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The American Political System

Week One - Wilson, Chapters 1 and 23

Instructional Objectives - Students Should Be Able To:

1. List the two basic questions to be asked about American (or any other) government and show that they are distinct questions.

2. Explain how political change tends to make political scientists cautious in stating how politics works or what values dominate it.

3. Explain what is meant by power, and by political power in particular. Relate the latter to authority, legitimacy, and democracy.

4. Distinguish among the three concepts of democracy mentioned in the chapter, explaining in which of three senses the textbook refers to American government as democratic.

5. Provide definitions and examples of the four different types of policy outputs of government.

6. Explain the function of public opinion in the four types of policy outputs and indicate under what circumstances the public is most influential and least influential.

7. Differentiate between majoritarian politics and elitist politics, explaining the four major theories on the latter.

8. Describe the Marxist, elitist, bureaucratic, and pluralist theories. Indicate the advantages and shortcomings of each theory as described by the text.

Lecture Notes

I. What is political power?

A. Two great questions about politics
1. Who governs: those who govern will affect us

2.To what ends: tells how government affects our lives

3.The text focuses on who governs and, in answering this question, looks at how the government makes decisions on a variety of issues

B. Power

1.Definition: the ability of one person to cause another person to act in accordance with the first person's intentions

2.Text's concern: power as it is used to affect who will hold government office and how government will behave

3.Authority: the right to use power; not all who exercise political power have it

4.Legitimacy: what makes a law or constitution a source of right

5.Struggles over what makes authority legitimate

6 Necessity to be in some sense "democratic" in the United States today

II. What is democracy? Describes at least three different political systems.

A. Where the "true interests" of the people are served, whether or not those people affect the decision making (democratic centralism)


3.Certain European, Asian, Latin American dictatorships

B. Aristotelian "rule of the many" (participatory democracy)

1.Fourth-century B.C. Greek city-state, practiced by free adult male property owners

2.New England town meeting

C. Acquisition of power by leaders via competitive elections (representative democracy or elitist theory of democracy)

1. Justifications
a. Direct democracy is impractical for reasons of time, expertise, etc.

b. The people make unwise decisions based on fleeting emotions


III. Direct v. representative democracy

A. Text uses the term "democracy" to refer to representative democracy
1. Constitution does not contain word "democracy" but "republican form of government"

2. Representative democracy requires leadership competition if system is to work

B . Recommendations for reclaiming participatory democracy

1. Community control

2. Citizen participation in program development

3. Do we want a push-button Democracy or one that is has a "mind of its own?"

IV. How is power distributed in the American Democracy?

A. Majoritarian politics - The populist view. This is what most tend to view our democracy as but it os often simplistic. Really, it is a very democratic notion, but how good is this as a form of government.
1. Leaders constrained to follow wishes of the people very closely

2. Applies when issues are simple and clear

B. Elitism - within a democracy there are always elites. These elites, however, are dynamic not static elites.

1. Rule by identifiable group of persons who possess a disproportionate share of political power

2. Theories on political elites

a. Marxism: government merely a reflection of underlying economic forces

b. C. Wright Mills: power elite composed of key corporate leaders, military leaders, and political leaders - (See Article)

c. Max Weber: expertise, specialized competence will dominate

d. Pluralist view: no single elite has monopoly on power; hence must bargain and compromise while being responsive to followers (See article)

C. Cynical view that politics is self-seeking enterprise

1. Policy does not necessarily reflect authors' motives

2. Self-interest an incomplete guide to actions

a. AFL-CIO supported civil rights in 1960s, without personal or organizational gain

b. Civil Aeronautics Board employees in 1970s, worked for deregulation.

3. There are examples, however, of political action being taken with only self interest as a motive.

a. Support of "Big Tobacco" and NRA.

V. Political change

A. Necessary to refer to history frequently since no single theory adequate
1. Government today influenced by yesterday

2. Government today still evolving and responds to changing beliefs

B. Politics about the public interest, not just "who gets what"

VI. Policy Development - What types of policies are developed by the American System.

A. Important to know because our lives are affected by ...
1. Distribution of political power

2. Policies adopted by government

B . Classification of policies has two advantages

1. Looks at comprehensive list of policies

2. Focuses on how policies affect people

C. Policy Outputs

1. Majoritarian Politics

2. Client Politics

3. Entrepenurial

4. Interest Group Politics

Perceived Costs






Majoritarian Politics

Entrepenurial Politics


Client Politics

Interest Group Politics

D. Four kinds of policy outputs - based upon cost / benefit principle.
1. Majoritarian politics - What factors play a role in majoritarian Policy Making?
a. Public opinion
(1) Usually a discernible public opinion exists since issues highly visible

(2) Long-term disregard of public opinion is dangerous for politicians.

