Access to Politics

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Access to Politics

The determinants of access

Patterns of access

Historical trends in access

Problems of measurement


The goal of group theory is to describe the distribution of power within a political system in terms of the group concept. In this effort, “power” and “influence” are used synonymously; and political power may be defined as the probability that the claims of the group will be incorporated as the basis of policy by governmental decision makers (Truman 1960). Group theory is a special rather than a general theory of politics, appropriate to the United States, the Anglo-Saxon democracies, and—more recently—western European nations. It presupposes considerable differentiation among individuals according to interest, some definite aggregation of like-interests through interpersonal interaction or identification, and considerable separation of the institutions of the polity from those of the society and economy. [seePolitical group analysis.] Within this context, political access is posited as follows: “power of any kind cannot be reached by a political interest group, or its leaders, without access to one or more key points of decision in the government” (Truman 1951, p. 264). This definition of access is basic to all interest group approaches, but it is essentially an illustration rather than an explicit definition.

To be meaningful and useful for systematic research, the concept of political access must be clearly distinguished from the concept of power. Access should be regarded as the measurable (in principle) probability that if the members of a group or its leaders perceive an interest affected by a future authoritative decision, the group can obtain the attentive interest of the relevant decision makers. Access thus describes a continuum of behavioral situations: at one end, the group has no access (and no power) regardless of whether it perceives an interest or not; in the middle, if the group perceives an interest, it can act—it has effective access; at the other end—the maximum preferred goal of all interest groups—the group has privileged access. Privileged access can be defined as the probability that authoritative decision makers automatically take a group’s interests into account as the basis of decision.

Group theory posits that all groups seek privileged access, that some groups may indeed achieve this, but that all groups would be willing to settle for effective access. Thus, groups without access have no political power, but groups with effective access may, but need not, have political power. For power also depends upon the internal characteristics of the group and upon the tactics, techniques, and skills that can be mobilized by the group.

Finally, the concept of access is the abstraction in group theory that defines the bridging relationship between society and governmental structure.

The determinants of access

The political power of a group may be viewed as a dependent variable that is the function of three broad intervening variables: effective access; internal characteristics of the group; and mobilized tactics, techniques, and skills. Effective access is, in turn, a function of three clustered independent variables: (1) the strategic position of the group in the society; (2) the internal characteristics of the group (again); and (3) the nature of governmental institutions. Each of these may also be subdivided, at least logically, into discrete subvariables.

Strategic position

The strategic position of the group is a composite of (a) the social status of the group membership; (b) the conformity of the group to the rules of the game; (c) the extent of membership overlap with governmental personnel; and (d) the technical and political information which the group possesses. However, no research exists which satisfactorily operationalizes and measures these discrete (sub-)variables.

For example, presumably group theory refers to the perceived mean social status of a group’s membership—as perceived by formal decision makers relative to their status. But this raises questions of the definition of membership, which clearly ranges from sympathetic fellow travelers, through nominal members, to committed “true believers.”

Similar problems exist with regard to “conformity to the rules” [seerules of the game]. Yet even if there existed accurate description and measurement of adherence to the various rules—general and specific, unwritten and written—one would still face the problem of specifying the relevance of this variable. Again, group theorists presumably intend to refer to the measurable extent to which the leaders and/or the average members of the group are perceived as conforming to democratic norms. But almost no research can be cited (see Stouffer 1955; Trow 1957).

Overlap with governmental personnel, which is a restricted definition of the term “multiple-membership,” presents the same problem. Most research remains at the level of simple, objective, demographic variables; yet the group theorists probably intend to produce research on overlapping subjective identifications.

The analyst reaches the same conclusion about the fourth element, technical and political information: instead of sophisticated research, there is much ex post facto speculation. The subjective factor is neglected—yet the extent to which the authoritative decision maker perceives himself dependent on the monopolized control of technical or political data is probably the significant factor. A beginning effort, in the area of role structures in legislative systems, indicates that much more can and should be done.

