Dr. Almon Leroy Way, Jr.,

University President & Professor of Political Science





In Part One, we will carefully examine certain key political terms and concepts--"politics," "government," "political power," "political conflict," "political competition," "political elites," "political resources," and other closely related terms and concepts. While the beginning student, no doubt, already has some general ideas of the meanings of many of the key political terms and concepts, he or she needs to be exposed to precise definitions and explanations, mastery of which is the first essential step in the student's acquiring knowledge and under- standing of the structure and processes of government and politics in American society or, for that matter, in any other politically organized society in the world.


What is politics? When the average American comes across the word "politics" in reading material or hears it used in conversation, he is likely to think of political parties and elections, rival candidates making speeches and running for government office, parties and candidates promising all kinds of things to the voters, the activities of political interest groups and political action committees, decisions and actions of government receiving a great deal of media coverage, public controversies over proposed governmental policies and programs, political deals being cut both inside and outside the government, and public scandals relating to actual or suspected malfeasance in government office. All of these activities and many more are embraced by the term "politics."

1. Politics--A Brief Definition:

For the sake of brevity and simplification, politics, at this point in our study, may be defined as human activity concerned with (1) controversies over public questions and (2) the resolution, or settlement, of those controversies.

2. Politics and Public Questions:

Public questions--variously referred to as "public issues, "political issues," and "political questions"--may be defined as questions, or issues, which relate to (1) public problems and (2) the making and carrying out of governmental decisions relevant to public problems. Very important public questions which a politically organized society like the United States of America must more or less continually face and resolve include (1) who is to control the government and (2) how and for what purposes the power of government is to be employed. Which political elite, party, or coalition is to control and direct the government, exercising authority to make and implement decisions for and in the name of the entire political society, or community? To what ends is the exercise of political authority, or governmental power, to be directed? What means are to be employed by the government in its exercise of political authority to achieve the ends? What official decisions are to be made by the government and by what methods is it to enforce these decisions?

In short, politics exists whenever there is disagreement within society over (1) who should hold government office, or public office, (2) what decisions should be made by government officeholders, and (3) how these decisions should be carried out.

3. Politics and Public Problems:

A "public problem is any problem which a large number of persons--or a small number of politically influential persons--within the political society think is a problem that the government should endeavor to solve. A problem has become a public problem when individuals and groups concerned about the problem begin to coalesce (i.e., unite, or join together) and mobilize political resources in a drive to get the government to do something about the problem. The individuals and groups advocating governmental action are convinced that private individuals, groups and institutions, acting privately, voluntarily and without the assistance of public authority and public funds, cannot solve the problem. They are demanding that the government, the public authority and the holder and dispenser of public funds, take official action to deal with the problem.

Public problems, in other words, are governmental problems--problems which the government is expected to solve.

"Politics," then, is concerned with the solution of any public, or governmental, problem--a problem which emerges when a group of citizens with sufficient numerical strength and/or political influence perceives the existence of a problem with which only the government can cope effectively. The group demands that the government take action to deal with the problem. Another group may have contrary perceptions, seeing the problem as a private matter and therefore opposing governmental action to deal with it. Alternatively, the opposing group may see the matter as a public problem, but object to the particular governmental action advocated by the first group. In either case, a public issue, or public question, has been raised. There is considerable controversy regarding the issue. This political controversy must be resolved. And human activity concerned with such a controversy and its resolution is the very definition of "politics."

4. Politics and Its Distributive Effects:

a. Politics as a Governmental Distribution.

In defining "politics," many modern political scientists emphasize the distributive, or allocative, consequences of decisionmaking and action by the government to resolve public questions and solve public problems. They point out that politics very importantly involves an authoritative distribution of a political society's relatively scarce resources, i.e., an allocation of resources through official decisionmaking and action by the government.

b. Harold Lasswell's Definition--Politics as Governmental Determination of Who Gets What, When, and How.

Political Scientist Harold Lasswell, author of a major study of the distributive consequencws of political activity, gave his book the title, Politics--Who Gets What, When, and How. [Note 1] Lasswell, in effect, defined "politics" as involving questions as to "who gets what, when, and how." "Politics," according to Lasswell, is concerned with determination, by official governmental decisionmaking and action, of (1) who in political society receives what benefits, rewards, and advantages and how much of them they receive, (2) when they receive the benefits, rewards, and advantages, and (3) the methods by which they receive them. Conversely, "politics" is also concerned with determining, by governmental decisionmaking and action, (1) who in society is denied what benefits, rewards, and advantages, (2) when and how long they are denied them, and (3) the methods by which they are subjected to such deprivations.

c. David Easton's Definition--Politics as the Authoritative Allocation of Values for Society.

