Chapter 1: Conceptualizing Politics

Imagine you are Tom Hanks in Cast Away (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 2000), stranded on a far-off, deserted island. There are no other people, no society or government to speak of. Is politics at all present in this environment?

Since Aristotle, Western political philosophy has been predicated on the idea that there is something necessarily social about politics. Politics doesn’t exist with only one person on a deserted island. This necessarily social aspect suggests that that politics governs our social relations and our relationship to goods and resources in order to effect improvements on society. Recall from the introduction the Socratic idea that humans do not merely want to survive, but to live well. This perspective conceptualizes politics as a tool of social betterment. For the ancient Greeks, particularly Aristotle, politics cuts even deeper—it is central to the very purpose of what it means to be a human being. For Aristotle, the highest virtue was living a life of politics. “For as a human being is the best of animals when perfected,” observes Aristotle, “so when separated from law and justice he is worst of all.”[1] Because we cannot understand human beings outside our relations with each other, the activity that governs these relations is the most virtuous of activities.

We are far removed from these ancient thoughts on politics. Much of the American public today, for example, would hardly see living a political life as virtuous in and of itself. Indeed, the word politics itself is often used derisively: “That’s just politics,” by which we often mean crude strategies of power, conniving, dirty dealing, and even outright corruption. At the same time, it can be easy to have a cynical view of those who live a life of politics. Many of us tend to think that politicians choose a life of politics for the influence, power, and money that serving in government undoubtedly brings. The older ideal of the reluctant leader seems a quaint notion of a distant past. There nevertheless remains a reality that politicians are ideally champions of the people and not of themselves, that self-interest should be set aside to govern in the common interest. How do you perceive politics and politicians? Rate your perception of both on a scale of 1-10, where 1 is the lowest regard for both. If you tend to regard politicians as self-serving and corrupt, though there may be exceptions, you might rate them at 3 or 4. Now reflect on the level of political news you tend to consume on a daily basis.

Chapter 1.1 Exercises

  1. Do you listen to talk radio or watch cable news?
  2. How much political news do you seek out on the internet?

Compare and reflect on your views of politics and politicians and your level of political news consumption.

Conflict versus Cooperation: Two Views of Politics

Let’s consider an important tension in understanding what politics is: on the one hand, politics can be seen as conflict, as a battlefield in which power and policies are won, and as a struggle in which some are winners and others are losers. On the other hand, politics can be seen as a more deliberative process of compromise, cooperation, and the perhaps messy work of giving various stakeholders some piece of the policy pie.

The conflict-based view of politics suggests a , in which one person’s gain is another person’s exact loss. This view may be more prominent with the realities of very polarized political environment. Polarization or in American politics is currently the norm—political party elites and politicians have little incentive to reach across the aisle and collaborate with other political actors outside their parties. This polarized environment has arguably strengthened over the Obama and Trump administrations. Not a single Republican member of the House or Senate voted for the Affordable Healthcare Act (otherwise known as Obamacare), despite the fact that the law is modeled after a Massachusetts state law that had significant Republican support. in the Trump administration continues to be rare.

Historically, hyper-partisanship has not always been the case. Cross-party voting was more common throughout the New Deal era and into the 1990s.[2] The policy environment in Congress generally followed what Shanto Iyengar has called the “,” in which a small number of political elites fashion policy out of horse trading and compromise across the party aisle.[3] Iyengar refers to this as the “pre-media” era of American politics, and suggests that changes in the media environment have contributed to a more polarized political dynamic and a “” model to governing.[4] In the Going Public model, the media largely replaces political parties as the conduit through which politicians get what they want. These politicians bypass other members of Congress and the president to speak directly to their constituents and the public. The strategy is predicated on maximizing your approval rating and using this as leverage in Washington to push policy and legislation you endorse. The Going Public model suggests that a conflict-based view of politics is stronger than ever. For more on media’s influence in American politics, see Chapter 9.

President Donald Trump with Vice President Mike Pence and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in the background.
The American president is often at the center of the tension between conflict and cooperation.

