Chapter 4: Key Actors and the Policy Process in State and Local Governments

4.A – Introduction

      In this chapter, we describe state and local government policy processes and the various actors and interests that typically seek to influence those processes.  Public policy and the policy process have been defined in the following way by most social scientists that study these phenomena:

Policy is what the government says and does about perceived problems.  Policymaking is how the government decides what will be done about perceived problems.  Policymaking is a process of interaction among governmental and non-governmental actors; policy is the outcome of that interaction.1

      From this definition of key terms, it is clear that a diverse set of actors can become involved in the making of state and local public policy.  Beginning with the perception of a problem, making it an issue for government action, getting it on the government’s agenda for consideration, and finally securing relevant government action all entail the involvement of many parties sharing a stake in the form of government action taken.2 For many state and local governments the process can become rather complex, featuring a multitude of actors engaged in one or more aspects of policymaking.  Broadly speaking, one can place the actors in the state and local government policymaking process into one of two broad categories:  institutional actors and non-institutional actors.

      The institutional actors involved in the public policy process are governments and governmental agencies that deal with public affairs — namely, the subjects of many other chapters in this book, including legislative bodies, executive departments, and the judicial branch.  Depending on the policy issue in question, there are often state and local, as well as national-level institutions involved in policy issues arising in our federal system of government.  As discussed in other chapters, the United States has a very large number of such agencies and governments due to the federal (as opposed to unitary) nature of the U.S. political system.  The separation of powers provided for in both our federal and state constitutions keep our governmental system decentralized; in countries such as Japan, Great Britain or France, where governmental power is more centralized, far fewer such institutional actors become involved in regional and local policymaking.

      The non-institutional actors involved in the policy process, a principal focus of this chapter, are diverse and can include political parties (e.g., Republicans and Democrats), interest groups (e.g., the National Rifle Association, the Sierra Club, the National Organization for Women), social movements (e.g., the Civil Rights Movement, the Environmental Movement), non-governmental organizations (NGOs) (e.g., the League of Women Voters, Project Vote Smart), and the mass media (e.g., newspapers, radio, television, the Internet), and individual citizens.  These potential actors are fiercely independent of the government and have different types of resources at their disposal, and employ varying strategies in their efforts to influence state and local public policy.  This chapter will discuss each of these sets of actors and describe how they may exercise influence over state and local policy processes.  More specifically, this chapter will accomplish the following goals important for a sound understanding of state and local government and politics:

Learning Objectives

  • review the changing nature of the policy process in postindustrial society,
  • examine how citizens can get involved in state and local government policy processes,
  • discuss the role of political parties and elections in state and local politics and policymaking,
  • discuss the types of interest groups present and the strategies these groups typically use in state and local policy processes,
  • review the role of the mass media in policy processes,
  • examine how industry and business can often exert significant influence in state and local politics,
  • discuss the role of social movements in shaping state and local politics and policy processes,
  • compare how policymaking processes differ between various systems including the separation of powers political system found in the U.S. and the integration of powers (parliamentary) political systems found elsewhere,
  • briefly present models of how the policy-making process occurs in state and local governments,
  • offer suggestions for how policy processes and actors can enhance community sustainability.

4.B – Political Participation in Postindustrial America

      Contemporary studies of public participation in postindustrial societies suggest that a new style of politics has emerged over the course of the last several decades.3 This new style of politics is characterized in major part by an expansion of what has been considered appropriate political action.  Some scholars who carry out research in this area argue that support for new modes of participation arises out of some specific socio-political changes that occurred in the postwar period.4  These scholars note that historically unprecedented economic growth, a prolonged period of prosperity, and relative political stability have created an increasingly better-educated public that places demands on government to address ever-changing problems arising in the management of postindustrial societies — including the challenge of sustainability.  The contemporary grassroots citizen organizations and associated social movements that arise in this context are considerably more likely to engage in protest politics or elite challenging political activities — such as demonstrations and boycotts — than were previous generations of activists.5

      Political conflicts arising over increasingly complex issues — such as sustainable development, same-sex marriage, immigration reform and No Child Left Behind educational reform — have generated a multitude of new interest groups, many of which draw citizens into the political process via single-issue concerns as opposed to a broad philosophical orientation to proper governance.   One such policy arena with this type of political conflict is found in the domain of environmental policy.6 Traditionally, in the United States, environmental management was a process largely insulated from public scrutiny.  By the 1970s, however, quite widespread concern became evident concerning the proper management of the natural environment.7  Environmental organizations grew in size and proliferated in many economically advanced countries, and these organizations succeeded in mobilizing citizens, in challenging traditional environmental management practices, and in presenting new environmental issues for public debate.8

      Given the difficulty ordinary citizens have in dealing with the scientific complexities of environmental issues, the process by which democratic societies confront complex scientific and technical issues involving the broader public interest is important to understand.  The formation of NGOs and interest groups is critical in this respect.  The emergence of community-based interest groups and social movements has been characterized as an “eruption from below,” with demands for increased citizen input in the decision-making process lying at their base.9  Interest groups and community-based advocacy groups have pushed for increased democratization as a fundamental component of public policy.  In doing so, the activities of interest groups illustrate the inherent tensions existing between a politicized, issue-driven segment of the electorate and “expert” decision-makers operating in the realm of natural resource policy.10

      The prominent political scientist Ronald Inglehart argues that there are two distinct forms of political participation that should be recognized.11  The “elite-directed” mode of political action is represented by socio-political institutions, such as political parties, bureaucratic agencies, labor unions, and industry associations that are hierarchical in nature and mobilize citizens into action in a coordinated, “top-down” fashion.  In contrast to this familiar pattern of citizen mobilization is the elite-challenging mode of political action, a pattern of political activity that is generally more issue-specific operates outside traditional political channels, and tends to make use of unconventional and sometimes disruptive tactics in an attempt to influence public policy.12

      Elite-challenging activism is a form of political action that usually addresses specific policy goals such as a community opposition to the location of a prison in a town or city.13  Sometimes this type of community-based political activism has been called “NIMBY” politics (i.e., Not in My Backyard).  In the area of elite-challenging environmental activism, Rothenberg has described this particular form of political action in the following terms:

Nonviolent resistance is often an important part of environmental action:  lying across the road to block the onslaught of bulldozers, chaining oneself to the floor of a valley as the dammed waters start to rise.  These can be powerful forms of protest.  The press will take notice, and the public will follow, so the world will learn of your cause.  If you are willing to lay your life on the line, they think, you must be quite convinced of the correctness of your position.14

      According to the highly regarded political scientist David Truman, industry groups that perceive threats to existing values often are put on the defensive by such tactics.15  One example of this is the tobacco industry after the demonstration of a link between smoking and cardiac and pulmonary disease.  In response to the elite-challenging behavior of consumer, environmental, and social equity advocacy groups (e.g., National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Sierra Club), industry groups are motivated to establish communication networks and create a common front against new policies that might negatively affect their ability to conduct business as usual.  Instead of competing against one another as a market-based economy model would predict, industry-wide groups (e.g., Cattle Ranchers, Wheat Growers, Automobile Manufacturers and Retailers, Real Estate interests) often focus on their lowest common denominator of common interest and work in concert to take advantage of political opportunities to oppose these new groups.  Such “coalitions of convenience” have indeed become quite commonplace in many conflicts coming before U.S. state and local governments.  The emergence of new “elite challenging” forces in American society has led to the creation of a broad array of interest groups, citizen groups, political party factions, and government agencies becoming active in the state and local government policymaking process.  Each of these types of key actors will be addressed briefly in the chapter sections to follow.

