Government and Politics
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How is political power distributed among members of society? 3
TYPES OF AUTHORITY 4
Traditional Authority 4
Legal-Rational Authority 4
Charismatic Authority 5
TYPES OF GOVERNMENT 5
Dictatorship and Totalitarianism 6
POLITICAL BEHAVIOR IN THE UNITED STATES 8
Political Socialization 8
Participation and Apathy 9
Women and Politics 10
Interest Groups 11
MODELS OF POWER STRUCTURE IN THE UNITED STATES 12
Elite Model 12
Pluralist Model 14
Who Does Rule? 15
KEY TERMS 16
Political system is one of the subsystem of society, and play
sufficient role in our life.
The term political system refers to a recognized set of procedures for
implementing and obtaining the goals of a group.
Each society must have a political system in order to maintain
recognized procedures for allocating valued resources. In political
scientist Harold Lasswell’s (1936) terms, politics is who gets what, when,
and how. Thus, like religion and the family, a political system is a
cultural universal; it is a social institution found in every society.
We will focus on government and politics within the United States as
well as other industrialized nations and preindustrial societies. In their
study of politics and political systems, sociologists are concerned with
social interactions among individuals and groups and their impact on the
larger political order. For example, in studying the controversy over the
nomination of Judge Robert Bork, sociologists might wish to focus on how a
change in the group structure of American society—the increasing importance
of the black vote for southern Democratic candidates—affected the decision
making of Howell Heflin and other senators (and, ultimately, the outcome of
the Bork confirmation battle). From a sociological perspective, therefore,
a fundamental question is: how do a nation’s social conditions affect its
day-to-day political and governmental life?
Power is at the heart of a political system. Power may be defined as
the ability to exercise one’s will over others. To put it another way, if
one party in a relationship can control the behavior of the other, that
individual or group is exercising power. Power relations can involve large
organizations, small groups, or even people in an intimate association.
Blood and Wolfe (1960) devised the concept of marital power to describe the
manner in which decision making is distributed within families.
There are three basic sources of power within any political
system—force, influence, and authority. Force is the actual or threatened
use of coercion to impose one’s will on others. When leaders imprison or
even execute political dissidents, they are applying force; so, too, are
terrorists when they seize an embassy or assassinate a political leader.
Influence, on the other hand, refers to the exercise of power through a
process of persuasion. A citizen may change his or her position regarding a
Supreme Court nominee because of a newspaper editorial, the expert
testimony of a law school dean before the Senate Judiciary Committee, or a
stirring speech at a rally by a political activist. In each case,
sociologists would view such efforts to persuade people as examples of
influence. Authority, the third source of power, will be discussed later.
Max Weber made an important distinction between legitimate and
illegitimate power. In a political sense, the term legitimacy refers to the
'belief of a citizenry that a government has the right to rule and that a
citizen ought to obey the rules and laws of that government'. Of course,
the meaning of the term can be extended beyond the sphere of government.
Americans typically accept the power of their parents, teachers, and
religious leaders as legitimate. By contrast, if the right of a leader to
rule is not accepted by most citizens (as is often the case when a dictator
overthrows a popularly elected government), the regime will be considered
illegitimate. When those in power lack legitimacy, they usually resort to
coercive methods in order to maintain control over social institutions.
How is political power distributed among members of society?
Political power is not divided evenly among all members of society.
How extreme is this inequality? Three theoretical perspectives answer this
question in three different ways. First, Marxist theories suggest that
power is concentrated in the hands of the few who own the means of
production. Powerful capitalists manipulate social and cultural
arrangements to increase further their wealth and power, often at the
expense of the powerless.
Second, power elite theories agree that power is concentrated in the
hands of a few people; the elite includes military leaders, government
officials, and business executives. This group consists of those who occupy
the top positions in our organizational hierarchies; they have similar
backgrounds and share the same interests and goals. According to this view,
any organization (even a nation-state) has a built-in tendency to become an
oligarchy (rule by the few).
Third, pluralist theories suggest that various groups and interests
compete for political power. In contrast to Marxist and power elite
theorists, pluralists see power as dispersed among many people and groups
who do not necessarily agree on what should be done. Lobbyists for
environmental groups, for example, will battle with lobbyists for the coal
industry over antipollution legislation. In this way the will of the people
is translated into political action. Thurow, however, suggests that too
many divergent views have made it nearly impossible to arrive at a public
policy that is both effective in solving social problems and satisfactory
to different interest groups.
TYPES OF AUTHORITY
The term authority refers to power that has been institutionalized and
is recognized by the people over whom it is exercised. Sociologists
commonly use the term in connection with those who hold legitimate power
through elected or publicly acknowledged positions. It is important to
stress that a person’s authority is limited by the constraints of a
particular social position. Thus, a referee has the authority to decide
whether a penalty should be called during a football game but has no
authority over the price of tickets to the game.
Max Weber (1947) provided a classification system regarding authority
that has become one of the most useful and frequently cited contributions
of early sociology. He identified three ideal types of authority:
traditional, legal-rational, and charismatic. Weber did not insist that
particular societies fit exactly into any one of these categories. Rather,
all can be present in a society, but their relative degree of importance
varies. Sociologists have found Weber’s typology to be quite valuable in
understanding different manifestations of legitimate power within a
In a political system based on traditional authority, legitimate power
is conferred by custom and accepted practice. The orders of one’s superiors
are felt to be legitimate because 'this is how things have always been
done.' For example, a king or queen is accepted as ruler of a nation simply
by virtue of inheriting the crown. The monarch may be loved or hated,
competent or destructive; in terms of legitimacy, that does not matter. For
the traditional leader, authority rests in custom, not in personal
characteristics, technical competence, or even written law.