Compromise and cooperation are nonetheless present, if rare, even in the most hyper-polarized environment. For example, the passage of the First Step Act of 2018, legislation on criminal justice reform, received broad bipartisan support and was passed into law by President Trump, despite ongoing investigations into Trump’s campaign and administration and an overall toxic partisan environment that has riddled Washington. Cooperation and compromise in politics may be harder to see in a for-profit media landscape, in which political conflict can garner greater attention and thus greater economic incentives for private cooperations that produce political news. Cooperation in politics does not always have to be civil and friendly, and may involve bitter compromises. Cooperation in politics can also be understood in , such that we value democracy because it creates conditions in which we reach consensus through communication and understanding (for more on this, see Chapter 5). Politics is most often the complex interplay of cooperation and conflict, existing simultaneously across multiple issues and within a single issue.

As the only politician with a truly national constituency in American politics, the president is often at the very heart of the push and pull of conflict vs cooperation. Sidney Milkis refers to this dynamic as the New American Party system, in which presidents are increasingly caught between the demands of their party and the demands of the nation. With intense partisanship generally the norm in today’s politics, the demands of a political party often veer toward conflict, whereas the demands of the nation may require compromise, cooperation, and a sense of national unity.[5] In Chapter 5, we will analyze party systems in democracies more closely, in particular the argument that veer politics toward more conflict, whereas are better able to build consensus and compromise.

Under what conditions do state actors who are adversaries cooperate with one another?


We see a similar dynamic between cooperation and conflict play out in International Relations. State actors often negotiate this dynamic with foreign adversaries. The issue of Iranian nuclear capability is a prime example. Whereas sanctions directed at the Iranian regime represent a clear strategy of seeking leverage though adverse pressure, a multilateral nuclear arms deal between Iran and the West represents the strategy of compromise and cooperative solutions to the issue. Under what conditions do state actors who are adversaries cooperate with one another? This is a key question in International Relations and provides a number of insights and potential solutions.

Games on Cooperation and Conflict

Game theory seeks to model ways in which rational actors strategically interact with one another. When is it best to cooperate with another person? When is it best to “defect” and not cooperate?

A classic game in economics and International Relations is the , a collective action game in which two criminal accomplices are captured by the police and held in separate interrogation rooms. In the interrogation, these accomplices are faced with a choice: you either rat out your partner and accuse them of the crime or you stick to the previously agreed-upon story, cooperating with your accomplice and stonewalling the cops. If you “defect” (rat out your partner) and your partner “cooperates” by not ratting you out, then you get no prison time whereas your partner receives a 10-year sentence, and vice versa if your partner defects and you cooperate. If you both defect, you both receive a 5-year sentence. If you both cooperate, you both receive a 3 year sentence.

The prisoner’s dilemma yields a number of insights into the relationship between individual rationality and group rationality. When do we cooperate with others, even when it goes against our own self-interest? The dilemma in the prisoner’s dilemma is this: in isolation, a person is better off defecting, but when both defect the outcome is worse for each. In other words, pursuing may lead to worse outcomes than if, as a group, people act contrary to rational self-interest. Relatedly, the prisoner’s dilemma also suggests that it is hard to get selfish individuals to act for the common good. The prisoner’s dilemma has been influential in understanding economic, political, and moral human action.

One way of playing the prisoner’s dilemma is called indefinite iterations, in which you play against the same person numerous times. You will now play prisoner’s dilemma 5 times in a row against 5 separate opponents. You opponents are Fez, Tex, Sherlock, Plum Hat, and Pink Hat. You will find the game here: Play the game all the way through before reading further.

So how did you do? Which opponent were you most successful against? Which were you least successful against? The basic strategies were laid on in this game in which Fez (Copycat), Tex (Grudger), Sherlock (Detective), Plum Hat (Always Cheat), Pink Hat (Always Cooperate) are each designed with a certain objective in mind. Write a short reflection paper (3-page minimum) detailing your results and the strategies your opponents used against you.

