power elite vs pluralist explanation models

October, 1996

The means by which public policy is created can be described by using two models: The power elite model, and the pluralist explanation model. Neither of these two models conforms to the democratic ideal of individualism, but rather delegates governmental power to groups of people. The power elite model suggests that the people who hold the power are in charge of the policy for our country, with little regard for those who are not in power. This group of people consults with their less powerful advisors, but never with average citizens, which results in a cessation of democracy. The powerful elite consists mainly of wealthy white males, both in Congress and as CEOs of large corporations. They have the ability to control the lives of the population through their policy decisions.
There are three realms in which the power elite function. The economy, the military and the political arena. Each of these three realms is made up of the most powerful people in each specialty. For instance, the economy is run by the wealthy and the heads of large corporations. In order to function efficiently and to respond in time of crisis, the three realms must interact and cooperate with each other. This cooperation most likely did not originate in a conspiracy, but certainly yields to the elite working together in order to benefit their own interests. (Mills 73).
Our capitalistic economy has certainly sustained, if not created, the powerful elite. In a capitalistic economy, money stays within institutions, and travels upward in the shape of a triangle. It is in the self interests of the powerful within each institution to amass large sums of money in order to have more flexibility in the running of their institution. This money can easily be used to buy influence at the governmental level, which, in our society, has evolved into the powerful elite simply running the government, without bothering to check with those who are affected by their decisions. Indeed, this type of government provides for no checks and balances, because the three realms of power will all be working together in order to benefit themselves. (Mills 74).
In contrast to the power elite model, the pluralist explanation model takes into consideration the competing interests of large groups of people. In this model, individuals have little or no power, only special interest groups hold influence and power over government policy. The policy outcomes of the government are the result of the competition between the interests of these groups. In this form,  the government becomes submissive to the interests of the groups.  All groups are not created equal, however, and more often than not the stronger groups win support of the government. Group power is based on three factors: The status of the group within society, the internal organization (hierarchy) of the group, and the group's ability to influence government. These factors, along with public opinion, shape the group's power over government. (Truman 67).
Fortunately, a wide variety of social needs and desires are represented by interest groups, and almost everyone belongs to at least one interest group. In this way, the people are indirectly represented in a form of democratic process, but because it is the groups' interests, and not directly the individual's, the democracy is vastly diluted. The wide variety of interests represented by the groups leads to a certain system of checks and balances. The interests of the NRA are offset by the interests of the Brady Bill Supporters, and so on. This system can lead to deadlock, because the competing interests will cancel each other out. Fortunately, the government consists of many points of access, so if the pro-gun interest group succeeds in getting pro-gun legislation through the congress, the anti-gun interest group may succeed in blocking the legislation with a Presidential veto. (Truman 68-72)
Neither the power elite model nor the pluralist explanation model represents the true nature of democracy. Nonetheless, I prefer the pluralist explanation because it does not entrust the power of the government into the hands of the wealthy, white males who represent the interests of a small minority of citizens as the power elite model does.  A oligarchy, such as the pluralist explanation model, pits the competing interests of society against each other in an attempt to provide a policy which accommodates the largest number of people.  There are shortfalls to this model, in that the groups with the largest sum of money often receive more attention than groups with large numbers of supporters but little money, but of the two models, certainly the pluralist explanation represents the greater interest of the society that makes up the groups than does the powerful elite, who represent only their own interests.
     Stages of Policies
The policy process involves several complex stages, each of which plays a critical role in the formation, implementation and outcome of the policy. The first stage is agenda setting. Before an item can be considered for policy making, it must first rise above the mass of many competing issues and ideas and get the attention of the policy makers. This action can come about as a result of a crisis, timing, pressure from interest groups, lobbyists, the media, or elected officials who adopt a cause as their own. An example of this is the current issue over smoking. For the last five years, tobacco industries have been hit hard by regulations and societal pressures against smoking. Yet alcohol, which kills more people each year than does tobacco, does not face the same criticism. The reason for this difference is in the agenda setting. The issue of tobacco has arisen because the media has put pressure on the government to do something about smoking. There is no logical reason why tobacco should be targeted more or less than any other drug, but because the media has made it into a politically correct target, it has risen above the other issues and been put on the agenda. (Theodoulou 87-88).