Traditional authority is absolute in many instances because the ruler
has the ability to determine laws and policies. Since the authority is
legitimized by ancient custom, traditional authority is commonly associated
with preindustrial societies. Yet this form of authority is also evident in
more developed nations. For example, a leader may take on the image of
having divine guidance, as was true of Japan’s Emperor Hirohito, who ruled
during World War II. On another level, ownership and leadership in some
small businesses, such as grocery stores and restaurants, may pass directly
from parent to child and generation to generation.
Power made legitimate by law is known as legal-rational authority.
Leaders of such societies derive their authority from the written rules and
regulations of political systems. For example, the authority of the
president of the United States and the Congress is legitimized by the
American Constitution. Generally, in societies based on legal-rational
authority, leaders are conceived as servants of the people. They are not
viewed as having divine inspiration, as are the heads of certain societies
with traditional forms of authority The United States, as a society which
values the rule of law, has legally defined limits on the power of
government. Power is assigned to positions, not to individuals. Thus, when
Ronald Reagan became president in early 1981, he assumed the formal powers
and duties of that office as specified by the Constitution. When Reagan’s
presidency ended, those powers were transferred to his successor.
If a president acts within the legitimate powers of the office, but
not to our liking, we may wish to elect a new president. But we will not
normally argue that the president’s power is illegitimate. However, if an
official clearly exceeds the power of an office, as Richard Nixon did by
obstructing justice during investigation of the Watergate burglary, the
official’s power may come to be seen as illegitimate. Moreover, as was true
of Nixon, the person may be forced out of office.
Weber also observed that power can be legitimized by the charisma of
an individual. The term charismatic authority refers to power made
legitimate by a leader’s exceptional personal or emotional appeal to his or
her followers. Charisma allows a person to lead or inspire without relying
on set rules or traditions. Interestingly, such authority is derived more
from the beliefs of loyal followers than from the actual qualities of
leaders. So long as people perceive the person as possessing qualities that
set him or her apart from ordinary citizens, the leader’s authority will
remain secure and often unquestioned.
Political scientist Ann Ruth Willner (1984) notes that each
charismatic leader draws upon the values, beliefs, and traditions of a
particular society. The conspicuous sexual activity of longtime Indonesian
president Achmed Sukarno reminded his followers of the gods in Japanese
legends and therefore was regarded as a sign of power and heroism. By
contrast, Indians saw Mahatma Gandhi’s celibacy as a demonstration of
superhuman self-discipline. Charismatic leaders also associate themselves
with widely respected cultural and religious heroes. Willner describes how
Ayalollah Khomeini of Iran associated himself with Husein, a Shiile Muslim
martyr; and Fidel Castro of Cuba associated himself with Jesus Christ.
Unlike traditional rulers, charismatic leaders often become well known
by breaking with established institutions and advocating dramatic changes
in the social structure. The strong hold that such individuals have over
their followers makes it easier to build protest movements which challenge
the dominant norms and values of a society. Thus, charismatic leaders such
as Jesus, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King all used their power to
press for changes in accepted social behavior. But so did Adolf Hitler,
whose charismatic appeal turned people toward violent and destructive ends.
Since it rests on the appeal of a single individual, charismatic
authority is necessarily much shorter lived than either traditional or
legal-rational authority. As a result, charismatic leaders may attempt to
solidify their positions of power by seeking other legitimating mechanisms.
For example, Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba in 1959 as the leader of a
popular revolution. Yet in the decades which followed the seizure of power,
Castro stood for election (without opposition) as a means of further
legitimating his authority as leader of Cuba.
If such authority is to extend beyond the lifetime of the charismatic
leader, it must undergo what Weber called the routinization of charismatic
authority—the process by which the leadership qualities originally
associated with an individual are incorporated into either a traditional or
a legal-rational system. Thus, the charismatic authority of Jesus as leader
of the Christian church was transferred to the apostle Peter and
subsequently to the various prelates (or popes) of the faith. Similarly,
the emotional fervor supporting George Washington was routinized into
America’s constitutional system and the norm of a two-term presidency. Once
routinization has taken place, authority eventually evolves into a
traditional or legal-rational form.
As was noted earlier, Weber used traditional, legal-rational, and
charismatic authority as ideal types. In reality, particular leaders and
political systems combine elements of two or more of these forms.
Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy wielded power largely
through the legal-rational basis of their authority. At the same time, they
were unusually charismatic leaders who commanded (lie personal loyalty of
large numbers of Americans.
TYPES OF GOVERNMENT
Each society establishes a political system by which it is governed.
In modern industrial nations, a significant number of critical political
decisions are made by formal units of government. Five basic types of
government are considered: monarchy, oligarchy, dictatorship,
totalitarianism, and democracy.
A monarchy is a form of government headed by a single member of a
royal family, usually a king, a queen, or some other hereditary ruler. In
earlier times, many monarchs claimed that God had granted them a divine
right to rule their lands. Typically, they governed on the basis of
traditional forms of authority, although these were sometimes accompanied
by the use of force. In the 1980s, monarchs hold genuine governmental power
in only a few nations, such as Monaco. Most monarchs have little practical
power and primarily serve ceremonial purposes.
An oligarchy is a form of government in which a few individuals rule.
It is a rather old method of governing which flourished in ancient Greece
and Egypt. Today, oligarchy often takes the form of military rule. Some of
the developing nations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America are ruled by
small factions of military officers who forcibly seized power—either from
legally elected regimes or from other military cliques.
Strictly speaking, the term oligarchy is reserved for governments run
by a few select individuals. However, the Soviet Union and the People’s
Republic of China can be classified as oligarchies if we extend the meaning
of the term somewhat. In each case, power rests in the hands of a ruling
group—the Communist party. In a similar vein, drawing upon conflict theory,
one may argue that many industrialized 'democratic' nations of the west
should rightly be considered oligarchies, since only a powerful few
actually rule: leaders of big business, government, and the military.
