politics is the study of influence and the influential” (or, as the title of the book has it, “Politics [is] who gets what, when, and, how” (Harold Lasswell).”5

Each of these definitions has its value, and which one a person favors is in part a matter of values (what values the definition implicitly expresses), and in part a matter of pragmatics (how well the definition works for a person’s particular purposes). Partly because of my own values, but even more because my particular purpose in this essay is to show politics in its broadest perspective, I am going to use Lasswell’s definition. But that should not be read as a rejection of the other definitions, which are useful for other focuses.

Politics: Influence and the Influential (or, who gets what, when, and how)

Each of these definitions has its value, and which one a person favors is in part a matter of values (what values the definition implicitly expresses), and in part a matter of pragmatics (how well the definition works for a person’s particular purposes). Partly because of my own values, but even more because my particular purpose in this essay is to show politics in its broadest perspective, I am going to use Lasswell’s definition. But that should not be read as a rejection of the other definitions, which are useful for other focuses.

For many people, Lasswell’s definition seems seem too broad. It doesn’t mention government, elections, legislation, or any of the other things people normally think of as politics. But this definition has two strengths. First, it includes everything that is at least arguably political. Anything that people do to try to get the things they want is defined as a political act. Second, it includes all the good and all the bad aspects of politics. People who think politics is inherently depraved will distinguish between mere “politicians” and noble “statesmen.” Those who think politics is a noble calling will deny that theft is a form of politics. But both sides are wrong. Politics is all of the above. Most importantly, politics is not just about government.

Nonstate-oriented politics is nothing new. Since the dawn of social life, humans beings have worked to shape and direct collective affairs independent of formal government…[P]olitics takes place in the home, office, and marketplace, as well as in the halls of Congress and parliaments. Politics, in this sense, is much more subtle to notice than the conduct of governments, but…no less significant for political affairs6

Even a mundane tool like a lawnmower demonstrates myriad political possibilities. Look for the elements of “who gets what, when and how” in this example. A man wants a lawnmower, and he would like to have it as soon as possible. He could try to borrow one from his neighbor. Or he could offer to trade, giving his neighbor something in exchange, such as money, or reciprocal loan of some other tool, or to mow the neighbor’s lawn for him. Or he could try to talk someone into going halves on the price of a lawnmower and sharing it. Or he could steal one when he thinks nobody is looking. Or he could take one by force, hitting some poor gardener over the head and absconding with the mower. All of these are, by the definition used here, political actions. But what if the man just goes to the store and buys one? That is political, too. Either he bargains or he lets the store dictate the price. Bargaining is a very political act, as is submission to someone else’s dictates, including a dictated price.

This example reveals the wide range of actions we classify as political, and also demonstrates that the class of political actions includes both admirable and reprehensible actions. The mildly imaginative person will have no trouble seeing that governments engage in all of the actions described in the example above. And if governments, which are nothing but formal political organizations, do all those things, then all those things clearly are political.

Politics Existed Before Government—It Even Existed Before Humanity

Politics is much older than government. Modern humans (homo sapiens sapiens) evolved around 100,000 years ago, but formal governments came into existence only after the development of agriculture, in about the last 10,000 years. Before humans developed either the need or the means for government they already had individual and group interests and pursued them in ways that fit our definition and examples of politics, including both conflict and bargaining. Skeletons older than the earliest governments have been found with arrows lodged in them, and with hunter-gathers living in small social groups (perhaps 30-150 people7) it is evident that they engaged in a variety of forms of cooperation and bargaining.

But we know that politics is even older than humans, because we see political behavior in our closest living relatives, chimpanzees, with whom we last shared an ancestor about 5-7 million years ago. The book Chimpanzee Politics, describes a fierce power struggle between three male chimpanzees, Yeroen, Luit, and Nikkie. Yeroen, the dominant male, was toppled from his position by a younger and stronger rival Luit. But rather than a simple one-on-one challenge, the conflict involved complex group dynamics. Despite Luit’s superior physical strength, his first challenge failed because the females in the group came to Yeroen’s aid.  So Luit adopted a “divide and conquer” strategy, not challenging Yeroen but looking for opportunities to punish any females who associated closely with him, by slapping them or putting on a threatening display. As the females became afraid to associate with Yeroen, Luit attacked again, and this time–having successfully isolated Yeroen from his supporters–he defeated him.

