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Rules of the Game

Rules of the Game

Rules of the game and political democracy

Rules of the game in legislatures


The concept “rules of the game” is frequently used in contemporary political science, albeit with a variety of meanings. Most commonly, the concept denotes widely shared beliefs about how the government, or various categories of political actors, ought to behave. “Rules of the game” are, therefore, essentially normative and procedural. The concept is rarely used to refer to formal or written rules—statutes, constitutions, court decisions, and the like—but usually refers to informal or unwritten rules, attitudes, and expectations. There is far less agreement, however, on the precise content of these rules, on how widely shared they are, or on what functions they perform.

The historical origins of the concept are as obscure as its psychological appeal is clear. Politics— particularly as practiced in regimes recognizing the legitimacy of overt, organized opposition and successfully limiting the use of force and fraud as political techniques—has many similarities to a game. Competing players pursue conflicting goals by means of varying strategies within the context of an agreed-upon set of rules. The outcome of the game—be it politics, football, or poker—depends partly upon the relative skill of the players and partly on chance factors over which the players have little or no control. These similarities between politics and games occurred to politicians and political journalists generations ago (Kent 1923), well before political scientists made use of the metaphor or von Neumann and Morgenstern (1944) published their mathematical theory of games [seeGame Theory]. Recently, political scientists have sought to determine the content and consequences of the rules of the game of politics through empirical observation, rather than deriving them deductively from an abstract model of a generalized game, as in mathematical game theory. The latter approach results in rules about strategies that rational players will follow in various hypothetical conflict situations; the “rules of the game” that political scientists have written about are widespread normative beliefs which exist in the real world of politics.

Rules of the game and political democracy

Political philosophers of varying persuasions—Edmund Burke, Walter Bagehot, Alexis de Tocque ville, Harold Laski, to name a few—have argued that political democracy “… presupposes a people so fundamentally at one that they can safely afford to bicker” (Lord Balfour quoted in Friedrich [1942] 1950, p. 153). It is characteristic of this body of literature that no attempt is made to specify what these “fundamentals” are. If this line of argument implies that there can be no basic cleavages within a democratic polity, or that a democratic citizenry must be in agreement on the goals of governmental action, this position is logically absurd and historically false (ibid., chapter 5). But it is possible to interpret at least some of these writers as meaning only that the mass of the citizenry in a political system must be agreed on the rules of the game before political democracy is possible. This more restricted view lies at the heart of a recent, empirically oriented political theory. [SeeDemocracy.]

David B. Truman (1951) assigns an important role to mass acceptance of “the rules of the game” in the functioning of American democracy. To Truman and his followers, the interest group—a set of persons interacting on the basis of one or more shared attitudes—is the basic unit of political analysis. Politics is visualized as the patterned interactions of these groups. A number of factors, over and above simple competition between interest groups, result in the stability of such a system. First, the average person belongs to a number of interest groups. In order to grow in size and to maintain internal cohesion, an interest group must, therefore, consider the other interests and group affiliations of its members. Second, interest groups vary in the extent of their formal organization and their degree of involvement in politics. Every shared attitude (interest) can serve as the base of a group; every group not currently making claims on others through attempts to influence the governmental apparatus can, if threatened, become a political interest group. Existing political interest groups must therefore pay heed to potential interest groups or face the consequences of creating their own opposition. Third—and most important for our purposes —widespread agreement on the rules of the game exists among the citizenry and officialdom. While these interests (attitudes) are not generally organized into political interest groups, they do represent powerful potential groups. Active groups, by anticipating the possible development of these attitudes into groups active in the political arena, tend to play the game of politics within the confines of these broad rules of conduct. “It is thus multiple memberships in potential groups based on widely held and accepted interests that serve as a balance wheel in a going political system like that of the United States. … Without the notion of multiple memberships in potential groups it is literally impossible to account for the existence of a viable polity such as that in the United States or to develop a coherent conception of the political process” (Truman [1951] 1965, p. 514). These “widely held and accepted interests” are explicitly identified by Truman as the rules of the game. Potential groups are their guardians. [SeePolitical Group Analysis.]