Later, we will examine this 'elite model' of the American political system
in greater detail.
Dictatorship and Totalitarianism
A dictatorship is a government in which one person has nearly total
power to make and enforce laws. Dictators rule primarily through the use of
coercion, often including torture and executions. Typically, they seize
power, rather than being freely elected (as in a democracy) or inheriting a
position of power (as is true of monarchs). Some dictators are quite
charismatic and achieve a certain 'popularity,' though this popular support
is almost certain to be intertwined with fear. Other dictators are bitterly
hated by the populations over whom they rule with an iron hand.
Frequently, dictatorships develop such overwhelming control over
people’s lives that they are called totalitarian. Monarchies and
oligarchies also have the potential to achieve this type of dominance.
Totalitarianism involves virtually complete governmental control and
surveillance over all aspects of social and political life in a society.
Bolt Nazi Germany under Hitler and the Soviet Union of the 1980s are
classified as totalitarian states.
Political scientists Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski have
identified six bask traits that typify totalitarian states. These include:
1. Large-scale use of ideology. Totalitarian societies offer explanations
for every part of life. Social goals, valued behaviors, even enemies are
conveyed in simple (and usually distorted) terms. For example, the Nazis
blamed Jews for almost every. thing wrong in Germany or other nations. If
there was a crop failure due to drought, it was sure to be seen as a
2. One-party systems. A totalitarian Style has only one legal political
party, which monopolizes the offices of government. It penetrates and
controls all social institutions and serves as the source of wealth,
prestige, and power.
3. Control of weapons. Totalitarian states also monopolize the use of arms.
All military units art subject to the control of the ruling regime.
4. Terror. Totalitarian states often rely on general intimidation (such as
prohibiting unapproved publications) and individual deterrent (such as
torture and execution) to maintain control (Bahry and Silver, 1987).
Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago (1973) describe the Soviet
Union’s imprisonment of political dissenters in mental hospitals, where
they are subjected to drug and electric shock treatments.
5. Control of the media. There is no 'opposition press' in a totalitarian
state. The media communicate official interpretations of events and
reinforce behaviors and policies favored by the regime.
6. Control of the economy. Totalitarian states control major sectors of the
economy. They may dissolve private ownership of industry and even small
farms. In some cases, the central state establishes production goals for
each industrial and agricultural unit. The revolt of the Polish workers’
union. Solidarity, in the early 1980s was partly directed against the
government’s power over production quotas, working conditions, and
Through such methods, totalitarian governments deny people
representation in the political, economic, and social decisions that affect
their lives. Such governments have pervasive control over people’s
In a literal sense, democracy means government by the people. The word
democracy originated in two Greek roots—demos, meaning 'the populace' or
'the common people'; and kratia, meaning 'rule.' Of course, in large,
populous nations, government by all the people is impractical at the
national level. It would be impossible for the more than 246 million
Americans to vote on every important issue that comes before Congress.
Consequently, democracies are generally maintained through a mode of
participation known as representative democracy, in which certain
individuals are selected to speak for the people.
The United States is commonly classified as a representative
democracy, since we elect members of Congress and state legislatures to
handle the task of writing our laws. However, critics have questioned how
representative our democracy is. Are the masses genuinely represented? Is
there authentic self-government in the United States or merely competition
between powerful elites?
Clearly, citizens cannot be effectively represented if they are not
granted the right to vote. Yet our nation did not enfranchise black males
until 1870, and women were not allowed to vote in presidential elections
until 1920. American Indians were allowed to become citizens (thereby
qualifying to vote) only in 1924, and as late as 1956, some states
prevented Indians from voting in local elections if they lived on
Unlike monarchies, oligarchies, and dictatorships, the democratic form
of government implies an opposition which is tolerated or, indeed,
encouraged to exist. In the United States, we have two major political
parties—the Democrats and Republicans—as well as various minor parties.
Sociologists use the term political party to refer to an organization whose
purposes are to promote candidates for elected office, advance an ideology
as reflected in positions on political issues, win elections, and exercise
power. Whether a democracy has two major political parties (as in the
United States) or incorporates a multiparty system (as in France and
Israel), it will typically stress the need for differing points of view.
Seymour Martin Upset, among other sociologists, has attempted to
identify the factors which may help to bring about democratic forms of
government. He argues that a high level of economic development encourages
both stability and democracy. Upset reached this conclusion after studying
50 nations and finding a high correlation between economic development and
certain forms of government.
Why should there be such a link? In a society with a high level of
development, the population generally tends to be urbanized and literate
and is better equipped to participate in decision making and make the views
of its members heard. In addition, as Upset suggests, a relatively affluent
society will be comparatively free from demands on government by low-income
citizens. Poor people in such nations can reasonably aspire to upward
mobility. Therefore, along with the large middle class typically found in
industrial societies, the poorer segments of society may have a stake in
economic and political stability.
Upset’s formulation has been attacked by conflict theorists, who tend
to be critical of the distribution of power within democracies. As we will
see later, many conflict theorists believe that the United States is run by
a small economic and political elite. At the same time, they observe that
economic stability does not necessarily promote or guarantee political
freedoms. Lipset (1972) himself agrees that democracy in practice is far
from ideal and that one must distinguish between varying degrees of
democracy in democratic systems of government. Thus, we cannot assume that
a high level of economic development or the self-proclaimed label of
'democracy' assures freedom and adequate political representation.
