Pluralists See Public Policy Assignments


Pluralism is the theory that a multitude of groups, not the people as a whole, govern the United States. These organizations, which include among others unions, trade and professional associations, environmentalists, civil rights activists, business and financial lobbies, and formal and informal coalitions of like-minded citizens, influence the making and administration of laws and policy. Since the participants in this process constitute only a tiny fraction of the populace, the public acts mainly as bystanders.

Indeed, some pluralists believe that direct democracy is not only unworkable; it is not even necessarily desirable. Besides the logistical problems of having every citizen meet at one time to decide policies, political issues require continuous and expert attention, which the average citizen does not have. Robert Dahl, a noted pluralist, suggested in one of his early writings that in societies like ours "politics is a sideshow in the great circus of life." Most people, he explained, concentrate their time and energies on activities involving work, family, health, friendship, recreation, and the like. Other pluralists go further. They worry that the common person lacks the virtues--reason, intelligence, patience--for self-government and that direct democracy leads to anarchy and the loss of freedom.

Nor do pluralists think that representative democracy works as well in practice as in theory. Voting is important, to be sure. But Americans vote for representatives, not for specific policy alternatives. A candidate's election cannot always be interpreted as an endorsement of a particular course of action.

Politicians frequently win office with only a "plurality" of the votes--that is, they receive more votes than their opponents--but not with a majority of the total eligible electorate. President Reagan, for example, received approximately 51 percent of the ballots cast in 1980, but his total constituted only about a quarter of the votes of all potential voters, since only 55 percent of those eligible to participate actually went to the polls. Furthermore, a first choice among candidates is not necessarily the same as a first choice among policies. The people who elected President Clinton, for example, did not all agree with his positions on health care, taxes, national defense, Bosnia, and the environment. Many of them, in fact, were probably voting against his opponent, George Bush, rather than for Clinton himself.

If Americans do not decide major controversies themselves or indirectly through elections, how are such matters resolved? Pluralists are convinced that public policy emerges from competition among groups. Since relatively few people participate actively in this process, power, it might seem, would be concentrated in few hands. Before drawing any dire conclusions about the possible undemocratic nature of this form of government, however, it is necessary to look at political power as pluralists see it.

The Pluralist View of Power

Everyone recognizes political power when they see it: Congress raises taxes; the president sends troops to Bosnia; the Supreme Court declares the death penalty constitutional; a police officer tells a motorist to pull off the road. In each instance a group or person makes others do something they would not otherwise do. Seen from this perspective, the definition of power seems simple enough. Yet the term is loaded with implications that must be fully grasped if one is to understand pluralism.

Resources. In the first place, power is not an identifiable property that humans possess in fixed amounts. Rather, people are powerful because they control various resources. Resources are assets that can be used to force others to do what one wants. Politicians become powerful because they command resources that people want or fear or respect. The list of possibilities is virtually endless: legal authority, money, prestige, skill, knowledge, charisma, legitimacy, free time, experience, celebrity, and public support. Civil rights activists in the 1960s relied mainly on their numbers and the legitimacy of their cause to get their way whereas corporations frequently depend on their access to officeholders, control of information, and campaign contributions. Whatever the case, pluralists emphasize that power is not a physical entity that individuals either have or do not have, but flows from a variety of different sources.

Potential versus Actual Power. Pluralists also stress the differences between potential and actual power. Actual power means the ability to compel someone to do something; potential power refers to the possibility of turning resources into actual power. Cash, one of many resources, is only a stack of bills until it is put to work. A millionaire may or may not be politically influential; it all depends on what the wealth is spent for--trips to the Bahamas or trips to Washington. Martin Luther King Jr., for example, was certainly not a rich person. But by using resources such as his forceful personality, organizational skills, and especially the legitimacy of his cause, he had a greater impact on American politics than most wealthy people. A particular resource like money cannot automatically be equated with power because the resource can be used skillfully or clumsily, fully or partially, or not at all.

Three of the major tenets of the pluralist school are (1)resources and hence potential power are widely scattered throughout society; (2) at least some resources are available to nearly everyone; and (3) at any time the amount of potential power exceeds the amount of actual power.

Scope of Power. Finally, and perhaps most important, no one is all-powerful. An individual or group that is influential in one realm may be weak in another. Large military contractors certainly throw their weight around on defense matters, but how much sway do they have on agricultural or health policies? A measure of power, therefore, is its scope, or the range of areas where it is successfully applied. Pluralists believe that with few exceptions power holders in America usually have a relatively limited scope of influence.

For all these reasons power cannot be taken for granted. One has observe it empirically in order to know who really governs. The best way to do this, pluralists believe, is to examine a wide range of specific decisions, noting who took which side and who ultimately won and lost. Only by keeping score on a variety of controversies can one begin to identify actual power holders.

