Chapter 2: The Nature of Political Power

“There’s not enough understanding of the realities of power. In a democracy, supposedly we hold power by what we do at the ballot box, so therefore the more we know about political power the better our choices should be and the better, in theory, our democracy should be.”

–Journalist Robert Caro (1)

 

A common element of all definitions of politics is the struggle over resources, rights, or privileges. Lasswell’s shorthand for this struggle is who gets what. This struggle requires us to understand the nature of power, which is a very important concept in political science. At the most basic level, power is the ability to prevail in struggles over resources, rights, or privileges. This is an important political concept because power is not evenly distributed in a polity. Some members of a polity are more likely to succeed in their struggle than are others. When some actors have a historical track record of prevailing in political struggles, it can warp the very system itself in ways that allow those actors to continue to prevail. In this text, we’ll focus on three dimensions of power.

The First Dimension of Power: Formal Decision Making

Committee members voting with green cards.
The First Dimension of Power is Visible in Formal Votes.

Early twentieth century political and social theorists who analyzed power usually focused on the results of formal decision-making, which we will call the first dimension of power. Political theorist Robert Dahl analyzed power relationships in New Haven, Connecticut, in the 1950s. In his 1961 book Who Governs, he argued that local elites from a variety of interests compete with each other for decision-making power and that these elites often compromised in their decision-making to reach a result. Dahl’s focus was on outcomes: which decision was eventually reached on each issue? In an earlier journal article, Dahl argued that “A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that he would not otherwise do.” (2) Dahl’s statement is a good place to start with respect to understanding the nature of power. This definition would also apply if A could prevent B from doing something that B wanted to do. For example, Congress (A) might get the president (B) to refrain from vetoing a bill that the president (B) disliked if it appeared very likely that Congress (A) would override the president’s (B) veto. The advantage of the first dimension of power as an analytical tool is that it focuses on observable outcomes, making it easier for political scientists to analyze a given situation. But this advantage is also a disadvantage, for it compels us to focus on the obvious at the expense of more subtle manifestations of power.

The Second Dimension of Power: Mobilization of Bias

The second dimension of power is also often called the mobilization of bias. In 1962, political scientists Peter Bachrach and Morton S. Baratz made an important contribution to our understanding of the nature of power. In their “Two Faces of Power” essay, they note that power is exercised in ways other than that described by Dahl. They argue that before we can look at the results of formal decision-making, we first need to look at what they call the mobilization of bias existing in the political system being analyzed. In other words, we should look at “the dominant values, the myths, and the established political procedures and rules of the game” as well as look at “which persons or groups . . . gain from the existing bias and which . . . are handicapped by it.” (3) For example, Bachrach and Baratz describe that A can obviously force B to do something, but “power is also exercised when A devotes his energies to creating or reinforcing social and political values and institutional practices that limit the scope of the political process to public consideration of only those issues which are comparatively innocuous to A. To the extent that A succeeds in doing this, B is prevented, for all practical purposes, from bringing to the fore any issues that might in their resolution be seriously detrimental to A’s set of preferences.” (4)

Mobilization of bias can occur in a myriad of different ways. Powerful participants can set the agenda of what is considered an “important” political issue, or they can structure political institutions in ways that preserve their own interests or power, or they can arrange procedural rules to make it difficult for others to challenge the system. Ensuring that a decision is not reached is another powerful manifestation of mobilization of bias because A can prevent B from obtaining what B wants through no apparent act at all. If A can stack the rules of the political game so that B’s issues never get addressed, then A has won without ever having to make a decision openly. Issues that are never or only weakly raised, claims to resources that are never or only weakly made, decisions that are not reached—these are also important scenarios to consider in determining who has political power.

The Third Dimension of Power: Preference Shaping

Formal decision-making as described by Dahl is the first dimension of power and the mobilization of bias described by Bachrach and Baratz is the second dimension of power. Political and social theorist Steven Lukes put forward a third dimension of power that we’ll call preference shaping. In his Power: A Radical View, which was originally published in 1974, Lukes acknowledges that Bachrach and Baratz contributed immensely to our understanding of power with their mobilization of bias idea, but he argues that power has yet one more dimension to it. Lukes starts with the observation that both of the first two dimensions of power are based on the assumption of conflict, where A and B have different preferences on key issues. In the first dimension of power, A’s preferences win over B’s preferences in a formal decision-making setting—a city council vote, an executive decision, or a court ruling. In the second dimension, the rules of the game are arranged in such a way that A’s preferences either get preferential treatment in the decision-making process or B’s preferences never get heard in the first place.