In the 1980s and 90s, Dr. Robert Axelrod conducted two large tournaments in which game theorists submitted codes that could be played indefinitely against one another. Dr. Axelrod included a clone of each code (so it could play against itself) and an additional code that randomly cooperated and defected. After thousands of games played, one strategy emerged as the clear winner: the Tit-for-Tat strategy, or our very own Mr. Yellow. Tit-for-Tat is a very simple code: it cooperates on its first move and for every subsequent move it simply replicates the move its opponent made in the last round. If you cooperate with Tit-for-Tat, it will do the same. If you defect, it will defect. You also played against Mr. Red, who defects every time, and Mr. Green, who cooperates every time. What Dr. Axelrod found is that cooperative strategies are generally more successful than strategies that more often defect.[6]

Tit-for-Tat has four basic properties that may suggest why it is successful. First, it is kind: it always cooperates on the first move. Second, it is retaliatory: it always retaliates upon defections. Another way of saying this is that it does not let uncooperative behavior go unpunished. Third, it is forgiving: you might defect against Tit-for-Tat 100 times in a row, but the moment you begin cooperating, it does so as well. Another way of saying this is that Tit-for-Tat has a very short memory with regards to uncooperative behavior and never leaves payoffs on the table. Fourth, it is clear: opponents can rely on its behavior in a way that facilitates mutually beneficial outcomes.[7]

We can apply this strategy to political behavior for both individuals and state actors. In International Relations, for example, Tit-for-Tat suggests that the most successful strategy for diplomacy is to be kind, retaliatory, forgiving, and clear. Begin negotiations with the carrot first, use the stick for uncooperative behavior in order to avoid being taken advantage of, forgive at first signs of cooperation, and be predictable in your behavior. We can also apply these strategies to negotiations among lawmakers in a legislative branch, or between legislators and a prime minister or president.

Chapter 1.3 Exercises

Reflect on your own observations of political behavior. Do you find this type of strategy to be successful? Why or why not?

Politics as a Field of Power

In understanding what politics is, it is worthwhile to consider power more directly, as opposed to the behavior of individuals, groups, or states.

In political and social science, power is often understood to be the capacity an individual has to influence the behavior of others. This can take the form of soft power such as influence and positive incentives or hard power such as coercion or intimidation. We can also view power through the lens of legitimacy: legitimate power can be seen as authority—the ability to exercise lawful or agreed-upon instruments of power to influence people or processes in deliberate ways. Illegitimate power can been understood as brute force, unsanctioned and unlawful coercion. Consider two examples: a pilot of an aircraft and a hijacker of an aircraft. Both have a degree of power over a plane and the passengers within it. The pilot uses authority to influence passengers to abide by rules and regulations, such as fastening their seat belts and being attentive to emergency exits. The hijacker uses brute force to intimidate and coerce passengers in order to achieve their objectives.

Looking more closely at authority and power, there are important distinctions that can be made. Where power can be regarded as the tools and instruments at one’s disposal, authority can be regarded as the way in which we wield those tools and instruments. Consider the power of the American presidency in this distinction. The office of the presidency comes with inherent powers, some codified in the US Constitution and others attained through the actions of previous presidents, Congress, and the federal courts. If a president has little understanding of those powers, they may use those powers poorly or not at all, and hence their authority may suffer. The inherent powers remain the same, but how they are used can differ greatly from one president to another.

Politics is a field on which power is contested, shared, lost, won, rendered legitimate, or rendered illegitimate.


So we arrive at another definition of politics: politics is a field on which power is contested, shared, lost, won, rendered legitimate, or rendered illegitimate. In this definition, we conceive law as structures built on this field that legitimize and direct power in certain ways. Actors contest and cooperate on this field to achieve certain desirable outcomes, either individual or collective. The degree to which this field is transparent (actions of contestation or cooperation can be seen by everyone) and inclusive (the ease with which individuals may enter the field and contest or cooperate) goes a long way toward understanding power in a democracy (for a closer look at democracy, see Chapter 5). A field of power suggests a force that circulates between and among individuals, and it suggests a perspective of politics that lends itself to something akin to the laws of physics. For every action there are opposite reactions, the push and pull of political power.

