Chapter Study Outline


American government and politics are extraordinarily complex. The framers of the United States Constitution divided governmental power and responsibility both among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches and, again, federally between the national government and the states. Although this complexity was designed to disperse power in American politics, it has also placed significant burdens on citizens seeking to participate in politics and to influence government policy. Understanding these complexities is the aim of this book.

1. Making Sense of Government and Politics

What is government? What types of governments exist? What is politics?

  • Government is the term generally used to describe the formal political arrangements through which a land and its people are ruled; the term refers just as well to simple institutions like a tribal council as to more complex establishments known as “states.”
  • Governments vary both in terms of the number of people included in government decision-making and the extent of the government’s authority.
    • Autocracies vest political authority in a single individual. Oligarchies are governments controlled by a small group of people. Democracies permit citizens to play a significant part in governmental decision-making.
    • Constitutional governments recognize and often codify broad limits on their authority. Authoritarian governments are checked (often reluctantly) by other political and social institutions. Totalitarian governments recognize no formal limits on their authority.
  • Politics refers to the conflicts within organizations over issues of leadership, structures, and policies. This book focuses on such conflicts and struggles as they relate to governments.
    • Political participation can take many forms, including running for office, voting or joining a political party, contributing money to a political candidate or cause, lobbying, joining a group, writing a letter or otherwise communicating to others about politics, and many other activities.
    • Although politics involves many different activities, there are underlying patterns or “principles” that help us to categorize and understand politics better.

2. Five Principles of Politics

What is the underlying logic of political behavior, collective action, and institutional politics? What are the five principles of politics that will be used to guide analysis throughout this textbook?

  • The Rationality Principle holds that all political behavior has a purpose and that people tend to be goal-oriented in their political activities as they make instrumental choices about how to act.
  • The Institution Principle recognizes that political institutions provide incentives for political behavior, thereby shaping and structuring politics. Institutional rules and procedures—like jurisdiction (who has the authority to apply rules or make decisions), agenda power (who determines what issues will be taken up), veto power (the ability to defeat something even if it is on the agenda), decisiveness (the rules by which authoritative and final determinations are made), and delegation (the transmission of authority to some other official or body, which is characterized by a principal-agent relationship involving transaction costs)—are consequential for political outcomes.
  • The Collective-Action Principle refers to the idea that, although all politics is collective action, getting people to act in concert is difficult. Thus, political action often involves both formal and informal bargaining, along with other efforts to overcome the obstacles to collective action. Formal and informal bargaining relationships are struck in politics to provide for collective decision making, and organizational efforts to overcome the tendencies of individuals to “free ride” on the labors of others are necessary to overcome the collective-action problems endemic in producing public goods. One common solution to the collective-action problem, arising from Mancur Olson’s by-product theory, is the provision of selective benefits that accrue only to those who contribute to the group enterprise.
  • The Policy Principle holds that political outcomes are the products of individual preferences and institutional procedures. Combining lessons from the Rationality and Institution principles, we see that individual political actors’ personal, electoral, and institutional ambitions are filtered through, and in many ways shaped by, institutional arrangements in politics; and that policy outcomes are the products of the complex intermingling of individual goals and institutions.
  • The History Principle reminds us that how we got here matters. Political circumstances and outcomes are understood to be path dependent (partly determined by past events and choices) and to influence existing rules and procedures, political loyalties and alliances, and political viewpoints and perspectives.