But what if, Lukes argues, A and B actually have the same preferences and that very fact is evidence of A’s power over B? What if B has real interests and preferences that differ from A’s, but B is not even conscious of his own interests because of A’s power? This may occur because B has internalized A’s values as his own. Perhaps A controls the media to such an extent that B assumes that what is good for A is also good for B. Maybe A has so structured the educational system that B cannot conceive of the world being any different than the status quo, with A on top and B on the bottom of the class structure. Maybe B has been powerless for so long, that B has internalized the idea that she doesn’t deserve to get what she wants. As Lukes asks,

“[I]s it not the supreme and most insidious exercise of power to prevent people, to whatever degree, from having grievances by shaping their perceptions, cognitions and preferences in such a way that they accept their role in the existing order of things, either because they can see or imagine no alternative to it, or because they see it as natural and unchangeable, or because they value it as divinely ordained and beneficial?” (5)

Analyzing an Issue Using the Three Dimensions of Power

The three dimensions of power can be visible on any number of political issues. For example, let’s say a bill comes before the U.S. Senate to tax very large estates—over, let’s say, $10 million—upon the estate owner’s death. A vote is held, and the bill is defeated with 44 senators supporting it and 56 senators opposing it. The first dimension of power is easy to see since the vote resulted in a clear decision: one side beat the other.

The second dimension of power is visible as well. The Senate has a set of rules and procedures that are stacked against this kind of bill: because of the filibuster, the bill really needs 60 votes to pass the Senate, so the losers are even further from victory than the vote tally indicates. In addition, because Senators are predominantly white, white interests get privileged. And since whites are more likely to have large estates to pass to their children, a bill taxing those estates has an uphill road in the Senate.

What about the third dimension of power? Have preferences been shaped by elites on this issue? It’s clear that if one compares political debates from the early part of the twentieth century to that of today, you can see that  wealthy interests have been able to get inordinate numbers of middle class and poor people to stand up against the estate tax, because their perception has been shaped to believe it is a “death tax” that might affect them. This is an erroneous belief, because most people are light years away from leaving assets anywhere close to $10 million to their heirs. It is also intentionally cultivated by elites and gives senators cover to vote against increasing the estate tax. (6)

A Guide to Spotting the Three Dimensions of Power

When examining any political struggle, use this guide to see if you can spot the three dimensions of power in action:

First Dimension of Power—Look for situations where people who have authority to directly impact the course of an issue have a say in making key decisions. Often, this takes the form of an actual legislative vote, executive command or veto, or court ruling, but other actions might fit into the first dimension as well. Also look for nondecisions—decisions to not decide an issue, which typically benefit one side more than another.

Second Dimension of Power—Look for biases in the rules of the game and for procedures that favor one side over another. Do the rules of politics affect the struggle such that one side has higher hurdles to overcome? Look for people or groups whose stories are told by others, for those stories tend to be self-serving. The novelist Chimamanda Adichie says that “power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.”7 Look for situations where one actor gets to tell the story of another actor.

Third Dimension of Power—Look for people who have had the wool pulled over their eyes, who are apparently acting against their own interests, or who take on the viewpoint of others. Look for people who possess resources and access to media or educational tools with which to manipulate attitudes and opinions. Are they able to use those resources or that access to shape the political preferences of other actors in the polity?

As you consider the three dimensions of power, keep in mind that they become progressively more difficult to detect. The first dimension of power is more visible and more common than the second, which is more visible and more common than the third.

References

1. Quoted in Chris McGreal, “Robert Caro: A Life with LBJ and the Pursuit of Power,” The Guardian. June 9, 2012.

2. Robert A. Dahl, “The Concept of Power,” Behavioral Science2, 1957. 201-15; quoted in Patrick Bernhagen, “Power: Making Sense of an Elusive Concept,” an unpublished manuscript. March 2002.

3. Peter Bachrach and Morton S. Baratz, “Two Faces of Power,” The American Political Science Review. 56 (4): 1962, pp. 947-952.

4. Peter Bachrach and Morton S. Baratz, “Two Faces of Power,” The American Political Science Review. 56 (4): 1962, pp. 947-952.

5. Steven Lukes, Power: A Radical View. 2nd Edition. Ebbw Vale, Wales: Palgrave Macmillan. 2005. Page 28.

6. The “death tax” language is apparently the creation of the National Federation of Independent Business and Republican messaging consultant Frank Luntz. See Mark Abadi, “Republicans Say ‘Death Tax’ While Democrats Say ‘Estate Tax’—and There’s a Fascinating Reason Why,” BusinessInsider.com. October 9, 2017.

7. Chimamanda Adichie, “The Danger of a Single Story,” TED Global. July 2009.

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