Recent research on the attitudes of the electorate in the United States casts doubt upon this line of analysis by demonstrating that, at least in the United States, mass agreement with “the rules of the game” is much less widespread than had previously been assumed to be the case. Prothro and Grigg (1960) confronted random samples of registered voters in two widely separated cities in the United States with a set of general statements about political democracy and a second series of statements which apply these general rules to specific cases. They found overwhelming consensus in favor of the general statements, but “when these broad principles are translated into more specific propositions … consensus breaks down completely” (p. 286). On 40 per cent of the specific statements in one city, and 60 per cent in another, a clear majority of the voters expressed antidemocratic preferences. Prothro and Grigg did find, however, overwhelming agreement with both the general and specific statements about democracy among the highly educated—a finding which led them to speculate that widespread agreement on the rules of the game at the elite level may be a precondition for democratic politics, but that on the mass level it apparently is not. The relative apathy of the mass electorate, and widespread habits of democratic behavior, may account for the survival of political democracy without mass consensus on the rules of the game. [SeeConsensus.]

Robert Dahl, in his study of New Haven, Connecticut (1961), found much the same phenomenon. The same minority of the population that possesses the highest levels of political interest, skills, and resources also possesses the greatest commitment to the rules of the game of democratic politics. The vast majority of the citizenry may not agree with these rules, but lack the interest, skills, and resources to do much about it.

Herbert McClosky (1964) provides data on attitudes toward the rules of the game of a national sample of adult American citizens (Table 1). It is clear that a sizable minority of American citizens do not accept the rules of the game, at least as measured by these statements. The same questionnaire

Table 1 — Agreement with the rules of the game in the United States
 Political influential; (N = 3,020)General electorate (N = 1,484)
StatementPer cent disagreeing, i.e., giving response consistent with rules of the game
In the original study, agreement with statements 1-7 and 9-12 and disagreement with statement 8 were taken to indicate rejection of the rules of the game. In order to avoid confusion, the percentages in the table show the proportion of the two samples indicating agreement with the rules of the game. “Don’t know” responses, which averaged less than 1 per cent, were ignored.
Source: Adapted from McClosky 1964, p. 3o5, table 1.
(1) There are times when it almost seems better for the people to take the law into their own hands rather than wait for the machinery of government to act.8773
(2) The majority has the right to abolish minorities if it wants to.9371
(3) We might as well make up our minds that in order to make the world better, a lot of innocent people will have to suffer.7358
(4) If congressional committees stuck strictly to the rules and gave every witness his rights, they would never succeed in exposing the many dangerous subversives they have turned up.7553
(5) 1 don’t mind a politician’s methods if he manages to get the right things done.7458
(6) Almost any unfairness or brutality may have to be justified when some great purpose is being carried out.8767
(7) Politicians have to cut a few corners if they are going to get anywhere.7157
(8) People ought to be allowed to vote even if they can’t do so intelligently.6648
(9) Bringing about great changes for the benefit of mankind often requires cruelty and even ruthlessness.8169
(10) Very few politicians have clean records, so why get excited about the mudslinging that sometimes goes on?8562
(11) It is all right to get around the law if you don’t actually break it.7970
(12) The true American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.8765

was administered to the delegates and alternates to the Democratic and Republican national party conventions in 1956. Their responses (summarized under the “Political influentials” column in Table 1) indicate far wider agreement with the rules of the game among these political activists than among rank-and-file Americans.

Assuming that the United States is a reasonable approximation of a political democracy, these studies suggest that agreement about the rules of the game on the mass level is less important than either the philosophers or the group theorists argue. Elite agreement on these rules may well be a necessary condition for a successful political democracy, but only additional research conducted in a variety of political systems will tell us whether the hypothesized relationship between rules of the game and political democracy needs merely to be revised or whether it must be abandoned altogether.

Rules of the game in legislatures

A second area of political science in which the concept “rules of the game” is of central importance is the field of legislative behavior research. Contemporary students have not only found that unwritten rules of behavior exist in a variety of legislative settings, but they have also been able to describe the content of these normative expectations, estimate how widely they are accepted, describe how they are enforced, and suggest their consequences for the operation of legislative bodies.