(3) President and advisers play a leading role in development of majoritarian policies

b. Ideological debate often precipitated by proposals of new majoritarian programs

c. Worldview - A Generally held belief.. paradigm

(1) Ideological debate outcomes often institutionalize new worldviews

(2) Crises may provide decisive leverage to alter worldview

A crisis situation makes the public willing to follow a leader who promises change and action. When Franklin Roosevelt was elected president during the Great Depression, Will Rogers commented: "The whole country is with him just so he does something. If he burned down the Capitol we would cheer and say 'Well, we at least got a fire started anyhow.'"

(3) Other forces can alter worldview

  • Education
  • Mass media
  • Changing perceptions of causes and consequences of problems

d. Political parties

(1) Relatively important role when Congress shaping new majoritarian policies

(2) But bipartisan support after new policies succeed

(3) Policies may receive closer scrutiny if costs become very high

2. Interest group politics

a. Changing economic and social cleavages in society source of interest group policy proposals
(1) Sources of interest group policy proposals found in changing
  • Technologies
  • Markets
  • Regions
  • Organizational skills, resources of various groups

(2) Dominant group sometimes able to block another from organizing

  • Unions blocked by management
  • Blacks blocked by whites

b. Political parties

(1) Usually not decisive because of internal division caused by crosscut- pressures

(2) Exception: labor-management issues tend to parallel Democratic / Republican differences

c. Continuing struggle

(1) Moves into bureaucracy, courts, later legislative sessions

(2) Agencies less vulnerable to capture than are those of client politics

(3) Public opinion and presidential leadership usually weak

(4) Mass media rarely play an important role

3. Client politics - benefits concentrated, costs distributed.

a. Visibility
(1) Typically low visibility- public

(2) Public and media attention may change with economic conditions

(3) Non economic groups can also lose client status

b. Political parties

(1) Usually only a slight role--group is making an unopposed request

(2) Problem of client group: getting on the agenda

(3) Conducive to political corruption-need a political sponsor, generally avoid publicity

c. Identifying the clients

(1) Sometimes sponsorship by self-appointed representatives

(2) Economic Opportunity Act: bureaucrats and political executives influential

d. Serving the clients

(1) Creation of client-serving government agencies

(2) Low-visibility client politics less common now: more opponents and court intervention

(3) Proliferation of regulatory agencies also creates some offsetting forces

4. Entrepreneurial politics - costs concentrated, benefits distributed - Arousing interest in a little known policy.

a. Requires skilled leadership that attracts media attention
(1) Needed because appeal to self-interest is too slight

(2) Public's perception of dangers and values hinges on such manipulation; symbols change with each generation

(3) Sometimes no compelling symbol found: gun control

b. Promotion by the media

(1) Great importance of reporters, editors; often tacit alliance with entrepreneur

(2) political parties less significant

c. Capture of the agencies

(1) Agencies most susceptible to capture by interest groups who are adversely affected

(2) Example: FDA, by pharmaceutical industry

(3) May instead create an agency to encourage interest group competition: EPA

d. The Courts

(1) Play an important role in entrepreneurial politics

(2) Initial deference to popular mood by courts

(3) Later develop balancing tests to assess the regulations


VII. Competing theories of political power - we have examined the American majoritarian system but there are other theories on political power, in and out our nation.

A. Marxist theory
1. Definition: ownership of means of production shapes politics and determines political outcomes

2.. Economic determinists will point to client relationships in economic policy

a. Maritime, dairy subsidies

b. Farm-price supports

c. Oil import quotas

d. Tax treatment of preferred groups

3. The theory explains client politics only when a government advantage involves an economic client. But as client politics becomes concerned with noneconomic matters, the theory falls short as an explanation and fails to account for the boundaries imposed by public and elite opinion on other groups.

a. Ethnic groups

b. Racial groups

c. Women's groups

4. Even economic client politics limited by public and elite opinion

a. Airline deregulation

b. Deregulation of banking, trucking, securities

c. Failure of auto industry to block Clean Air Act

B Elitist theory

1. Definition: single elite with common background makes all policy, influenced only weakly by popular opinion

2. Client politics a partial confirmation of elite theory

3. But an ambiguity persists

a. Elite may be beneficiary of policies, or ...

b. Elite because of characteristics that enable elites to influence all policies

4. Client politics do not confirm elitism--costs/benefits influence still affects the elites ability to shape policy

5. Most popular version today: career politicians in Congress make decisions without regard to public opinion

a. But these elites are popularly elected-elites of the past were unelected

C. Bureaucratic theory - Institutional Momentum, career bureaucrat.

1.Definition: government by large organizations made up of appointed career officials

