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Chapter One: The Study of American Government

What is Political Power?

I. Power is the ability of one person to get another person
to act in accordance with the first person’s intentions.
Power is often exercised in ways that may not be
obvious to the participants.
A. Authority is the right to use power.
B. The exercise of rightful power is ordinarily
easier than the exercise of power that is not
supported by any persuasive claim to that right.
What is Democracy?
I. The word democracy is used to describe those regimes
that come as close as possible to “the rule of the many.”
A government is democratic if all, or most, of its citizens
participate directly in either holding office or making
A. This is called direct or participatory democracy.
II. The second definition of democracy is the principle of
governance of most nations that are called democratic.
This method, in which leaders compete for votes, is
called representative democracy.
Direct Versus Representative Democracy: Which is Best?
I. For representative government to work, there must be an
opportunity for genuine leadership competition. This
requires in turn that individuals and parties be able to run
for office, that communication be free, and that the
voters perceive that a meaningful choice exists.
II. Some people have argued that the virtues of direct
democracy can and should be reclaimed even in modern
society. This can be done by allowing cities to govern
themselves or requiring those affected by some
government program to participate in its formulation.
A. In many states a measure of direct democracy
exists when voters can decide on referendum
How is Power Distributed in a Democracy?
I. Representative democracy is any system of government
in which leaders are authorized to make decisions by
winning a competitive struggle for the popular vote.
A. In cases of majoritarian politics, leaders are so
sharply constrained by what most people want
that the actions of officeholders will follow the
preferences of the citizens very closely. In this
case elected officials are the delegates of the
people, acting as the people would act if the
matter was up for a popular vote.
B. The issues handled in a majoritarian fashion can
only be those that are sufficiently important to
command the attention of most citizens, and
sufficiently feasible to address so that what
citizens want done can be done.
II. When circumstances do not permit majoritarian
decision-making, then some group of officials will have
to act without knowing exactly what the people want.
A. The distribution of political power, even in a
democracy, will depend importantly on the
composition of political elites who are involved
in the struggles over policy.
Four Theories of Elite Influence
I. To many Marxists, government is merely a reflection of
underlying economic forces, primarily the pattern of
ownership of the means of production.
A. All societies are divided into classes on the basis
of the relationships of people to the economy. In
modern society two major classes contend for
power—capitalists and workers.
B. Whichever class dominates the economy also
controls the government.
II. A second theory argues that a nongovernmental elite
makes most of the major decisions but that this elite is
not composed exclusively of corporate leaders.
A. The most important policies are set by a loose
coalition of three groups—corporate leaders, top
military officials, and a handful of key political
B. Government is dominated by a few top leaders,
most of whom are outside government and enjoy
advantages in wealth, status, and organizational
position. They act in concert, and the policies
they make serve the interests of the elite.
III. A third theory directs attention to the appointed officials
—bureaucrats—who operate government agencies.
A. All institutions fall under the control of large
bureaucracies who expertise and specialized
competence are essential to the management of
contemporary affairs.
IV. The pluralist view states that political resources are so
widely scattered in our society and in the hands of such a
variety of people that no single elite has a monopoly on
A. There are so many governmental institutions in
which power may be exercised that no single
group could dominate most of the political
B. Policies are the outcome of a complex pattern of
political haggling, compromises, and shifting
C. Pluralists do not argue that political resources
are distributed equally. They believe that
political resources are sufficiently divided
among such different kinds of elites that almost
all relevant interests have a chance to affect the
outcome of decisions. Not only are these elites
divided, they are responsive to their followers’
interests, and thus they provide representation to
almost all citizens affected by a policy.
Finding Out Who Governs
I. Understanding preferences is vital to understanding

This chapter describes some of the most basic features about we

view as our democratic form of government. Some of the most
important topics covered are: who rules in a democracy, how
power is distributed, what role different political and social elites
play in the running and maintenance of a democratic system, and
the different ways that people can be represented within a
democratic system. This chapter attempts to show the reader how
complex democratic governments may be, and how they may
differ greatly from the one that we are familiar with. It is
important to acknowledge that there are many variables that go
into creating a democratic government—even ones most people
may not be aware of—that have a profound effect on how people
function within their society.