Lecture Notes – American Political System

The American Political System

Week One – Wilson,
Chapters 1 and 23

Students Should Be
Able To:

1. List the two basic questions to be asked
about American (or any other) government and show that they are
distinct questions.

2. Explain how political change tends to make
political scientists cautious in stating how politics works or what
values dominate it.

3. Explain what is meant by power, and by
political power in particular. Relate the latter to authority,
legitimacy, and democracy.

4. Distinguish among the three concepts of
democracy mentioned in the chapter, explaining in which of three

senses the textbook refers to American government as democratic.

5. Provide definitions and examples of the four
different types of policy outputs of government.

6. Explain the function of public opinion in
the four types of policy outputs and indicate under what
circumstances the public is most influential and least

7. Differentiate between majoritarian politics
and elitist politics, explaining the four major theories on the

8. Describe the Marxist, elitist, bureaucratic,
and pluralist theories. Indicate the advantages and shortcomings of
each theory as described by the text.


I. What is political power?

A. Two great questions about

1. Who governs: those who govern
will affect us

2.To what ends: tells how government
affects our lives

3.The text focuses on who governs and, in
answering this question, looks at how the government makes
decisions on a variety of issues

B. Power

1.Definition: the ability of one
person to cause another person to act in accordance with the
first person’s intentions

2.Text’s concern: power as it is used to
affect who will hold government office and how government will

3.Authority: the right to use power; not
all who exercise political power have it

4.Legitimacy: what makes a law or
constitution a source of right

5.Struggles over what makes authority

6 Necessity to be in some sense
“democratic” in the United States today

II. What is democracy? Describes at least three
different political systems.

A. Where the “true interests” of the
people are served, whether or not those people affect the decision
making (democratic centralism)



3.Certain European, Asian, Latin American

B. Aristotelian “rule of the many”
(participatory democracy)

1.Fourth-century B.C. Greek
city-state, practiced by free adult male property owners

2.New England town meeting

C. Acquisition of power by leaders via
competitive elections (representative democracy or elitist theory
of democracy)

1. Justifications

a. Direct democracy is
impractical for reasons of time, expertise, etc.

b. The people make unwise decisions
based on fleeting emotions


III. Direct v. representative

A. Text uses the term “democracy” to
refer to representative democracy

1. Constitution does not contain
word “democracy” but “republican form of government”

2. Representative democracy requires
leadership competition if system is to work

B . Recommendations for reclaiming
participatory democracy

1. Community control

2. Citizen participation in program

3. Do we want a push-button Democracy or
one that is has a “mind of its own?”

IV. How is power distributed in the American

A. Majoritarian politics – The
populist view. This is what most tend to view our democracy as but
it os often simplistic. Really, it is a very democratic notion,
but how good is this as a form of government.

1. Leaders constrained to follow
wishes of the people very closely

2. Applies when issues are simple and

B. Elitism – within a democracy there are
always elites. These elites, however, are dynamic not static

1. Rule by identifiable group of
persons who possess a disproportionate share of political

2. Theories on political elites

a. Marxism: government merely a
reflection of underlying economic forces

b. C. Wright Mills: power elite
composed of key corporate leaders, military leaders, and
political leaders – (See

c. Max Weber: expertise, specialized
competence will dominate

d. Pluralist view: no single elite has
monopoly on power; hence must bargain and compromise while
being responsive to followers (See

C. Cynical view that politics is
self-seeking enterprise

1. Policy does not necessarily
reflect authors’ motives

2. Self-interest an incomplete guide to

a. AFL-CIO supported civil
rights in 1960s, without personal or organizational

b. Civil Aeronautics Board employees
in 1970s, worked for deregulation.

3. There are examples, however, of
political action being taken with only self interest as a

a. Support of “Big Tobacco” and

V. Political change

A. Necessary to refer to history
frequently since no single theory adequate

1. Government today influenced by

2. Government today still evolving and
responds to changing beliefs

B. Politics about the public interest, not
just “who gets what”

VI. Policy Development – What types of policies
are developed by the American System.

A. Important to know because our lives
are affected by …

1. Distribution of political

2. Policies adopted by

B . Classification of policies has two

1. Looks at comprehensive list of

2. Focuses on how policies affect

C. Policy Outputs

1. Majoritarian Politics

2. Client Politics

3. Entrepenurial

4. Interest Group Politics

Perceived Costs






Majoritarian Politics

Entrepenurial Politics


Client Politics

Interest Group Politics

D. Four kinds of policy outputs –
based upon cost / benefit principle.

1. Majoritarian politics – What
factors play a role in majoritarian Policy Making?

a. Public opinion

(1) Usually a discernible
public opinion exists since issues highly visible

(2) Long-term disregard of public
opinion is dangerous for politicians.