The next stage of the policy process is policy formulation. Policy formulation involves the creation of a course of action for dealing with the problem identified during the agenda setting stage. There are two steps to this stage: Determining what to do about the problem, and what policy will satisfy the requirements of dealing with the issue. If this stage is to be successful, the policy must not be offensive to the people who make policy decisions nor the people who have influence over policy implementation. In the case of health care, once Hillary Clinton set the issue on the agenda, the task fell to her to formulate a proposed policy which would solve the problems. In order to formulate the policy, Hillary formed committees including health professionals, insurance representatives, congress people, and the recipients of health care in order to create a policy which would solve the problem, but at the same time satisfied the requirements of the various policy makers and implementers so that it would pass. (Theodoulou 88).
In order to pars the proposed policy, the backers must first gain support for adoption of the policy. This is the next step, known as legitimization. Legitimization includes finding out what the Congress wants in the policy in order to pass it, and what the President will accept so that it won't get vetoed. In the case of Hillary's universal medical care proposal, she had to accommodate the interests of the various medical groups, the people who would be on the receiving end of the health care, the medical institutions who would be charged with implementing the policy, and the Congress people who would have to pass the policy. It was during this step that the proposal had to be so watered down in order to gain acceptance that the end proposal no longer represented what anyone involved in the process actually wanted. The necessity for legitimizing a policy often includes inserting provisions in the policy to appease to those who will legitimize it. This process is called "piggybacking," which is often used to sneak unpopular favors to constituents on the tails of very popular bills in order to ensure opponents votes for the policy. (Theodoulou 89).
Budgeting funds and resources for the implementation of the policy has very little to do with available funds. Allocating funds is of paramount important, and accounting for where those funds go or come from is not an important factor. This stage decides where the government and society's priorities lay, and often the weakest interests loose, even if those interests would greatly benefit our society. In the case of health care reform, there was little discussion as to where the funds would come from, just how they would be spent. This was a major downfall of the health care reform proposal, and one reason it never made it to the implementation stage. (Theodoulou 90).
The implementation of a policy is often the most fragile stage of policy formulation. It is in this stage that a policy can become derailed due to lack of public support, judicial limits, or resistance by those who will be affected. There are three main factors which affect policy implementation: The budget and scope of the policy, the time horizon for implementation, and the politics of the policy. A problem with any of these factors can easily create problems for the implementation. The health care reform policy had many budgeting problems, and the time line was too far into the future, which meant that the politicians were less inclined to approve the policy. (Theodoulou 90).
The final step of policy formulation is the evaluation stage. Because policies do not always function the way they were intended, it is important for an ongoing evaluation of the policy to take place. Evaluation can be performed by the private sector or the government, and can begin before the policy is actually implemented. Process evaluation examines the current program and compares it to the original intent of the policy to analyze how well the program is meeting the policy expectations. Impact evaluation examines the affects of the policy on the original problem. The Social Security Program has often been evaluated for its effectiveness as a process, and most experts agree that it has met the original intent of the policy. Social Security has also lived up to its promise to help solve the original problem of seniors not being able to afford retirement. Evaluation tells us how well the policy has performed, as well as what changes are needed in the future. (Theodoulou 91). 
     The Presidency
The statement that "The United States has one President, but it has two presidencies; one presidency is for domestic affairs, and the other is concerned with defense and foreign policy" is a true statement. The domestic power of the President is very weak, because the President is powerless to do very much within the country without Congress' approval. Congress must approve of almost all the President's domestic actions because they control the funding for all such programs. In addition, actions which the President takes domestically receive greater media attention, which in turn means that the public perception and approval of the President hinges on his domestic performance. Further, the President is not as responsive to public pressures as the Congress is, unless it is an election year. Congress is much more in tune with the needs and desires of the American people, and therefore much more responsive to the citizens. For these reasons, the President has very little power to influence domestic affairs, aside from his use of the veto power (which even then can be overturned), his influence over his cabinet appointees who often implement domestic policy, and the power of executive orders (subject to Congressional budgeting). (Wildavsky 238)
In contrast, the President has quite broad powers internationally. Because the international arena has no formal rule, the most powerful countries in the world dominate. America, being the only current superpower, has full reign in the international arena. The President, as commander in chief, has the constitutional power of declaring war and commanding the armed forces (with the limitation that Congress controls the funds). The President alone has his finger on the nuclear button, and therefore exerts a tremendous amount of respect and influence internationally. The President is in charge, as defined by the Constitution, of directing all foreign policy, appointing ambassadors to other countries, and conducting foreign relations. Single-handedly, the President can offend all other nations to the point of causing a nuclear war, and not be responsible to anyone, because we would ail be dead. The President's domestic powers don't even come close to this power over defense and foreign policy. (Wildavsky 239)
As for the causes of this glaring difference, I would point to the Constitution. Articles 1 and 2 clearly define the powers of the President and Congress, and delegate most domestic powers to Congress, while leaving nearly all foreign powers to the President. I believe that one can understand why the Constitution is delegates the power in this form when one considers the history of the document's writers. The writers of the Constitution were trying to escape tyrannical rule, and therefore gave the power of domestic affairs to the Congress, who was answerable to the people. Foreign affairs, however, need to be conducted by a single person because of the gridlock that would result if all of Congress had to debate all foreign policy decisions. Therefore, the writers gave Congress the power to decide domestic affairs, and the President the power to control foreign affairs. I believe this arrangement is ideal because it allows for the immediate response needed in the event of international crisis, and at the same time makes the government (Congress) responsible to the people for domestic issues.