Internal characteristics

According to Truman, four characteristics “internal” to the group can have an influence on access: (a) appropriateness of organization; (b) leadership skills; (c) resources; and (d) cohesion.

First, how appropriate is the group’s organization to its purposes? This does not refer to the relatively sterile classification of formal structures but rather to the question of the “degree and appropriateness” of group organization as a functioning communications system which is designed to gather information about threatening social and political change, including new public policies, and to mobilize members, fellow travelers, and potential allies. This variable has been “measured” largely in a historical, deductive manner: groups have been analyzed with regard to imputed objective interest, and where no access or influence was observed, one of the conclusions drawn is lack of appropriateness of organization. A more systematic, direct test requires efficient application of the techniques for assessing the direct impact of mass communication (see Klapper 1960). Equally needed is research on political intelligence functions themselves and on the extent to which the techniques and the substantive findings of modern social science are used by political activists. [seeLeadership.]

Leadership skills, the second discrete independent variable, overlaps to a large extent with the previous variable. Here, anecdotal descriptions abound, and the state of research may be broadly characterized as an attempt to locate allegedly powerful groups, from which leadership skills are then deduced. However, the study of political leadership has hardly benefited from the large body of experimental studies of leadership in small groups which now exists in sociology and psychology (but see Verba 1961). The relative importance of selfselection as against experience in development of skillful leadership, the importance of variables other than the most obvious demographic factors—these and other aspects currently remain unresearched.

A group’s resources—its membership and/or its financial status—constitute the third variable. Analysis of resource potential for politics has not advanced far. The study conducted by Dahl (1961) provides a model for what can and should be done with groups as the unit of analysis. However, most available work has been done in a backward fashion: the designated winner in a policy outcome is tentatively identified, and then analysis proceeds backwards to the hypothesized independent variables that might have played an influential role. Such analysis must overcome the problem that policy beneficiaries, politically active persons, and influentials may not be identical. If investigation does not permit this empirical possibility, theoretical conclusions will be tautological.

Traditionally, the analysis of membership or money has been undertaken in the crudest numerical terms. Quantity alone may be irrelevant. For many decades political scientists have known that the power of an idea in politics is a function not only of the number of persons holding that idea but also of their rate of activity in advancing it. We are only beginning to face the measurement problems entailed in this deceptively simple idea (Monypenny 1954).

According to group theorists, the fourth internal characteristic, cohesion, probably has the greatest impact. However, here too, group theory is deficient. For example, Truman (1951, chapter 6) merely equates cohesion with “unity,” offering various examples. There is no definition. Unity begs the further question, With regard to what? Certainly one must investigate several successively narrowed levels of unity: on the saliency of the interest; on the importance of a particular group to that interest; on the leadership of the group in directing goal achievement; on the strategy, tactics, and timing as developed by the leadership of the group.

Governmental institutions

Governmental institutions were identified as the third broad clustered variable determining effective access. This area is most familiar to political scientists. It refers, first, to the formal operating structure of government, which both reflects and sustains past distributions of power. Analyses of the consequences of federalism, bicameralism, etc., are so prevalent as to require no further reference. The fact that the fleshand-blood actors of any social entity identified as an institution themselves develop norms and all the accouterments of group life has been known for some centuries. But systematic observation in this area is very new and has been directed chiefly to legislative systems (Matthews 1960; Wahlke et al. 1962).

Some scholars (Eckstein 1960) would add extant public policy as a determining influence of political access. However, the concrete examples used to illustrate this abstract definition all fall within the categories already provided by Truman. Therefore, it seems preferable to continue with the most widely known interest group approach.