POLITICAL BEHAVIOR IN THE UNITED STATES
As American citizens we take for granted many aspects of our political
system. We are accustomed to living in a nation with a Bill of Rights, two
major political parties, voting by secret ballot, an elected president,
state and local governments distinct from the national government, and so
forth. Yet, of course, each society has its own ways of governing itself
and making decisions. Just as we expect Democratic and Republican
candidates to compete for public offices, residents of the Soviet Union are
accustomed to the domination of the Communist party. In this section, we
will examine a number of important aspects of political behavior within the
Five functional prerequisites that a society must fulfill in order to
survive were identified. Among these was the need to teach recruits to
accept the values and customs of the group. In a political sense, this
function is crucial; each succeeding generation must be encouraged to
accept a society’s basic political values and its particular methods of
Political socialization is the process by which individuals acquire
political attitudes and develop patterns of political behavior. This
involves not only learning the prevailing beliefs of a society but also
coming to accept the surrounding political system despite its limitations
and problems. In the United States, people are socialized to view
representative democracy as the best form of government and to cherish such
values as freedom, equality, patriotism, and the right of dissent.
The principal institutions of political socialization are those which
also socialize us to other cultural norms—including the family, schools,
and the media. Many observers see the family as playing a particularly
significant role in this process. 'The family incubates political man,'
observed political scientist Robert Lane. In fact, parents pass on their
political attitudes and evaluations to their sons and daughters through
discussions at the dinner table and also through the example of their
political involvement or apathy. Early socialization does not always
determine a person’s political orientation; there are changes over time and
between generations. Yet research on political socialization continues to
show that parents’ views have an important impact on their children’s
The schools can be influential in political socialization, since they
provide young people with information and analysis of the political world.
Unlike the family and peer groups, schools are easily susceptible to
centralized and uniform control; consequently, totalitarian societies
commonly use educational institutions for purposes of indoctrination. Yet,
even in democracies, where local schools are not under the pervasive
control of the national government, political education will generally
reflect the norms and values of the prevailing political order.
In the view of conflict theorists, American students learn much more
than factual information about our political and economic way of life. They
are socialized to view capitalism and representative democracy as the
'normal' and most desirable ways of organizing a nation. At the same time,
competing values and forms of government are often presented in a most
negative fashion or are ignored. From a conflict perspective, this type of
political education serves the interests of the powerful and ignores the
significance of the social divisions found within the United States.
It is difficult to pinpoint a precise time in which politics is
learned. Fred Greenstein argues that the crucial time in a young person’s
psychological, social, and political development is between ages 9 and 13.
In the same vein, one study found that children 13 and 14 years of age were
much more able to understand abstract political concepts than were children
a few years younger. Specifically, in response to a question about the
meaning of government, older children tended to identify with Congress,
whereas younger children identified with a more personal figure such as the
president. Other research, however, points to a significant leap in
political sophistication during the ages of 13 to 15.
Surprisingly, expression of a preference for a political party often
comes before young people have a full understanding of the political
system. Surveys indicate that 65 to 75 percent of children aged 10 and 11
express commitment to a specific political label, including 'independent.'
Political scientists M. Kent Jennings and Richard G. Niemi (1974) have
found that children who demonstrate high levels of political competence—by
understanding the differences between political parties and between liberal
and conservative philosophies—are more likely to become politically active
Like the family and schools, the mass media can have obvious effects
on people’s thinking and political behavior. Beginning with the Kennedy-
Nixon presidential debates of 1960, television has given increasing
exposure to political candidates. One result has been the rising importance
of politicians’ 'images' as perceived by the American public. Today, many
speeches given by our nation’s leaders are designed not for immediate
listeners, but for the larger television audience. In the social policy
section later, we will examine the impact of television on American
Although television has obvious impact on elective politics, it has
also become an important factor in other aspects of American political
life. In 1987, when a joint congressional committee held televised hearings
on the Iran-contra scandal, Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North’s outspoken
testimony brought him a wave of public support. One effect of his media
success, though primarily in the short run, was an increase in support for
the 'contras' and their effort to overthrow Nicaragua’s Marxist regime. By
contrast. Judge Robert Bork’s televised testimony before the Senate
Judiciary Committee in 1987 seemed to hurt his chances of winning
confirmation as a Supreme Court justice.
A number of communication studies have reported that the media do not
tend to influence the masses of people directly. Elihu Katz (1957)
describes the process as a two-step flow of communication, using an
approach which reflects interactionists’ emphasis on the social
significance of everyday social exchanges. In Katz’s view, messages passed
through the media first reach a small number of opinion leaders, including
teachers, religious authorities, and community activists. These leaders
'spread the word' to others over whom they have influence.
Opinion leaders are not necessarily formal leaders of organized groups
of people. For example, someone who hears a disturbing report about the
dangers of radioactive wastes in a nearby river will probably tell family
members and friends. Each of these persons may inform still others and
perhaps persuade them to support the position of an environmentalist group
working to clean up the river. Of course, in any communications process in
which someone plays an intermediate role, the message can be reinterpreted.
Opinion leaders can subtly transform a political message to their own ends.
Participation and Apathy
In theory, a representative democracy will function most effectively
and fairly if there is an informed and active electorate communicating its
views to government leaders. Unfortunately, this is hardly the case in the
United States. Virtually all Americans are familiar with the basics of the
political process, and most tend to identify to some extent with a
political party, but only a small minority (often members of the higher
social classes) actually participate in political organizations on a local
or national level. Studies reveal that only 8 percent of Americans belong
to a political club or organization. Not more than one in five has ever
contacted an official of national, state, or local government about a
political issue or problem.
The failure of most Americans to become involved in political parties
has serious implications for the functioning of our democracy. Within the
political system of the United States, the political party serves as an
intermediary between people and government. Through competition in
regularly scheduled elections, the two-party system provides for challenges
to public policies and for an orderly transfer of power. An individual
dissatisfied with the state of the nation or a local community can become
involved in the political party process in many ways, such as by joining a
political club, supporting candidates for public office, or working to
change the party’s position on controversial issues. If, however, people do
not take interest in the decisions of major political parties, public
officials in a 'representative' democracy will be chosen from two
unrepresentative lists of candidates. In the 1980s, it has become clear
Americans are turned off by political parties, politicians, and the
specter of big government. The most dramatic indication of this growing
alienation comes from voting statistics. Voters of all ages and races
appear to be less enthusiastic than ever about American elections, even
presidential contests. For example, almost 80 percent of eligible American
voters went to the polls in the presidential election of 1896. Yet, by the
1984 election, voter turnout had fallen to less than 60 percent of all
adults. By contrast, elections during the first half of the 1980s brought
out 85 percent or more of the voting-age population in Austria, Belgium,
Italy, Portugal, and Sweden.