4.C – Interest Groups

      All postindustrial nations, including the United States, are experiencing explosive growth in the number, scope of concerns, and size of interest groups seeking to influence public policy.16  Community-based interest groups and other grassroots organizations concerned with a variety of public policy issues are variously labeled as public interest groups,17 citizen groups,18 or social movements.19  These particular terms are used to distinguish between citizen and community-based groups, which as a whole differ in their goals from groups representing either business or professional interests.  According to the noted economist Mancur Olson’s seminal work The Logic of Collective Action,20 such not-for-profit groups typically experience considerable difficulty organizing and mobilizing action.   Groups of this type usually seek collective benefits that are often non-material, such as preserving endangered species or promoting civil rights and are inclusive rather than exclusive in nature (that is, the benefit sought will accrue to everyone regardless of their contribution to securing it).  Despite these rather formidable obstacles, however, public interest groups have grown dramatically in number and in size in virtually all U.S. states and in urban and rural areas alike in recent decades, and they have become important players in the American state and local government public policymaking process.

      Interest groups are highly diverse in terms of their size, the resources at their command, the scope of interest and activities in which they engage, their policy preferences, and their organizational form.  They can be involved in a host of state and local government policy issues, including the areas of environmental protection, poverty reduction, public safety, child health and welfare, gender equity, and transportation system reform.  Such groups can be of the large-scale membership type organized nation-wide, or they can be community–based and focused on local conditions.  International organizations (commonly referred to as ‘international nongovernmental organizations, or INGOs), issue-focused think tanks (e.g., The Heritage Foundation, the Vera Institute), and activist organizations (e.g., Habitat for Humanity, Doctors without Borders, the Union of Concerned Scientists) also often engage in policymaking in U.S. state and local governments on a selective basis.  According to David Korten of the People-Centered Development Forum, many community-based and grass-roots public interest groups have been effective advocates of public policies that are intended to promote sustainability:

…the environment, peace, human rights, consumer rights and women’s movements provide convincing examples of the power of voluntary action to change society.  This seeming paradox can be explained by the fact that the power of voluntary action arises not from the size and resources of individual voluntary organizations, but rather from the ability of the voluntary sector to coalesce the actions of hundreds, thousands, or even millions of citizens through vast and constantly evolving networks that commonly lack identifiable structures, embrace many chaotic and conflicting tendencies, and yet act as if in concert to create new political and institutional realities.  These networks are able to encircle, infiltrate, and even co-opt the resources of opposing bureaucracies.  They reach across sectors to intellectuals, press, and community organizations.  Once organized, they can, through electronic communications, rapidly mobilize significant political forces on a global scale.21

      Although interest groups differ quite widely in their human, financial, and organizational resources,22 in general it can be said that community-based and grassroots groups tend to be understaffed and poorly financed in comparison with organizations that represent private sector interests such as the petrochemical industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the telecommunications industry, the insurance industry, agricultural commodity groups, etc.23  Most community and grassroots nonprofit groups are managed by either an unpaid or poorly compensated staff and claim very few official members, although some have developed large memberships and/or long lists of generous financial contributors and have hired skilled researchers, lawyers, and organizational managers.24  Moreover, interest groups can have two fundamentally different types of memberships — one composed exclusively of individual citizens, and another consisting of representatives of large institutions, business firms, or state and local governments.25

      Some observers of interest groups also note that there is an increasing use of professional agents such as lobbyists and political consultants, professionals (often former elected public officials) who are adept at influencing policy processes and mobilizing support or posing opposition to public policy initiatives.26  According to the research conducted by political scientist Andrew McFarland, it is as much the skill of such agents that determines the groups’ success as it is their size of membership or financial resources.27

      Another source of influence and success in the policy process is the formation of coalitions of interests.  Such alliances feature numerous smaller groups or businesses as members rather than individual citizens.  These coalition-type groups can become a formidable political force due to their pooled financial resources and their freedom from dependence upon highly variable individual membership dues.  Another source of group strength identified by political scientist Jack Walker is the role of powerful patrons who are located outside of the group but who provide critical financial and social networking resources.28 The support of the many private foundations (e.g., the Nature Conservancy, the Russell Family Foundation, the Northwest Area Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation), of wealthy individuals (e.g., Bill Gates, Paul Allan, Norton Simon, etc.), and of government agencies (e.g., Environmental Protection Agency, Booneville Power Authority, U.S. Department of Energy) allows some environmental and public health groups to reduce their reliance on individual memberships dues.

      A variety of strategies developed to influence the policy process have been identified by social scientists who study the policymaking process in state and local government.  Central among these strategies are the various forms of lobbying of elected officials and governmental agencies, the organizing of grassroots activists to mobilize public opinion, the building of coalitions with other like-minded groups, and the making of strategic financial contributions to supportive politicians.29  The specific strategy (or combination of strategies) used by a particular organization is influenced by various factors, including the types and amounts of resources available to it, the perceived effectiveness of the strategies available, and the governmental structure in place.  Large memberships give interest groups an advantage in letter writing, in the staging of public demonstrations, and in the training of volunteers to carry out grassroots activities.  In contrast, those organizations possessing few members but commanding large budgets generally wish to focus on influencing the election of key decision-makers or lobbying such decision-makers after the holding of elections.  The latter has been the preferred strategy for industry and commercial interests, and as a result, many industrial interests have benefited significantly from governmental programs and from government subsidies.

      Regardless of the size of their budgets and memberships, however, Berry observes the following about interest groups: “ (they) have strong reasons to convince people at the grassroots of the righteousness of their arguments, believing that changed public opinion will eventually lead to changed elite opinion.”30  This long-term perspective is especially the case in the advocacy of sustainability, in light of the fact that issues of sustainability are becoming popular among citizens in postindustrial countries.31

      Table 4.1 provides information derived from a 2015 random sample survey of public interest groups and NGOs involved in the promotion of civil society, or civic engagement and public education on public affairs.32  The diversity of resources used by advocacy groups working in civil society is apparent, as well as the heavy reliance on members and volunteers to raise the resources needed and carry out necessary group activities.  Around two-thirds of the groups taking part in the survey have some type of membership in an advocacy group, including individual and institutional members; and virtually all of the groups spend a substantial amount of their time pursuing resources rather than directly advocating on behalf of their public policy objectives.

