Dr. Almon Leroy Way, Jr.

University President & Professor of Political Science






What is the relationship between politics and political power? What is political power? What is political behavior? What is the relationship between political power and political behavior? What is the relationship between political power and public policy? What is the ultimate purpose of political power? What are two major forms of political power? What is political authority? When is political authority legitimate? What is political influence?

1. Politics and Political Power:

Many political scientists, focusing upon the concept of "political power," define politics as the pursuit of political power and competition for political power. John M. Pfiffner and Frank P. Sherwood define politics as "the process by which political power is acquired and exercised." [Note 5] Politics involves the pursuit, acquisition, and exercise of political power.

2. Political Power and Political Behavior:

a. Political Power--A Definition. Political power is the ability to shape and control the political behavior of others and to lead and guide their behavior in the direction desired by the person, group, or institution wielding the political power. Political power is the capacity to influence, condition, mold, and control human behavior for the accomplishment of political objectives. That is to say, political power is the ability of one political actor--e.g., an individual citizen, a family, an interest group, a political action committee, a political party, or the government--to effect a desired change in the behavior of other political actors, persuading or forcing the latter to act in a manner they would not act in the absence of the former's impact on the situation. Actor A has political power over Actor B to the degree that he is able to motivate, inspire, incite, stimulate, or otherwise bring about some modication of B's political behavior--a modification in behavior favored by Actor A. A's political power, of course, would also include his capacity to induce B to continue doing something he is currently doing, if B would discontinue the behavior in the absence of A's inducements.

b. Political Behavior--Definition and Examples. Political behavior consists of human activities relating to the government and its processes of authoritative decisionmaking and action. Examples of political behavior, or political activity, include such actions as (1) voting in elections, (2) contributing money to political parties or to the election campaigns of candidates running for government office, (3) attending and actively participating in party caucuses, or meetings (e.g., precinct meetings and county, district, state, and national conventions), (4) serving on party and campaign committees, (5) serving as campaign workers for particular candidates, (6) working for political action committees, (7) active membership in political interest groups, (8) lobbying, (9) engaging in protest demonstra- tions, (10) writing to or otherwise contacting members of the legislature or other govern- ment officeholders, (11) disseminating political propaganda, (12) writing letters to newspaper and magazine editors--letters discussing politics and issues of public policy, (13) writing and publishing books, periodicals, articles, and other literature dealing with public issues, (14) running for government office, and (15) governmental activity--the govern- ment's making and enforcement of authoritative decisions, decisions that are vested with the authority of the society for and in the name of which they are made and carried out, are binding on all members of the society, and have the effect of authoritatively distributing resources and values for the society.

While the term "political behavior" refers to many different types of human activity, all of these types of activity are concerned ultimately with public policy. All types of political behavior, in the final analysis, relate to authoritative decisionmaking and action by the government and to the resulting authoritative allocation of the benefits and costs of living in the political society.

3. Political Power and Public Policy:

a. The Relationship between Political Power and Public Policy. The ultimate purpose of acquiring political power is to use it to shape and control public policy--public policy in general or some aspect of public policy. Those who possess political power and utilize it to influence, shape, and control the political behavior of others--whether to influence a decision of a political party or a political action committee, to impact on the outcome of an election, to influence the decisions and actions of government offices and institutions, or to obtain for themselves election or appointment to public office and thereby gain personally the legal right to actively and officially participate in the processes of authoritative decisionmaking by the government--are concerned ultimately with influencing, conditioning, shaping, and controlling the content and direction of public policy. Political power is acquired and exercised in order to significantly affect the government's authoritative decisions and actions on public policy--either decisionmaking and action on public policy in general or decisionmaking and action in a particular area of public policy (let's say, public education, national health insurance, immigration, drug enforcement, civil rights, affirma- tive action, taxation, energy policy, environmental protection, gun control, or regulation of abortion).

b. Political Power Defined in Terms of Public Policy. Political power may be defined as the ability to influence, condition, shape, and control the content and direction of public policy. Political power is influence or control over or participation in the making and implementa- tion of official decisions of government offices and institutions--i.e., the authoritative, binding decisions made and carried out by the government for and in the name of the entire society.

