Political power is commonly defined as the ability or potential to influence outcomes. Yet, there are several interpretations of this definition. To some scholars, it is the ability to control outcomes or shape the behavior of others. For instance, if A has power over B, A can coerce B to do things that B would not otherwise do. Thus, political power is conceived of as a coercive or control mechanism. To others, political power is simply a relative and self-oriented term: A ’s power is equal to B ’s or A has more or less power than B, but A and B do not necessarily have a coercive power over each other. Still others conceive political power as a public good that in a democratic society is shared by everyone. The foregoing three concepts seem to be unrelated but they, as will become clear later, actually describe different levels of power at different points in time.
Understanding the concept of political power is enhanced if analyzed with respect to different political systems. Most societies have a history of autocratic systems. Modern democracies have been established only since the advent of the Industrial Revolution. During the long history of autocratic rule, societies were governed by monarchs, warlords, and their subordinates. Political power rested upon a single person or a handful of individuals. Going back to the beginning of political history, one finds that the first leaders were probably those who had above normal social skills, ambition, and motivation. Over time, however, political power often passed to the children or families of the rulers, regardless of merit. Power was used to amass wealth, and wealth, in turn, brought more power to the ruling elites, leading to a more skewed distribution of power. The masses had little or no political or civil rights. Accession to power became a function of being a member of the royal family or the ruling elite. The conceptualization of political power as a coercive or control mechanism, A having power over B, is grounded on the experiences of autocratic rule. The Industrial Revolution, beginning in countries like England and Sweden, changed that relationship by gradually diffusing power from the ruling elites to the masses.
The concept of political power as a public good seems to be based on the experiences of ancient and modern democracies. In the classical Greek democracy, the people were both the rulers and the ruled. Political power was equally or almost equally shared among citizens. In modern democracies, political leaders are elected by the people and are considered to be representatives of the people. Political leaders are expected to make decisions that, on average, benefit the interests of their respective societies. Leaders who are unaccountable or unresponsive to the interests of the people are unlikely to be reelected. The fear of loss of office, in part, motivates leaders to excel in their job performance. In modern democracies (unlike in classical ones) citizens, for the most part, possess power in different magnitudes. For instance, although all citizens have the right to vote and are treated equally before the law, individuals do not have an equal chance of influencing public policies or winning the highest elected offices. Thus, the idea that power is a public good or is shared evenly by all in modern democracies is empirically unsupported. The thesis describes what ought to happen, not what actually happens, in modern democracies. Nevertheless, power as a public good, or the perfect equality of power, may be considered a theoretical ideal, one end of the political power continuum, and democratic societies can be judged by how far removed they are from that ideal.
From Greek philosopher Aristotle to seventeenth-century thinker James Harrington to socialist Karl Marx, many have argued that the distribution of power in a given society is influenced by the distribution of wealth and education or the level of socioeconomic development. The more wealthy and educated an individual is, the more power he or she will have. Informed and affluent citizens in modern democracies have acquired greater power and fundamental political and civil rights, including the right to vote, to assemble, to run for office, to due process, and to freedom of speech.
Citizens combine their individualized power to form interest groups and political parties to make sure that their interests are protected and fostered. Accession to a position of leadership also has, for the most part, become a function of an individual’s wealth, education, and, to a certain extent, personal charisma. Leaders are elected to serve the people, not necessarily to earn more power. The authority and coercive rights of leaders in democracies, unlike in autocracies, is often institutionalized, power that is impersonal and resides in the state.
The fact that political systems have evolved from autocracies to democracies, at least in most industrial societies, may indicate that the distribution of political power is a process or a dynamic, as opposed to a static, phenomenon. The three conceptualizations of political power—power as a coercive or control mechanism, power as a relative and self-oriented term, and power as a public good—may indeed be a continuum, different points in space and time. Thus, autocracies are political systems in which the distribution of power is concentrated in the hands of a few individuals. Democracies, in contrast, are political systems in which political power, in addition to basic procedural rights such as one-person-one-vote and equality before the law, is widely diffused among individuals. Older democracies, such as those in England, evolved from autocracies only after centuries of gradual and incremental political reforms. During this long period of political change, political power of the traditional elites and the masses have been minimized and maximized, respectively. Given the presence of some asymmetry in the distribution of power, even in modern industrial democracies, and assuming that economic development will continue to grow, there is no reason to assume that democracies will fail to evolve further. Indeed, the weaknesses of the concepts of power as a coercive or control mechanism and power as a public good are, respectively, that they fail to account for the changing nature of power and the fact that power parity among individuals has not in practice been achieved in modern democracies. It is not clear that such power parity will ever be achieved. But how do researchers measure the continuous nature of political power?