     Judicial Influences
Of all the influences on the policy process, those from the judiciary are the most powerful. The Congress, President and the people can all make policy through a democratic process, but only the judiciary can strike down that policy without accountability. In the last century, the judiciary has become increasingly active in the policy process. The courts desegregated schools, legalized abortion, allowed the flag to be burnt, and in the next decade, they will be deciding the limits, if any, of marriage. In 1995, the people of California used one of the most democratic processes in our country, the initiative process, to put forth a policy on immigration known as Proposition 187. The Proposition was overwhelmingly passed by the voters, and therefore, should have become law. The next day, the courts nullified the Proposition, making it simply a gauge of public opinion. The court's action was approved of by millions of people, because it preserved the rights of law breakers, but none the less, the action did thwart the democratic process.
The judiciary consists of many levels. The federal and state judicial systems consist of smaller local courts of original jurisdiction, and two tiers of appellate courts, which culminate in the state supreme courts and national Supreme Court. At each level, existing policies can be changed, and new policies can be implemented. Generally, the lower two levels of the judicial system do not determine the famous policy decisions that the Supreme Court hears, because their geographical jurisdiction is limited. But the appellate courts do affirm the decisions of the lower courts more often than they reverse the decisions, meaning that by the time a case gets to the state or national Supreme Court, the issue is fairly controversial. (Giazer 289).
The judiciary has an agenda, just like individual presidents and the Congress does. As the makeup of the court changes, one can monitor and predict how the courts agenda will influence the policies which they are deciding upon. Generally, the courts are viewed as being conservative, protecting the rights of the minority, and acting as an overseer and guardian of rights. Brown v. Board of Education is the dearest example of this protection. It was expected, and therefore and no great surprise, when California's Proposition 187 was overturned by the courts. Unlike the Congress and the Presidency, however, the judiciary controls neither the purse (budget) nor the sword (power of enforcement), and therefore, their decisions can be ignored by those who make and execute policies. An example of that was Brown vs. Board of Education, when, for a short time, the executive branch refused to uphold the decision of the courts. Examples like this are rare, and generally the decisions of the courts are followed in the legislature and executive branches. (Gazer 290-292)
This blind faith that we put in this small number of appointed people is one of the most undemocratic concepts in America. The federal judiciary is appointed by the President for life, with no accountability whatsoever. The state judiciary is either appointed by the Governor or elected, but again, with little accountability. Yet we trust them with the power to nullify the democratic process and radically change our lives, without our approval. Increasingly, the courts have become more and more imperial in their decision making, offering little in terms of reasoning for their actions. A courts inaction can often be more powerful then their action. The Supreme Court has to choose to hear a case, it can't be forced to do so. In this way, the Court can make and influence policy by not hearing a case. (Glazer 294).
Most people are grateful that we have a judiciary to oversee the tyranny of the masses. In a supposedly free and democratic society, the judiciary exerts extreme control in protecting the rights of minorities and individuals. This may be a good thing, yet the unaccountability worries many, including myself.