Declining political participation allows institutions of government to
operate with less of a sense of accountability to society. This issue is
most serious for the least powerful individual and groups within the United
States. Voter turn out has been particularly low among younger Americans
and members of racial and ethnic minorities. In 1984, only 36 percent of
eligible voters aged 18 to 20 went to the polls. According to a
postelection survey, only 55.8 percent of eligible black voters and 32.6
percent of Hispanic reported that they had actually voted. Moreover, the
poor—whose focus understandably is on survival—are traditionally under-
represented among voters as well. The low turnout found among these groups
is explained, at least in part, by their common feeling of powerlessness.
Yet such voting statistics encourage political power brokers to continue to
ignore the interests of the young, the less affluent, and the nation’s
Sociologist Anthony Orum notes that people are more likely to
participate actively in political life if they have a sense of political
efficacy—that is, if they feel that they have (he ability to influence
politicians and the political order. In addition, citizens are more likely
to become involved if they trust political leaders or feel that an
organized political party represents their interest. Without question, in
an age marked by the rise of big government and by revelations of political
corruption at the highest levels, many Americans of all social groups feel
powerless and distrustful. Yet such feelings are especially intense among
the young, the poor, and minorities. is a result, many view political
participation, including voting, as a waste of time.
Cross-national comparisons, while confirming he comparatively low
level of voting in the linked States, also suggest that Americans are more
likely than citizens of other nations to be active at the community level,
to contact local officials on behalf of themselves or others, and to have
worked for a political party. Perhaps this contrast reflects how unusual it
is for people to be directly involved in national political decision making
in the modem world. Nevertheless, it is possible to speculate that if tens
of millions of Americans did not stay home on Election Day— and instead
became more active in the nation’s political life—the outcome of the
political process might be somewhat different.
Women and Politics
In 1984, American women achieved an unprecedented political
breakthrough when Representative Geraldine Ferraro of New York became the
Democratic nominee for vice president of the United States. Never before
had a woman received the nomination of a major party for such high office.
Nevertheless, women continue to be dramatically underrepresented in
the halls of government. In 1988, there were only 23 women (out of 435
members) in the House of Representatives and only 2 women (out of 100
members) in the Senate. This is not because women have failed to
participate actively in political life. Eligible women vote at a slightly
higher rate than men. The League of Women Voters, founded in 1920, is a
nonpartisan organization which performs valuable functions in educating the
electorate of both sexes. Perhaps the most visible role of women in
American politics is as unpaid workers for male candidates: ringing
doorbells, telephoning registered voters, and carrying petitions. In
addition, wives of elected male politicians commonly play significant
supportive roles and are increasingly speaking out in their own right on
important and controversial issues of public policy.
The sexism of American society has been the most serious barrier to
women interested in holding public office. Female candidates have had to
overcome the prejudices of both men and women regarding women’s fitness for
leadership. Not until 1955 did a majority of Americans state that they
would vote for a qualified woman for president. Yet, as a 1984 national
survey revealed, Americans say they will support a woman running for office
only if she is by far the most qualified candidate.
Moreover, women often encounter prejudice, discrimination, and abuse
after they are elected. In 1979, a questionnaire was circulated among male
legislators in Oregon, asking them to 'categorize the lady legislators'
with such labels as 'mouth, face, chest/dress, and so forth'.
Despite such indignities, women are becoming more successful in
winning election to public office. For example, there were 1176 women in
state legislatures in 1988, as compared with only 31 in 1921,144 in 1941,
and 301 in 1969. Not only are more women being elected; more of them are
identifying themselves as feminists. The traditional woman in politics was
a widow who took office after her husband’s death to continue his work and
policies. However, women being elected in the 1980s are much more likely to
view politics as their own career rather than as an afterthought. These
trends are not restricted to the United States.
A new dimension of women and politics emerged in the 1980s. Surveys
detected a growing 'gender gap' in the political preferences and activities
of males and females. Women were more likely to register as Democrats than
as Republicans and were also more critical of the policies of the
Republican administration. What accounts for this 'gender gap'? According
to political analysts, the Democratic party’s continued support for the
equal rights amendment may be attracting women voters, a majority of whom
support this measure. At the same time, virtually all polling data indicate
that women are substantially less likely than men to favor large defense
budgets and military intervention overseas; these policies have become more
associated with the Republican party of the 1980s than with the Democrats.
Politicians have begun to watch carefully the voting trends among
women, since women voters could prove decisive in dose elections. The
gender gap did appear to be a factor in the 1984 elections—though not as
significant a factor as some observers had expected. According to a poll by
ABC News, men supported President Ronald Reagan’s successful bid for
reelection by a margin of 63 to 36 percent. By contrast, 56 percent of
women voted for Reagan while 44 percent supported the Democratic ticket of
Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro. In the 1986 elections, the ender gap
narrowed somewhat, yet apparently contributed to the victories of
Democratic senatorial candidates in at least nine states, four of them in
the south. For example, in Colorado, men supported Republican Ken Kramer
over Democrat Timothy Wirth by a 49 to 48 percent margin, yet Wirth was
elected because women preferred him by a 53 to 44 percent margin. By
contributing to these Democratic victories, women voters were an important
factor in the party’s 1986 takeover of e Senate.
