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“Nondecisions and the Study of Local Politics” by Raymond E. Wolfinger

      Article Summary:

  • The article offers a critique that two researchers,  Bachrach and Baratz,  did on a study by Robert A. Dahl titled “Who governs?”  The study was conducted in New Haven CT and considered where the political power of the community existed.  Dahl considered particular policy decisions that were made related to urban renewal, political nominations, and education.  His research considered the outcomes of these policy decisions in order to determine who has power.
  • In their research, “Two Faces of Power” Peter Bachrach and Morton S. Baratz were critical of Dahl’s findings.  They felt that the research methodology would not allow consideration of a hypothesis promoting a finding of a “ruling elite” working in New Haven.
  • B&B were especially troubled with the practice of studying policy decisions to determine the location of power in New Haven.  They felt the policy decisions that were made might be more indicative of the ruling elites lack of interest in the decisions or the result of setting the agenda and deciding which issues they did not want held up for public consideration.
  • Wolfinger is critical of B&B, claiming that if we wish to consider only “important” policy issues we would need to be able to objectively determine which issues would qualify.  Currently there is no way to determine policy importance.
  • The issue of Urban Renewal was one that was considered by Dahl and one where he and B&B disagreed.  It is here that B&B considered the concept of non-decision. Dahl felt the presence of an advocacy group, CAC, were supporters of urban renewal efforts b/c the Mayor Lee convinced them it was in their interests to support these efforts.  B&B concluded this same group was evidence of ruling elite of businessmen making decisions behind the scenes.
  • One proposal is that the CAC was a part of the big business power structure and the siginificant urban renewal efforts actually were promoted and managed by the CAC, not the Mayor.
  • One proposal is that the Mayor was not powerful because he proposed only policy that he knew would be supported by the CAC.
  • A similar proposal would be that the Mayor would not propose any policy that he feared would cost him votes.
  • The problem with these theories that are put forth, according to Wolfinger, is that it is impossible to determine which alternatives motivated policy decisions and get an accurate response.  Wolfinger asks, “How can ay comprehensive attributions of power be made on the basis of anticipated reactions of constituents?”
  • Wolfinger finds B&B proposal for determining power unworkable. He considers three forms of non-decision:

-          Abstention – a decision not to participate at all by people who have grievances or goals that might be met by political action (1070)

-          Nonparticipation – people are unaware of their interests and therefore do not demand that those interests be served (1072)

-          Renunciation – the abjuring of some alternatives by politicians.

Wolfinger feels B&B recommendations for research are impossible if one is to reasonably study power.  When considering non-decisions in light of power it becomes difficult to truly know people’s “real interests” (1077)   He asks, “How can examples of nonparticipation and abstention be distinguished from apathy and a lack of public spirit that characterizes political life?” Also, he wonders how one assesses the impact of participation and the distribution of governmental benefits and how can you identify who is responsible for all this?

·         In summary, Wolfinger feels that while B&B raise reasonable concerns about the study of power, their prescriptions are not viable ones in research.

·         Another Wolfinger objection is that Those who are responsible for a policy may not be its beneficiary; factors that increase participation in politics may not equalize the distribution of common goods; and there is no way to measure power from no decisions.

·         Wolfinger feels that B&B do show us the futility of trying to discover community power structures. 

·         One problem is indirect influence making it impossible to attribute power to people who’s probable responses are not anticipated

·         How can we attribute power to those who are no a part of a power structure but still manage to get their concerns into law?

·         B&B are right to argue that institutions and procedures shape policy but the question becomes do they have a right to the claim they share power in future policies that support their own.

·         Dahl’s research is limited and makes no claim about completeness but this modesty of claims about his research results is desirable to Wolfinger.

  1. BEHAVIOR:  What is the relationship of individual’s behaviors to the exercise of power?  What role does behavior play?