But the story doesn’t end there, because the third adult male, Nikkie, then challenged Luit for dominance. Nikkie was not as strong as Luit, but he gained support from the former top chimp Yeroen. By supporting Nikkie–and by continually threatening to withdraw his support, leaving Nikkie alone against the stronger Luit–-Yeroen regained a significant amount of his former influence.

The author, primatologist Frans de Waal, explained the chimps’ behavior in explicitly political terms.

Ever since Thucydides wrote about the Peloponnesian War…it has been known that nations tend to seek allies against nations perceived as a common threat… After his dethronement Yeroen was faced with a similar choice; on the one hand a coalition with the more powerful party, Luit, and on the other a coalition with the weaker Nikkie. Under Luit’s dominance, Yeroen’s infleunce was limited, because Luit did not need his support… By choosing to support Nikkie, however, Yeroen made himself indispensable to Nikkie’s leadership, and consequently his influence in the group grew again.8

But politics is not just about conflict, and Chimpanzee Politics also reveals the cooperative aspect of “who gets, what, when and how.”

Concerted action and sharing of the yield are also common features in [our chimpanzee] colony. The males use long branches to climb up into the live trees which are protected by electric fencing. At first branches which were lying around on the ground were used, but later branches were deliberately broken off the dead oak trees…

If everything goes according to plan, the male carries the branch down to the ground and sets it up as a ‘ladder,’ usually in close cooperation with the other males and sometimes the females. The ape [that climbs into the live tree] breaks off far more [foliage] than he needs and this falls down among the waiting group. Sometimes the process of sharing is selective. Once when Dandy held the branch steady so that Nikkie could climb into the tree he later received half the leaves Nikkie had collected. This appeared to be a direct payment for the services rendered.9

There is a strategic logic to Nikkie’s generosity. He could have cheated Dandy by giving him a smaller amount of leaves, but if he did, he could not count on Dandy’s assistance the next time. He might not be able to count on another chimp’s assistance, either, because they were all observing his interaction with Dandy. It’s not politically strategic to develop a reputation as someone who cheats others!

In the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of his book de Waal explicitly referenced the definition of politics used here:

If we follow Harold Lasswell’s famous definition of politics as a social process determining “who gets what, when, and how,” there can be little doubt that chimpanzees engage in it.10

The significance of this digression into chimpanzees is that politics is a general class of phenomenon, something that occurs with or without government. The political concepts you will learn in this on-line textbook are useful not just for understanding the American political system, but form the basis for being able to understand other countries’ political systems, and also for understanding the struggles for power and influence that take place in all human organizations, including fraternities and sororities, businesses, churches, and even families.

Politics Is about Conflict, Coordination, and Collective Action Problems

More specifically, politics can be roughly (very roughly) classified into three general types of problems: conflict, coordination, and collective action problems.

1. Conflict
Conflict occurs when two or more people or groups have incompatible wants. They could each desire the same thing (two children who want the same toy; two countries that want the same territory) or they could desire different things that can’t both be achieved at the same time (roommates, one of whom wants the room warm and the other of whom wants it cold; two countries, each of which want to export more goods to the other than they import from them). Conflict can be violent, but it doesn’t have to be. As Nobel prize winning political scientist Elinor Ostrom said, “Conflict isn’t necessarily bad; it’s just how we articulate our differences.”11 The roommates could resolve their conflict over room temperature either violently (the cold-lover opens the window, and the heat-lover throws him out of it, then slams it shut) or peacefully (playing rock, paper, scissors). Either way, their situation is one of conflict.

2. Coordination
Coordination problems occur when we want something that we can’t achieve on our own. Then we have to find others to help us achieve it. This could involve searching for others who share our goal and organizing them, or it could involve persuading others that they ought to share the same goal. Imagine neighbors on a dirt road, some of whom want to pave it. The coordination problem is to organize enough of the neighbors to share the same goal. Sometimes it can’t be done because people just don’t want the same things. And sometimes it can be done but is difficult because there are so many people we must organize. As a general rule, the larger the number of people, the greater the difficulties in coordination, a point made by Scottish philosopher David Hume over 200 years ago;

Two neighbours may agree to drain a meadow, which they possess in common; because ’tis easy for them to know each other’s mind; and each must perceive, that the immediate consequence of his failing in his part, is, the abandoning the whole project. But ’tis very difficult, and indeed impossible, that a thousand persons shou’d agree in any such action; it being difficult for them to concert so complicated a design, and still more difficult for them to execute it;12

This is one of the reasons hunter-gatherer groups, lacking formal governing institutions, normally lived in small groups; they lacked the institutional means for coordinating larger societies.