This discussion of political behavior has focused primarily on
individual participation (and non-participation) in the decision-making
processes of government and on involvement in the nation’s political
parties. However, there are other important ways that American citizens can
play a role in the nation’s political arena. Because of common needs or
common frustrations, people may band together in social movements such as
the civil rights movement of the 1960s or the anti-nuclear power movement
of the 1980s. Americans can also influence the political process through
membership in interest groups (some of which, in fact, may be part of
larger social movements).
An interest group is a voluntary association of citizens who attempt
to influence public policy. The National Organization for Women (NOW) is
considered an interest group, so, too, are the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation
and the National Rifle Association (NRA). Such groups are a vital part of
the American political process Many interest groups (often known as
lobbies) are national in scope and address a wide variety of political and
social issues As we saw earlier, groups such as the American Civil
Liberties Union (ACLU), Common Cause, the American Conservative Union, and
Christian Voice were all actively involved in the debate over the
nomination of Judge Robert Bork for the Supreme Court.
Typically, we think of interest groups as being primarily concerned
with regulatory legislation However, as political scientist Barbara Ann
Stolz (1981) points out, even the federal criminal code has become a target
for interest-group activity Business groups have sought to strike the
'reckless endangerment' provision that, in effect, makes it a crime for a
business to engage knowingly in conduct that will imperil someone’s life
Business interests have also attempted to broaden the criminal code to
include certain types of incidents that occur during labor disputes,
unions, by contrast, wish to maintain current laws.
Interest groups often pursue their political goals through
lobbying—the process by which individuals and groups communicate with
public officials in order to influence decisions of government. They also
distribute persuasive literature and launch publicity campaigns to build
grass roots support for their political objectives Finally, interest
groups, through their political action committees, donate funds to
political candidates whose views are in line with the groups’ legislative
The role of interest groups within the American political system has
generated intense controversy, particularly because of the special relation
ships that exist between government officials and lobbyists for interest
groups The widespread nature of these ties is evident from the number of
former legislators who, after retiring or losing bids for reelection,
immediately go on the payroll of interest groups In 1985, there were 300
former lawmakers and former high-level White House officials parlaying
their governmental experience into profitable new careers as Washington
lawyers, lobbyists, consultants, and administrators So pervasive is this
network of insiders that an organization. Former Members of Congress, links
them together Currently, there are no laws preventing members of Congress
from returning as lobbyists to reshape (or even dismantle) legislation that
they created in the public interest.
Interest groups are occasionally referred to as pressure groups,
implying that they attempt to force their will on a resistant public In the
view of functionalists, such groups play a constructive role in decision
making by allowing orderly expression of public opinion and by increasing
political participation They also provide legislators with a useful flow of
Conflict theorists stress that although a very few organizations work
on behalf of the poor and disadvantaged, most American interest groups
represent affluent white professionals and business leaders From a conflict
perspective, the overwhelming political clout of these powerful lobbies
discourages participation by the individual citizen and raises serious
questions about who actually rules a supposedly democratic nation.
MODELS OF POWER STRUCTURE IN THE UNITED STATES
Who really holds power in the United States’ Do 'we the people'
genuinely run the country through elected representatives? Or is there
small elite of Americans that governs behind the scenes? It is difficult to
determine the location of power in a society as complex as the Unite States
In exploring this critical question, social scientists have developed two
basic views of our nation’s power structure the elite and pluralism models.
Karl Marx essentially believed that nineteenth century representative
democracy was a shape.
He argued that industrial societies were dominated by relatively small
numbers of people who owned factories and controlled natural resources In
Marx’s view, government officials and military leaders were essentially
servants of the capitalist class and followed their wishes therefore, any
key decisions made by politicians inevitably reflected the interests of the
dominant bourgeoisie Like others who hold an elite model of power
relations, Marx thus believed that society is ruled by a small group of
individuals who share a common set of political and economic interests.
The Power Elite. In his pioneering work. The Power Elite, sociologist
C. Wright Mills described the existence of a small ruling elite of
military, industrial, and governmental leaders who controlled the fate of
the United States. Power rested in the hands of a few, both inside and
outside of government—the power elite. In Mill’s words:
The power elite is composed of men whose positions enable them to
transcend the ordinary environments of ordinary men and women, they are in
positions to make decisions having major consequences. … They arc in
command of the major hierarchies and organizations of modern society.
In Mills’s model, the power structure of the United States can be
illustrated by the use of a pyramid. At the top are the corporate rich,
leaders of the executive branch of government, and heads of the military
(whom Kills called the 'warlords'). Below this triumvirate are local
opinion leaders, members of the legislative branch of government, and
leaders of special-interest groups. Mills contended that such individuals
and groups would basically follow the wishes of the dominant power elite.
At the bottom of society are the unorganized, exploited masses.
This power elite model is, in many respects, similar to the work of
Karl Marx. The most striking difference is that Mills felt that the
economically powerful coordinate their maneuvers with the military and
political establishments in order to serve their mutual interests. Yet,
reminiscent of Marx. Mills argued that the corporate rich were perhaps the
most powerful element of the power elite (first among 'equals'). And, of
course, there is a further dramatic parallel between the work of these
conflict theorists The powerless masses at the bottom of Mills’s power
elite model certainly bring to mind Marx’s portrait of the oppressed
workers of the world, who have 'nothing to lose but their chains'.
Mills failed to provide detailed case studies which would substantiate
the interrelationship among members of the power elite. Instead, he
suggested that such foreign policy decisions as America’s entry into the
Korean war reflected a determination by business and military leaders that
each could benefit from such armed conflict. In Mills s view, such a
sharing of perspectives was facilitated by the frequent interchange of
commanding roles among the elite. For example, a banker might become the
leader of a federal regulatory commission overseeing financial
institutions, and a retired general might move to an executive position
with a major defense contracting firm.
