Path of Least Resistance: Implicit Power

Path of Least Resistance: Implicit Power

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Path of Least Resistance: Implicit Power

     In his book, Power and Choice, W. Phillips Shively introduces to students of political science the importance of power within the framework of politics. According to him, “Politics consists of the making of a common decision for a group of people through the use of power”(Shively 9). And that “power” is, “the ability of one person or group to cause another person or group to do what the first wishes, by whatever means”(5). Power, therefore, is of extreme importance within the arena of politics for any group who wishes to institute reform or maintain order. And yet, the question of analyzing power, and understanding how it is used, is not as clear as one might imagine. There is a split among political scientists as to who has the power, and how those in positions of power keep it. The debate seems to be centralized over the difference between observable power (manifest) and indirect power (implicit). When deciding the question of who has the power, it seems that the arguments of Hunter and Dahl are mainly concerned with the observable power exercised by those in positions of authority. The other, and more sound, theory of Baratz, Bachrach, and Lukes, maintains that actual power lies within the manipulation of issues from behind the scenes. In answering the question of power, the arguments of Baratz, Bachrach, and Lukes, go beyond the those of Hunter and Dahl, and show that the most effective uses of power are those which are the hardest to see, (implicit power).
     Manifest power is, “based on an observable action by A that leads B to do what A wants”(7), and it is this power that both Hunter and Dahl, describe in their studies. These men, although they disagree on specific details, believe that those people with political power take an active and visible part in their community’s important issues. When Hunter did his inquiry into
the political currents of Atlanta, he asked his advisors who the most influential men in the city were. He found that there existed a group of powerful individuals who greatly influenced the policies of the downtown area. He concluded that the wealthy elite were in control and had the greatest influence on the politics in the Atlanta area.      However, a political scientist named Dahl did not agree. Dahl argued that the flaw with Hunter’s research was that it was based on reputation only.

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Everyone thought that the small “elite” had the power, no one knew for certain. Dahl decided to approach the subject using the scientific methods of research and observation. He believed that by finding out the important issues of the community, seeing who had the most to gain in the situations, and observing the outcome of the issues, the group with the most power would be the clear winner. From his research he concluded that the power in a community lay within many smaller groups. He believed that each group exercised power over the issues that were closest to their best interests. While the wealthy had power over economic aspects, the families had power over such things as education.1 Therefore, power was not centralized, and was more dispersed throughout a community.
     Baratz and Bachrach differ from Hunter and Dahl in that they believe the power that is not readily discernable (implicit power)2, is more influential in deciding political policy than the observable power of contested issues. They believe that there are, “…two faces of power, neither of which the sociologists [Hunter] see and only one of which the political scientists [Dahl] see”(Baratz and Bachrach 947). The biggest flaw that they found in Hunter’s assessment


of power was the same that Dahl had voiced: Hunter “...wrongly equates reputed with actual power”(947). Those who are thought not to be influential in politics, i.e. the family, are ignored
because they are not perceived to have power. However, Baratz and Bachrach also believe that Dahl is ignoring an important aspect of power. They maintain that because Dahl limited his study to only observable power, he disregarded the significant contributions of implicit power. They realized that many of the “important” issues that were studied, were not of the utmost importance in the community. The issues that should have been discussed, i.e. segregation, were not on any agenda. The black community was not engaged in a political fight for equal rights even though such a fight would have been beneficial to its needs. Baratz and Bachrach, therefore, concluded that group A was exercising power to keep issues beneficial to group B, from becoming topics of legislation. “To the extent that a person or group-consciously or unconsciously-creates or reinforces barriers to the public airing of policy conflicts, that person has power”(949). These important “non issues” were kept from discussion, while the observable issues were minor in comparison. Baratz and Bachrach never gave the methods used by group A to suppress these topics, but a political scientist named Lukes developed this question further.
     Lukes argued that it is not a question of the suppression of ideas, but of group B actually being unaware that they are disadvantaged. He argued that “B does what A wants because B wants to. But B should not want to do it… If B acts contrary to her objective, real interests then power is being exercised…the very desires and wants of B are manipulated”(Digeser 979). This type of power is akin to Marx ‘s theory of false consciousness. It asserts that a powerful group lures the mind into believing that it is free, when in reality it is not in the person’s best interest to do what that group wants. Not only does group B not see the issues that are being suppressed,
they don’t even realize that there are issues. This method, if true, is the most effective use of implicit power. There is no chance that a suppressed issue will come to forefront because there are no perceivable conflicts.
     The question of power is an important one when trying to understand politics. Because different groups within a political framework have different agendas, power is continually exercised. One group will always try to manipulate another into seeing issues its way. Yet no one willingly goes against what is in their best interest, or, if they do, power according to Lukes is still being exercised. It is beneficial for a group, therefore, to exercise power in as subtle a manner as possible. Because this is so, it becomes essential when analyzing questions of power, to look at what is not said, as closely as one looks at what is said.
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