Principles of Politics Exercise

Goals of This Exercise

  • Examine the collective-action problem as it relates to interests groups and demonstrate how the Internet might help groups overcome the collective-action problem.
  • Provide some empirical evidence on the political use of the Internet.
  • Explore the impact of Internet political use in helping different economic and ideological groups overcome the problem of collective action.

Effects of Interest Groups in American Politics

Political scientists have long argued about the effects of interest groups in American politics.

  • “Pluralist” political scientists believe that interest groups develop in American politics in response to the perception of a common interest. Generally speaking, any collective interest can form and participate in the pluralist group universe.
  • In The Semisovereign People, political scientist E. E. Schattschneider claimed that affluent interests benefit from the organization of politics in groups; he famously observed that “the flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper class accent” (pp. 34–35).

Examining the Collective-Action Principle

The Collective-Action Principle: all politics is collective action and, whereas all cooperation through collective action is difficult, the difficulty mounts as the number of people grows.

According to Mancur Olson’s The Logic of Collective Action, the main impediment to collective action in interest groups is the fact that every individual has an incentive to be a “free rider,” reaping the common benefits that result from the contributions of others. Of course, if this is everyone’s incentive, then the puzzle is: Why does anyone contribute to the common good?

It is also important to note that the collective-action problem falls disproportionately on some groups. Large and heterogeneous groups, for example, have a more difficult time overcoming the collective-action problem than do small groups based on narrow, specific interests.

Selective Benefits

The collective-action problem can be overcome through the provision of selective benefits; that is, benefits that are conferred only on those who join the group and contribute to the collective good.

Types of selective benefits include:

  • Informational benefits: Group members are provided with magazines, fliers, and other materials that keep them informed.
  • Material benefits: Group members are given discounts and group rates by virtue of being part of the group.
  • Solidary benefits: Group members benefit from networking and getting to know other group members with similar interests.
  • Purposive benefits: Group members enjoy the satisfaction of knowing that they have contributed to a cause that they value.
  • It seems that the Internet might be a relatively inexpensive way to provide some of the selective benefits that help to overcome the collective-action problem.

Ideological Groups Political Use of the Internet

Answer the following question:

1. How can the Internet provide selective benefits (informational, solidary, and purposive)?

Examining the Policy Principle

The Policy Principle: political outcomes are the products of individual preferences and institutional procedures. Individuals have different goals that are shaped, channeled, and filtered through relevant processes.

The Internet is not neutral. In some respects it may lower the barriers to collective action for all, but differential use of the Internet means that it helps some groups more than others.

For example, different ideological groups use the Internet in different ways and with varying frequency.

Political Use of the Internet by Income

Answer the following questions:

2. What ideological interests are benefited disproportionately by Internet use?
3. Members of what ideological category are helped least by the Internet in their efforts to overcome collective action?

Recall E. E. Schattschneider’s observation that there is an upper-class accent to group politics. Because different people have different experience with and access to computers, the Internet might have a disproportionate impact on different economic groups as well and exacerbate this flaw in interest-group pluralism.

Answer the following questions:

What is the relationship between income and political use of the Internet? How might this exacerbate the disparity in overcoming the collective-action problem?
5. Why would lower-income people make less political use of the Internet than those in higher income categories?
6. Why might it be said that the Internet is good for lower-income groups despite their comparative lack of use of the Internet for political purposes?


  • General Social Survey. 1972–2008 Cumulative Datafile.
  • Olson, Mancur. The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965.
  • Schattschneider, E. E. The Semisovereign People: A Realist’s View of Democracy in America. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975.

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