David Easton, another modern political scientist, defines "politics" as the authoritative allocation by the political system of values for society. Easton, in A Framework for Political Analysis, uses the term "political system" to designate the pattern or system of human inter- actions and relationships in any political society through which authoritative allocations are made and implemented--allocations that are binding on all members of the society and are recognized as such by the great majority of the members. Easton defines a society's political system as "those patterns of interaction through which values are allocated for a society and these allocations are accepted as authoritative by most persons in the society most of the time." Allocating society's values and obtaining widespread acceptance within the society of the authoritative, or binding, nature of the allocations, according to Easton, constitute the basic functions of any political society. "It is through the presence of activities that fulfill these two basic functions that a society can commit the resources and energies of its members in the settlement of differences that cannot be autonomously [i.e., individually or privately] resolved." [Note 2]

In A Systems Analysis of Political Life, Easton again defines the political system as consisting of "those interactions through which values are authoritatively allocated for a society." [Note 3] Easton sees "politics" as human activity involved in the operation, or functioning, of the political system--activity concerned with authoritative decisionmaking and action by the government, decisionmaking and action resulting in an authoritative allocation of values for the society. To say it another way, Easton defines "politics" as activity relating to the authoritative decisions of a society's government and to the effect that enforcement of these decisions has on the allocation, or distribution, of rewards and values among the different segments of the society.

By the word "value," Easton means any soughtafter value in life. A value is any object, activity, idea, principle, goal, or other phenomenon upon which large numbers of people place appreciable value, something which is considered by many individuals and groups within the political community to be good, desirable, attractive, useful, rewarding, beneficial, or advantageous. One set of values may be tangible, or material, in form--i.e., in the form of money, property, and/or other economic goods, services, and conditions. Another set of values may be intangible; that is, the values may be symbolic, ideological, cultural, ethical, moral, or religious in character. Examples of intangible values in contemporary American politics include the expressed goals of political activists who assert that they are concerned primarily with "social" or "family" issues, that they seek mainly to promote and defend "social" or "family" values.

d. Politics--The High Stakes Involved.

In focusing upon the distributive consequences of politics, modern political scientists have provided us with a framework of study and analysis which calls attention to the high stakes involved in political controversy--a framework which points out the potential for significant gains or losses for particular individuals and groups in controversy over the resolution of public questions, depending on how the questions are resolved. The resolution of questions regarding who is to control the government and how and for what purposes its power is to be employed is also a determination of how certain very important benefits, rewards, and advantages are to be allocated among the different segments of the political society. It is a determination of who gets what, when, and how. It is a determination of how a political community's resources and values are to be allocated.

The allocation never has been and probably never can be equally satisfying to all segments of a political society. Different groups are differently situated within the society and therefore have varying and competing interests. No matter what the government does, its decisions and actions affect different groups differently. The interests of some groups are furthered by particular actions and decisions of the government, while the interests of other groups are thwarted; or the interests of some groups are furthered more than those of other groups. Some groups receive more of the benefits, rewards, and advantages allocated by the government; other groups receive less of them, or are allocated more of the costs and burdens associated with life in a politically organized society. In short, there are sharp conflicts of interest over the government's authoritative allocation of resources and values.

Hence, the levels of social tension and political conflict can be and often are quite high. Under such circumstances, competition for political power is likely to be very keen. Groups and factions with clashing interests compete with each other for political power. Opposing political forces compete with one another for the ability to shape and control the content and direction of public policy. Rival political parties and candidates for public office compete for the formal-legal authority to govern the political community, i.e., to control and direct the government and decide how and for what purposes its power will be used. Organized interest groups compete for the capacity to influence the official decisions and actions of the public officeholders who control the government and exercise its authority.

5. Politics--The Pursuit & Interplay of Interests:

a. The Concept of "Interest"."Interest" has been a key concept in the study of politics since the early 1500s. In politics, the concept of interest suggests the existence of a claim or demand for some benefit, reward, or advantage to be allocated by the government. An "interested" individual or an "interest" group engages in political activity in expectation of deriving something of value from the authoritative decisions and actions of government.

b. Politics--The Definition of Karl Deutsch. Political scientist Karl Deutsch defines "politics" primarily in terms of the pursuit and interplay of interests. "Politics," according to Deutsch, occurs largely "in the pursuit of "interests" of particular individuals and groups" and "deals with the interplay of interests--the claiming and distributing of rewards, that is, of values, things or relationships that people would like to have or to enjoy." The interest of a politically active individual or group in a given situation generally consists of the benefits or rewards that the political actor is able to extract from the situation. Politics is the "process by which values are allocated authoritatively ... and legitimately...." [Note 4]

Politics, in other words, consists of the activities of politically interested individuals and groups operating within a society's political arena and seeking to affect the nature and outcome of official decisionmaking and action by the government. Interested individuals and groups, each striving to further its own special interests by making particular demands, or claims, on the entire political community, engage in competition, conflict, negotiation, bargaining, and compromise over governmental determination of who in the community, or society, gets what, when, and how. Politically interested and active individuals and groups seek to impact on the government's authoritative allocation of society's resources and values, each individual or group hoping to maximize, increase, or, at least, prevent a reduction in the benefits, rewards, and advantages it receives from the allocation and to minimize, lower, or, at least, prevent an increase in the costs, burdens, and deprivations.

c. Political Interest Groups. Deutsch's definition of politics can be utilized to explain or account for the existence and operation of political interest groups within a political community, or society.