3. Collective Action Problems
Collective action problems are a special subset of coordination actions, and occur when two conditions exist. 1) There is a collective benefit, one that everyone in the group will share if it is achieved; and 2) it doesn’t take everyone’s effort to achieve the benefit. That means some people won’t have to contribute to the effort of achieving the benefit, but they’ll get to share in it anyway. Political scientists call these people free riders—they’re trying to get a free ride on everyone else’s efforts. The problem is that free riding is rational, so too many people might try to do it, and if too many people do, there will be too few people contributing to achieve the benefit, so in the end nobody will get the benefit. This isn’t a problem if you can exclude non-contributors from enjoying the benefit, but part of the definition of collective action problems is that you can’t exclude them.

Collective action problems require more explanation than conflict and coordination, and two common objections demand rebuttal. The first objection is to ask why can’t we just exclude non-contributors from enjoying the benefit? Here are several examples where non-contributors can’t be excluded. 1) On an airplane hijacked by suicidal terrorists, passengers who remain in their seats will enjoy the same benefit of not being killed as those who get up and fight the terrorists. 2) In a group project in college, the professor may assign the same grade to all members of the group, regardless of who did the work. 3) If enough countries cut back on carbon dioxide emissions, even the countries that don’t will share in the benefits of mitigating global warming. So some benefits are of a type that we can’t effectively exclude free riders from enjoying them along with those who actually contributed to achieving them.

The second objection is to point out that trying to free ride is bad, and to ask “but what if everyone thought that way?” In fact everyone does think that way, at least some of the time. But more to the point, if everyone else thought that way—if everyone tried to free ride—you couldn’t do any good by thinking or acting any differently.  If nobody else contributes, your contribution isn’t sufficient to help the group achieve the benefit, so it’s just wasted effort. And if everyone else contributes, then they’ll have enough contribution to achieve the benefit and your contribution is unnecessary, again just wasted effort.  The novel, Catch-22, provides a classic example of this.  Yossarian, an American bomber pilot in World War II who doesn’t want to risk his life flying any more missions, was asked by his commander, “What if everyone thought that way?” He replied, “Then I’d certainly be a damn fool to feel any other way, wouldn’t I?”13

One specific type of collective action problem is called the Prisoner’s Dilemma. This occurs when two individuals will collectively do better by cooperating, but would each do worse if they cheat the other. Consider the case of Nikkie and Dandy collective leaves from a tree. Working alone, they could not have accessed the leaves, because it took one chimp to hold the ladder and another to climb the tree. But each had the opportunity to cheat–defect, as political scientists say–on the other. Nikkie could have stiffed Dandy when sharing the leaves, and Dandy could have stopped holding the ladder steady after the leaves came down but Nikkie was still up the tree. The need for future cooperation–and perhaps some degree of innate generosity–led them to cooperate instead. But the theory of Prisoner’s Dilemmas predicts that defection will be the more common outcome. (See here for a fuller explanation of the prisoner’s dilemma.)

Another important subset of collective action problems, especially relevant to environmental issues, are “commons problems,” or sometimes, “tragedies of the commons.” A commons is a resource that’s open to all users, who can easily overuse it; for example, ocean fisheries. Traditionally any fisherman could access them, and overfishing would cause the decline of the species being fished. This is a collective action problem because no individual fisherman can save the species by himself. If one cuts back while others continue fishing heavily, the fish are still wiped out, but if all the others cut back that one can continue fishing heavily without destroying the fish. Example 3 above, dumping carbon into the atmosphere, is another commons problem. Environmental problems, in particular, are often collective action problems of this sort.

Collective action problems are numerous, just not always recognized. Elinor Ostrom went so far as to say that “the theory of collective action is the central subject of political science.”14Summary
Politics can be defined, as political scientist Harold Lasswell said, as “who gets what, when, and how.” And politics can be roughly categorized into three types of problems: conflict, coordination, and collective action. Collective action arguably is “the central subject of political science,” and is a crucial concept in understanding politics, including American politics.