(3) President and advisers play a
leading role in development of majoritarian

b. Ideological debate often
precipitated by proposals of new majoritarian

c. Worldview – A Generally held
belief.. paradigm

(1) Ideological debate
outcomes often institutionalize new worldviews

(2) Crises may provide decisive
leverage to alter worldview

A crisis situation makes the
public willing to follow a leader who promises change and
action. When Franklin Roosevelt was elected president
during the Great Depression, Will Rogers commented: “The
whole country is with him just so he does something. If
he burned down the Capitol we would cheer and say ‘Well,
we at least got a fire started anyhow.'”

(3) Other forces can alter

  • Education
  • Mass media
  • Changing perceptions of causes
    and consequences of problems

d. Political parties

(1) Relatively important role
when Congress shaping new majoritarian policies

(2) But bipartisan support after
new policies succeed

(3) Policies may receive closer
scrutiny if costs become very high

2. Interest group politics

a. Changing economic and social
cleavages in society source of interest group policy

(1) Sources of interest group
policy proposals found in changing

  • Technologies
  • Markets
  • Regions
  • Organizational skills,
    resources of various groups

(2) Dominant group sometimes able
to block another from organizing

  • Unions blocked by
  • Blacks blocked by

b. Political parties

(1) Usually not decisive
because of internal division caused by crosscut-

(2) Exception: labor-management
issues tend to parallel Democratic / Republican

c. Continuing struggle

(1) Moves into bureaucracy,
courts, later legislative sessions

(2) Agencies less vulnerable to
capture than are those of client politics

(3) Public opinion and presidential
leadership usually weak

(4) Mass media rarely play an
important role

3. Client politics – benefits
concentrated, costs distributed.

a. Visibility

(1) Typically low visibility-

(2) Public and media attention may
change with economic conditions

(3) Non economic groups can also

lose client status

b. Political parties

(1) Usually only a slight
role–group is making an unopposed request

(2) Problem of client group:
getting on the agenda

(3) Conducive to political
corruption-need a political sponsor, generally avoid

c. Identifying the clients

(1) Sometimes sponsorship by
self-appointed representatives

(2) Economic Opportunity Act:
bureaucrats and political executives

d. Serving the clients

(1) Creation of
client-serving government agencies

(2) Low-visibility client politics
less common now: more opponents and court

(3) Proliferation of regulatory
agencies also creates some offsetting forces

4. Entrepreneurial politics – costs
concentrated, benefits distributed – Arousing
interest in a little known policy.

a. Requires skilled leadership
that attracts media attention

(1) Needed because appeal to
self-interest is too slight

(2) Public’s perception of dangers
and values hinges on such manipulation; symbols change
with each generation

(3) Sometimes no compelling symbol
found: gun control

b. Promotion by the media

(1) Great importance of
reporters, editors; often tacit alliance with

(2) political parties less

c. Capture of the agencies

(1) Agencies most susceptible
to capture by interest groups who are adversely

(2) Example: FDA, by pharmaceutical

(3) May instead create an agency to
encourage interest group competition: EPA

d. The Courts

(1) Play an important role in
entrepreneurial politics

(2) Initial deference to popular
mood by courts

(3) Later develop balancing tests
to assess the regulations


VII. Competing theories of political power – we
have examined the American majoritarian system but there are other
theories on political power, in and out our nation.

A. Marxist theory

1. Definition: ownership of means
of production shapes politics and determines political

2.. Economic determinists will point to
client relationships in economic policy

a. Maritime, dairy

b. Farm-price supports

c. Oil import quotas

d. Tax treatment of preferred

3. The theory explains client politics
only when a government advantage involves an economic client.
But as client politics becomes concerned with noneconomic
matters, the theory falls short as an explanation and fails to
account for the boundaries imposed by public and elite opinion
on other groups.

a. Ethnic groups

b. Racial groups

c. Women’s groups

4. Even economic client politics limited
by public and elite opinion

a. Airline deregulation

b. Deregulation of banking, trucking,

c. Failure of auto industry to block
Clean Air Act

B Elitist theory

1. Definition: single elite with
common background makes all policy, influenced only weakly by
popular opinion

2. Client politics a partial confirmation
of elite theory

3. But an ambiguity persists

a. Elite may be beneficiary of
policies, or …

b. Elite because of characteristics
that enable elites to influence all policies

4. Client politics do not confirm
elitism–costs/benefits influence still affects the elites
ability to shape policy

5. Most popular version today: career
politicians in Congress make decisions without regard to public

a. But these elites are
popularly elected-elites of the past were unelected

C. Bureaucratic theory – Institutional
Momentum, career bureaucrat.

1.Definition: government by large
organizations made up of appointed career officials

2. Bureaucracy most
powerful where laws are least precise

a. Weapons procurement

b. Civil rights law

c. Foreign policy making

d. Regulation of business

3. Bureaucratic discretion is …

a. Sometimes inevitable because
of subject matter b. At other times avoidable, but Congress
unwilling to make tough decisions

