Political Power Research Paper

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Leading political theorists, such as Machiavelli and Hobbes, have devoted much attention to ‘political power.’ As Robert A. Dahl noted (1957), ‘power’ has a certain universality, whether it is called ‘power, influence, control, pouvoir, puissance, Macht, Herrschaft, Gewalt, imperium, potestas, auctoritas, potentia,’ etc. This research paper focuses on the concept of ‘power’ defined as a type of social causation.

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1. Power As Causation

From 1953 to 1975, several leading political scientists developed the view of power as social causation, converging with an earlier viewpoint of Max Weber. After rejecting alternative definitions of ‘power,’ Herbert Simon (1953) cited a definition by Lasswell and Kaplan (1950): ‘The exercise of influence (influence process) consists in affecting policies of others than the self.’

In the formulation best known to political scientists, Dahl stated (1957): ‘My intuitive idea of power, then, is something like this: A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do.’ James G. March (1955) stated: ‘… the set of all influence relations is here defined to be that subset of all causal relations such that the behavior of an individual appears as the terminal point in the causal linkage. Alternatively, we can say that two individuals are in an influence relation if their behaviors are linked causally.’

This leads to distinctions among different types of causal relations as they might relate to power. First, ‘political power’ refers to causal relations among humans, not to inanimate forces changing human behavior, as a hurricane might, for instance. Second, a distinction causing much confusion, one needs to distinguish situations in which the changed behavior reflects the intentions of the powerful actor. One might change the behavior of another in a way not intended, as when an incompetent lobbyist changes a legislator’s vote to one different from that favored by the lobbyist. Some political scientists, such as March, are more comfortable with ‘power’ as causing changes in the direction intended by the powerful actor, and referring to the more general category of causing any changes as ‘influence.’ However, the seminal articles by Simon and Dahl do not restrict ‘power’ to intended changes in others’ behavior.

Other examples of such causal relations would include power-as-suggestion: when A proposes a behavior change, B adopts the change without resi stance. Another category of causal relations occurs when B resists, and A exercises rewards and sanctions, perhaps even force, to get B to change his or her behavior. This type of power may be called coercion (McFarland 1969).

In regard to power as coercive causation, John Harsanyi (1962) emphasized the costs of exercising power and also the costs of compliance with the exercise of power. For instance, a lobbyist might change a legislator’s vote with little cost if it just means arranging a meeting with one of the legislator’s staff. However, the cost is high if the lobbyist must mobilize hundreds of persons to petition the recalcitrant legislator. From the standpoint of the legislator, a vote may be ‘cheap,’ offending almost no one, or it may endanger victory in the next election. Still another causal situation occurs when A’s preferences cause changes in B’s preferences, causing B to act differently. This is widely known as ‘anticipated reactions,’ in which B, perhaps to please A and to avoid A’s exercise of sanctions, changes behavior in line with an anticipation of what A wants him or her to do, even though A did not explicitly state such preferences (Nagel 1975).

An important, implicit aspect of defining power as causation is its link to empiricism. A statement of power then implies observations of instances of A changing B’s behavior. It rules out defining ‘power’ in terms of the resources (wealth or force, etc.) used to get B to comply. One first has to observe the causal relationship; then one analyzes how power was wielded.

Such resources were called by Dahl (1957) a ‘power base,’ and both he and Simon (1953) stated that the power base should not be confused with ‘power’ itself. In addition, Dahl stated that power-as-causation, to be an empirically useful concept, had to be used with four concomitant dimensions of power: base, amount, scope, and domain. Base, then, refers to the resources or means that A uses to cause changes in others’ behavior. Amount refers to the idea that some instances of power refer to greater changes in behavior than others. A lobbyist exercises more power when he or she changes the legislator’s vote from ‘no’ to ‘yes,’ for instance, than if the change is only from ‘abstain’ to ‘yes.’ The domain of an actor’s power consists of those persons subject to the actor’s power. The scope of power consists of the matters subject to the actor’s power.

Dahl’s major contribution to the study of political power is his insistence that the domain and scope always be clearly stated in discussions of power. Or to put it another way, an actor’s power in one situation should not be immediately generalized to postulating equivalent power over other persons in other situations. The pharmaceutical lobbyist may have power over just one or over a score of legislators regarding the regulation of generic drugs. The same lobbyist might not have equivalent power over votes about Medicare payments for prescriptions; this lobbyist may have no power at all over any legislators in regard to civil rights or to gun control.

Scope and domain of power were key issues in the still widely remembered community power debate of the 1960s. Following the example set by Dahl in Who Governs? (1961), political scientists studied political power in localities by conducting case studies of public policy-making and charting which persons changed the course of events. Such studies normally found that the domain and scope of power was fragmented; different persons had power in different areas of policy. On the one hand, other social scientists—tending to be sociologists—followed a different conception of power, conceiving power to be possession of wealth or high social status. Such observers usually described inequalities of wealth and status and stated this as a finding of ‘power’ in a community. Political scientists, on the other hand, for the most part did not consider wealth and status to be ‘power’ itself, but instead to be resources that could be used to win political power, if such wealthy or high-status persons intended to do so. But such intentions are an empirical question, in this view, and must be observed in case studies.