Questions to Think About

1. Which of the definitions of politics do you find most useful to your thoughts about the subject? Is Lasswell’s definition of politics too broad? Why or why not? Can you think of examples of how the governments, including the American government, act in ways that fit Lasswell’s definition? Can you think of examples of how they act that do not fit his definition?

2. What are some contemporary political issues that are conflict problems?

3. What are some contemporary political issues that are coordination problems?

4. Have you ever been involved with something that was a collective action problem (remember to review the two conditions that make a collective action problem)?

5. In a subsequent chapter we will consider how the American Revolution involved conflict, coordination and collective action problems; can you figure out some of the ways in which that was the case?

1. Easton, David. 1953/1971. The Political System: An Inquiry into the State of Political Science, 2nd ed. Alfred A. Knopf. p.128.
2. Key, V. O. 1942/1964. Politics, Parties, and Pressure Systems, 5th ed. Thomas Y. Crowell Company. Pp.2-3.
3. Kernell, Samuel, Gary C. Jacobson, Thad Kousser, and Lynn Vavreck. 2014. The Logic of American Politics, 6th edition. Sage Publications, CQ Press. P.3.
4. Lowi, Theodore J., Benjamin Ginsberg, Kenneth A. Shepsle, and Stephen Ansolabehere. 2011. American Government: Power and Purpose, 11th edition. W.W. Norton & Company. P.6.
5. Lasswell, Harold. 1936/1951. Politics: Who Gets What, When, and How. Meridian Books. P.13.
6. Wapner, Paul. 1996. Environmental Activism and World Civic Politics. State University of New York Press. p. 41.
7. Dunbar, Robin I. M. 1992. “Neocortex Size as a Constraint on Group Size in Primates.” Journal of Human Evolution 22, 6 (June). Pp.469-93.
8. de Waal, Frans. 1982/2007. Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among the Apes. 25th Anniversary Edition. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. Pp.180-1.
9. de Waal, Pp.200-203.
10. De Waal, P.ix.
11. Personal communication with the author.
12. Hume, David. 1740.  A Treatise on Human Nature. Finish Cite
13. Heller, Joseph. 1955. Catch-22. New York: Simon and Schuster. p.102.
14. Ostrom, Elinor. 1998. “A Behavioral Approach to the Rational Choice Theory of Collective Action.” American Political Science Review 92(1): 1-22.

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63 thoughts on “Free On-Line American Government Text, Chapter 1: Defining Politics

  1. This is an awesome (literal meaning alert!) project, James. Kudos for undertaking it. And as a terminal procrastinator, you genuinely have nothing by my deepest empathy regarding having to crash-write the damn thing. Here’s to turning in first drafts!

    A really general question I would have pedagogically is, how do you get students to start to reflect on how it is exactly they come at politics? To ask them what definition of politics does the most for them seems to me to require them to back up and think about what their body of thought about the subject consists of in the first place? Is that a conversation you have with them in class? It doesn’t necessarily seem like something that would work as a question to append to a chapter on this exact subject matter, but it seems like necessary background to where you start off in the “Questions to think about.”

    In any case, great start. I’m going to learn a lot.


    • They can think about that on their own. I’m not wasting class time listening to students parrot their parents’ views that they learned from watching Fox News or reading Daily Kos.

      And I see I forgot to sticky this. I’m off to correct that oversight.


  2. Also, I’d like to offer another possible definition, somewhat after Lasswell, but arguably even broader. (Ever since college I have thought that, while politics certainly is largely about getting, it’s not exclusively so.) So: “Politics is the way(s) in which people in a group decide what’s going to happen, to the extent they can control it.”

    If we were to spin that out then the efforts to control those things would be policy (one of the major outputs of politics), and the results of those efforts would be, well, I guess, the results of the political-policy process (I guess there’s not really an outstanding term in need of definition there). I guess the Lasswellian version of this definition would include the actual efforts and indeed the results in politics as well (I.e.. not just how they get it but what they get). Perhaps this definition is even more concerned with a category Lasswell isn’t: why?: the process for deciding.

    So to more fully include the results and the non-collective-deciding processes of getting (i.e. theft), maybe I would amend that to: “Politics are the way(s) in which people in a group or in groups decide what’s going to happen in the world to the extent they can control it, their efforts to control what happens, and the results of those efforts.”

