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Stars and Stripes, Justice Dept. Washington, D.C.  Photo © 2007 Scott Hanley

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.

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 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 affairs.6

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

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 politically unwise 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 why hunter-gatherer groups, lacking formal governing institutions, normally lived in small groups; they lacked the institutional means for coordinating larger societies.


3. Collective Action: 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 each can do better by cheating the other, but only if the other cooperates. Consider the case of Nikkie and Dandy collecting 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.”14 Not surprisingly, then, the theory of collective action is one of the central issues in understanding American government and politics, as  we will see throughout this text.  


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.

Defining Politics (.pdf)

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.