While observers of legislative bodies have long commented upon the apparent importance of informal understandings and unwritten rules in their operation, the first systematic study of the rules of the game in a legislative body was Matthews’ study (1960) of the behavior of United States senators.

The first unwritten rule of Senate behavior, according to Matthews, is that new members are expected to serve a proper apprenticeship. The freshman senator receives the committee assignments the others senators do not want; the same is true of his office suite and his seat in the chamber. In committee rooms he is assigned to the end of the table. He is expected to do more than his share of the thankless and boring tasks of the Senate, to keep his mouth shut, to listen and learn. According to the unwritten rules of the chamber, the freshman is to accept such treatment as a matter of course. Those who do not, encounter thinly veiled hostility and loss of esteem.

The great bulk of the Senate’s work is highly detailed, dull, and politically unrewarding. According to the rules of the game in the Senate, it is to these tasks that a senator ought to devote a major share of his time, energy, and thought. Moreover, a senator ought to specialize, to focus his time and attention on the relatively few matters which come before his committees or that directly and immediately affect his state. Still another rule of Senate behavior is that political disagreement should not influence personal feelings, that senators should avoid personal attacks on colleagues and strive for impersonality in debate. Moreover, senators must be willing to bargain—to operate on the basis of the reciprocal trading of favors. This requires self-restraint, tolerance, and an essentially nonideo-logical approach to political life. Finally, senators are expected to display a high degree of institutional patriotism, to believe that the United States Senate is the greatest legislative body in the world, and to prefer serving there to holding any other public office in the land.

These norms perform important functions. They provide motivation for the performance of legislative duties that would not otherwise be performed. They encourage the development of expertise and division of labor and discourage those who would challenge it. They soften the inevitable personal conflict of a legislative body so that adversaries and competitors can cooperate. They encourage senators to become “compromisers” and “bargainers” and to use their substantial powers with caution and restraint (Matthews 1960, pp. 102-103). Without these rules of the game, the Senate could hardly operate in anything like its present form.

Yet while the consensus about these norms is impressive, they are not universally accepted or lived up to. Men who come to the Senate after distinguished careers in public or private life find serving an apprenticeship a trying experience. Members of the chamber with active presidential ambitions are unlikely to build a national reputation through faithful adherence to the rules of the game. Men with highly insecure seats, or those representing unusually diverse and complex constituencies, often find the injunctions about legislative specialization and self-restraint in floor debate difficult to reconcile with the exigencies of political survival. Finally, while senators are necessarily tolerant of differences of political viewpoint, the ease with which senators can conform to these informal expectations depends upon their ideological position. A man elected to the Senate as a “liberal” or “progressive” or “reformer” is under pressure to produce legislative results. The people who voted for him want national legislative policy changed. Yet if the liberal senator gives in to the pressure for conformity to the rules of the game, he must postpone the achievement of these objectives. If he presses for these objectives regardless of his junior position, he will become tabbed a nonconformist and will lose popularity with his colleagues. This might not be so serious a sanction if respect by one’s colleagues were not extremely helpful in getting legislation passed. “In the Senate,” one member is quoted as saying, “if you don’t conform, you don’t get many favors for your state. You are never told that, but you soon learn” (Matthews 1960, p. 114).

Thus, one can describe some of the rules of the game in the Senate, and suggest how they are enforced and how they contribute to the operation of that body. But there is as yet very little evidence on the extent of agreement with these norms. Ralph Huitt (1961), for example, has argued that the degree of consensus on these norms is less than Matthews’ study implies.

