For today's class there were three essays we are going over, "Despite Negativity, Americans Mixed on Ideal Role of Gov't" by Frank Newport and "Americans Names Government as Number One Problem," by Justin McCarthy, both published by Gallup Inc. There was also the essay "Two Faces of Power" by Peter Bachrach and Morton Baratz. The essay comes from the American Political Science Review [abbreviated as APSR in the syllabus] the most influential academic journal in the field of political science. Journals like this publish essays of contemporary scholars in the field (reviewed by other scholars), this particular essay is the most cited article of this journal.
In this essay, Bachrach and Baratz are concerned with analyzing political power. The concept of power is a central concept in political science, but its meaning is not always clear. Power is usually understood as a relationship between people, not an individual quality that someone possesses. Since power is defined as a relationship between people, power is by definition a social relation. Part of the reason this article is so influential is because they begin from a previous discussion regarding the nature of power between sociologist C. Wright Mills and Robert Dahl, a leading "pluralist theorist" in political science.
Mills most famous work in this area was The Power Elite first published in 1956 at the height of the Cold War. Mills argued that political power in the U.S. was concentrated among what he called the "power elite" or the close-knit group made up of government bureaucracy, the military, and corporate elites. This view was affirmed by of all people Dwight Eisenhower, Allied Commander during World War II and President of the U.S. during the 1950s, who in his farewell address warned of the "military-industrial complex."
However, there were many criticisms of Mills. Bachrach and Baratz side with Dahl, arguing that Mills sees power in a one-dimensional sense, unlike the theory of pluralism which sees power divided up between different groups. The theory of pluralism, is found in the Constitution and the Federalist Papers, but developed in modern times by theorists like Dahl that sees power as divided between different groups and institutions which provide a check and balance on each other. Pluralists argue that Mills ignored empirical evidence that shows multiple groups are able to exercise some power over each other, power is defined as influence in the law-making process or decisions made by the government. Dahl's work shows the division of power between local communities in his book Who Governs? published a few years after Mills in 1961. However, Dahl limits his research to the local community, but Mills analyzes the highest levels of political power.
The pluralist approach to analyzing power can be broken down as follows:
a) key issues: identify important public issues that are open to disagreement.
b) actors: who are the key groups or individuals involved in this issue?
c) behavior: analysis must give a thorough and detailed account of the behavior of actors in this decision.
d) outcome: what are the actual policies or laws adopted regarding key issues?
By following this approach, pluralists believe you can give an accurate analysis of who wields political power.
To influence what is considered an important issue is one example of this, whether it is the environment, drugs, abortion, or gay rights, before the 1970s these issues were not significantly debated in national politics.
Another example could be the limited choices given by the Democratic and Republican parties both of whom are rated very low in terms of public opinion. More recently, libertarian and social democratic movements have arisen to challenge the often stale and repetitive choices given by both major parties. In a modern setting, the media plays an important role in determining "key issues." Simply by reporting on certain issues or focusing on certain aspects of issues the media gives the impression that these are the important issues. To properly analyze power requires you to investigate how issues are framed, what is excluded, and most importantly who benefits from this. Once this step has been taken can you begin to analyze power in the way described by pluralists.
Power is also exercised when issues are "re-framed" or in other words when the boundaries of discussion are changed. Two examples can be the "Occupy Wall Street" movement that reframed the economic discussion in the country to focus on income inequality using terms like "we are the 99%." Also, the civil rights and black powers movements in the 1960s and 70s that changed the discussion on race in the country as well as, focusing more attention on institutionalized racism in the North. By changing the debate, or reframing the issues, these groups were able to exercise power.
The concept of power was further expanded on by sociologist Steven Lukes who argued there are actually "three dimensions of power": the first being political decisions (Dahl), the second is framing, or controlling what issues and policies are discussed (Bachrach and Baratz), but the third is the power to influence values or social norms, that is to control the basic ideas of right and wrong and what is considered good or bad. Lukes argues it is ultimately what people consider to be right or wrong, or normal, that will influence what choices are available and what decisions are made. In our society today, there is significant debate over whether "capitalism" is truly a beneficial economic system for the majority of people, or whether or not "socialism" is a better alternative. During the Cold War era in the U.S., capitalism was generally valued as something "good," and socialism was considered "evil" and associated with the Soviet Union. However, since the occupy movements (and associated movements like CrimethInc.) and the rise of socialist candidates like Bernie Sanders, there exists now a renewed debate over the how we value these economic systems.
Power over values should not be mistaken as a more peaceful or benevolent form of power. Although it is easy to think of the use of force as the "bad" form of power, and influencing values as "good," history shows many examples of political movements that try to influence people's values in a manipulative way. Adolf Hitler for example is known for developing what is known as the "big lie" theory (the bigger the lie, the more people will believe it), and once in power the Nazis were known for their extensive use of propaganda as a way of consolidating their power over the masses (in addition, of course, to the blatant use of force).
In political science one way of trying to interpret and measure political values is to conduct public opinion polls. A small sampling of a few thousand people are given a questionnaire to fill out, the results of which are combined and calculated in a way that is believed to reflect the general attitude of the entire population. Modern public opinion polls were created by George Gallup in the 1930s who also founded the organization that bears his name, still generally considered the most influential company that conducts these polls. Polls also help shape discussions by identifying what important issues are, and thus also exercise power.
The results of this poll and commentary reflect the generally negative opinions that Americans have towards the government. Negative attitudes towards the government would mean that choices for government action will be limited since people are skeptical over the benefits of government action. Overall, the poll shows that people are distrustful of the government but are also skeptical of taking away too much government power. In terms of political parties, when a party is in power their supporters clearly support more government intervention, than when they are out of power, this suggests that voters are less concerned about the power of government itself, but the power of opposing parties. Furthermore, there are often contradictions in the results surveyed. For example, although people still commonly identify the term socialism in a negative way, there is more support for specific policies associated with socialism like a single-payer healthcare system or free tuition for public colleges. Another well known example, is that people also respond negatively to the word "welfare" but show much more support when the term is re-phrased as "support for the poor," or something similar like that. This suggests that public opinion polls themselves might be limited in their usefulness, as it does not take into consideration how well informed people are on political issues before they express an opinion.