Chapter 1.4 Example

Person A has power over Person B to the extent that they can determine B’s conduct, but power in our modern world is often hard to see directly, since it commonly takes the form of the absence of brute force.

Social and legal norms often determine our conduct in such a way that we ourselves affirm those norms and therefore do not consider them power over us. Conditioned power is internal, implying control over someone without the use of force. The 20th–century French philosopher Michel Foucault regarded conditioned power as the dominant form of power in our modern world. The notion of “corrections” in the modern penal system indicates internal discipline over inmates. This conditioned form of power is not confined to modern prisons for Foucault. Schools, hospitals, corporate offices, public life—in all these areas there exists a interrelated structure of conditioning power that controls without appearing intrusive. With the technological development of greater forms of surveillance at a government’s disposal, this view of power is perhaps more relevant than ever.

Lastly, the characteristics that make up our identity (such as race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) have historically been the basis for political control over individuals. Of course, this type of control still exists in our world today, but over the past century we have seen powerful reactions to it in the form of racial justice, feminism, and the LGBTQ+ movements. This is the rise of what has been called : the characteristics of one’s identity are the basis of political action and are central to the struggle between justice and injustice. Identity politics is often defined as political mobilization based on exclusive alliances of shared identity characteristics at the expense of traditional, broad-based political parties. What is overlooked in this definition, however, is that control and domination over individuals is the central struggle of identity politics. If the characteristics of one’s identity form the basis of political action, and we regard action as including forms of control and domination, then slavery, patriarchy, and the criminalization of homosexuality are all forms of identity politics as well.

So What About Political Science?

Politics, of course, is not Political Science.


Politics, of course, is not Political Science. We can develop theories about what politics is, but Political Science needs no theory—it is an institutionalized discipline for the study of political thought, systems, behavior, and institutions. Political Science is also the study of the methods we use to understand political thought, systems, behavior, and institutions, and to this degree Political Science has theories of its own disciplinary activities (this is the subfield of Methods, and for more on this, see Chapter 10). Political Science is part of the broader meta-discipline of the social sciences, which includes, among other disciplines, Economics, Sociology, Anthropology, and Psychology. What brings these disciplines together is a focus on explaining phenomena in various aspects of the social realm. In other words, providing explanations for observable facts or events that take place in our social experience. It may be useful to think of this as detective work—there are numerous mysteries to be solved. Take the example of the core focus of this chapter: what are the optimal conditions under which individuals cooperate with one another contrary to their own self-interest? In other words, what are the causes of cooperative behavior?

Here we need to consider causation more deeply. In philosophy, causality is the study of the nature of cause and effect. The 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume posited that causation is best understood as counterfactual relation—why x and not y? This makes clear the relationship between cause and effect. As Hume writes, we can determine a cause where “if the first object had not been, the second never had existed.” This understanding is arguably the very foundation of social science inquiry—to locate causal explanations for the observable facts and events in our shared human experience. In the social sciences, we use the term to describe the cause and to describe the effect or outcome. Typically, the social scientist requires more than one independent variable in order to test various explanations against one another. In the hard sciences, such as biology or physics, predictions about the causal relationship between these independent and dependent variables are often referred to as hypotheses. In order to test these explanations against one another accurately, the social scientist must be attentive to the ways in which our proposed explanations may be tangled up in one another. The dependent variable is the observable fact or event that we seek explanations for, and because of this, social science inquiry requires only one dependent variable.

Chapter 1.5 Example

In American electoral politics, numerous studies suggest that conservative Republican voters are more mobilized and have higher voter turnout in elections that liberal Democrats.


Let’s look at one specific example to help clarify the basic elements of social science inquiry. In American electoral politics, numerous studies suggest that conservative Republican voters are more mobilized and have higher voter turnout in elections that liberal Democrats. What explains this variation or difference? Our dependent variable is greater mobilization and voter turnout for conservative Republicans and lesser mobilization and voter turnout for liberal Democrats. Our independent variables are the causal explanations for this observable fact, and may include demographics (conservative Republican voters tend to be more similar to each other—older, whiter, wealthier—than liberal Democrats, who are a more diverse coalition of interests), party organization and action (the Republican Party and party elites are better at mobilizing and maximizing turnout than the Democratic Party and their party elites), issues (the issues themselves, or perhaps the way issues are framed, creates an environment that better mobilizes conservative Republicans), or ideology (the ideological foundation of left politics tends toward critique and critical inquiry, whereas the ideological foundation of right politics tends toward authority and order).

