Tuesday, August 8

Political Scientists' Renewed Interest in the Workings of Power

professor of political science at Swarthmore College

This coming Labor Day weekend, at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association in Philadelphia, some fraction of the 7,000 or so political scientists in attendance will respond to the conference theme of "Power Reconsidered." They will devote more time and energy to that subject than they have in a long while. And when you think about it, that's odd. Don't political scientists own the franchise on the topic? Yes, and this year's conference theme is meant to remind them of that — and to renew the discipline's once-robust consideration of power.

The discipline's discussion of power dates to the mid-1950s, when the legendary sociologists Floyd Hunter and C. Wright Mills announced the existence of a "power elite." They meant a ruling conglomerate of high-level scientists, media moguls, and corporate, military, and party leaders — an oligarchy of "deciders," as it were. President Eisenhower's warning, in his farewell address, about the "military-industrial complex" (think here of Halliburton and the Pentagon) might be seen as his speechwriter's tribute to the idea of a "power elite."

On one hand, these claims contradicted what students of American politics then thought they knew about associations and groups — that they are easy to form. Today, of course, political scientists are much more aware of the "collective action" problem formulated by the economist Mancur Olson: that everyone has an incentive to "free ride" on the efforts of others who want to start a group, like an association for fewer stop signs. (Rational free riding means that those outside the group don't act and that many unnecessary stop signs therefore stay in place.) But on the early view that groups form easily, power was seen as diffuse, as new demands on government constantly emerge and receive some organized public support.

On the other hand, the power-elite idea fed into a growing unease about most people's apparent ignorance of public policy and even basic facts about the American system, such as the size of the Supreme Court or the names of their Congressional representatives. The new science of survey research showed that most people had indeed only the crudest ideas about politics. If the American public was so unsophisticated and inattentive, then maybe a power elite really did run most important parts of the process.

Such analytical tensions — coupled with the civil-rights protests of the 1960s — laid the seeds for controversy about whether a seemingly desirable democracy such as America's had become crippled or was innately very limited. The intellectual and political turmoil also prompted conceptual progress on power dynamics, leading to an extraordinarily useful classification known as the "three faces of power." The trichotomy was devised by the political sociologist Steven Lukes (who will lead a major round-table discussion at the 2006 APSA meeting). Lukes elegantly synthesized, and extended, a long discussion led by such luminaries within the profession as Nelson W. Polsby, Peter Bachrach, Jack H. Nagel, and J. Donald Moon, among others. Indeed, the idea that power had several faces was masterfully explored in a case study that quickly attained the status of a classic, John Gaventa's Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley (University of Illinois Press, 1980). It won the American Political Science Association's most distinguished award, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation Book Award.

In the first manifestation (or "face") of power, A has possession of more resources or skills than B. So A beats B. That is, there are decisions in A's favor. But the fights turn on a resource or skill distribution that might change. So we should pay attention to that underlying distribution in order to grasp the basic distribution of power in a polity. In electoral studies, political scientists therefore trace the evolution in the balance of partisan identities, since it determines whether Democrats or Republicans win.

In the second face, A is able to keep B's issues off the agenda of a political system. Power not only generates decisions, but it also causes "nondecisions." Person A is able to prevent even a consideration of B's issues. Why? Because of history and anticipated consequences. B once succeeded in getting her concerns on the agenda. But B paid very dearly for that success, and efforts to regain lost ground met with severe sanctions. B knows that politics is dangerous.

Often an apparent harmony impresses the casual observer — the daily somnolence, for instance, of a rural Mississippi county circa 1950. Whether to hold a bond referendum for public improvement seems to be the main agenda item, a decision to be determined according to a fair vote. But there is a much more significant nondecision: no discussion of school segregation and unequal financing of white and black schools. Indeed, there is no easy way for B to bring the matter up without risking A's brutal retaliation, such as A's suddenly firebombing B's home and then making sure that B gets arrested for arson. So there is lots of power at work in this quiet little county.

