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Political Power: Definition, Types & Sources

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  • 1:15 What's at Stake
  • 2:31 Majoritarianism
  • 3:37 Pluralism
  • 5:11 Elitism
  • 6:09 Bureaucratic Rule
  • 7:27 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will take a close look at political power. We will define the term, examine its elements, and learn about several theories that help determine who gets to use political power.

The Competition Is On!

A shiny trophy stands prominently on a table at the front of the room. It glitters under the glow of a spotlight, beckoning the four competitors to it. They all stare longingly at the trophy, almost drooling over it, as they imagine lifting it high in triumph. The trophy represents the quest for political power, which is the ability held by individuals and groups in a society that allows them to create and enforce policies for the community and manage public resources.

The four competitors want more than anything to capture this tremendous prize. To do so, they must participate in a great debate, judged by you, the viewer. Each competitor will defend a theory about where political power should come from and how it should be distributed. Let's meet them. The four competitors are majoritarianism, pluralism, elitism, and bureaucratic rule. After listening to their arguments, you must decide who wins the much-coveted trophy.

What's at Stake

Before the debate starts, let's make sure that you, the judge, know exactly what's at stake for these competitors. They all want the trophy of political power, but political power includes four key elements: power, authority, legitimacy, and sovereignty. The competitors are vying for these, too, so please pay close attention to their definitions.

Power is the ability to influence and direct the behavior of other people and guide the course and outcome of events. Authority means that an individual or group has the right to use power by making decisions, giving orders, and demanding obedience. Legitimacy refers to citizens' belief that their leaders have the right to exercise power and authority; it is the acceptance of the government by the governed. Sovereignty is the highest exercise of political power; it is supreme and ultimate authority that cannot be overruled by a higher power.

This is what's at stake for our competitors. Now, let's meet them and hear what they have to say about themselves.

Majoritarianism

Our first competitor steps up and introduces himself. He represents majoritarianism, and he argues that the majority of people in any government or organization should have the last word in the decision-making process. Political power, he says, must be distributed among the people at large, who have the right to vote directly on issues that affect them.

He offers an example for your consideration. The citizens of a small town have been arguing for weeks about whether or not to expand the local fairgrounds. Some say that such a move would be excellent for the town's economy and draw in more tourists at fair time and for other events. Others maintain that expanding the fairgrounds would take too much time and money. The town holds a referendum in which every adult citizen gets to vote on the issue. The proposal passes by a large majority, to the delight of those in favor and the disappointed acceptance of those against. The people have spoken.

Pluralism

Our next competitor now takes the stage. He represents pluralism and claims that political power should be held by groups. Citizens, he says, must join groups like unions, professional associations, lobbies, interest groups, and coalitions to influence policies and laws and to exercise their political power. These groups present their ideas and issues to lawmakers, compete for attention, negotiate and compromise on solutions, and allow the majority of people to remain on the fringe of political life.

He, too, presents an example of how pluralism plays out in everyday life. Members of a city's business community have formed an alliance. They want to kick-start industrial development on a prime piece of land on the outskirts of the city. Their opponents, a group of wildlife enthusiasts, claim that the area needs protection. Still another organization, made up of citizens who desire residential development on the land, is also active. The three groups present their cases to the city council.

Most of the city's residents support one group or another, but they stay in the background and allow the groups to argue for them. In the end, the city council decides to allow residential development on part of the land, while reserving part of it for a wildlife refuge. It's easy to see which two groups were most persuasive.

Elitism

The third competitor comes to the front. He represents elitism, and he is arguing that those people who have the most resources, be it wealth or education or social standing, should have the most political power. Therefore, only a small group of these elite should make decisions for society. The members of the wider community are free to state their opinions, but the final say rests with those who stand at the top.

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