Mean/Median Number of Paid Staff:
Full time: 9.3/4.0
Part time: 4.0/4.0
Mean/Median Number of Volunteers: 11.4/8.0
Individual memberships:
% Yes: 84.7%
% No: 15.3%
Mean/Median Number of Members: 363.5/221.5
Individual membership trend last two years:
% Grown: 30.0
% Stayed the Same: 52.7
% Declined: 17.3
Institutional/other types of memberships:
% Yes: 66.1
% No: 33.9
Mean/Median Number of Other Memberships: 23.3/19.0
Types of other members (% indicating members):
% Civic/community organizations: 37.7
% Government agencies, etc.: 22.7
% Research organizations: 36.4
% Businesses/corporations: 43.9
% Labor organizations: 4.0
% Clubs: 26.5
% Environmental organizations: 26.5
Budget status last 2-3 years:
% Increased above inflation: 31.1
% Kept pace with inflation: 46.3
% Decreased: 22.6
Percent time spent finding resources:
0% to 10%: 37.3
11% to 25%: 48.0
26% to 50%: 12.4
51% to 75%: 2.3
76% to 100%: 0.0
Budget sources (% receiving from source):
Membership dues: 73.4
Fees for services: 63.3
Fundraising activities: 71.2
Domestic donors/grants: 62.1
National government: 22.6
Regional (oblast/state) government: 22.6
Municipal government: 15.3
Business: 31.6
Individual gifts: 67.8

Table 4.1 NGO Resources and Capacity—2015. (N=175)

The survey in question asked these public interest groups about the types of strategies they used and about the activities in which they engaged, including their interactions with government, the public, other groups, and the mass media.  The strategies listed in Table 4.2 range from traditional forms of influence such as lobbying government officials to elite-challenging activities such as organizing and staging political demonstrations and engaging in protests.  While many of these groups are active at various levels of government, most groups have more influence in state and local government rather than the national government.  This observation substantiates former U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill’s often-quoted remark, “all politics are local.”  Another finding supportive of the discussion above is that public interest groups promoting a civil society spend a great deal of time trying to educate the public and working in concert with other groups to promote their agenda.  Of course, the strategies of such public interest groups and industry-based groups are partially dependent on the structure of government and its potential points of access, as we will note later in this chapter.

Question: “Given your organization’s goals, please indicate how often your organization engages in the following activities (regarding group-state relationships):” [N=175]
Never (%) Infrequently (%) Somewhat Frequently (%) Frequently (%) Very Frequently (%)
Participation in the work of government commissions and advisory committees 0% 9% 34% 34% 23%
Contacts with people in local and state government 8% 14% 15% 46% 18%
Contacts with members of national government 14% 18% 28% 24% 16%
Contacts with leaders of political parties 9% 21% 31% 27% 12%
Legal recourse to the courts of judicial bodies 25% 27% 31% 14% 3%
Question: “Given your organization’s goals, please indicate how often your organization engages in the following activities (regarding group-public/group-media relationships):” [N=175]
Never (%) Infrequently (%) Somewhat Frequently (%) Frequently (%) Very Frequently (%)
Efforts to mobilize public opinion through disseminating information 2% 3% 20% 37% 38%
Organizing demonstrations, protests, strikes, or other direct actions 18% 34% 32% 10% 6%
Contacts with people in the media 2% 5% 26% 36% 31%
Contacts with other NGOs 3% 15% 16% 25% 42%
Organizing conferences and training for other NGOs 11% 19% 21% 22% 27%
Organizing conferences and training for interested citizens 2% 1% 29% 39% 28%

Table 4.2 Strategies and Activities of Interest Groups—2006

      Yet another interesting finding derived from this study is the degree of self-perceived success of these groups.  The survey results presented in Table 4.3 indicate that 68 percent of the civil society groups believe they are either “effective” or “very effective” in working with citizens.  The second-highest level of self-assessed success noted is that of working with local governments, followed by working with state government and working with political parties.  Working with the national government elicited the lowest level of self-assessed perceived success.

Question: “In your opinion, how effective is your organization in working with the following organizations and citizens?” [N=175]
Not Effective (%) Somewhat Effective (%) Effective (%) Very Effective (%)
Local Government 19% 32% 30% 19%
State Government 23% 38% 25% 14%
National Government 36% 36% 20% 8%
Political Parties 29% 32% 24% 15%
Citizens 8% 24% 38% 30%

Table 4.3 Self-Perceived Effectiveness of NGOs—2015

4.D – Social Movements

      As discussed previously, political scientists have identified two distinct forms of political participation intended to influence public policy — i.e., the “elite-directed” and “elite challenging” modes of political action.  Contemporary studies of the policy process in postindustrial societies indicate that the elite challenging mode of politics has been very effective in bringing about policy change when it is associated with the development of a social movement.  Social movements are broad-based efforts to change societal institutions and practices that emphasize a collective identity reflective of an identifiable set of shared values.  Social movements encapsulate a broad range of concerns and engage a large number of organizations and individual citizens who become united for a particular cause.  Such movements have included the causes of the Prohibition of the Manufacture and Sale of Alcohol, Workers’ Rights, Civil Rights, Environmental Protection, and Women’s Rights.  All of these movements affected state and local politics and public policymaking in state and local government.  Currently, the Gay and Lesbian Rights movement is also very active at state and local levels of government.  Efforts to promote the recognition of benefits associated with civil unions and the legal recognition of gay marriage are public policy changes being sought by this contemporary social movement.

      Sociologists and political scientists who have studied social movements have identified some characteristics associated with social movements that have been successful in the past; these characteristics include the following:33

1. Sufficient financial resources to recruit and educate new members and to promote the desired policy outcomes in the general public:
      Having sufficient financial support is particularly important in areas where the proposed changes are strongly opposed by groups with substantial resources.

2. Involving people and organizations with prior grassroots experience:
      Having staff and leadership skilled and experienced in grassroots politics expedites successful organizational efforts.  This is likely the case because experienced people are more likely to know which strategies work and which do not work under given circumstances.  Experienced people are also more likely to be connected to affected communities and know the political landscape within which the recruitment of movement participants can be accomplished.

3. Identifying emotional issues to motivate people to participate:
      This process is known as “dramatic spotlighting,” and it occurs in cases wherein events that lead to public outrage are carefully highlighted for the media and potential participants.  There are many examples of injecting emotion into a natural resource and environmental policy issues — such as the filming of the clubbing of baby seals in annual hunts in Canada by Greenpeace and a 1970’s EPA television commercial using a stately Native American elder with tears coming from his eyes after coming upon a polluted river; while these are particularly noteworthy examples, many others could be given.

4. Using a “micro-mobilization” approach:
      Organizing small informal and formal groups at the local level, all connected to a much larger network or coalition, has been found to be an important component of successful social movements in the past.  Having people interact at the local level creates social bonds among otherwise isolated persons, and these bonds increase issue interest and participation in social movement activities.  At the same time as local bonds are being built there must be an ongoing connection to a larger movement; locally bonded people scattered across a myriad of communities are more likely to take part in movement activities if they believe large numbers of others are also participating in other localities facing the same problems they are dealing with in their own community.  Examples of relatively successful movements would be the women’s suffrage movement (i.e., “first wave” feminism), the civil rights movement, and the early environmental movement in the 1960s and 1970s.

5. The absence of crosscutting cleavages:
      Crosscutting cleavages —such as liberal versus conservative, rural versus urban, etc. within a social movement — often lead to political conflict and undercut efforts at building a large, cohesive and effective movement.  Successful social movements in the past have grown more inclusive over time, but start with a core set of fairly uniform actors who maintain a steadfast focus on their shared cause.

6. Having a diverse and “co-optable” communications network:
      Successful social movements tend to develop communication networks that connect large and diverse numbers of people to the cause — the greater the number and diversity of people actively participating in the network, the more likely the movement will be successful.  The communication network needs to connect individual and group participants in the movement to one another, it needs to connect participants with the mass media, and it needs to connect the movement with potential new participants.

7. Having capable and competent leadership:
      Articulate and charismatic leaders and organizers are much more likely to inspire emotion and participation than passive followers and inarticulate leaders.  If leaders are identified as being too partisan or allied too closely with a particularly divisive interest group, then their ability to lead a broad- based movement is diminished.