A study of the legislatures of California, New Jersey, Ohio, and Tennessee conducted by John Wahlke, Heinz Eulau, William Buchanan, and Roy Ferguson (see Wahlke et al. 1962) is based upon interviews with virtually every member of the bicameral legislatures of these four states and is therefore able to handle this particular question more satisfactorily. The rules of the game most frequently mentioned by these legislators are presented in Table 2. The first thing to notice about this listing is its substantial similarity to the rules Matthews found to be operative in the U.S. Senate. Moreover, the findings of Wahlke and his collaborators support the view that these rules are generally understood and accepted by virtually all members of these four state legislatures. “Of all respondents, only two perceived no rules of the game; over half readily named at least four rules . . .” (Wahlke et al. 1962, p. 143). Moreover, the rules mentioned comprised, on the whole, “a body of mutually compatible rules which does not normally confront legislators with the dilemma of choosing among contradictory rules … not a single respondent suggested the existence of conflicting sets of rules, each with its own set of proponents . . .” (ibid., p. 148). Almost all the state legislators interviewed recognized that these rules were more or less systematically enforced by such informal but highly effective sanctions as obstruction of the nonconforming members’ bills, social ostracism, mistrust, and loss of political perquisites and rewards. The authors conclude that these rules of the game are highly functional for the legislative chambers they have studied. They create group cohesion and morale, promote predictability of legislator behavior, restrain and channel conflict, and expedite the conduct of legislative business.

It is at present impossible to say to what extent these unwritten rules of the game are generally found in democratic legislative bodies or are merely a product of uniquely American factors. Wahlke and his collaborators found some intriguing differences

Table 2 — Rules of the game most frequently perceived by legislators in four American states (in per cent)a
 California (N = 104)New Jersey (N = 78)Ohio (N=160)Tennessee (N=119)
a. Percentages do not equal 100, because most respondents named more than one rule.
b. Fewer than half the rules mentioned are summarized above.
Source: Adapted from Wahlke et al. 1962, pp. 146-147, table 7.1.
(1) Performance of obligations: Keep your word; abide by commitments64472824
(2) Respect for other members’ legislative rights: Support other members’ local bills if they don’t affect you or your district; don’t railroad bills through; etc.32262447
(3) Impersonality: Don’t deal in personalities; don’t engage in personal attacks on other members; etc.30273231
(4) Self-restraint in debate: Don’t talk too much; don’t speak about subjects on which you’re uninformed1791859
(5) Courtesy: Observe common courtesies; be friendly and courteous even if you disagree19192426
(6) Openness of aims: Be frank and honest in explaining bills; don’t conceal real purpose of bills or amendments2482212
(7) Modesty: Don’t be a prima donna or publicity seeker9192321
(8) Integrity: Be honest, a man of integrity13191811
(9) Independence of judgment: Don’t be subservient to groups or individuals outside of legislature16191114
(10) Personal virtue: Exhibit high moral conduct, no drunkenness or immorality130248
(11) Decisiveness: Take a stand, don’t vacillate1081115
(12) Unselfish service: Don’t be an opportunist; don’t use your legislative position for your personal advantage519144

in the perceived rules of the game in the four states they studied. If the informal rules of the game serve to complement the formal aspects of legislative organization and procedures in promoting the viability of legislatures and the attainment of their goals, then they should be expected to vary—at least to some degree—as these factors change from one political system to the next.

Allan Kornberg’s analysis of the rules of the game in the Canadian House of Commons (1964) is suggestive on this question. Using essentially the same techniques as Wahlke and his collaborators, he found a set of unwritten rules that were remarkably similar to those found earlier in the American Senate and the four American state legislatures. Nonetheless, there were differences. Most of these seem explicable in terms of differences in the formal structure and role of the Canadian legislature. Greater emphasis was placed in the Canadian House on channeling controversy into conflict between the parties, and less on rules that expedite the flow of legislation and stress the importance of seniority and apprenticeship. A somewhat larger number of Canadian legislators were unaware of the rules and the sanctions available to enforce them. These differences seem to reflect the fact that the Canadian House is part of a parliamentary system in which party discipline is greater than in the United States; a system where the cabinet is able to control the flow of legislative business; and a system in which seniority is of relatively little importance. The greater ignorance of Canadian members about the rules of the game and their enforcement may reflect the fact that individual members are less free to define their own jobs in such a setting and play a less significant role, as individuals, in the legislative process. There is thus less need in such a system for effective controls over the behavior of individual legislators by their legislative peers.