It is certainly true that groups struggle to perfect their own access and to reduce or eliminate the effective access of opponents or potential enemies. The Buchanan committee hearings of 1950; Title III of the 1946 Legislative Reorganization Act; the Hatch Acts of the late 1930s and early 1940s; the Federal Corrupt Practices Act of 1925—these are but contemporary examples of the residue of the group struggle. In this sense it is also accurate to say that the newer type of electoral interest group, such as the National Committee for an Effective Congress, concerns itself primarily with access. Even though this type of group has no specific policy goals, its goals in elections may be interpreted as the quest for access for the interests its members share and, contrariwise, control of the access of all other potential actors in the system. In conclusion, these examples all reduce themselves either to the most generalized elements of “fairness” or to more specific policy statements of procedure and/or value. Thus they are incorporated in our meaning of “the rules of the game.”

Patterns of access

Patterns of access are a shorthand way of discussing a continuum that describes the possible relationships between political interest groups and governmental institutions. The continuum extends from “a loose pattern” of access to “a taut pattern.” The loose pattern describes a situation in which there is a multiplicity of points of access to the governmental decision makers and in which the authoritative position holder is or can be a relatively autonomous decision maker. The taut pattern describes a situation in which the institution is a recognized effective leadership to which interest groups make their “pitch,” with which groups attempt to bargain, and from which groups derive policy or patronage.

Most research—primarily American but increasingly also British—has focused on the manner and degree to which a political interest group establishes, especially through party mechanisms, access to the legislative system. And this pattern has been generalized frequently to the entire political system. While it is useful to describe and compare, say, the British legislative system with the American one, we should be aware that we have largely ignored other contexts—institutional, policy-scope, systemic, and historical—within which the study of “patterns” should take place. In the United States, for example, the judicial pattern seems similar to the legislative in that the initiatives come primarily from the interest groups. In the executive-bureaucratic pattern, however, it is the policy makers who establish access to clientele groups (see Selznick 1949). At the same time, the judicial institutional pattern seems quite distinctive from the other two in that Anglo-American traditions of judicial independence and the uniquely American expectation that courts will grant privileged access to all social interests, provide insulation against group activities prevalent in the other two patterns. This suggests the need to discuss patterns along a continuum ranging from direct to indirect access as well as in the context of the now conventional taut-loose continuum. If one were to array the American institutions along both continua, available evidence suggests that: the judicial is tautest and most indirect; the executive-bureaucratic falls at the midrange on both; and the legislative is loosest and most direct.

It would be desirable for research to break away from institutional patterns, however. Future research may usefully direct itself to the question of patterns of access in the context of particular policy scopes or generalized functions of the political system. For example, one may usefully divide governmental output into three broad categories of domestic economic policy, domestic social policy, and foreign policy. Perhaps because of the intellectual impact of the 1930s depression, research has been overconcentrated on the economic scope. We cannot now say whether patterns of access which are appropriate to economic policy are equally accurate in describing patterns for other major areas.

Political analysts have also ignored the pattern of access along the dimension of stability–change. As is evident in the next section, the broad American pattern of access may be characterized over time as inherently unstable—in contrast to the British pattern which may explicitly yet impressionistically be characterized as quite stable. What are the dynamics of change? Of stability? At present we do not know why it is that a system will evolve in the direction of a stable, or indeed a taut, pattern of access in which the interest group must offer as its quid pro quo political services of use to a political party or legislative majority rather than to individual entrepreneurs. What conditions created and now maintain the stability of the British pattern? What factors contributed to the breakup of the American party and interest group system in the Civil War and now contribute to the inherent instability of the American pattern?

Historical trends in access

In very broad terms it can be said that in the evolution of American politics (as in post-World War ii western Europe), the trend in access has been twofold: from party to pressure group and from direct to indirect. Available evidence suggests that politically active individuals in most democratic systems have turned from the political party to the pressure group as the primary instrument of access in these systems. This would seem a function both of the complexity of modern industrial, urbanized, bureaucratic society and of the decline of enthusiasm for mathematical schemes of representation, such as proportional representation.