A fundamental element in Mills’s thesis is that the power elite not
only has relatively few members but also operates as a self-conscious,
cohesive unit. Although not necessarily diabolical or ruthless, the elite
comprises similar types of people who regularly interact with one another
and have essentially the same political and economic interests. Mills’s
power elite is not a conspiracy but rather a community of interest and
sentiment among a small number of influential Americans.
Admittedly, Mills failed to clarify when the elite acts and when it
tolerates protests. Nevertheless, his challenging theories forced scholars
to look more critically at the 'democratic' political system of the United
The Ruling Class. Sociologist G. William Domhoff agreed with Mills
that American society is run by a powerful elite. But, rather than fully
accepting Mills’s power elite model, Domhoff argued that the United States
is controlled by a social upper class 'that is a ruling class by virtue of
its dominant role in the economy and government'. This socially cohesive
ruling class owns 20 to 25 percent of all privately held wealth and 45 to
50 percent of all privately held common stock.
Unlike Mills, Domhoff was quite specific about who belongs to this
social upper class. Membership comes through being pan of a family
recognized in The Social Register—the directory of the social elite in many
American cities. Attendance at prestigious private schools and membership
in exclusive social clubs are further indications that a person comes from
America’s social upper class. Domhoff estimates that about 0.5 percent of
the American population (or 1 of every 200 people) belongs to this social
and political elite.
Of course, this would mean that the ruling class has more than 1
million members and could hardly achieve the cohesiveness that Mills
attributed to the power elite. However, Domhoff adds that the social upper
class as a whole does not rule the nation. Instead, members of this class
who have assumed leadership roles within the corporate community or the
nation’s policy-planning network join with high-level employees of profit-
making and nonprofit institutions controlled by the social upper class to
In Domhoff’s view, the ruling class should not be seen in a
conspiratorial way, as 'sinister men lurking behind the throne.' On the
contrary they tend to hold public positions of authority. Almost all
important appointive government posts— including those of diplomats and
cabinet members—are filled by members of the social upper class. Domhoff
contends that members of this class dominate powerful corporations,
foundations, universities, and the executive branch of government. They
control presidential nominations and the political party process through
campaign contributions. In addition, the ruling class exerts a significant
(though not absolute) influence within Congress and units of state and
Perhaps the major difference between the elite models of Mills and
Domhoff is that Mills insisted on the relative autonomy of the political
elite and attached great significance to the independent power of the
military. By contrast, Domhoff suggests that high-level government and
military leaders serve the interests of the social upper class. Both
theorists, in line with a Marxian approach, assume that the rich are
interested only in what benefits them financially. Furthermore, as
advocates of elite models of power. Mills and Domhoff argue that the masses
of American people have no real influence on the decisions of the powerful.
One criticism of the elite model is that its advocates sometimes
suggest that elites are always victorious. With this in mind, sociologist
J. Alien Whitt (1982) examined the efforts of California’s business elites
to support urban mass transit. He found that lobbying by these elites was
successful in San Francisco but failed in Los Angeles. Whitt points out
that opponents of policies backed by elites can mobilize to thwart their
Domhoff admits that the ruling class does not exercise total control
over American society. However, he counters that this elite is able to set
political terms under which other groups and classes must operate.
Consequently, although the ruling class may lose on a particular issue, it
will not allow serious challenges to laws which guarantee its economic
privileges and political domination.
Several social scientists have questioned the elite models of power
relations proposed by Marx, Mills, Domhoff, and other conflict theorists.
Quite simply, the critics insist that power in the United States is more
widely shared than the elite model indicates. In their view, a pluralist
model more accurately describes the American political system. According to
the pluralist model, 'many conflicting groups within the community have
access to government officials and compete with one another in an effort to
influence policy decisions'.
Veto Groups. David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd suggested that the
American political system could best be understood through examination of
the power of veto groups. The term veto groups refers to interest groups
that have the capacity to prevent the exercise of power by others.
Functionally, they serve to increase political participation by preventing
the concentration of political power. Examples cited by Riesman include
farm groups, labor unions, professional associations, and racial and ethnic
groups. Whereas Mills pointed to the dangers of rule by an undemocratic
power elite, Riesman insisted that veto groups could effectively paralyze
the nation’s political processes by blocking anyone from exercising needed
leadership functions. In Riesman’s words, 'The only leaders of national
scope left in the United States are those who can placate the veto groups'.
Dahl’s Study of Pluralism. Community studies of power have also
supported the pluralist model. One of the most famous—an investigation of
decision making in New Haven, Connecticut—was reported by Robert Dahl in
his book, Who Governs? (1961). Dahl found that while the number of people
involved in any important decision was rather small, community power was
nonetheless diffuse. Few political actors exercised decision-making power
on all issues. Therefore, one individual or group might be influential in a
battle over urban renewal but at the same time might have little impact
over educational policy. Several other studies of local politics, in such
communities as Chicago and Oberlin, Ohio, further document that monolithic
power structures do not operate on the level of local government.
Just as the elite model has been challenged on political and
methodological grounds, the pluralist model has been subjected to serious
questioning. Domhoff (1978) reexamined Dahl’s study of decision making in
New Haven and argued that Dahl and other pluralists had failed to trace how
local elites prominent in decision making were part of a larger national
ruling class. In addition, studies of community power, such as Dahl’s work
in New Haven, can examine decision making only on issues which become pan
of the political agenda. This focus fails to address the possible power of
elites to keep certain matters entirely out of the realm of government
debate. Conflict theorists contend that these elites will not allow any
outcome of the political process which threatens their dominance. Indeed,
they may even be strong enough to block discussion of such measures by
Who Does Rule?
Without question, the pluralist and elite models have little in
common. Each describes a dramatically different distribution of power, with
sharply contrasting consequences for society. Is there any way that we can
reconcile the vast disagreements in these two approaches?