    Just thinking out loud.


    • You’re talking about “wanting” control, trying to “get” control, and “how” to control. It’s perfectly Lasswellian.

      And if you want me to include another definition, you’ll need to get it published in peer reviewed literature first. Sorry, but that’s the rule. If we let everybody make up their own definitions of politics we’ll have chaos. Chaos, I tell you!


      • Well, I didn’t say it wasn’t Lasswellian, but it’s not exactly what he said. I had considered “gets what” to mean “gets things as a result of decisionmaking processes,” but obviously “gets power within decisionmakng processes” is a thing you can get, so that covers some of the difference. But, to the extent politics is about the processes of group decisionmaking, is it only about who gets control or power within those processes, not about a broader account of the dynamics of those processes not exclusive to power- or control-having by “who”s – to people getting things, that is?


      • Also, wouldn’t you agree that some group decisions don’t concern who gets what? Within those decision process, aren’t at least some of the dynamics not about who holds what kind of controlling power, or who has what within the process? At a macro-level, aren’t there ways in which decision-making processes don’t only involve people getting (or having) things (i.e. power within the decision making process)? Aren’t those aspects of decision-making also politics? Or no? (Or they don’t exist?)


      • No, I wouldn’t. Let’s say you and I have conflicting preferences for what the process of collective decisionmaking ought to be, even though neither of us is seeking power within whatever process is structured. A decisionmaking process that suits my preferences is a thing I want.

        That decisionmaking process will determine the distribution of rights, authorities, appropriate and inappropriate methods of determining who has rights over what other “things,” etc. There is no “[something] else that may not contribute to determining who gets what”

        None of these things exist apart from people’s preferences for them, and our preferences are things we pursue.

        Or, if you want to pursue this line of thought, I’m going to ask you to stop being so abstract about how there must be some unspecified something and actually try to specify something.

        You were doing this same thing yesterday with Congressional means of constraining the presidency, essentially asking me to prove to your satisfaction that there is no possible X there, but without making an effort to try to propose an actual X. It’s a kind of crappy way to approach a discussion.


      • I understand why you feel like that here, but I really don’t understand why you feel like I was doing that there. I was just asking if you thought there were other means, and if not would you like there to be? I was prepared to accept, and did accept, any answer.

        Here, yes, I’m more dubious of the claim that politics really isn’t anywhere not about who gets what, but it’s you (and much of your field) who is making such an exclusive claim. I don’t really feel bad basically just asking, “Are you really sure it’s that exclusive?” If you are, great. I’m not trying to show that’s wrong. I’m not saying there must be something. I just wonder whether there might be things out there (perhaps that can be linguistically refigured to fit the definition, but that best described don’t so well) that we would want to say are politics, but that aren’t brought in by that. It seems like there might be, but maybe not.

        I do feel like there’s obviously no point in coming up with possibilities, because the terms here are obviously so broad that you’ll be able to plausibly bring anything I might suggest within them. You’re clearly attached to this definition; I don’;t trust you’ll give candidates coming from me a fair hearing at this point. That’s why I just asked whether you’d agree to those possibilities in abstract terms, and clearly indicated I was willing to accept it if you wouldn’t (“Or no?”). If you won’t, then why go on? I’m not trying to prove you’ve adopted the wrong definition with some genius counterexample, just explore the topic. Given your attachment to this definition, I think that examples of political matters that seem like they might not be about who gets what (but inevitably are) that you think are worth considering would be better proposed by you, to be honest.

        Yeesh. I didn’t realize you were such a partisan of the one definition here. I wouldn’t have bothered exploring the subject with you if I had.


      • I think James is trying define political systems around attribute parameters and Michael may be saying there are drivers of non-attribute parameters.
        If I am thinking clearly, those are incompatible concepts but of equally importance.


      • Once you start calling this definition “exclusive,” I have no idea what you’re talking about, and suspect you don’t either. It’s an exceptionally broad definition, really the broadest one out there, and that’s the primary criticism of it, yet now you’re talking about it being “exclusive.” And yet you can’t even provide an example of this other something that you think it must surely be exclusive of. You’re just not making a coherent argument here, Michael.


      • Michael,

        Great, so what is your example of something that’s not somebody getting something?