     The Undeserving Underclass
Herbert Gans suggests that there are several reasons and results that better-off Americans seek to indict millions of poor citizens as members of the "undeserving underclass." One reason he suggests is for socio-economic reasons. Gans proposes that it is to the benefit of the wealthy to create and maintain a class of people who live in squalor. This creation gives the wealthy something to be scared of, due to real or perceived threats against the wealthy. These threats include blatant crime, economic threats such as welfare and the view that the poor have a lack of morals and motivation. The wealthy are then able to blame the poor for societal problems over which the poor have no control, and to banish them from the labor market, increasing the demand for jobs among the wealthy. The wealthy perceive the poor has having a lack of morals, from drug use to high divorce rates, thus legitimizing the wealthy's morals and beliefs. The existence of the underclass perpetuates racial stereotypes of laziness and criminal activity, because the wealthy, which is largely white, incorrectly assumes that the lack of morals and amount of crime which the underclass supposedly possesses is because of their race, and not a necessity of their economic situation. (Gans).
The wealthy have created a label for the underclass, and that label has Been perpetuated through the media. In doing this, the wealthy has legitimized the policies which it inflicts upon the poor, and to a certain extent, allows the wealthy whites to continue persecution of minorities through legitimized means. This labeling of the underclass is certainly a benefit to the wealthy, who now have an identified scapegoat upon which to blame society's problems, but it also creates many problems for those who receive the labels. After a certain amount of labeling takes place, those who are labeled begin to believe they deserve that label, and live up to the expectations of the label's definition. This grouping and fearing of those who are labeled makes the poor even more likely to act against the wealthy, in accordance to the label. Labeling also allows the wealthy to treat the now known group differently. The poor can be grouped together in the inner cities and in grouped public housing. We can throw our trash there, create our junkyards there, build our prisons there, because they lack political clout to do anything about it. (Gans 27-57).
Politically, the labeling and indictment of the underclass serves to accomplish the goals of the wealthy. It allows the public to attack welfare programs such as food stamps and AFDC, while supporting business subsidies and corporate welfare. Now that this group is labeled, our society can formulate policies against this group in order to satisfy our needs and desires, while ignoring those who we harm. The labeling allows society to legitimize our treatment of this group, to the extent of racial discrimination, based upon the notion that they are undeserving. The political aspect of undeservingness is nothing but a cycle that perpetuates and builds upon itself. Society makes policies detrimental to the undeserving, which makes them seem even more undeserving, which causes society to make more policies against them. (Gans 103-132).
I think Gans' theories on why and how we have labeled and categorized the underclass as undeserving is correct and accurate, and that something must be done to reverse the process and halt the cycle. Yet I do not believe that his radical economic policies, which I will explore next, are the answer. Certainty labeling this group, just like labeling any group, facilitates society's persecution and unfair treatment of the group, and that is wrong. The placement of jails and incinerators in poor neighborhoods just because they don't have the money or influence to prevent the placement is undemocratic and unacceptable in the "land of the free," yet our society has become so ingrained in this labeling mechanism that I don't see an end to the cycle anytime soon.
In the last section of his book, Gans proposes several highly imaginative economic and social policies which would reverse the trend and help end undeservingness. Among them, he proposes to change our penal system so that it rehabilitates criminals, with job placement for ex-cons. He proposes to eliminate poverty through privatization, to increase job creation through private and public works, and through a system of 20 hour a week job sharing across all jobs and all industries. He would also provide income security for all workers, and make the media more responsible for their statements. I would support his policy proposals if they were done on a private level, but the policies he proposes would greatly increase the roll of the government in the private economy. I believe what we need is less government intervention, including the elimination of corporate welfare and a dramatic reduction of military spending, and only then will the labeling cease and the poor will actually benefit from governmental actions. Cans 133- 148).
     Works Cited
Gans, Herbert. The War Against The Poor.  BasicBooks, New York: 1995.
Glazer, Nathan. Towards an Imperial Judiciary. "Public Policy: The Essential Readings." Prentice-Hall, London: 1995.
Mills, C. Wright. The Power Elite. "Public Policy: The Essential Readings." Prentice-Hall, London: 1995.
Theodoulou, Stella Z. Making Public Policy. "Public Policy: The Essential Readings." Prentice-Hall, London: 1995.
Truman, David B. Group Politics and Representative Democracy. "'Public Policy: The Essential Readings." Prentice-Hall, London: 1995.
Wildavsky, Aaron. The Two Presidencies. '"Public Policy: The Essential Readings." Prentice-Hall, London: 1995.

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