Perhaps we can conclude that, despite their apparent points of
incompatibility, each model offers an accurate picture of American
political life. Power in various areas rests in the hands of a small number
of citizens who are well-insulated from the will of the masses (elite
view). Yet there are so many diverse issues and controversies in the
nation’s political institutions that few individuals or groups consistently
exercise power outside their distinctive spheres of influence (pluralist
view). Even presidents of the United States have acknowledged that they
felt more comfortable making decisions either in the area of foreign policy
(Richard Nixon) or in the area of domestic policy (Lyndon Johnson).
Moreover, the post-World War II period has seen increasing power vested in
the federal government (elite model). But, even within the federal
bureaucracy, there are a staggering number of agencies with differing ideas
and interests (pluralist model).
We can end this discussion with the one common point of the elite and
pluralist perspectives— power in the American political system is unequally
distributed. All citizens may be equal in theory, yet those high in the
nation’s power structure are 'more equal.'
Each society must have a political system in order to have recognized
procedures for the allocation of valued resources—in Harold D. Lasswell’s
terms, for deciding who gets what, when, and how. We have examined various
types of political authority and forms of government and explores the
dimensions of the American political system.
1. Power relations can involve large organizations, small groups, or even
individuals in an intimate relationship.
2. There are three basic sources of power within any political system —
force, influence, and authority.
3. Max Weber provided ( e of the most useful and frequently cited
contributions of early sociology by identifying three ideal types of
authority: traditional, legal-rational, and charismatic.
4. The United States, as a society which values the role of law, has
legally defined limits on the power of government.
5. In the 1980s, monarchies hold genuine governmental power in only a few
nations of the world.
6. Today, oligarchy often takes the form of military rule, although the
Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China can be described as
oligarchies in which power rests in the hands of the ruling Communist
7. Political scientists Carl Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski have
identified six basic traits that typify totalitarianism: large-scale use
of ideology, one-party systems, control of weapons, terror, control of
the media, and control of the economy.
8. The United States is commonly classified as a representative democracy,
since we elect members of Congress and state legislatures to handle the
task of writing our laws.
9. The principal institutions of political socialization m American society
arc the family, schools, and media.
10. Only a small minority of Americans actually participate in political
organizations or in decision making on a local or national level.
11. Women are becoming more successful at winning election to public
12. An interest group a often national in scope and frequently addresses a
wide variety of social and political issues.
13. Advocates of the elite model of the American power structure see the
nation as being ruled by a small group of individuals who share common
political and economic interests, whereas advocates of a pluralist model
believe that power is more widely shared among conflicting groups.
14. Television is having a growing impact on American political campaigns.
Authority Power that has been institutionalized and is recognized by
the people over whom it is exercised.
Charismatic authority Max Weber’s term for power made legitimate by a
leader’s exceptional personal or emotional appeal to his or her followers.
Democracy In a literal sense, government by the people.
Dictatorship A government in which one person has nearly total power
to make and enforce laws.
Dictatorship of the proletariat Marx’s term for the temporary rule by
the working class during a stage between the successful proletarian
revolution and the establishment of a classless communist society.
Elite model A view of society as ruled by a small group of individuals
who share a common set of political and economic interests.
Force The actual or threatened use of coercion to impose one’s will on
Influence The exercise of power through a process of persuasion.
Interest group A voluntary association of citizens who attempt to
influence public policy.
Legal-rational authority Max Weber’s term for power made legitimate by
Legitimacy The belief of a citizenry that a government has the right
to rule and that a citizen ought to obey the rules and laws of that
Lobbying The process by which individuals and groups communicate with
public officials in order to influence decisions of government.
Marital power A term used by Blood and Wolfe to describe the manner in
which decision making is distributed within families.
Monarchy A form of government headed by a single member of a royal
family, usually a king, a queen, or some other hereditary ruler.
Oligarchy A form of government in which a few individuals rule.
Pluralist model A view of society in which many conflicting groups
within a community have access to governmental officials and compete with
one another in an attempt to influence policy decisions.
Political action committee (PAC) A political committee established by
a national bank, corporation, trade association, or cooperative or
membership association to accept voluntary contributions for candidates or
Political efficacy The feeling that one has the ability to influence
politicians and the political order.
Political party An organization whose purposes are to promote
candidates for public office, advance an ideology as reflected in positions
on public issues, win elections, and exercise power.
Political socialization The process by which individuals acquire
political attitudes and develop patterns of political behavior.
Political system A recognized set of procedures for implementing and
obtaining the goals of a group.
Politics In Harold D. Lasswell’s words, 'who gets what, when, how.'
Power The ability to exercise one’s will over others.
Power elite A term used by C. Wright Mills for a small group of
military, industrial, and government leaders who control the fate of the
Pressure groups A term sometimes used to refer to interest groups.
Representative democracy A form of government in which certain
individuals are selected to speak for the people.
Routinization of charismatic authority Max Weber’s term for the
process by which the leadership qualities originally associated with an
individual are incorporated into either a traditional or a legal-rational
system of authority.
Terrorism The use or threat of violence against random or symbolic
targets in pursuit of political aims.
Totalitarianism Virtually complete government control and surveillance
over all aspects of social and political life in a society. (390)
Traditional authority Legitimate power conferred by custom and
Two-step flow of communication Elihu Katz’s term for a process through
which a message is spread by the media to opinion leaders and is
subsequently passedi along to the general public.
Veto groups David Riesman’s term for interest groups that have the
capacity to prevent the exercise of power by others.
1. Donald Light, Suzanne Keller, Craig Calhoun, “Readings And Review For
Sociology”, Fifth Edition, prepared by Theodore C. Wagenaar and Tomas
F. Gieryn, New York, 1989
2. Richard T. Schaefer, “Sociology”, Western Illinois University, 1989