8. Having an optimistic expectation:
      This characteristic of successful social movements is related to sense of efficacy.  People have to feel they are joining ranks with large numbers of like-minded people, and that their own participation will contribute to the success of the movement.  While this is a very difficult characteristic to engender in contemporary America, with only 60 percent of the eligible population participating in the electoral process it is nonetheless very important for successful social movements.     (9) Encouraging solidarity instead of free riding.  With many state and local issues in the political sphere, there are many free riders — people willing to sit back and watch others take action and then benefit from those actions without themselves having contributed their fair share.  Successful movements are able to move people to take private actions that contribute to collective political action (writing letters, attending public meetings, voting for supportive candidates, joining groups, donating money, etc.) despite the temptation to free-ride on the sacrifices of others.

4.E – Citizens

      As discussed previously, there are a variety of ways that citizens can influence state and local policy processes as discussed above — traditional and elite-challenging methods.  Traditional methods would include:34

1. voting in elections.

2. working on political campaigns for candidates or political parties, which could include convincing others how to vote, attending rallies or meetings, and fund-raising activities.

3. communal activities such as working with groups to solve community problems or contacting governmental officials.

In contrast, elite challenging or “unconventional” political participation could include:

1. signing petitions

2. participating in lawful demonstrations.

3. participating in boycotts.

4. participating in unofficial strikes.

5. taking part in “sit-ins” and the occupation of buildings or facilities in order to dramatize a claimed injustice.

      While citizens can take a number of steps to participate in politics, overall participation in the United States compared to many other democracies is noticeably lower, particularly in recent years.  In addition, not all segments in American society participate in elections at equal rates.  The statistics displayed in Table 4.4 show voting rates for various sociodemographic characteristics in the 2016 general election. In regard to who was most likely to register to vote and then actually vote, the U.S. Census study of the 2016 general election found the following:35

  • Women are more likely to vote in the election than men: 63 percent of women reported voting compared to 59 percent of men.
  • Voting rates were much higher for older-aged citizens when compared to younger voters — 73 percent of citizens 65 years and older voted in the election compared to 43 percent for the 18 to 24 age group.
  • The higher the level of educational attainment, the more likely a citizen was to vote; 74 percent of citizens with a bachelor’s degree voted compared to 35 percent of those with less than a high school diploma.
  • Citizens who are employed are significantly more likely to register and vote than those of lower income and less than full employment.36
  • There are differences in the likelihood of voting among various ethnic and racial groups, with Non-Hispanic white citizens being significantly more likely to take part in elections as compared to Blacks and Hispanics.
Race and Hispanic Origin 2016 (%)
White alone, not Hispanic 65
Black alone 59
Asian alone 49
Hispanic (of any race) 48
Sex 2016 (%)
Men 59
Women 63
Age 2016 (%)
18 to 24 years 43
25 to 44 years 56
45 to 64 years 67
65 plus years 73
Educational Attainment 2016 (%)
Less than high school graduate 35
High school graduate or GED 51
Some college or Associate degree 63
Bachelor’s degree 74
Advanced degree 80
Employment Status 2016 (%)
In the civilian labor force 63
Unemployed 50
Not in the labor force 58

Table 4.4 Political Participation by Group in 2016 General Election

While there was much interest among many groups in the 2016 General Election, a U.S. Census Bureau Report concluded that:

Voting rates have also historically varied according to age, with older Americans generally voting at higher rates than younger Americans. In 2016, this was once again the case, as citizens 65 years and older reported higher turnout (70.9 percent) than 45- to 64-year-olds (66.6 percent), 30- to 44-year-olds (58.7 percent) and 18- to 29-year-olds (46.1 percent).37

      The 2016 U.S. Bureau of the Census report on civic participation asked citizens who reported they did not vote WHY they did not take part in the election, and they documented the following self-reported reasons:

  • 14.3 percent said they were too busy with conflicting schedules.
  • 11.7 percent reported they were ill or disabled.
  • 15.4 percent indicated they were not interested.
  • 24.8 percent did not like any candidates or issues.
  • 7.9 percent were out of town.
  • 4.4 percent experienced registration problems.
  • 3.0 percent said they forgot to vote.
  • 2.1 percent found the polling places inconvenient.
  • 2.6 percent had transportation problems.

      Because a high level of citizen engagement in governance is an important component of civil society and sustainable communities alike, some state and local governments pursuing sustainability have tried to address some of these reasons for not participating with specific public policies.  Increasing citizen participation is important to state and local government because:

1. voting and attentiveness to public affairs lie at the heart of the democratic principles upon which the United States was built.

2. citizen participation provides legitimacy to state and local policy decisions to the extent that people recognize that their concerns were incorporated into the laws under which we all must live.

3. citizen engagement can increase the citizens’ sense of attachment to the community and engender the “co-production” of public goods – that is, citizens promote the public welfare by voluntary actions motivated by a sense of civic duty (e.g., recycle to reduce solid waste, maintain safe lighting on private property, make donations to the Red Cross, United Way, Community Food Banks and the like to provide for those in need).

4. it helps to maintain and reinforce community networks and social connections, thus increasing the ability of communities and states to respond to natural and economic disasters.

5. heightened public participation also can lead to enhanced momentum to implement new policies and energize community-based initiatives needed to promote sustainability.

      Some examples of state and local efforts to increase citizen participation — not only in elections, but also for service on citizen review boards, planning commissions and other venues, include the use of e-government techniques (i.e., providing useful policy-relevant information on the Internet and allowing on-line voter registration), allowing voting before election day, allowing more flexible voter registration opportunities at numerous venues such as on election day, at schools, in hospitals, and in vote-by-mail systems present in Oregon (for all elections) and other states for many state and local elections.  Concerning this latter approach of making voting easier, many states that have traditional polling station elections are also allowing a very flexible system for absentee voting by mail.

      One argument that some observers have made concerning the relatively lower rates of participation in the U.S. when compared to other postindustrial countries is that we have a large number of elective offices subject to election due to our federal system.  It is estimated that 521,000 governmental positions are subject to election nationally when national, state and local offices are combined.  The sheer number of positions and candidates that the typical U.S. voter must consider on their ballot is overwhelming.  In stark contrast, in many other democratic countries where parliamentary systems are in place (see below), citizens have only one or two offices to fill per election, making the electoral process is far less burdensome on the voter.

4.E.I – Initiative and Referenda:

      One way that citizens can affect public policy and even amend state constitutions or county and city charters directly is through the initiative process.  In over a third of the states and in many local governments the initiative provides citizens a process to vote on proposed constitutional amendments, statutes or ordinances.  The initiative process originates from a certain number of registered voters (the number depends on the state and the nature of the proposal) signing a petition to place an issue on the ballot.  With a sufficient number of validated voter signatures either an indirect or direct initiative process ensues.  Under the indirect form, an issue is first referred to state legislature for consideration, and then if the legislature does not enact the measure, that same measure is placed before the electorate to decide.  In the direct form of the initiative, a measure is directly forwarded to voters for their consideration without passing through the state legislature.  In many states, the legislatures can also refer a specific measure to the voters for approval or disapproval.  This process is called a referendum and differs from the initiative process because the measure originates with the legislature.  All of these types of votes collectively are referred to as “ballot measures,” “propositions,” or simply “initiatives,” depending on the state.

      The initiative and referendum process is thought to have originated in the Greek city-states studied by Aristotle, and both methods of direct legislation by the people have been used at various times throughout the centuries in countries such as Switzerland, France, Australia, Ireland, the United Kingdom, and the United States.38  In the United States, the initiative and referendum processes were used by many states to both adopt and later revise their original constitutions.  South Dakota was the first state to adopt the initiative process in 1898, followed by Utah in 1900, and then Oregon in 1902.

