“Politics is the shadow cast on society by big business.”
–American Philosopher John Dewey (1)
The Definition of Politics
Political scientists study politics in its many forms. One of my professors told me that politics is everywhere except for heaven and hell and other perfect dictatorships. That may be true. If it is, it requires political scientists to cover considerable ground. However, they tend not to concern themselves with things like office politics, family politics, or student-government politics. Generally speaking, political scientists are interested in political matters of consequence at the city, state, national, or international level.
Political scientist Harold D. Lasswell came up with a concise definition of politics that we can use as a starting point for this course. He said that politics can be defined as “who gets what, when, and how.” (2)
Who in this definition can refer to any member of a polity—a political organization that includes actors such as individuals, groups, corporations, unions, and politicians.
What in the definition might refer to government programs, societal resources, access to rights and privileges, or something as banal as tax breaks.
When in the definition refers to timing. Let’s not forget that often the timing of a thing can be as important as the thing itself. Quoting a distinguished jurist, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail in 1963, “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
How is very important. Political scientists are keenly interested in the processes through which someone gets something in a polity, whether it be democratic or undemocratic, open or closed, fair or unfair; or which institutional arrangements are involved, such as constitutions, regulations, and laws; or which practices are employed, such as voting, lobbying, demonstrating, and decision making.
Lasswell’s definition is a good starting point, but we want to be a bit clearer about the definition of politics that underlies the content in this text. The word we haven’t yet accentuated in Lasswell’s simple definition is gets, and yet this is an important word because it implies that someone has to make a choice among competing interests, that resources or benefits have to be allocated among potential recipients. At this point, it is important to make a distinction between political issues that are zero sum and those that are win-win situations. In a zero sum situation, a benefit for a particular political actor equates to a loss for other political actors. Budgets are often a good example of this—assuming a government is unwilling to go into debt. A dollar spent on military spending or subsidizing corporate profits is a dollar that cannot be spent on medical care or developing pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure. On the other hand, many political situations are win-win in nature. If I have the right to speak freely, it does not diminish your right to also speak freely. If I can marry the consenting adult of my choice, it does not affect your marriage.
Try this definition of politics on for size: Politics is the authoritative and legitimate struggle for limited resources or precious rights and privileges within the context of government, the economy, and society.
This is the definition we’ll use in this text. It implies all that is in Lasswell’s definition, but it more precisely defines our analysis. For instance, we will be concerning ourselves with the commonly understood practice of authoritatively and legitimately allocating resources—i.e., of who gets what. Of course, these are loaded terms, because one person’s view of authoritative and legitimate struggles over allocating resources might be different from another’s view. What we mean here is that regularized, established, legal, and generally accepted procedures are employed in allocating resources. If I work through the system and get more resources than you, it’s politics. If I steal something from you, it’s not politics.
We also want to highlight the word struggle in this definition. Too often, students are introduced to U. S. government as though it were some sort of frictionless machine that makes decisions rationally, with an eye toward the greatest good for the greatest number of people. The fact is that politics in the United States is often a chaotic and painful clash of entrenched interests. Sometimes, a reasonable accommodation can be reached that satisfies all, but often the solution grossly favors one set of interests over others. As we’ll see—and as hinted at in John Dewey’s quote above—the struggle is often an unfair one, as those with the most resources and the most persistence have clear advantages in getting what they want out of the political system.
Government is a prime location for political struggles. Government refers to the collection of institutions and people who occupy them that is recognized as the legitimate authority to make decisions regarding the whole public in a defined geographic territory. An institution is an established organization, custom, or practice formed for a specific public purpose. Governments are composed of institutions like legislatures, courts, bureaucratic offices, and the like. Other institutions like civil marriage or corporations exist because government establishes rules and practices by which they operate.
Note that our definition broadens the traditional scope of politics to include the economy and society in addition to specifically governmental matters. Politics exists not only in legislative votes, Supreme Court nominations, and the voting behavior of citizens. Politics exists in other contexts as well, and these other contexts are important considerations for this course. For example, how have historical developments preconditioned certain outcomes in today’s political world? Are economic and social considerations such as race, gender, and class relevant in allocating resources or accessing rights and privileges? Should people have a say in all major decisions that affect them? At work? In school? In church? If people do not have the ability to be full-fledged political actors in those settings, what impact would that have on their behavior and approach to traditional political campaigns, legislative debates, political news, and elections?
Beyond understanding this definition of politics, you should also exercise your political imagination while you read this textbook. It takes no imagination to leave decisions to the already rich and powerful. Political imagination is our ability to envision new and creative ways to make the political system work for ordinary people and to ask “what if” questions: What if being informed about political issues and being registered to vote were a high school graduation requirement? What if we got rid of the nomination process and chose our candidates by lottery instead of primaries and caucuses? (By the way, selecting decision makers by lottery is an idea as old as the ancient Greeks.) What if every person were given an equal amount of money by the government each year to donate to a political cause and that money was the only money allowed to be spent on politics? What if we required that four of the nine Supreme Court justices could not possess a law degree? Asking these kinds of questions gets us into two habits: 1) Envisioning a different and potentially better future, and 2) Realizing that our future is up to us. All the good things in our country like national parks, public libraries, and public transportation—and all the bad things like homelessness, suburban sprawl, and payday loan sharks—are the result of political decisions that our polity made sometime in the past. We don’t have to accept our predecessors’ bad political decisions. We can make new, hopefully better decisions. It just takes imagination, organization, and action.
The sociologist Matthew Desmond embraced the power of political imagination when he wrote, “Even in the darkest moments, we should allow ourselves to imagine, to marvel over, a new social contract, because doing so expresses both our discontent with, and the impermanence of, the current one.” He quotes the theologian Walter Brueggemann, who wrote “We need to ask not whether it is realistic or practical or viable but whether it is imaginable. We need to need to ask if our consciousness and imagination have been so assaulted and coopted that we have been robbed of the courage or power to think an alternative thought.” (3)
The environmentalist Rob Hopkins wrote a great book about political imagination called From What Is to What If. I encourage you to read it. Hopkins wrote that “we need to be able to imagine positive, feasible, delightful versions of the future before we can create them.” (3) This textbook takes a cue from Hopkins’ work and occasionally prompts you to ask or respond to “What if” questions. Your answers and questions will make great conversation topics with your classmates, family, and friends. The key to a better polity is our ability to transcend the status quo and to envision a system that consistently serves us all.
- John Dewey, The Later Works of John Dewey, 1925 – 1953. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press,2008. Page 163.
- Harold D. Lasswell, Politics: Who Gets What, When, and How. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1938.
- Matthew Desmond, Poverty, By America. New York: Crown Publishers, 2023. Pages 135-36.
- Rob Hopkins, From What Is to What If: Unleashing the Power of Imagination to Create the Future We Want. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2019. Page 29.
- Imagine © Fred is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA (Attribution NonCommercial ShareAlike) license