4. Government, Private Citizens, and Political Power:

In a modern constitutional democratic political society, such as Britain or the U.S.A., do all persons who wield political power hold formal positions in the government? The answer to this question is, of course, no. One who possesses and exercises political power may or may not be an official governmental decisionmaker, or an official participant in govern- mental decisionmaking. A political actor wielding political power may or may not hold a government office relevant to the particular policy decision or decisions he is seeking to mold and control. If he does hold such an office, he operates as a formal-legal participant in the public-policy decisionmaking processes carried on by the government. If he does not occupy a relevant public office, he plays the role of a private citizen who, through mobiliza- tion of political resources available to him, effectively exerts pressure on the government and thereby influences, conditions, and modifies the government's decisionmaking behavior in one or more areas of public policy. In the latter case, the citizen may act as an individual, as a member of a politically influential family, as one who is highly respected and strategically located in a politically influential "Old Boys" or "First Families" network, as a member or hired lobbyist of a political interest group, as a leader or active member of a political party or faction, or in two, three, four, or all five of the foregoing capacities.

5. Political Authority and Political Influence:

Two major forms of political power are political authority and political influence.

a. Political Authority. Political authority is governmental power, the formal-legal authority of the public officeholders and institutions comprising the government to make and carry out decisions on public policy--to adopt and implement the authoritative decisions that have the force of law and are binding on all members of the society. Political authority is the legally established power of the government to make rules and issue commands and to compel obedience to them, making use of physical force and coercion when deemed necessary. Political authority, in short, is the legal right--the legally established power--to govern society.

The political authority exercised by a government may be legitimate or illegitimate.

b. Legitimate Political Authority. If the political authority exercised by a government is willingly and widely accepted by the population comprising the society the government endeavors to control, that government will not have to rely entirely or almost entirely on naked force to maintain order and obtain compliance with its decisions. Under these conditions, the authority exercised by the government is legitimate, and the government itself is legitimate.

Legitimate political authority is the legitimate right of the government to govern the entire society, the widely recognized right of the government to adopt and enforce public-policy decisions for and in the name of the entire political community. Legitimate political authority is governmental power derived from willing and widespread acceptance by the citizenry of the right of the organs of their government to make rules and issue commands and to expect obedience to them. Legitimate political authority, in short, is governmental power based on political legitimacy.

Political legitimacy exists in a political community, or society, when most citizens (1) perceive the government as having the moral as well as legal right to make and enforce decisions binding on the whole community, (2) see the decisions themselves as being legitimate, and (3) consider it the duty of all citizens to voluntarily comply with these decisions, thereby substantially reducing the government's need to employ armed force or expend other resources to compel or induce compliance. The existing political regime, or system of government, is considered to be legitimate because, according to widespread and deep-seated feelings and beliefs among the members of the political society, those persons occupying the offices and institutions comprising the government obtained their positions by legitimate means and therefore have the moral and legal right to hold these formal governmental positions and to exercise the powers legally assigned to the positions. Absent, under normal conditions, are efforts of substantial segments of the society to employ force and violence--armed insurrection, or rebellion--in order to overthrow the political regime, to prevent effective enforcement of the government's decisions, or to secede from the existing political community and form a separate and independent community and governmental system of their own.

c. Political Influence. Political influence needs to be distinguished from political authority. While political authority is the formal-legal right of the government to make and enforce official decisions on public policy, political influence is the ability of private individuals and groups to impact on the government's making and implementation of official policy decisions.

Political influence is the ability of private individuals and groups to influence, condition, shape, and thereby control the authoritative decisions and actions of those who possess the formal-legal authority to take these decisions and actions. The individuals and groups exercising political influence do not hold the relevant government offices and therefore do not possess the formal-legal authority to make the official governmental decisions they seek to shape and control; but they do have and exercise the ability to shape and control the decisionmaking behavior of those officeholders in the government who do possess the formal-legal authority to make the relevant decisions on public policy. Such individuals and groups exercise significant influence over particular policy decisions made by particular government offices and institutions. These individuals and groups have acquired and are exercising that form of political power called "political influence." A private individual or organization possesses and exercises political influence to the extent that its interests and demands have to be taken into account by the government--or an office or institution of the government--when making and carrying out decisions on public policy.

Political influence, in short, is the form of political power exercised by those who do not possess the formal-legal authority to make and enforce particular governmental decisions on public policy, but have and utilize the ability to condition, modify, and control the official decisionmaking behavior of those in government office who do possess the authority to make and implement the decisions.

d. How Exercise of Political Authority and Exercise of Political Influence Differ--An Illustration. When the United States Congress enacts a law and provides for its enforcement, that public institution--or set of public institutions--is exercising political authority. When the leaders of a political interest group, a private organization, successfully persuade particular members of Congress to vote a certain way on a pending legislative bill, when the MCs were not inclined to vote that way in theabsence of interest-group pressure, the leaders of the interest group are exercising political influence.

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