2. Bureaucracy most powerful where laws are least precise

a. Weapons procurement

b. Civil rights law enforcement

c. Foreign policy making

d. Regulation of business

3. Bureaucratic discretion is ...

a. Sometimes inevitable because of subject matter b. At other times avoidable, but Congress unwilling to make tough decisions

4. Recent tendency in Congress: reduction of bureaucratic discretion

a. Environmental legislation and drug laws

b. Exact standards increase social cost of standards

5. Another avenue of increasing bureaucratic power: source of the political agenda

a. Economic Opportunity Act (1964)

b. Medicare Act (1965)

c. Weapons proposals

6. This theory overestimates the power of the bureaucracy. The bureaucracy is powerful when the law confers wide discretion and less so when the task is specified by law in exact language. Thus it is the clarity and consistency of congressional laws which determine bureaucratic power.

7. Historical Opposition - Jackson's "Spoils System"

D. Pluralist theory

1. Definition: policies come from conflict, bargaining among organization representing affected groups
a. Obviously an accurate description of interest group politics

b. But it overestimates extent of group formation, activity

2. In client politics, little incentive for affected groups to organize

3. In majoritarian politics, interest groups play marginal role

4. Rise of entrepreneurial politics makes pluralism more applicable, a greater variety of groups represented today

5. Pluralism still an inadequate explanation

a. Doesn't account for client or majoritarian politics

b. No clear explanation of entrepreneurial politics

c. No full accounting of role of judiciary

Important Terms

authority - The right to use power.

bureaucrats - Appointed officials who operate government agencies and large corporations

bureaucratic theory - A theory that bureaucrats make the key governing decisions. According to this theory the influence of government bureaucracies has become so great that elected officials are almost powerless to affect policy.

client politics - Political activity in which the benefits of a policy are concentrated on a small, easily organized group while the costs are widely distributed among the public at large. These factors make the policy low in visibility and limit the role played by political parties. Such policies have become less common as more organized interests act on behalf of the public and as courts intervene more often in public policy disputes.

democracy - A word used to describe at least three different political systems that each embody the principle of popular rule, if only in the interests of the people. See democratic centralism, direct democracy, representative democracy.

democratic centralism - A form of democracy in which the true interests of the masses were discovered through discussion within the Communist party, and then decisions were made under central leadership to serve those interests.

direct (participatory) democracy - A form of democracy in which most, or all, of the citizenry participate directly by either holding office or making policy.

elite - An identifiable group of persons who possess a disproportionate share of some valued resource

elitist theory - A theory that a few top leaders make the key decisions without reference to popular desires.

entrepreneurial politics - Political activity in which the benefits of a policy are widely distributed but the costs are concentrated on a small group. The public is usually indifferent to such policies and must be mobilized through skilled leadership and the media. Emotional appeals using compelling symbols are frequently employed for this purpose. Government agencies created as a result of the policy are vulnerable to capture, with courts likely to intervene.

interest group politics - Political activity in which the costs of a policy are concentrated on a small group while the benefits are concentrated on a different but equally small group. Such policy proposals are generated by changing economic and social cleavages in society which force interests to organize. Political parties are usually divided and play no role in the resolution of the matter. The dispute over the policy will persist even after its passage or defeat, but in the bureaucratic or judicial arenas. Neither the president nor public opinion is a significant factor.

legitimacy - What makes a law or constitution a source of rightful power.

legitimacy barrier - A shared public belief that limits access to the political agenda, depending on whether an issue is considered an appropriate subject for government action. This barrier has collapsed as politics has become involved in nearly everything.

majoritarian politics - (1) A political system in which leaders are constrained to follow closely the wishes of the people. (2) Political activity in which the costs and benefits of a proposed course of action are widely distributed. The president and his advisers play the dominant role, with debate expressed in ideological terms. The outcome of the debate is often the institutionalization of a new worldview. The ideological nature of the policy diminishes once the policy is adopted and proves popular.

Marxist theory - (1) The ideology espoused by Karl Marx which holds that government is a reflection of economic forces, primarily ownership of the means of production. The economic structure of a society shapes its politics and determines political outcomes.

pluralist theory - A theory that holds that political resources are divided among different kinds of elites, giving relevant interest the chance to influence the outcome of decisions. Policies are made by conflict and bargaining among organizations that represent affected groups.

political power - Power used to determine who will hold government office and how the government will behave.

power - The ability of one person to cause another person to act in accordance with the first person's intentions.

power elite A political theory espoused by C. Wright Mills which holds that an elite of corporate leaders, top military officers, and key political leaders make most political decisions.

representative democracy - A political system in which political power is conferred on those selected by voters in competitive elections.

Weber, Max A - German historian and sociologist who criticized the theories of Karl Marx, arguing that all institutions have fallen under the control of large bureaucracies whose expertise is essential to the management of contemporary affairs.

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