A:  Wolfinger would say that the relationship of behaviors to power is a complex one that is difficult to determine with any certainty.  He would concur with Robert Dahl (“The Concept of Power”) that one way to consider power is to consider who benefits (and who is negatively impacted or omitted) when policy is enacted.  Although Bachrach and Baratz would take issue with this premise, Wolfinger would say that it may be the best way to evaluate the presence of power, given the research limitations that would make it difficult to assess the influence non-decision making has on the policy making process.

      Wolfinger would tell us that non-participation is a factor in determining who has power and who doesn’t.  However, this is difficult to analyze and quantify.  Bachrach and Baratz  (“Two Faces of Power”) felt that Dahl’s analysis of power in New Haven was inadequate and that power should be evaluated in light of what policies were not placed on the “agenda” and who decides what get placed on that same “agenda” for action.  These researchers felt that non-participation could inform us as much as action when evaluating power.

  1. DECISION MAKING AND CONTROL:  Who makes decisions and who has control? How do decision making and control function in the exercise of power?

A:  This question is at the center of the dispute that Wolfinger considers in his article.  Robert Dahl examined this question in light of what decisions were made in New Haven, CT and who benefited from these same decisions. His analysis determined that the Mayor in New Haven was able to influence people in a manner that allowed him to get his legislative agenda promoted.  Bachrach and Baratz, who Wolfinger labels “neo-elitists”, felt that the exercise of power was being done by a small group of influential businessmen who acted in their own best interests. 

      Decision making and control are important factors in the exercise of power.  Wolfinger points out in his article that it is difficult to determine who is involved in the decision making and who is not.  For example, a politician’s decision to not support a controversial piece of legislation b/c he fears repercussions at the poll means that there exists a wielding of power on the part of a large, homogeneous constituency.  Yet, one would have a difficult time measuring how the real or perceived response of a constituency might impact a politician’s decision making in setting forth his legislative agenda.

  1. CONFLICT: What is the status of conflict and what is its role in the exercise of power?

A: Dahl defined power as “A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do.” Wolfinger, however, prefers a different definition: “power is a relationship in which A gets B to do something that B would not otherwise do.” (1079). This helps negate the concern of trying to verify all possible potential power relationships. In other words, with Dahl’s definition one would have to consider the importance of “they could if they wanted to” syndrome, which is unverifiable.  Wolfinger feels that with this alternative definition the researcher can evaluate more limited kinds of statements that are more specific in nature. Using Wolfinger’s definition, he seems to indicate that conflict is not necessary in order to wield power. Influence can manifest itself in other ways.

  1. INTERESTS: How are individual’s interests advanced? Protected?

A:  Overall, Wolfinger feels that the following are problematic:

a)      It is impossible to attribute power to people on the basis that their responses are anticipated by politicians, especially if such indirect influence is manifested in repeated anticipations

b)      It is difficult to attribute power to the underrepresented who raise issues and proposals that eventually become law.  Although their influence may not be immediately obvious, these “actors” often play an important role in making a difference. The problem is determining the extent of their influence.

c)      Do people who are responsible for the adoption of policies/procedures have a right to claim power based on measures that might not have passed without the procedural change?  The example Wolfinger offers is, “Do the successful sponsors of the 21-day rule in the 89th Congress deserve to be recognized as powerful on each of the bills that were passed under this role?

  1. MORAL ORIENTATION: What are the normative goals that the exercise of power aims to achieve?

A: Wolfinger does not address this issue. He would feel that Bachrach and Baratz would identify goals for the powerful elite stakeholders manipulate American politics in order to achieve goals that are in their own best interests.  In their explanation, they would say that if an issue or conflict was viewed by these stakeholders as being important/serious, they would mobilize in an effort to obtain an outcome they viewed as favorable.  (Wolfinger takes issue with this criterion b/c he felt no issue has mobilized all affected stakeholders) IN their book “Power and Poverty” B & B revise their crition.  And identify a key issue as “one that involves a genuine challenge to the resources of power or authority of those who currently dominate the process by which policy outputs I the system are determined.” (1064)


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