4. Recent tendency in Congress: reduction
of bureaucratic discretion

a. Environmental legislation and
drug laws

b. Exact standards increase social
cost of standards

5. Another avenue of increasing
bureaucratic power: source of the political agenda

a. Economic Opportunity Act

b. Medicare Act (1965)

c. Weapons proposals

6. This theory overestimates the power of
the bureaucracy. The bureaucracy is powerful when the law
confers wide discretion and less so when the task is specified
by law in exact language. Thus it is the clarity and
consistency of congressional laws which determine bureaucratic

7. Historical Opposition – Jackson’s
“Spoils System”

D. Pluralist theory

1. Definition: policies come from
conflict, bargaining among organization representing affected

a. Obviously an accurate
description of interest group politics

b. But it overestimates extent of
group formation, activity

2. In client politics, little incentive
for affected groups to organize

3. In majoritarian politics, interest
groups play marginal role

4. Rise of entrepreneurial politics makes
pluralism more applicable, a greater variety of groups
represented today

5. Pluralism still an inadequate

a. Doesn’t account for client or
majoritarian politics

b. No clear explanation of
entrepreneurial politics

c. No full accounting of role of


authority – The right to use

bureaucrats – Appointed
officials who operate government agencies and large

bureaucratic theory – A theory
that bureaucrats make the key governing decisions. According to this
theory the influence of government bureaucracies has become so great
that elected officials are almost powerless to affect

client politics – Political
activity in which the benefits of a policy are concentrated on a
small, easily organized group while the costs are widely distributed
among the public at large. These factors make the policy low in
visibility and limit the role played by political parties. Such
policies have become less common as more organized interests act on
behalf of the public and as courts intervene more often in public
policy disputes.

democracy – A word used to
describe at least three different political systems that each embody
the principle of popular rule, if only in the interests of the
people. See democratic centralism, direct democracy,
representative democracy.

democratic centralism – A form
of democracy in which the true interests of the masses were
discovered through discussion within the Communist party, and then
decisions were made under central leadership to serve those

direct (participatory)
– A form of democracy in which most, or all, of
the citizenry participate directly by either holding office or making

elite – An identifiable group
of persons who possess a disproportionate share of some valued

elitist theory – A theory that
a few top leaders make the key decisions without reference to popular

entrepreneurial politics –
Political activity in which the benefits of a policy are
widely distributed but the costs are concentrated on a small group.
The public is usually indifferent to such policies and must be
mobilized through skilled leadership and the media. Emotional appeals
using compelling symbols are frequently employed for this purpose.
Government agencies created as a result of the policy are vulnerable
to capture, with courts likely to intervene.

interest group politics
Political activity in which the costs of a policy are concentrated on
a small group while the benefits are concentrated on a different but
equally small group. Such policy proposals are generated by changing
economic and social cleavages in society which force interests to
organize. Political parties are usually divided and play no role in
the resolution of the matter. The dispute over the policy will
persist even after its passage or defeat, but in the bureaucratic or
judicial arenas. Neither the president nor public opinion is a
significant factor.

legitimacy – What makes a law
or constitution a source of rightful power.

legitimacy barrier – A shared
public belief that limits access to the political agenda, depending
on whether an issue is considered an appropriate subject for
government action. This barrier has collapsed as politics has become
involved in nearly everything.

majoritarian politics – (1) A
political system in which leaders are constrained to follow closely
the wishes of the people. (2) Political activity in which the costs
and benefits of a proposed course of action are widely distributed.
The president and his advisers play the dominant role, with debate
expressed in ideological terms. The outcome of the debate is often
the institutionalization of a new worldview. The ideological nature
of the policy diminishes once the policy is adopted and proves

Marxist theory – (1) The
ideology espoused by Karl Marx which holds that government is a
reflection of economic forces, primarily ownership of the means of
production. The economic structure of a society shapes its politics
and determines political outcomes.

pluralist theory – A theory
that holds that political resources are divided among different kinds
of elites, giving relevant interest the chance to influence the
outcome of decisions. Policies are made by conflict and bargaining
among organizations that represent affected groups.

political power – Power used
to determine who will hold government office and how the government
will behave.

power – The ability of one
person to cause another person to act in accordance with the first
person’s intentions.

power elite A political theory
espoused by C. Wright Mills which holds that an elite of corporate
leaders, top military officers, and key political leaders make most
political decisions.

representative democracy – A
political system in which political power is conferred on those
selected by voters in competitive elections.

Weber, Max A – German
historian and sociologist who criticized the theories of Karl Marx,
arguing that all institutions have fallen under the control of large
bureaucracies whose expertise is essential to the management of
contemporary affairs.