      Twenty-four states now utilize some form of the initiative process.  The impetus for the adoption of the initiative process in most states was a growing sentiment among the public that there was widespread corruption in legislative politics whereby the interests of citizens were too often ignored and those of “moneyed interests” were protected by nefarious lobbyists.  The presence of patronage-ridden “political machines” in major cities and many state legislatures, whose exploits were covered in muckraking newspapers by investigative reporters, added to the public distrust of state legislatures at the turn of the century.  Within this historical context, the initiative process was adopted as a means to circumvent state legislatures by allowing voters to enact laws directly.  It was expected at the time that the initiative process would serve as a check on the state legislature — a warning signal from the people that, if too long ignored, they could take matters into their own hands to pass laws they wanted even if their elected representatives were not prepared to do so.

Arguments commonly made in favor of direct democracy by its advocates include the following:39

  • It makes legislatures more responsive to public opinion.
  • It allows citizens to take their policy preferences directly to the public for action.
  • It stimulates public debate over important policy issues.
  • It increases citizen interest and, thus, participation in elections.
  • It contributes to higher levels of trust in government.

Critics of the initiative process offer the following counter-arguments.40

  • It often leads to the adoption of poor public policies because the public generally lacks the skills, knowledge, and/or desire to cast informed votes during elections.41
  • It promotes the “tyranny of the majority” (majority riding roughshod over the rights of minorities) and is potentially dangerous for disadvantaged minority interests.42
  • It often does not reflect the will of the people because those who vote on initiatives often are not representative of the population at large.43
  • It is controlled by the very interests (i.e., special interests) that it originally sought to circumvent.44
  • It does not contribute to more responsive and accountable legislatures.

      Yet another way in which citizens can directly, or in some cases indirectly, influence the governmental process is through recall provisions.  This citizen empowerment process allows registered voters to petition to recall elected (and in some cases appointed officials) through popular elections.  Most states allow recall elections for local government officials, but at the state level only 18 American states permit recall elections to remove elected or appointed officials.  A famous example of the use of the recall occurred in 2003 when Governor Gray Davis of California was recalled in connection with the mismanagement of the state’s electric energy management policy in a way that made the state’s citizens vulnerable to extremely high charges occasioned by the nefarious dealings of the Enron Corporation (some of whose officials are in federal prison today for their role in those dealings).  The recall of Governor Davis gave rise to the election of the former movie actor and political novice Arnold Schwarzenegger.


Citizenship – What Can I do?

In Professor Russell Dalton’s new book, The Good Citizen: How a Younger Generation is Reshaping American Politics (2008), he identifies two types of citizenship where people can get involved in their communities.  The first type of citizenship is “duty-based” and the second he calls “engaged.”  Below are some ways people can participate in both of these types of citizenship.


Duty-based Citizenship reflects traditional forms of political participation:


1. Get registered to vote.  Voter registration opportunities exist where you get a driver’s license (e.g., Department of Motor Vehicles, etc.), your county courthouse, etc.   Several webs


2. Vote in an election.  Contact your Secretary of State’s website to learn about the election schedule in your jurisdiction.


3. Join a political party.  Search the web for local meetings of political parties and attend to see if your views are in line with those of a political party.


4. Contact your elected representatives by email or letter and let them know how you feel about the issues.


For more information on how you can register to vote, to get involved, and to find information about candidates for office or initiative and referenda, go to Project Vote Smart’s website:


Engaged Citizenship reflects a new and broader range of activities that includes social concerns and the welfare of others.


5. Participate in providing housing for low-income families through programs such as habitat for Humanity.


6. Volunteer for local Earth Day Activities (April 22) such as beach and park cleanup or an environmental “teach-in.”


7. Join a watershed group or council to help protect and improve streams and rivers in your area.


8. Many cities have neighborhood associations where community members design programs to enhance community livability.


9. Help your local food bank collect food for needy families.


For more information on how you can volunteer and the opportunities in your community, go to Youth Volunteer Corps of America’s website: or go to the Americorps’ website at:

4.F – Media

      The mass media play an important role in state and local government policy processes.  In the U.S. “children spend more time in front of television sets than in school,” and more than two-thirds of the people in the country “report they receive all or most of their news from television” – given these facts and given the growth of the electronic mass media it is clear that the media are enormously important as a factor in state and local politics.45  With the advent of worldwide television coverage due to the extensive proliferation of satellite transmitters and receivers, as well as the rapid expansion of the world wide web and the Internet, the transmission of information globally is virtually instantaneous and the potential impact of this information has been enhanced greatly over what it was in the past.  The strategic use of visual images and the near-real-time dissemination of graphic scenes is a powerful means to create and maintain concern for a specific issue.  For example, a picture of a dying bird mired in oil is a great deal more moving than is a short oral “talking head” report that a tanker is leaking crude oil off a coastline somewhere.46  This type of strategic media messaging by interest groups and political parties is especially important in an era of globalization where a wider audience has access to new sources of public affairs-relevant information and this audience is being exposed to more diverse messages concerning state and local governance issues than ever in the past.

      In addition to noting these aspects of the new potency of the mass media, it needs to be stated that the mass media traditionally perform certain important functions that are essential to state and local government and politics, including the following.

  • Formation of public opinion: the mass media provide information and the reporting of diverse viewpoints that help citizens form their own views of public policy issues.
  • The mass media help to prioritize public policy issues that come to the attention of state and local government.  In one sense, the mass media can serve as a “marketplace” of ideas; in another sense, they help determine what issues come to the attention of policymakers based on their independent assessment of the “newsworthiness” of particular stories and issues.
  • The news media, particularly the print media, serve as an important “watchdog” over state and local governments and officials, providing a check on corruption, inadequate attention to matters of public concern, unethical conduct, and bureaucratic malfeasance.
  • The media collectively provide an essential link between citizens and their government in a democracy by helping communicate public policy-relevant information, policy preferences, and societal values back and forth between citizens and their governmental leaders and civil servants.

      According to a 2017 public opinion study conducted by The Pew Research Center, the main source of political and campaign news for most Americans is television (50%), followed by online sources (43%), radio (25%), and newspapers (18%).47 Additional findings in the 2017 study included the following trends:

  • The gap between online and television news consumption is narrowing.
  • The use of mobile devices for information continues to grow.
  • Older cohorts are “driving the growth in mobile news use.”
  • Sixty-seven percent of Americans “get at least some news on social media.”
  • The less educated are increasingly getting their news on social media.
  • About a third of Americans “say they often see made-up political news online.”
  • While social media use is increasing, Americans “have low trust in information from social media.”
  • The most common pathways to online news are visits directly to sites or through social media.48

      The Pew Research Center’s annual assessment of the news media in 2018 is somewhat dire for the industry and potentially for an informed electorate:

The audience for nearly every major sector of the U.S. news media fell in 2017 – with the only exception being radio. The evening audience for both local and network TV news declined 7%, while for cable it fell 12%…Meanwhile, digital-native news sites’ audiences declined by 5% in terms of monthly unique visitors in 2017…and the circulation for U.S. daily newspapers, whose audience has been steadily declining for several decades, fell by 11% last year.49

4.G – Corporations and Economic Interests

      Businesses and multinational corporations are another set of actors that are extremely important in the political life of state and local government.  The noted scholar Charles Lindblom argued convincingly that business enjoys a “privileged position” in American politics generally, and in state and local government in particular.  In capitalist or market-based economies such as ours, it is private corporations rather than government that run crucial sectors of the society.50  In many democratic countries significant portions of what are private sector businesses in the U.S., such as energy production, airlines, medical care, and health insurance, are “nationalized” and are operated by the government.  This fact means that private interests in the U.S. command far more wealth, power and influence vis-à-vis governmental authorities than is the case in virtually any other contemporary democratic nation.

