Public Policy Lesson Sampler

Overview of Elite and Pluralist Models of Democracy in the United States

Table 1 The Basic Principles of the Elitist Model of Politics

1.    American society is divided into those who have political power (the few) and those who do not have political power (the many). Only a small number of people allocate society's resources and make policy; the masses do not decide public policy. Values are determined by elites.

2.    Those who govern are not typical of the masses. Elites come from the upper echelons and upper socioeconomic strata of society. They are wealthier, better educated, and have many other social and economic advantages over the average citizen.

3.    Nonelites must slowly be elevated into higher positions to avoid revolution or social and political instability. Only nonelites that have accepted the basic values of the elites can be brought into the circles of those who govern.

4.    Elites share a basic consensus about the basic values of the social system and are committed to protecting and preserving the system (the status quo). Any changes made to the system must be slow and evolutionary. In the United States, the basics of the elite consensus are for the sanctity of private property, limited government, and individual liberty (freedom).

5.    Public policy does not reflect demands made by the masses. Public policy reflects the values of elites and changes in public policy will be incremental (not revolutionary).

6.    Elites are subject to little direct influence from the apathetic masses. The masses are generally poorly informed and can be controlled by the elites, who hold a disproportional amount of political power. The elites influence the masses far more than the masses influence elites.

7.    Public policy is directed from the top downward. Power is concentrated at the top and public policy decisions are made and implemented from the top.

Source: Adapted from James Lester and Joseph Stewart, Jr. Public Policy: An Evolutionary Approach (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2000), pp. 54-55. The original source of these basic descriptions is credited to Thomas Dye and Harmon Zeigler, The Irony of Democracy (Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole, 1981).

 


Overview of Elite and Pluralist Models of Democracy in the United States

Table 2 The Basic Principles of the Pluralist Model of Politics

1.    Power is an attribute of individuals in their relationships with other individual in the process of decision-making. Interest groups are the key to understanding American democracy and the public policy process. It is the competition between interest groups in the governmental process that influences public policy.

2.    Power relationships are not permanent. They are often formed for a particular decision. After the decision is made, the relationships may disappear and may be replaced by another set of power relationships when the next decision is made. These power relationships involve what we think of today as interest groups.

3.    There is not a permanent distinction between the elites and masses. Individuals who participate in decision making at one time may not be the same individuals who participate in the next decision at a different time. Individuals move in and out of the ranks of decision-makers simply by becoming active or inactive in politics.

4.    Leadership is fluid and mobile. Wealth and social status are assets in politics but are only one of many assets that are part of political power. Elites are elites only in the sense that they hold leadership positions of power, not because of some superiority of social or ruling class. The term "leader" is a better description than the term "elite" for those who hold temporary positions of political power. Power resides in the position more so than with the person. An aristocracy does not govern America.

5.    There are multiple centers and bases of power in society. No single group dominates decision making in all areas.

6.    Considerable competition exists between interest groups.

7.    Public policy reflects the bargains and compromises reached between competing groups.

 

Source: Adapted from James Lester and Joseph Stewart, Jr. Public Policy: An Evolutionary Approach (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2000), pp. 54-55. The original source of these basic descriptions is credited to Thomas Dye and Harmon Zeigler, The Irony of Democracy (Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole, 1981).

 


Elite & Pluralist Policy Making Models

There are two competing theories about how policy decisions are made in the US.

Read the two tables (above) and decide for yourself which theory is more accurate.

 

1) Rename the two theories:

 

2) Take each of the seven points from each theory and transcribe it into: a graphic image (drawing, sketch, cut and pasted digital image); a 140 character Tweet with hashtag, or a condensed bullet point in your own words.

 

 

 

3) Name the theory you find to be a more accurate description of how policy actually gets made in the US today:

 

4) Choose any one policy area - health care, gun control, tax policy, oil tax, immigration, trade - and decide which theory does the better job of explaining the specific steps and actors (people, groups, institutions) involved in the actual making of policy in the US today. Show your answer in a flow chart, graphic organizer, storyboard, digital image from the internet, or any visual form that would be convincing to a student of US politics.