        Look, I’ll help you out. Lasswell’s definition implicitly assumes this is happening in the context of other people. So something you do entirely on your own will not be political. My decision to plant hydrangeas instead of lilies in my backyard flowerbed is not political.

        So there you go. But if you’re talking about operating in the context of other people, give me an example where someone’s not trying to get something, whether it’s an individual or a collective gain, by some means, whether it’s coercion or group consensus. But as long as you’re not willing to specify just what kind of things you’re thinking of, you’re not actually engaging in a serious conversation. I’m trying to be concrete, while you’re operating at 50,000 feet.


      • …Though I will say that my definition, now that I think about it, is maybe more in the spirit of the non-title related version of Lasswell’s definition, ““The study of politics is the study of influence and the influential,” because, now that I think about it, I think I was more trying to define what it seems to me it is that we study when we study politics (or, “study politics,” or study “politics,”) more than it was to define everything that politics, whatever politics is, is out in the world. After all, “the study of politics,” as it actually exists in the world, may or may not really study all of what politics really is out in the world, and it certainly is likely much more focused on certain parts of it than others.


      • Like you suggested, James, it’s really not that important to me. I was just interested in whether you were committed to this idea that politics is always about people getting stuff (even if nonphysical stuff). Clearly you are. I’m not challenging that idea, and I’m not accepting any challenges to try to disprove it. I’m not trying to disprove it. If you want to consider some edge cases that you really think are edge cases, be my guest. If not, don’t. It’s all the same to me.


      • Headshake. When I don’t agree to some totally unspecified abstraction, that doesn’t indicate deep commitment to anything else, it just means you haven’t actually given me anything that I can even think about accepting, because I’ve never mastered the trick of thinking about totally unspecified abstractions.

        It’s like The Price Is Right. “You’ve won a new car, would you like to trade it for what’s behind door #2?” Hmm, I don’t know what’s behind door #2. “Oh, so you’re totally 100% committed to your new car!” Well, no, that’s not actually what I said.


      • I didn’t say you were “deep”ly or “totally 100%” committed to this idea. I asked if you’re committed. from the discussion, I concluded that you are. If I interpreted the discussion wrong to have concluded that, okay. You still have every opportunity to detail your level of commitment to the idea if you want to. Or not if you don’t.


      • You’re right. I obviously didn’t watch enough game shows in my youth. And the [T] in the Key quote is because I’m using the first word as the start of a sentence, whereas the actual quote comes in the middle of the sentence, so the lower case t gets replaced with an upper case T, but because that’s not, then, the precise quote, I have to signal the replacement.


      • I don’t find that reciprocally to be true about you, but I’ll point out that it takes two to tango, and that I see you often remarking on the pointlessness of your conversations with various people around here. Further or perhaps OTOH, no one here but you has ever said that to me about their conversations with me. Just sayin’.


      • We’re both argumentative as hell; always willing to go that last round. I don’t complain about it; you do. Just because you do doesn’t make it just my tendencies that determine the course or tenor of our conversations.


  3. I recall a definition of politics which involved the exercise of power, the control of others’ actions. Persuasion therefore becomes a political act; other’s actions may be bent to one’s will through means other than coercion. Not sure if that’s superfluous to your battery of definitions already there.


    • This is why I like the broadness of Lasswell’s definition. Persuasion is a “how,” every bit as much as coercion is, so we can recognize both persuasion and coercion as political acts, just different tactics.


      • Interesting. It certainly has political effects, but that’s not quite the same thing. I think Lasswell probably had in mind generally actions that were intentional (which doesn’t necessarily mean consciously so). Perhaps “instrumental” might be the better word. What you’re referencing (and all I know is a quick skim of the Wiki page) suggests something that is pre-intentional, or pre-instrumental, because it is pre-conscious.

        Does that sound right to you?


      • Not exactly, though that is a good distinction.

        For example, a child telling a parent a lie to stay out of trouble would be Sapir-Whorf positive, but generally apolitical.


  4. I… think Laswell’s definition is … slightly overbroad. It seems to consider nearly every interaction between people as politics. I want to carve out small exceptions. Love is not politics, I don’t think (though competition over love is undoubtedly politics).

    Not every interaction between people is about allocation of scarce resources, is it?

    I also have a bias against letting political science claim “Everything” as its subject matter. Philosophy already tried that.