      Some critics of American society argue that the power possessed by private corporations has increased markedly in recent decades as a direct consequence of the globalization of local economies and the explosive growth of multi-national corporations.  They argue strongly that the combination of these two factors has lead to the exercise of undue corporate influence on state and local governments that are required to regulate and or levy taxes on some of the activities of these powerful interests.  The implications of this increasing role for global corporations in local communities replacing locally owned, locally financed and locally operated small businesses are rather ominous for state and local government in the U.S.  This is the case in part because interests far removed from the community will decide the ultimate fate of that community rather than the community itself, and also because– generally speaking — business interests oppose public policies “that they believe would impose significant new costs on them or otherwise reduce expected profits” regardless of their potential benefit to the broader community.51

      While virtually all political scientists agree that business interests command a great deal of influence in state and local government, there is disagreement among social scientists on just how much influence business interests actually exercise in the policy process.  As the discussion of public policy models found at the end of this chapter illustrates, some scholars make the argument that corporations dominate the policy process, both nationally and internationally,52 while others argue that business is just one of the many powerful interests involved in the policy process.53  The highly regarded American political scientist Robert Dahl persuasively argues, however, that those who own and control corporate and personal wealth pose special problems for democratic systems and public policy:

…ownership and control contribute to the creation of great differences among citizens in wealth, income, status, skills, information, control over information and propaganda, access to political leaders… [and] differences like these help in turn to generate significant inequalities among citizens in their capacities and opportunities for participating as political equals in governing the state.54

      This observation suggests that in the United States and other market-based economies, business interests represent not merely one of many contending interests in state and local governments, but represent among of the most important actors involved in public policymaking in those governments.

4.H – Political Parties and Elections

      Political parties are important actors in state and local public policy processes throughout the country.  Typically, political parties “reflect a political culture with distinct world views” that are organized to “seek power in government.”55  While the Founding Fathers tried very hard to insulate the new nation from the development of factions and parties through the constitutional arrangements of federalism, separation of powers and checks and balances, they obviously were not entirely successful in that effort.  By 1800 the United States was one of the first countries in the world to have nationally organized political parties.  With continental expansion and population growth through mass immigration and the resulting expansion of the electorate — in addition to historical reforms enfranchising African Americans and women — political parties provided the principal means to mobilize voters through what we have called “elite-directed” politics in our preceding discussion.

      Political parties provide a means for the organization and direction of competition for political power.  They prioritize issues to be addressed by government and recruit candidates to stand in elections at the national, state and local levels of government.  After elections are held, the winning party takes control of the government and the minority party calls into question the majority party’s actions in areas where they believe it is subject to criticism that will resonate with citizens in the next election.  This constant give and take, action and reaction between the political parties serves to keep the public informed about the actions of their government and aware of alternates possible to existing policies and practices.

      Political parties can also facilitate the work of state government if the same party controls both the legislature and governor’s office, thus minimizing the often-divisive effect of separation of powers and checks and balances.  Divided control of state government by different parties makes governance more difficult, requiring skillful negotiation to bring differing policy preferences into some degree of accord to permit effective action to address the problems requiring government attention.  Typically, the presence of divided government at the state level acts to restrain the scope of government initiatives to address public problems and leads the respective parties to request a “mandate to govern” in the next election.

      The principal function of political parties in democratic countries is “…the development of a solid and durable linkage between the party’s electorate and the policymakers…parties are expected to represent the social composition of those who mandate them and to respond politically to the demands of their electorate.”56  Some additional functions carried out by political parties in the U.S. include:

  • They represent groups of interests in U.S. states and communities.  Once elected, however, elected officials not only represent their own party supporters but they also must govern in the interest of all of the constituents in their respective jurisdictions.
  • They help to simplify choices for voters by organizing and articulating alternative positions on the issues facing the state and local governments wherein they operate.  Parties also help to recruit and educate candidates for public office so that citizens can make judgments as to whom to trust with the grant of public authority in pending elections.
  • They can help to stimulate interest in public affairs, in elections, and in democratic governance in general.  By explaining their positions on the issues, political parties can help to inform and shape public opinion.

      There are different types of political parties in democratic countries, with missionary parties and broker parties being two of the major subdivisions.  Missionary parties tend to be rather ideological in orientation, in a sense of proclaiming a “mission” to fulfill if elected to office in terms of specific public policies and programs.  Missionary parties often enter elections with a “manifesto” or “platform” of specific and detailed policy actions to be undertaken if successful in the election.  These parties are able to maintain a focused agenda because they tend to exercise a high degree of control over membership and carefully monitor who is allowed to make use of the party label as a candidate.  The political party leadership itself selects who will be the candidates standing in local elections and who will serve as leaders of the party. Missionary parties are most often found in parliamentary-style governments and are seldom seen in state and local politics in the U.S.

      In our country, the political parties are far less ideologically oriented and seek to “broker” a multitude of interests in order to appeal to the widest segment of the electorate.  Broker parties have weak control over their membership since it is typically self-selected, and those interested in elective office generally nominate themselves in American politics.  Candidates for office in our country are selected through the use of primary elections and caucuses — two candidate recruitment processes that allow interested voters within each party to make the selection of their party’s candidates instead of the party leadership.  The use of primaries to select candidates is a unique feature of American politics when compared to other post-industrial democracies.  This practice ensures that political parties in the U.S. are less ideologically cohesive than their counterparts in other countries, and the decentralized power structures of the political parties reflecting American federalism ensures, as well, that regional and sectional differences will permeate the national Democratic and Republican parties alike.

      American political parties can be generally characterized as centrist concerning policy preferences when compared to parties in other post-industrial nations.  Republicans and Democrats draw support from almost every major socioeconomic group, with a few noteworthy exceptions. For example, African American people vote overwhelmingly Democratic (82 percent voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election).  Survey data from the Pew Research Center gathered in 2017 indicate that the Republican Party tends to receive disproportionate support from middle- and upper-income groups, whites, and conservatives, while the Democratic Party tends to receive disproportionate support from African Americans, Hispanics, liberals, women of lower-income, and groups with less education (see Table 4.5).57  That said, neither party has a monopoly of support from any of these groups.  Given the socially broad-based support for each party, they are first and foremost interested in winning elections and less interested in remaining ideologically “pure” in all of their actions and public positions.  This desire for electoral success generally leads the Republicans and Democrats alike to try to appear ideologically moderate in general elections, and label their opponents as being “extreme” in their views.