The pluralists' view of power underlies their interpretation of how the American political system operates, a topic to which we now turn.

The Characteristics of Pluralism

Perhaps the key characteristic of American government, according to pluralists, is that it is dominated not by a single elite but rather by a multiplicity of relatively small groups, some of which are well organized and funded, some of which are not. Although a few are larger and more influential than the others, the scope of their power, far from being universal, is restricted to relatively narrow areas such as defense, agriculture, or banking.

A second characteristic is that the groups are politically autonomous, or independent. They have the right and freedom to do business in the political marketplace. How well they fare depends not on the indulgence of a higher authority but on their own skill in rallying political resources. Because a diverse society like ours contains so many potential factions, political autonomy guarantees constant, widespread, and spirited competition among these organizations.

Third, intergroup competition leads to countervailing influence: The power of one group tends to cancel that of another so that a rough equilibrium results. Group memberships overlap as well. Members of one association, in other words, might belong to another, even competing, group. Overlapping memberships reduce the intensity of conflicts because loyalties are often spread among many organizations.

A fourth characteristic is the openness of the system. It is open in two senses. First, most organizations are seldom if ever completely shut off from the outside. They continuously recruit new members from all walks of life. Second, the availability of unused resources constantly encourages the formation of new groups. Stimulated by threats to their interests or sensitized to injustices, or for whatever reason, individuals frequently unite for political action. In the process groups mine untapped resources. This happened in 1989 when a Supreme Court decision gave states greater latitude in restricting abortions. The Court's action so scared and angered pro-choice groups that they accelerated their organizing efforts to prevent states from enacting stiffer antiabortion laws.

Pluralists judge society not by its actual equality but by its equality of political opportunity. Americans, they contend, have a comparatively equal chance to participate in government. By mobilizing resources (collecting signatures on a petition, for example) they can make existing groups share their influence, or they can create new organizations that will compete with established ones.

The fifth characteristic of the system is the endless quest by groups and office seekers for public support. Even though the masses do not govern directly, their opinions are a resource that can be used by one organization against another. In a country where the belief in popular control of government is so deeply ingrained, people feel compelled to sell their causes to the public, and are frequently judged winners or losers by their standings in the polls. What else explains the millions of dollars spent on advertising? What else accounts for the demand for public relations consultants? Why else is so much attention lavished on public opinion surveys? The answers lie in the widely shared belief that a group with popular backing has an important advantage over one that lacks it, even if the masses do not actually take part in decision making.

The public also exerts influence by choosing leaders, most of whom back and are backed by organized groups. So important is this responsibility that one scholar defined democracy as "an institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which [groups] acquire power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people's vote."

The final characteristic of pluralism is consensus on the "rules of the game." Consensus, or widespread agreement, among political activists and leaders on democratic principles and values holds the system together. These people accept regular and open elections, the right to vote, majority rule, political equality, free speech, the right to assemble, and the other rules that make peaceful and orderly politics possible. They tolerate differences of opinion. And, of utmost significance, they abide by the outcomes of elections.

Some pluralists contend that, since this acceptance of democratic norms is higher among leaders than the general public, political disagreements are best settled at the top, where they can be dealt with fairly and dispassionately. Keeping the intolerant and shortsighted masses at bay helps ensure the system's safety and stability. The theory, in short, argues that American government stays free because its main participants, the individuals who actually make policy, agree on a code of conduct that is not always shared by the public at large.

Since it is fair to say that pluralism is the most widely accepted interpretation of American government, it might be useful to consider a concrete example to clarify the theory's main points. See the document,"The B-1 Bomber: A Case Study." Return to American Political System page

Return to H. T. Reynolds page

As I sat down to finish writing my second blog entry for “People, Spaces, and Deliberation” -- which was to be a discussion of two contrasting approaches to deliberation in the European Union in 2007 -- Anne-Katrin’s entry on John Kingdon’s Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policy (1984) caught my eye.  Then Sina’s ensuing entry drew my attention further away from deliberation in the EU and right smack into Kingdon’s processual world of problems, policies, and politics streaming together and apart.  I sympathized vigorously with Anne-Katrin’s disquiet about the limited purview given to media’s influence on policy agenda setting by Kingdon.  I concurred strongly with Sina’s trenchant reflections on how well (or poorly) Kingdon’s framework travels from advanced democracies to developing country contexts.