When the individuals comprising a particular segment of a political society have a common interest in a particular situation in that society and are conscious of their shared interest, they typically form an interest group, which makes certain claims, or demands, on other segments of the society. The members of the interest group feel that, on the basis of and with respect to their common interest, they have justifiable claims on other persons and groups within the society.

If the members of an interest group have a common interest in a given set of political phenomena and are aware of their shared political interest, they will perceive of themselves as having a justifiable claim on the entire political society, or community. The interest group which they have formed will operate as a political interest group, making demands on the government, which is the agent, or instrument, of the whole society. There may be demands for certain decisions to be made and carried out by the government; or there may be demands that the government refrain from making and implementing particular decisions.

d. Important Claims on a Political Society. In a modern constitutional democratic society, such as Canada, Great Britain or the United States of America, the most fundamental claim which individual citizens and private groups have on the entire political society is the demand that the society, through its constitutional system and its governmental institutions and offices, (1) protect and safeguard basic human rights (civil liberties), (2) maintain domestic tranquillity, or domestic order (internal peace, law and order), (3) protect persons from physical assault, (4) safeguard property from vandalism, theft and fraud, and (5) provide for security of the society's territorial borders against foreign invasion. Other important claims that individuals and groups are likely to have on the whole political society include demands that the government adopt and implement public policies which (1) enhance the economic security and prosperity of the citizenry, (2) promote economic growth, high employment levels, low inflation, and equality of economic opportunity, (3) increase opportunities for obtaining a good education at comparatively low cost, (4) improve and expand the society's transportation and communications systems, (5) maintain a system of social insurance, or social security, to protect retired, disabled, ill, and unemployed workers and their families from economic disaster (e.g., old-age and survivors' insurance, disability insurance, health insurance, and unemployment insurance), (6) fund and operate social-welfare, or public-aid, programs to provide economic and other assistance to impoverished citizens, (7) support the the prevailing system of cultural, social, moral, and ideological values, and (8) suppress and eliminate individual and group activities that have the effect of exposing minors to pornography, alcohol, and drugs and otherwise subjecting under-age citizens to harm, abuse, and exploitation. Important claims on the entire society can, of course, be expected to include demands for public policies designed to protect and promote "special Interests, or "particular interests"--demands for governmental decisions and actions which are intended to allocate significant benefits, rewards, and advantages to particular individuals and groups, while minimizing or reducing their costs and burdens.

6. Politics and Political Conflict--The Role of Government:

Politics, as we have seen, involves political conflict among groups with clashing interests. When one group's special interest in a given political situation clashes sharply with another group's special interest in the same situation, the two groups engage in political conflict. The two groups compete with each other compete with each other in striving to influence and shape governmental decisions and actions affecting the situation in which the groups have conflicting interests. The government, as agent of the whole political society, is subjected to claims and counterclaims, demands and counterdemands, pressures and counterpressures. The government must sift through the claims and counterclaims--the demands and counterdemands--and resolve the conflict. As the government attempts to do this, the two opposing groups continue to interact, each seeking to counter or negate the efforts of the other and to secure a governmental resolution of the conflict favorable to and supportive of its own particular interests.

In American society, most conflicts between groups with clashing interests are settled by political negotiation, bargaining, and compromise. In a given group-conflict situation, the level of conflict generally declines after the government has intervened into the situation and the government officeholders, agencies, and institutions concerned with the particular issue have begun to guide and/or carry on the process of political negotiation, bargaining, compromise, and accomodation between the competing groups.

Usually, the government's resolution of the political conflict is not completely favorable or completely unfavorable to either of the contending groups. Each group is given part of what it wants; it gets a significant piece of the pie, but not the whole pie. In other words, governmental decisionmaking action in the U.S.A. to resolve a controversial public issue does not ordinarily leave one group the total victor and the other the total loser. Neither group is completely alienated. Neither group feels that it can obtain justice or satisfaction only through resort to violent revolution and civil war, seeking either forcible overthrow of the existing political regime or complete separation from and independence of the established government and the political society of which it is agent. Each of the competing groups feels that it can live with the methods and consequences of political negotiation, bargaining, and accomodation guided and/or carried on by the established government within the existing society.

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