    • Laswell’s definition doesn’t seem to cover interactions that are not allocations of resources. Two people discussing the weather is not (inherently) a political interaction, if I’m interpreting the definition correctly. I’m not seeing the definition as a claim of “everything”, either. It covers precisely human interactions with respect to allocation of resources.


      • Exactly. Thing is? Every field has their specialties. Political Science undoubtedly deals far less well with the cultural paradigm of a family, than say a psychologist would — because a psychologist begins with understanding the different cognitive faculties of children and parents — whereas a political scientist would have to shoehorn that into a more generic analysis.


  5. Good stuff.
    “For many people, Lasswell’s definition seems seem too broad. ”
    two seems.

    “?Consider the case of Nikkie and Dandy collective leaves from a tree. ”
    maybe collecting?

    “This is one of the reasons hunter-gatherer groups, lacking formal governing institutions, normally lived in small groups; they lacked the institutional means for coordinating larger societies.”

    are there multiple examples of this?


    • Thanks for the corrections.

      I’m not quite sure just what you’re asking in your question. By way of attempting to answer, I’ll note that there’s strong anthropological evidence that hunter-gather groups maxed out around 150 people, and were often smaller, in their ordinary, day-to-day permutations. This doesn’t preclude larger occasional, but temporary, gatherings. And larger permanent populations of people are strongly associated with agriculture, which is itself strongly associated with the rise of formal governing institutions. The literature I’ve read seems to understand this as a regularity–you don’t find large permanent populations without relatively formal governing institutions.


      • The formal/informal distinction rests on a distinction between the person and the office. In a “big man” society, for example, the big man is descriptive of both the person and the role; he is not a man who occupies the big man role, he is the big man. In contrast, in our highly formal system, we see a clear distinction between the office of president and the person who is president. Put another way, the big man gets his authority from his own personal presence, it can’t be separated from he himself, whereas Barack Obama gets his authority not from himself, whatever charisma and “natural authority” he may have, but from the office of president. It’s the difference between personalized authority and official (catch the relation to “office”) authority.

        In the smaller groupings we tend to find personal authority. In large groupings we find official authority. As social groups shifted from one to the other, they created offices–essentially bureaucratic positions–that had a history and continuation separate from the individuals who occupied them, and the rules that then got promulgated had a life and effect that was independent of the occupant of the office because they were creations of the office itself, not truly of the man who holds the office. And societies grew in size with those.

        One line of thought attributes the change to agriculture, and the ability to control agricultural surpluses, something that wasn’t normally possible in hunter-gather societies, which usually relied too much on perishables. Those who gained control of the agricultural surplus could control the others in society by threat of starvation. But maintaining tight control of the surplus, and determining who was eligible to receive and who wasn’t, was greatly facilitated by formalizing power structures–by creating the world’s first bureaucracies, in fact. And as the food surpluses made it possible to feed larger populations, the formalized bureaucratic governance made it possible to manage larger populations.

        That may be far outside what you were thinking of, and I may not have clearly explained the formal/informal distinction. But hopefully it had some value.


      • Ack, that’s a product of me realizing I had two conflicting drafts, each a partial update of an earlier draft, and trying to meld them together. The big difference was right in that area, so it’s no surprise I ended up repeating a paragraph.

        Thanks very much. It’s amazing how we can re-read our own stuff over and over and not catch obvious things like that.


  6. Ahh, it wouldn’t be a course in American Government without V.O. Key.

    Speaking of which, I don’t understand the “[T]” at the beginning of his quote.


  7. But we know that politics is even older than humans, because we see political behavior in our closest living relatives, chimpanzees, with whom we last shared an ancestor about 5-7 million years ago.

    That’s a slight non sequitur; human and chimp politics could be the result of parallel evolution.


  8. This occurs when two individuals will collectively do better by cooperating, but would each do worse if they cheat the other.

    Perhaps “but each would each do even better by cheating, so long as the other cooperates”?


  9. Thank-you for this. Political science is an area I didn’t delve into in my formal education but it’s something I’ve developed increasing interest in over the years. (Well, duh. I hang out here. Proof enough.) Anyway, this will save me a bunch on tuition. ;)


  10. One area I’ve been wondering about myself which is fundamental to our system of government is the proper role of the executive. This goes back to our adjudication of common law immunities and their origin.