Unfortunately, systematic research on the rules of the game in legislatures in other political systems is almost nonexistent. Nathan Leites (1958) has published a valuable study of patterns of legislative strategies in the French Fourth Republic, but it is not directly and explicitly concerned with the normative expectations of legislators and their functions. Gerhard Loewenberg’s study of the West German Bundestag (1967) suggests that informal, unwritten rules of the game have developed which have made a formal structure, largely inherited from the Weimar Republic, viable under drastically altered circumstances. But none of these studies permits detailed comparison with the studies conducted in the United States and Canada. Many more cross-nation comparisons need to be made.

A second area of needed research on the rules of the game in legislatures deserves brief mention. Attention so far has been directed primarily at the rules of the game for legislative bodies as a whole. Yet subgroups of legislatures—committees, parties, work groups—sometimes possess relative autonomy and specialized sets of norms which are not identical with those for the whole membership. Richard Fenno’s studies of the Appropriations Committee (1962) and of the Education and Labor Committee (1963) in the U.S. House of Representatives indicate that the payoffs from comparative studies of such legislative subgroups are likely to be large. [SeeLegislation, especially the article onlegislative behavior.]

The concept of the rules of the game has, therefore, demonstrated some utility in the empirical analysis of politics. But it is also evident that it overlaps other concepts used in contemporary political science: political culture, norms, ideology, values, strategies, role, and so on. Some of these competing concepts are usually more sharply defined, and in the long run, it therefore seems quite possible that the concept may pass from common use and the game metaphor may be abandoned to the mathematical game theorists. But that time is unlikely to arrive in the near future. In the meantime, the concept serves as a constant reminder of the importance of informal, normative expectations and unwritten rules in shaping political behavior.

Donald R. Matthews

[See alsoIdeology; Norms; Political culture. Other relevant material may be found inPolitical behavior.]


Dahl, Robert A. (1961) 1966 Who Governs? Democracy and Power in an American City. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

Fenno, Richard F. 1962 The House Appropriations Committee as a Political System: The Problem of Integration. American Political Science Review 56: 310-324.

Fenno, Richard F. 1963 The House of Representatives and Federal Aid to Education. Pages 195-235 in Robert L. Peabody and Nelson W. Polsby (editors), New Perspectives on the House of Representatives. Chicago: Rand McNally.

Friedrich, Carl J. (1942) 1950 The New Image of the Common Man. Enl. ed. Boston: Beacon. → First published as The New Belief in the Common Man. See especially Chapter 5.

Huitt, Ralph K. 1961 The Outsider in the Senate: An Alternative Role. American Political Science Review 55:566-575.

Kent, Frank R. (1923) 1935 The Great Game of Politics: An Effort to Present the Elementary Human Facts About Politics, Politicians and Political Machines, Candidates and Their Ways, for the Benefit of the Average Citizen. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Kornberg, Allan 1964 The Rules of the Game in the Canadian House of Commons. Journal of Politics 26: 358-380.

Leites, Nathan (1958) 1959 On the Game of Politics in France. Stanford Univ. Press. → First published in French.

Loewenberg, Gerhard 1967 Parliament in the German Political System. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press. → See especially Chapter 4.

Mcclosky, Herbert 1964 Consensus and Ideology in American Politics. American Political Science Review 58:361-382.

Matthews, Donald R. 1960 U.S. Senators and Their World. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press. → See especially Chapter 5.

Prothro, James W.; and Grigg, Charles M. 1960 Fundamental Principles of Democracy: Bases of Agreement and Disagreement. Journal of Politics 22: 276-294.

Truman, David B. (1951) 1965 The Governmental Process: Political Interests and Public Opinion. New York: Knopf.

Von Neumann, John; and Morgenstern, Oskar (1944) 1964 Theory of Games and Economic Behavior. 3d ed. New York: Wiley.

Wahlke, John et al. 1962 The Legislative System: Explorations in Legislative Behavior. New York: Wiley. -” See especially pages 141-169, “Rules of the Game,” by John C. Wahlke and Leroy C. Ferguson.

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Rules of the Game



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"Rules of the Game." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. . 22 Nov. 2017 <>.

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