Group leaders have turned from direct to indirect access to government. This is the transition in American politics from the direct lobby to the attempt to concern oneself with the effective sociopolitical environment within which the decision maker acts—that is, the environment, which if effectively manipulated, sets the limits of the range within which any decision maker may act. This shift in techniques of access, most noticeable since World War II, represents a tendency toward direct, “grass roots” lobbying—congruent with the manipulative intent of modern public relations techniques.

However, two additional historical aspects of American politics require separate mention. First, it has become fashionable to note a parallelism between the American political model and what is occurring in the postwar integration of western Europe. Despite the apparent parallelism, it is appropriate to note a contradictory tendency now occurring in American politics which may set a distinctive pattern for the future (see Eldersveld 1958; Key 1961). Since World War II, political interest groups have increasingly tended to issue formal enunciations of their stands on a wide variety of political issues and have moved toward a more thorough integration of the group within one of the two major political parties. This American countertendency seems important.

Second, as hinted earlier, the instability in the historical pattern of access makes the American political system quite distinctive. Since the Civil War “taut” and “loose” patterns have alternated. If descriptions of the operation of the American party system between the 1870s and 1910 are accurate, then it would seem appropriate to characterize that era as one of “responsible two-party government.” It would seem more necessary than ever to go back to that era to determine both the conditions that created a taut pattern of access and the conditions which led to its degeneration. And the very loose pattern by which we now traditionally characterize the 1938 to 1960 era should be similarly reexamined. The evidence since 1960 points to the potential emergence of a new period of competitive, responsible, integrated party performance.

Problems of measurement

Most research has been done on access to legislative bodies, describing techniques of access rather than evaluating the effectiveness of alternative actions: Why was one technique selected rather than others? What factors condition the utility of alternative techniques? Work on the evaluation of planned social action is relevant here (see Hyman et al. 1962).

There is also very little evidence on how official decision makers establish effective access to the individuals and groups necessary in the carrying out of policy. This direction of flow would seem to be especially appropriate for the study of interest groups and foreign policy (see Cohen 1959; Bauer et al. 1963).

Such research needs are relatively simple in that they can be efficiently met by existing personnel and research methodologies. When we turn to the critique by Easton (1953; 1956), we will be forced into areas of new research techniques. For Easton gloomily concludes that political analysts cannot even rank interest groups for their relative power, much less for their absolute power. Group theorists must directly face this challenge and attempt to quantify the power of the groups in the system. This need not take place in vacuo, but it will force them into the current polemical and often muddy debate on operationalizing the concept of power. By assigning ordinal or numerical values to the power of various interest groups operating in the system, the analyst could then work back to hypothesized independent causes. Using this approach, one might find close correlations among certain of the presently hypothesized independent variables. For example, high status, strategic position, access, and money resources, perhaps also numerical membership, seem closely related. And some of the logically possible relationships that can be deduced from Truman’s theory probably do not exist in reality.

As group theory makes efficient use of the ferment now occurring in political systems analysis, it could also turn more directly to problems of quantifying the determinants of power. This type of needed research would take the list of possible determinants, summarize them in a single quantitative measure, predict future policy outcomes, observe the actual outcomes in the various political arenas, and then reassess the original catalogue of possibilities. This suggestion would entail use of vector analysis (see Monypenny 1954), which in principle is applicable but remains untried. If Truman’s catalogue of possible variables presents too complex an array, it would still be possible to take a reduced number, perhaps successive pairs, and test them in systematic fashion. It would require more data than we now have; it would require creative adaptation of the sample survey methodology to deliberately inefficient cross-sectional samples or some manner of purposive oversampling to obtain data, for instance, on the saliency of interest, the multiple levels of cohesion, and the rate of political activity of group memberships. Finally, the obvious place to test much of group theory is at the state, provincial, and municipal systemic levels, for then truly comparative analysis can be undertaken.

Harry M. Scoble

[See alsoPolitical efficacyandPolitical group analysis. Other relevant material may be found inPolitical behavior; Political science].


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