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

James Hanley

James Hanley is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.

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63 Responses

  1. Michael Drew says:

    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.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Michael Drew says:

      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.Report

  2. Michael Drew says:

    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.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Michael Drew says:

      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!Report

      • 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?Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        I have no idea what you’re saying.Report

      • I guess what I’m asking is, do you think that politics is really only about people getting things – that nothing else that may not contribute to determining who gets what – is part of politics?Report

      • 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?)Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        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.Report

      • 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.Report

      • Citizen in reply to James Hanley says:

        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.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        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.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley says:

        I feel on pretty solid ground saying that definitions are statements of exclusivity. The operative statement is “X is Y if and only if a, b & c.”Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley says:

        …And this definition pretty clearly says that something is politics if and only if it is the means by which someone gets something.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:


        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.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley says:

        …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.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley says:

        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.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        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.Report

      • 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.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        Sigh. In future, if I make no response to any comments you make on my posts, it’s only because I find almost every conversation with you turns out to be totally pointless.Report

      • ScarletNumbers in reply to James Hanley says:

        @james-hanley 1:14 pm

        This is completely beside the point, but the scenario you describe is more akin to Let’s Make a Deal rather than The Price is Right.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        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.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley says:

        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’.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        Maybe you don’t badger them endlessly.Report

      • Michael Drew in reply to James Hanley says:

        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.Report

  3. Burt Likko says:

    Did you mean to embed links? E.g., prisoner’s dilemma.Report

  4. Burt Likko says:

    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.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Burt Likko says:

      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.Report

    • Will H. in reply to Burt Likko says:

      I believe that states that Sapir-Whorf positive is, definitionally, de facto political in nature.

      I’m not so sure I’m prepared to accept that.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Will H. says:

        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?Report

      • Will H. in reply to Will H. says:

        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.Report

  5. Kim says:

    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.Report

    • Guy in reply to Kim says:

      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.Report

      • Kim in reply to Guy says:

        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.Report

  6. Citizen says:

    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?Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Citizen says:

      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.Report

      • Citizen in reply to James Hanley says:

        I just didn’t know if smaller groupings were attributed to formal governments/institution or culture. Maybe that hair splitting is an exercise of semantics.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        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.Report

    • Guy in reply to Citizen says:

      Also, the paragraph that ends your first section is identical to the one that opens the second. Not sure if this is intentional.Report

      • Guy in reply to Guy says:

        That is, the 1st and 2nd sections of the OP, not Citizen’s post.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Guy says:

        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.Report

  7. ScarletNumbers says:

    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.Report

  8. Mike Schilling says:

    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.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Mike Schilling says:


      • Mike Schilling in reply to James Hanley says:

        Occam’s Razor is a heuristic, not a proof.

        Anyway, you mean non-parsimianous.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        In a sense there is parrallel evolution in that we find elements of recognizably political behaviour in any social species, at a minimum among mammals. So the overwhelming probability is that the social ancestor of two social species was also political. At any rate chimps pre-date modern humans.

        Took me 15 minutes to get the joke. Next time either make it easier or bring me my coffee first.Report

  9. Mike Schilling says:

    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”?Report

  10. Road Scholar says:

    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. 😉Report

  11. Will H. says:

    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.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Will H. says:

      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.Report

  12. Patrick says:

    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.Report

    • James Hanley in reply to Patrick says:


      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.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        You’ve got me thinking now, @patrick. 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.)Report

      • @james-hanley
        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.Report

      • patrick in reply to James Hanley says:

        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 optionsReport

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

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


      • Mike Schilling in reply to James Hanley says:

        Sorry, why would you need an Enterprise Resource Planning system?Report

      • James Hanley in reply to James Hanley says:

        Techies. { slow head shake}Report