This famous (or notorious) controversy extended for at least a decade and was expressed in scores of books and hundreds of journal articles before the frustrated debate participants, unable to persuade one another, for the most part went on to study questions other than community power (Polsby 1980).

Proponents of power-as-resource generally overlook a strong criticism of the power-as-causation model. Social causation is ordinarily very complex; case studies are not easy to do; power as causation thus is ordinarily complex, requiring a great deal of effort to study.

Such writers as Simon (1957), March (1955), Harsanyi (1962), and Riker (1964) left us with elaborate statistical models for studying power, models which require costly and difficult data collection. Jack Nagel (1975) wrote a concluding work in this line of analysis, in which power-as-causation was stated as path analysis, a form of statistics.

2. Power And Policy-Making

March (1966) and Riker (1964) were both noted for asking the question in respect to political analysis: ‘what is the power of power?’ Political scientists answered this question, not by flocking to do more studies of the holders of wealth and status, but by stating models of power structure applicable to political systems, both national and local. Dahl (1961) had pressed forward the definition of power as causation in the course of his empirical refutation of the power elite model (Mills 1956), as applied by Floyd Hunter (1953) to the city of Atlanta. Such writers were among those who described power by describing characteristics and activities of an elite group, whose actual exercise of power usually went undemonstrated. Scholars such as Dahl became known as stating a pluralist model of power, finding power to be fragmented among various scopes and domains, as opposed to the concentration of power within a single elite.

Scholars such as Edelman (1964), McConnell (1966), and Lowi (1979) agreed with Dahl that political power in America is fragmented, but argued that stable, unrepresentative elites often controlled policy within specific scopes of power—such as setting grazing fees on federal lands, developing nuclear power plants, setting airline and interstate trucking schedules and fees, and so forth. Such analyses, which flourished briefly, were also based on case studies of policy-making, and constitute a school which might be termed multiple-elitist, finding not a single power elite but hundreds of elites, each specific to a particular scope of action and not subject to control by elected officials. But multiple-elitism in turn faced a revisionist interpretation, neopluralism, as found in studies by James Q. Wilson (1980) and Jack Walker (1991), for instance, who found that while power within specific scopes of policy was normally unequal, it was nevertheless shared by so many organized interest groups, politicians, and governmental agencies that even within narrowly defined policy scopes, stable and controlling elites are seldom found.

The power-as-causation model was developed from 1953 to 1975, and the examples cited in this literature were almost always of power among individual persons. But given the great difficulties in gathering such data, political scientists seldom conducted such studies, and instead the analysis of political power flourished with the development of models of public policy-making just cited. Such scholars saw no need to worry about possible criticisms of ignoring the power bases of wealth and status, and continued to conduct case studies of policy-making, following Dahl’s example, even as many argued with Dahl’s pluralist model. Such case studies were not conducted according to the canons of path analysis or other forms of statistics; instead researchers used historical materials, interviews, and current documents to ascertain which groups, leaders, and government agencies caused changes in the course of public policy. Relatively simple empirical methods, assuming power-as-causation, have been enough to generate interesting models of power structure, but perhaps more complex methods will be needed to resolve differences among various schools of political power analysis.

The study of political power has developed satisfactorily since Simon’s seminal article in 1953, but a great theoretical difficulty remains—the problem of hegemony. Hegemonic writers stress the great importance of the power to determine which issues are on the political agenda of a political system (Lukes 1974). Community power theorists Bachrach and Baratz (1962) argued that there are ‘two faces of power,’ one of which is power over the formation of political issues, and the other is the overt activity studied by Dahl. In arguing for the understanding of hegemony, the Marxist Antonio Gramsci argued (1971) that capitalism maintained its political power through socialization of persons into supportive values and norms, as much as through the machinations of ‘bourgeois government.’ Social values shape the preferences of the actors in their search for political power, but how can the scholar make empirical statements about one set of values displacing perhaps hundreds of conceivable alternative value systems? This seems to presuppose a comprehensive theory of social relations. Hegemony can be distinguished from the power of anticipated reactions, power exercised when B anticipates A’s intentions, and acts according to them, perhaps fearing the costs of A’s overt coercion. Republican members of Congress may have considered blocking appropriations for a government department, but anticipating President Clinton’s effective reactions, they think better of the idea and do little but discuss the matter. But since the matter received some discussion, the theorist of political power may make an empirical observation. Similarly, in international relations, we speak of the deterrent power of weapons, even if these are never used. From the behavior of those deterred, scholars can find evidence that some probability of warlike behavior by one nation was deterred (a change of behavior) through the possession of weapons by the other nation.


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