    Succinctly, it was Lord Edward Coke who decided that rights under the Magna Carta were to be extended beyond the nobility. It is believed that this was part of his effort to bring all the courts of the King’s Bench under the courts of common law. Nonetheless, this was not a particularly popular decision.

    Coke encountered strong disagreement with James I in his insistence that even the King is subject to the law. King James was just as insistent that the judges of the King’s Bench serve at the king’s pleasure. Bacon got Coke out of there before James had his head.

    I believe both were right.

    If we look to the example of Richard II, assuming the throne at a young age, two regents were appointed until some later time when he was old enough to be fit to rule.

    My position is that, in the American system, the proper analogy to the executive is not the king, as has been previously assumed; but the regent.

    The executive has no authority to authorize a constitution ex post facto. Rather, the Constitution of the United States was established by “the will of the people.” Indeed, under our Constitution, the executive remains subject to “the will of the people.”

    Our president is no king, but a steward; a regent, who serves at the pleasure of the sovereign.

    Where this gets a bit tricky is that common law immunities lie with the executive. This is the authority by which prosecutors may offer witness immunity to a person to secure testimony; and this is done by authority of the executive as sovereign.

    I haven’t sorted it all out myself.

    I have to give a speech to the bar association in acceptance of a scholarship, and I was thinking of including this material.

    I would like to know your thoughts.


    • Well, I’m not strong on that history, but I agree the president is definitely not the sovereign. Regent is not a terrible term, but I like steward better. I think the executive can offer immunity not really “as” the sovereign, but as the sovereign’s executive agent. The executive prosecutes as the sovereign’s agent, right? “The People v. James Hanley.”

      At least that’s my seat of the pants thought.


  11. I just would like to take a moment to observe that the textbook racket is probably one of the least justifiable rackets in academia, and I really applaud this effort.

    James, would you consider an open source project in this vein? Think along the lines of Wikipedia except editors would need to be established academics contributing to make a series of texts, with an audit function and version control.


    • Patrick,

      Yes, I would. That is, I would like to see that done. My hesitations about taking that path to start are two-fold. One is purely pragmatic: I think there first needs to be an actual written project for others to work off of. Academics are far more likely, I think, to contribute tweaks and revisions than whole pieces. Second, I want to establish a structure that is significantly different than a standard textbook, and I want to–for my purposes–set up a particular conceptual approach that is far from standard. Connected to that latter, while the overall format of American Gov’t textbooks appears to be prescribed in stone, the conceptual approaches vary widely, from those who emphasize citizenship to those who emphasize citizen rights to those who emphasize political economy to those who try to avoid any noticeable such emphasis. A wiki approach could lead to something of a free-for-all. Or perhaps it could lead to offering multiple perspectives on each topic (a more leftish one, a more public choice one, and so on). But there’d need to be a distinct editorial hand to ensure there was no series of back and forth changes between, say, those who insist that the reinterpretation of the commerce clause was the greatest thing since the end of slavery and those who think it destroyed the republic.

      But I do see something along those lines as the long run goal. Because it’s a lot of work for one person without a bevy of research assistants, and it sure as hell isn’t just a vanity project for me. Lots of contributors contributing just a little each is the best approach.

      the textbook racket is probably one of the least justifiable rackets in academia
      Ain’t it, though? And I think free on-line substitutes is the most effective way to break it down. But they have to be of comparable quality (which really isn’t that hard) to do so.

      I mean, really, all the necessary information about American Government actually already exists on-line. It’s just not all collated into an easily usable format.


      • You’ve got me thinking now, . What does it take to set up a wiki-style website? I’ve got the domain and a rudimentary site up. Assuming I wanted to be restrictive in who could edit, so that I had to approve anyone wanting to edit, how is the whole wiki thing done?

        (I really need to find a source for a grant so I can fund some tech help. My wife’s done work as a web designer, and I can do basic html, but beyond that we’re a bit clueless.)


      • What does it take to set up a wiki-style website?

        Not much. There are Wiki hosting sites that will let you set up a limited Wiki for free, so you could be up this afternoon if you aren’t busy with other things. You’ll have to pay if you want stuff like your own DNS, more sophisticated features, etc.


      • My guess would be that a real content management system with export capabilities would be closer to what you want than a wiki. Joomla or Drupal.

        As to the how much work question, that would depend upon how many cool widgets you enabled. I can show you a couple of options


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