Finally, there is the third face. In this situation, B finds it impossible to conceptualize something beyond the false consensus that serves A's interests. By now all the previous defeats are not even seen as defeats by B, but are instead seen as unremarkable — just the way things are. It was this "third face of power," in fact, that Gaventa explored so searchingly in trying to understand political quiescence in his Appalachian valley. Mining interests, and the politicians in their pockets, had won so much for so long that defeatism became entrenched. There was not even an alternative political vocabulary available to the losers. That language had long disappeared.

Increasingly — as the Stanford political scientist Terry M. Moe put it in his recent article, "Power and Political Institutions" (Perspectives on Politics, June 2005), political scientists seem (and ought) to recognize that they constantly use the language of power. Moe's deceptively simple suggestion is actually rich with implications. The rational-choice tradition, which Moe reviews, for instance, regularly focuses on how institutions result from strategies that are meant to generate winners and losers. Some institutions — the Constitution — serve common purposes, but others benefit a coalition for some period of time at the expense of a rival coalition — for example, the Reed Rules that make the U.S. House governable. Thus, in Setting the Agenda: Responsible Party Government in the U.S. House of Representatives (Cambridge University Press, 2005), their new study of majority control in the House, Gary W. Cox and Mathew D. McCubbins, both of the University of California at San Diego, show that the Reed Rules provide what they call (echoing the idea of the "second face" of power) "negative agenda control." That is, the majority has the procedural right to prevent the minority from ever having its agenda items up for votes on terms that the minority would prefer. That is power analysis pure and simple.

Indeed, the discipline includes great attention to the seeking and exercise of power: for example, making war, punishing criminals and prisoners, the exchange of benefits between actors, bargaining, institution building, symbol making, electioneering, participation, investigation, and speechifying.

Finally, there is a basic distinction that we have inherited from Dahl that further widens prospects for the study of power — the difference between democracy and what Dahl called "polyarchy," by which he meant the actually existing, quasi-democratic states of affairs that vary from one nominally democratic polity to another. The basic idea is that the rule of law and the actual degrees of political inclusion, freedom, equality, and legitimate competitiveness are not legacies handed down more or less intact but are won through political agitation and struggle. Those elements will not, by the same token, be perfected consensually. Strengthening them requires dismantling invidious hierarchies. Consider the disparate treatment of African-Americans by the criminal-justice system, or the continuing de facto segregation of American public schools. Those defects in American democracy are not going away any time soon, and asymmetry in power — the second face that has long marked race relations? the third face, in the form of a refusal among whites to concede the existence of subtle racism? — has something to do with their persistence.

Moreover, the terrain between democracy and polyarchy seems to have acquired new features. Income inequality has increased in all advanced democracies. Does that translate into more power for the rich? If so, how? If not, why not?

Most advanced democracies have very large populations of immigrants. Will variable patterns of immigrant assimilation and ghettoization portend durable linguistic and cultural hierarchies? Are these various patterns "just happening," or is there power at work? Whose? How is it used? To what ends?

Reconsidering power seems essential, furthermore, to comparative politics. Turning toward the "Second World," as it were, one wonders about the reaction in Latin America to neoliberalism, ranging from Hugo Chavez's quasi-imperial populism (now featuring an alliance with Bolivia) to the prudent social democracy of Chile's and Uruguay's governing parties. Why does some of the reaction feature a drive to accumulate power, as with Chavez's Bolivarian constitution, which Evo Morales of Bolivia now seems to have adopted, and why is some of the reaction instead processed through the existing party system without institutional disruption, leaving power relations more or less intact, as with the moderate reformism of the Chilean and Uruguayan socialist parties? Relatedly, how is it that power relations in China adapt so well, or so it seems, to the intense pace of market liberalization under way there? Why can truly terrible extremes of predatory rule still exist, as in North Korea?

Turning to the "Third World," one wants to know why the modern state structure is collapsing in some parts of Africa but not others, in Somalia but not in Rwanda. Why, in partial contrast, are "microstates" flourishing elsewhere — in the Caribbean or the Pacific, such as Grenada and Singapore?

Does the global philanthropy of Bono and Bill and Melinda Gates signal that some African, Asian, and Latin American populations are truly helpless? Or do they become the recipients of philanthropy because their integration into the world's increasingly dense network of NGO's, and the rise of new international norms of justice and human rights, now give them a certain degree of influence over "First World" resources that they lacked earlier, during the nakedly imperialist and colonial periods?