Then, having taught Kingdon to public policy students several years ago at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, a flood of hitherto buried thoughts came back to light, like Rip van Winkle awakening from two decades’ stupor.  Sina is dead-on about the elegance of Kingdon’s framework.  Surely its simplicity and parsimony helps to account for its great longevity.  Yet elegance -- at least in the social sciences -- is rarely achieved without cost.  Most obvious among these costs in Kingdon’s case are what is missed because a more nuanced reality is simply ruled out by assumption (e.g., indirect media effects, as discussed in Anne-Katrin’s post) and what is missed because the context for one’s study is limited to terra cognita (e.g., the policy process in the United States, as discussed in Sina’s post). 

Other blind spots in Kingdon’s arguments and analyses also come to mind.  At risk of caricature or unfair rendering, for instance, one implication of a “garbage can” approach of policy processes is a potentially alarming neutrality and relativism between any two policy alternatives (Are torture and human rights really on equal footing as post-9-11 policy alternatives but for, in Kingdon’s terms, concerns with technical feasibility and budget constraints?  Does the intrinsic value of a policy alternative count for naught, beyond the relative value of that alternative to a particular policy community?).  Another example of a commonly raised criticism to Kingdon is the limited utility of a model of “organized anarchy” in explaining sweeping, systemic policy reforms, such as the New Deal or Great Society programs in the U.S. context? 

The point of raising these rejoinders is not to tender a comprehensive critique of Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policy.  Truth be told, I like this book.  A lot.  Rather, my aim is to identify and elaborate briefly on what I see as a persistent general limitation of American political science scholarship on the policy-making process, of which Kingdon’s book is emblematic.  Namely, Kingdon and most other works in this area typically assume a kind of domesticated (for lack of a better way of putting it) pluralist politics in which the role of public opinion is limited, by and large, to formal, regularized inputs into elections.  Within these pluralist rules of the game, it is certainly true, as Sina points out, that elections must have some integrity to function as proxies for “public opinion.”  To the extent that elections in many developing country contexts are a sham or a ritual, the possibility for genuine bottom-up inputs into policy-making processes are severely limited. 

[Note here that even in so-called “mature democracies” like the U.S., competitive elections are an increasingly rare occurrence and from that fact, we should either have to infer that there are no rascals in American politics or that U.S. public opinion, in the aggregate, is so invariant or impassive as to be incapable of throwing the rascals out.  Both inferences ought to strain credulity.]

Recognizing the limiting pluralist foundations of much scholarship in this area, starting with Kingdon, is urgent because part of the promise of social movements and social accountability mechanisms is that public inputs into the policy-making process can be sustained and substantive, far beyond the view of public opinion found in Kingdon.  This is a promise that is regularly nourished with evidence of successful groundswells and grassroots mobilization across the developed and developing worlds.  In Kingdon, I see two specific constraints in how public opinion is viewed. 

-- First, Kingdon limits public inputs to metrics like pre-election polls, post-election vote counts, and “national mood” (an aggregative and majoritarian kind of opinion).  

-- Second, Kingdon limits public opinion to a role in the “politics stream” of public policy-making, with no place or mention of public opinion’s role in the other two streams, problem definition and the specification of policy proposals. 

The consequence of these constraints is that institutionalized inputs beyond elections, like social accountability initiatives, and non-institutionalized inputs, like social movements, seem to have no place.  These more bottom-up inputs are key ingredients not just as a factor in shaping the political backdrop to public policy-making.  Rather, they are also potential keys to defining problems and specifying policy alternatives.  On the former, citizen report cards, right-to-information movements, and participatory expenditure tracking initiatives are, after all, a kind of indicator and feedback.  Moreover, non-electoral forms of participation from deliberative town hall meetings to mass protests can produce focusing events and evoke powerful symbols. 

Social accountability mechanisms and social movements are also potentially key to specifying policy alternatives.  Participatory budgeting can, after all, help to define “tolerable costs” and “value acceptability,” which Kingdon sees as keys to the policy stream.  Participatory mechanisms, furthermore, can disrupt existing boundaries that define policy communities by de facto opening up the borders to these communities.  Social movements, if they are sustained enough, can also help to re-structure how (bounded) policy communities view the costs and benefits of particular policy alternatives.  Sanjeev Khagram’s Dams and Development(2004), for instance, beautifully demonstrates the ability of transnational movement activism to reconfigure policy schemas that equated dams with development.

Some may object to calling social accountability initiatives or social movement politics a form of public opinion.  Certainly, I take a more robust, multimodal conception of public opinion as a precondition to accepting a more expansive view of how problems are defined, policy proposals are specified, and political contexts are shaped.  Ultimately, Kingdon’s focus on elite institutions and “policy entrepreneurs” is too narrow to account for decision-making in what Sina calls “less settled polities.”  For a framework like Kingdon’s to be both more true to empirical reality and more useful to “plan interventions smartly” (again, borrowing from Sina’s post), we need to identify the points of entry for non-institutional actors and grassroots outsiders to influence the policy-making process.

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