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Chapter 9: Who Wins, Who Loses: Pluralism Versus Elitism

  1. Pluralism
    1. Pluralism Is a Group Theory of Democracy. People participate in politics by their membership in groups, and these groups, through competition and compromise, create public policy.
    2. There are four key concepts in the pluralist argument:
      1. Fragmentation of power. No one group is dominant, therefore all must bargain. Power is divided, though not equally.
      2. Bargaining. The government acts as a referee in this process. The government will make sure the rules of the game are followed and can intervene to help weaker groups.
      3. Compromise. The inevitable result of the competition among relatively equal rivals is a series of compromises. Accommodation is made easier by the fact that most individuals are members of many groups.
      4. Consensus. Underlying the entire process is a basic agreement on the general political ideals and goals of society. Agreement on rules and results is the "cement that holds society together." Specific examples include agreeing on the importance of civil liberties and the goal of equality of opportunity.
    3. Examples of Pluralism. When major environmental groups decide a new law regulating air pollution is needed, they raise funds from their members and seek compromises from chemical companies. The press weighs in, public opinion is heard, as is EPA in hearings before Congressional committees. The resulting legislation reflects the relative power of the groups. Similarly, Robert Dahl's book Who Governs? concluded that there was no single elite that made important decisions in all areas of New Haven politics, but rather several different groups.
    4. Criticisms of Pluralism. Many feel that consensus on democratic ideals masks the real inequity of economic and social distribution of benefits, that the majority of people have no part in the political game, and that powerful elites prevent issues from ever reaching the public. Other critics point to the political inflation of too many groups choking government with too many demands (hyperpluralism).
  2. Power Elite Theory
      The decision-making positions in America are occupied by members of a unified and nonrepresentative elite who look after their own interests.
    1. How the Power Elite Rules. Power is centered in institutions. Therefore, key leadership positions in these institutions are reserved for the elite. These positions are open only to the ruling class of the nation. This class controls the economy and preserves the economic status quo. Decisions are the result not of consensus, but of conflict between the haves and have-nots and reflect the domination of the former. This elite secure the important decision-making positions for its members while encouraging powerlessness below.
    2. Examples of the Power Elite. In C. Wright Mills's The Power Elite, the classic statement of the theory, the movement of leaders between the three dominant areas-business, the military, and government-is described. The Council on Foreign Relations is pointed to as an elite Establishment institution controlling key foreign policy jobs and issues among its members.
    3. Criticisms of the Power Elite View. Although it is true that the number of persons in positions of power is limited, their unity is exaggerated, and the elites do compete among themselves, and democracy consists of people choosing between them through the vote. Some say the elite are better suited to positions of leadership than are the masses. Often these views veer into conspiracy theories that do not analyze politics, but only assert secret cover-ups that encourage apathy and cynicism, as well as fundraising by demagogues.
  3. The Debate
      Both approaches agree that only a small number of people participate directly in politics, and therefore the real question is how competitive and representative these elites are. The book's case studies show how difficult it is to fit all "real" politics into one theory or the other. Recent modifications have discussed a plural elitism. This modification stresses that politics is divided into different policy arenas. Different political conflicts are understood by different approaches: for example, small-town politics may be best studied using a pluralist approach, and foreign policy through the elitist model. These models also reflect differing political ideals. Pluralism seeks to maintain the existing political structure while power elite theorists maintain that basic changes are needed for the United States to become a true democracy.
  4. Conclusion
      We do not have to be non-participants in the political game. People (including our students) can affect the outcome of politics but they must, at the least, decide to join the game.

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