Gender: Republican/Lean Republican (%) Democrat/Lean Democrat (%)
Women 37 56
Men 48 44
Race/Ethnicity: Republican/Lean Republican (%) Democrat/Lean Democrat (%)
African American 8 84
Hispanic 28 63
White 51 43
Age: Republican/Lean Republican (%) Democrat/Lean Democrat (%)
Millenials 34 58
Generation X 43 48
Baby Boomers 46 48
Silent Generation 52 43
Education: Republican/Lean Republican (%) Democrat/Lean Democrat (%)
High School Graduate or Less 47 45
Some College 45 47
College Graduate and More 36 58
Income: Republican/Lean Republican (%) Democrat/Lean Democrat (%)
Less than $30,000 18 74
$30,000 to $74,999 25 64
$75,000 plus 41 54

Table 4.5 Party Identification by Demographic Groups—2017 (Total Republican / Lean Republican %: 42; Total Democrat / Lean Democrat %: 50)

      This “playing toward the middle” approach is re-enforced by the fact that many voters characterize themselves as neither Republican nor Democratic in basic leaning, but rather see themselves as independents that can vote for either party’s candidates depending on whose message is more appealing.  These fundamental conditions motivate each major political party to tolerate a diversity of opinions and accommodate a wide range of policy preferences within their ranks.  The American broker style of political parties has allowed both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party to absorb third parties and even broad social movements over the years.  This is not to say there are no differences in policy preferences between the parties and their supporters, just that the gap between the parties is relatively narrow in comparison to parties operating in other democratic countries.  A recent example of partisan differences between Republican and Democrats can be found in a 2017 Pew Research Center public opinion poll concerning explanations of why people are either rich or poor needs.  In that survey, it was found that whereas 56 percent of the Republicans surveyed believe people are poor because of a “lack of effort,” only 19 percent of Democrats agreed with this explanation (see Table 4.6).58

Why a person is rich: Republican / Lean Republican (%) Democrat / Lean Democrat (%)
“Worked harder.” 66 29
“Had advantages in life.” 21 60
Why a person is poor: Republican / Lean Republican (%) Democrat / Lean Democrat (%)
“Lack of effort.” 56 19
“Circumstances beyond control.” 32 71

Table 4.6 Partisan Differences Why People Rich and Poor, 2017

      Another important feature of the U.S. political party scene at both national and state levels is the existence of the two-party system.  Since the 1860s the same two political parties have dominated the American political system — Democrats and Republicans.  Most Americans today consider themselves to be either Republicans or Democrats, and while an increasing number of Americans are identifying themselves as independents, they still vote for the two main parties at the ballot box.

      Third parties have had a tough time establishing themselves in the U.S. because of our single-member district (SMD) form of electoral representation wherein the candidate with the plurality of the vote (not necessarily the majority) wins the election.  Many other postindustrial democracies have proportional representation systems with multimember districts (MMDs); such a form of electoral representation tends to encourage multi-party systems because multiple seats are proportionally distributed based on what proportion of the vote a particular party wins.

      Two other relatively unique features found in some state and local government elections are the open primary and nonpartisan offices.  Open primaries are primary elections where voters do not need to be members of a specific political party in order to vote for that party’s candidates.  Voters still have to be registered to vote, but can decide to vote for their favorite candidate regardless of which party registration they hold.  Most states have closed primary systems, which are preferred by the parties, wherein only persons who are registered members of a political party can vote using the ballot of that political party.

      In nonpartisan elections, candidates run for office without listing a political affiliation.  Typically, the winning candidate is chosen in a runoff election from the top two vote recipients in the primary election.  The candidates in nonpartisan elections are most likely aligned with one of the political parties, but they do not identify themselves as party members.  Nonpartisan elections are generally held for local government offices in some counties, in many cities, and especially in the case of school district and other local special districts and boards and commissions.  Nonpartisan judicial elections are also very common at the state and local levels.

      Many members of the public, journalists, and even elected officials themselves decry “partisan politics.”  The common argument heard is that partisan politics too often leads to stalemate in government and the election of non-responsive public officials.  Because of this supposed tendency, some argue for open primaries in state and local elections to remove the influence of parties.  On the other hand, many political scientists and political parties believe that partisanship is generally a good thing in electoral processes because it offers voters cues about the choices facing them.  In a sense, you know something about where candidates (or current elected officials) stand on the issues if they identify themselves as Republicans or Democrats.

4.I – Governmental Structures and the Policy Process

      Parliamentary and separation of powers governments — the former exemplified by most European countries, and the latter by the United States — are the two principal forms of democratic governance in the postindustrial countries.  In the U.S. we directly elect state governors and members of our state legislatures.  Governors typically have the ability to veto acts of their respective legislatures, but legislatures can override that veto by a supermajority (varies between 60% and 2/3s) of both houses in bicameral state legislatures.  The governor and one or both of the legislative chambers can be from different political parties, and they can and often do disagree over policy issues.  As discussed in other chapters, this political structure is called a “separation of powers” system and can lead to policy “gridlock” where it is very difficult (if not impossible) to pass legislation.  In a sense, there are ‘many cooks in the kitchen and they all have their own recipe.’  Passing legislation in state governments — and the national government — at times can be a very unpredictable and difficult process.  A member of the majority party can vote against the wishes of her or his own party and not fear having to run for reelection because the government has fallen; in a parliamentary system, in contrast, the consequence of such a dissenting vote could well be the failure of a sitting government and the need for calling an election.  Because of our decentralized political system and weak, broker-type parties, this “gridlock” situation where legislation is very difficult to enact occurs quite often in American state government.

      In parliamentary systems such as that of Great Britain citizens only vote for their own member of the House of Commons.  The political party that obtains a majority in the House of Commons then forms the government and it is responsible for policy without the undue influence of opposition parties unless the government is part of a ruling coalition of political parties.  The leader of the majority party, or head of the coalition, becomes Prime Minister (head of the government).  Unlike in the U.S. where one finds a separation of powers, the Prime Minister selects other leading party members to become government ministers, blurring the line between executive and legislative branches of government.  The Prime Minister and the other ministers must all be members of Parliament.  This political system is typically referred to as featuring integration of powers.

      This characteristic of blurring across executive and legislative branches in parliamentary systems clearly differs from the American state constitutions that established three separate, distinct, and co-equal branches of government.  One effect of this clear separation of powers is that the legislative process is much more predictable in the parliamentary system since it is based primarily on the “majority rule” principle as opposed to the checks and balances logic of American constitutional law.  In addition to these structural arrangements, there is also a tradition-based system of “collective responsibility” whereby members of Parliament nearly always vote along party lines.  You don’t see anywhere near the level of vote swapping or shifting coalitions in parliamentary systems as is commonly witnessed in American state governments.

      In terms of elections, parliamentary systems make voting decisions relatively simple.  Parties run on a set of promises, sometimes referred to as a manifesto or a mandate, which will become the official set of policies for the new government if elected.  Party manifestos or mandates are typically quite specific in terms of public policy positions, and parties are expected to implement the mandate if elected.  In short, you know where the party stands on a specific issue — say, environmental policy or a social safety net program.  And, if a voter doesn’t like the current conditions or direction of government policies, she or he knows whom to hold accountable for their policy choices.

      Separation of power systems, in contrast, can be quite complicated and confusing for voters since there are multiple officials to select (e.g., governors, upper and lower legislative house members, other state-level offices, judicial offices, and ballot initiatives).  In addition, candidates for partisan offices often run personalized campaigns in broker-type parties and are not necessarily representative of established party platforms.  Once elected, the voting behavior of such candidates can be rather unpredictable as well.  Because such candidates are not beholden to their parties so much as to their own campaign organizations in the American setting as opposed to the parliamentary setting, American legislators are particularly open to the exercise of influence by groups and interests which can promise and deliver various forms of campaign support in the next election.

