Government and Politics

Government and Politics


Introduction 3


How is political power distributed among members of society? 3


Traditional Authority 4

Legal-Rational Authority 4

Charismatic Authority 5


Monarchy 6

Oligarchy 6

Dictatorship and Totalitarianism 6

Democracy 7


Political Socialization 8

Participation and Apathy 9

Women and Politics 10

Interest Groups 11


Elite Model 12

Pluralist Model 14

Who Does Rule? 15



References: 17


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 Lasswells (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 societythe increasing importance

of the black vote for southern Democratic candidatesaffected 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 nations 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 ones 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

systemforce, influence, and authority. Force is the actual or threatened

use of coercion to impose ones 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.


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 persons 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 Webers typology to be quite valuable in

understanding different manifestations of legitimate power within a


Traditional Authority

In a political system based on traditional authority, legitimate power

is conferred by custom and accepted practice. The orders of ones 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 Japans 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.

Legal-Rational Authority

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 Reagans

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 presidents 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

officials power may come to be seen as illegitimate. Moreover, as was true

of Nixon, the person may be forced out of office.

Charismatic Authority

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 leaders 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 leaders 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 Gandhis 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

authoritythe 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

Americas 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.


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 powereither 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 Peoples

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

groupthe 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

peoples 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

Jewish conspiracy.

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 Solzhenitsyns Gulag Archipelago (1973) describe the Soviet

Unions 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

governments 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 peoples



In a literal sense, democracy means government by the people. The word

democracy originated in two Greek rootsdemos, 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

partiesthe Democrats and Republicansas 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.

Upsets 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.


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

United States.

Political Socialization

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 societys basic political values and its particular methods of

decision making.

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 normsincluding 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 persons 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 childrens


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 persons

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 competenceby

understanding the differences between political parties and between liberal

and conservative philosophiesare more likely to become politically active

during adulthood.

Like the family and schools, the mass media can have obvious effects

on peoples 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 nations 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

political campaigns.

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 Norths 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 Nicaraguas Marxist regime. By

contrast. Judge Robert Borks 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 Katzs 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 partys 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

that many

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

poorwhose focus understandably is on survivalare 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 nations


Sociologist Anthony Orum notes that people are more likely to

participate actively in political life if they have a sense of political

efficacythat 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 nations political lifethe 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 womens 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 husbands 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 partys 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 electionsthough not as

significant a factor as some observers had expected. According to a poll by

ABC News, men supported President Ronald Reagans 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 partys 1986 takeover of e Senate.

Interest Groups

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 nations political

parties. However, there are other important ways that American citizens can

play a role in the nations 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 someones 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

lobbyingthe 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.


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 nations power structure the elite and pluralism models.

Elite Model

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

Marxs 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 governmentthe power elite. In Mills 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 Millss 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 Millss power

elite model certainly bring to mind Marxs 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 Americas 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 Millss 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. Millss

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 Millss 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 Registerthe 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

Americas 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

nations policy-planning network join with high-level employees of profit-

making and nonprofit institutions controlled by the social upper class to

exercise power.

In Domhoffs 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 membersare 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

local government.

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 Californias 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.

Pluralist Model

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 Riesmans 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 nations political processes by blocking anyone from exercising needed

leadership functions. In Riesmans words, "The only leaders of national

scope left in the United States are those who can placate the veto groups".

Dahls Study of Pluralism. Community studies of power have also

supported the pluralist model. One of the most famousan investigation of

decision making in New Haven, Connecticutwas 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 Dahls 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 Dahls 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

nations 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

nations power structure are "more equal."


Each society must have a political system in order to have recognized

procedures for the allocation of valued resourcesin Harold D. Lasswells

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 Peoples 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 Webers term for power made legitimate by a

leaders 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 Marxs 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 ones 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 Webers 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 parties.

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. Lasswells words, "who gets what, when, how."

Power The ability to exercise ones 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

United States.

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 Webers 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

accepted practice.

Two-step flow of communication Elihu Katzs 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 Riesmans 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