These independent variables are possible explanations, not certain ones. A good social scientist should always maintain an open and curious degree of skepticism for all explanations. For the philosopher of science Karl Popper, all theories must be potentially false if they are to be scientific, or what Popper calls . With the above example, we can see how independent variables might get tangled up in one another. Consider the explanations of demographics and party organization—it may be the case that party elites more successfully mobilize conservative Republicans because demographically similar voters are easier to mobilize. The task of the social scientist in this instance is to control and isolate independent variables to minimize the influence other explanations may have on that variable. This can be complex detective work. The basics of social science inquiry seek explanations for observable facts or events in our social world.

At its core, this inquiry is about asking questions, seeking strong possible answers to those questions, and designing a research project that can accurately test those explanations to arrive at the best answer.


Politics is a necessarily social activity.


As we focus on the question of “what is politics” we see different theories and perspectives taking shape that lie at the heart of the discipline of political science. Politics is a necessarily social activity. It is an endeavor that seeks to define our social relations to one another and our relationship to goods and resources. Because of this, the question of cooperation and collective action is crucial. Under what conditions do individuals cooperate to achieve certain outcomes? We can develop theories to answer that question and then make observations of political behavior and institutions to test those theories. Games can be quite useful in observing how humans cooperate or conflict with one another, particularly the prisoner’s dilemma. Evidence suggests that when two people play multiple games of prisoner’s dilemma with one another (and thus remember previous moves) the most successful strategies are initially kind, retaliatory, forgiving, and clear.

Politics is also about power—how power is used and the conditions under which power is or is not present. In this conception, it is helpful to think of politics as a field on which power is contested. Law acts as a structure that determines the form and flows of power. In a democracy, the transparency and inclusivity of this field are important values. Power is also a set of relations that can be exercised over individuals without their knowing it. This form of conditioned power operates within but can also be found in the basic structures of society, such as norms, institutions, or the law. Lastly, a struggle for power can be located in the characteristics of an individual’s identity, such as race, gender, or sexual orientation. These power struggles are often described as identity politics, such as the feminist fight against patriarchal domination or a civil rights response to racial discrimination. Understanding various forms of power and how they are manifested requires research and observation into our social and political world.

Political Science is the discipline in which this work is done. Political Science has its home in the social sciences, a meta-discipline that seeks to understand social phenomena. Causation is at the heart of social science inquiry—social scientists seek to explain various social phenomena we observe in our world. We do this through research design that isolates a number of independent variables—the casual agents or explanations themselves—to identify which is the most likely factor in determining the dependent variable in question.

We now have a basic understanding of what politics is and the foundational work of political science as a discipline. In the next four chapters, we will look at some key political concepts such as freedom, equality, and democracy in order to deepen our understanding of the rich and dynamic study of politics.

Media Attributions

  • Donald_J._Trump_at_2019_State_of_the_Union_(46092930285)_(cropped)

  1. Aristotle, Politics, trans. C. D. C. Reeve. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1998, pg. 5.
  2. Richard Fleischer and John Bond. "The Shrinking Middle in the US Congress," British Journal of Political Science, vol. 34, no. 3 (July 2004): pp. 429–51.
  3. Shanto Iyengar, Media Politics, 2nd Edition. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, pp. 195–99.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Sidney Milkis, Jesse Rhodes, and Emily Charnock. "What Happened to Postpartisanship? Barack Obama and the New American Party System," Perspectives on Politics, vol. 10, no. 1 (March 2012): pp. 57–76.
  6. Robert Axelrod and Douglas Dion. "The Further Evolution of Cooperation," Science 242 (Dec. 9, 1988): pp. 1385–90
  7. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. "Prisoner's Dilemma," (accessed on May 26, 2019)

Share This Book