Political power may be redefined as the probability of attaining the most important office in a given state, the presidency or the prime ministry. The fact that not all individuals are interested in becoming president or prime minister or the fact that only one individual can attain the highest office is not important. Rather attaining such office is important as a yardstick for calculating the level of power an individual possesses. Thus, the probabilities of winning the highest office for each individual, and hence each person’s level of power, would lie between 0 and 1. The foregoing describes the concept of political power as a relative and self-oriented term: A ’s power is equal to B ’s or the former possesses more or less power than the latter. Given that political power is hard to quantify, however, income distribution can be a proxy for political power. Thus, the chances of each individual winning the highest office are estimated by using income levels; the higher the income of an individual, the higher the probability he or she will become a leader. The probability of winning the most important office for an individual in an ideal democracy, in which the number of adult citizens is equal to N and in which power is perfectly equal among individuals, would be 1/ N. However, because of inherent differences in merit among individuals, ideal democracy or a perfect equality of power will not likely be achieved. Democracies embrace individual freedom and a market economic system, which result in some citizens having more power than others. What then is the most plausible distribution of power that in the future?
Gizachew Tiruneh posits that political power in democracies will, in the long run, likely be normally distributed or take the form of a bell-curve (2004). Early-twenty-first century industrial democracies have an uneven distribution of power (and income) where the mean or average citizen is to right of center. That is, the distribution of power and income are skewed toward or in favor of the upper classes. As the level of democracy, propelled mainly by continuous socioeconomic development, increases or the level of power diffuses over time, the mean citizen will gravitate to the center of the normal curve (where the preponderant majority or the middle class is located), and, once settled at the center, will have the most decisive voice and power in democratic politics. Because those individuals to the right of the mean have, in theory, more power than those to the left of the mean and most leaders may come out of the former group, the political agendas and policies of leaders will likely be dictated by the preferences of the mean citizen. The normal distribution of power represents a democratic system whose quality or degree is likely to be optimal. In this stage of political development, the levels of democracy and power become nearly identical. Tiruneh calls this state of political evolution normal democracy. Assuming that power is a function of merit, the role of socioeconomic development (wealth and education) does not bring power parity among individuals per se, but erases the power bias (the skewed distribution of power) that has been created mainly by autocratic systems.
Some scholars may disagree with aspects of Tiruneh’s theory of political power. For instance, they may conceive power as a static, rather than dynamic, concept. Or they may, on philosophical or moral grounds, contend that citizens ought, regardless of levels of income and rationality, possess an equal distribution of power. The validity of these contentions is unclear. Until a majority of scholars agree on a definition of political power, an understanding of the concept remains incomplete.
SEE ALSO Autocracy; Dahl, Robert Alan; Democracy; Dictatorship; Distribution, Normal; Elections; Elite Theory; Hierarchy; Income Distribution; Inequality, Political; Monarchy; Politics; Power; Power Elite; Public Goods; Repression; Stratification; Stratification, Political; Wealth
Arendt, Hannah. 1970. On Violence. London: Penguin Press.
Dahl, Robert A. 1968. Power. In International Encyclopedia of Social Sciences, Vol. 12, ed. David Sills. New York: Macmillan/Free Press, 405–415.
Lenski, Gerhard E. 1966. Power and Privilege: A Theory of Social Stratification. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Newman, Frank. 1950. Approaches to the Study of Political Power. Political Science Quarterly 45 (2): 161–180.
Parsons, Talcott. 1967. Sociological Theory and Modern Society. New York: Free Press.
Riker, William. 1964. Some Ambiguities in the Notion of Power. American Political Science Review 58 (2): 341–349.
Simon, Herbert A. 1953. Notes on the Observation and Measurement of Political Power. Journal of Politics 15 (4): 500–516.
Tiruneh, Gizachew. 2004. Towards Normal Democracy: Theory and Prediction with Special Reference to Developing Countries. Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies 29 (4): 469–489.