4.J – A Review of Policy Models

      As noted at the outset of this chapter, public policy has been defined by Thomas Dye in the following way: “whatever governments choose to do or not to do.”59  While there is general agreement among social scientists that this is a suitable working definition of public policy, there is considerable controversy regarding just how the policy process works in different political jurisdictions.  Here we will introduce the two most prominent rival theories in political science and sociology that claim to explain the policy process — namely, pluralist theory and elite theory.  Pluralist theory is an ideal-type democratic theory that holds that the American democratic political process is genuinely open to the involvement of any group that wishes to participate.  Pluralist theory has many adherents among American political scientists and has deep roots in American political thought.  Some of the fundamental constitutional principles embedded in the U.S. Constitution (freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom to petition government for the redress of grievances) constitute core elements of pluralist theory.

According to Thomas Dye, pluralism or “group theory” works along the following lines:60

Group theory purports to describe all meaningful political activity in terms of the group struggle.  Policymakers are viewed as constantly responding to group pressures — bargaining, negotiating, and compromising among competing demands of influential groups.  Politicians attempt to form a majority of groups.  In so doing, they have some latitude in determining what groups are to be included in the majority coalition.

      From this description of the American political system, as seen from a group theory or pluralist perspective, a pluralistic state and local policy process could feature such groups as business interests, teacher’s unions, agricultural interests, environmental groups, gay and lesbian rights advocacy groups, etc.  All of these groups and interests would be trying to influence the policy process governed by duly elected officials, and no single group or subset of groups would be able to dominate public policy outcomes.

      A more critical perspective on the functioning of the political process is offered by the advocates of elite theory.  Elite theory proponents describe the policy process as one that is dominated by an elite few whose powerful interests influence policy largely behind the scenes. These elites and their influence over policy are largely removed from the view and awareness of ordinary citizens within society.  C. Wright Mills described this perspective exceedingly well in the following passage quoted from his classic book entitled The Power Elite:61

The power elite is composed of men whose positions enable them to transcend the ordinary environments of ordinary men and women; they are in positions to make decisions having major consequences.  Whether they do or do not make such decisions is less important than the fact that they do occupy such pivotal positions…they rule the big corporations.  They run the machinery of the state and claim its prerogatives.  They direct the military.  They occupy the social structure….

      These elites are said to possess the highest forms of education, to command personal and corporate wealth, to secure the services of the best legal and medical services to protect their wealth and health, to be in a position to dictate the values of those in their employ, and to hold disproportionate political power in their hands as a consequence.  Moreover, they are described as being generally unresponsive to the needs of the common citizen in society.  The masses are periodically appeased with symbolic or minor concessions to their needs, but they are kept largely in the dark about public affairs by a subservient press and a trivialized and entertainment-oriented broadcast media (see a portrayal of this view of American politics in Murray Edelman’s classic Politics as Symbolic Action: Mass Arousal & Quiescence published.62  All of this adds up to the inescapable conclusion that public policy — seen through this model — would be the direct result of economic and political elite preferences, with little impact being exercised by average citizens acting in their roles of voters and proponents of particular public policy preferences.

      Because of the great disparities in wealth present in the United States resulting from the operation of a market-based economy wherein so much of the economic activity is in private as opposed to public hands, the danger of elite rule is a constant threat to our democratic institutions.  Sociologist Ralph Miliband in Divided Societies: Class Struggle in Contemporary Capitalism describes elite theory as seen from an economic class perspective in the following terms:63

…class analysis is largely class struggle analysis.  It is a mode of analysis, which proceeds from the belief that class struggle has constituted the central fact of social life from the remote past to the present day.  The subject-matter of class analysis is the nature of this struggle, the identity of the protagonists, the forms which the struggle assumes from one period to another and from one country to another…This mode of analysis clearly has a very strong ‘economic’ theme; but it also has strong political and ideological themes, which are intertwined with the economic one…

      It is likely that neither the idealized pluralist model nor the hypercritical elitist model captures the full picture of how state and local governments operate in the United States today.  It is clear that evidence for the operation of both models can be cited, and that some state and local governments are more pluralistic than others and some are more elite-dominated than others.  In those state and local governments where pluralism is present it will be possible for the advocates of sustainability – that is, the simultaneous pursuit of economic vitality, environmental protection, and social equity – to mobilize their forces within the broker parties and candidate-centered electoral processes to gain a strong position for their views.  In state and local government settings where elite-dominated politics prevails, however, the forces of sustainability promotion will likely find it exceedingly difficult to make headway toward their goals.

4.K – Conclusion: Policy Processes, Actors and Sustainability

      This chapter has shed light on the various actors involved in state and local government governance and the public policy decision-making processes in which they tend to operate.  Citizens, interest groups, the mass media, political parties, and social movements were all discussed in this regard.  As a general backdrop to that discussion, we have described the changing nature of politics in postindustrial societies and what that historical transition to a period of sustained peace and prosperity has meant for the political processes of advanced democracies, including the United States.  The changing nature of state and local politics from decidedly elite-directed to elite-challenging modes of political participation has increased the complexity of policy processes leading to multiple and competing perspectives on who has power and influence and how public policy decisions are actually made in state and local government.

      The challenge of moving toward more sustainable forms of economic activity, land use patterns, energy use and production processes, transportation services, public health, and social services, and food production and transport will face virtually all state and local governments in the U.S. in the coming decade.  Global climate change may well displace globalization of the marketplace as a principal concern of state and local government officials and the citizens living in communities throughout the country.  Community-based citizen groups, the mass media, private corporations, philanthropic foundations, industry-wide associations, public interest groups, and political parties are all going to have to figure out how to work in concert — state-by-state and local community-by-local community — to achieve the level of adaptation to change that sustainability will require.  We must hope that the promise of pluralism held out by its defenders, as it relates to state and local governments in the U.S., is more a reality than a myth.  If entrenched interests and concentrated wealth based on the status quo prevent or delay sustainability-promoting adaptations, we may all be dooming our children to a future less inviting than the one we inherited from our own parents.


Broker Parties
Citizen Groups
Closed Primary
Elite Challenging Politics
Elite Theory
Integration of Powers
Institutional Actors
Missionary Party
Multi-member District
Non-institutional Actors
Nonpartisan Offices
Open Primary
Parliamentary System
Pluralist Theory
Primary Election
Proportional Representation
Protest Politics
Public Interest Groups
Single Member District
Social Movements
Two-Party Systems

Discussion Questions

1. What are five of the key actors in state and local government in the United States?


2. What role do the political parties play in state and local government as compared to the U.S. Congress?  As comparable to their counterparts in other countries?


3. Based on the chapter reading, which theory – pluralist theory or elitist theory – do you think better fits the reality of your own state? Your own city or hometown?


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3. R. Dalton, Citizen Politics in Western Democracies: Public Opinion and Political Parties in the United States, Great Britain, West Germany and France (Chatham, NJ: Chatham House, 1988).

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36. Ibid, p. 5.

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47. Pew Research Center, Key Trends in Social and Digital News Media 2017, October, 4:

48. Ibid.

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55. D. Baer and D. Bositis, 1993, op. cit., (see reference 19).

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59. T. Dye, 1998, op. cit. (see reference 44), p. 2.

60. Ibid, p. 21.

61. C.W. Mills, The Power Elite (London: Oxford University Press, 1956), p. 3-4.

62. M. Edelman, Politics as Symbolic Action: Mass Arousal and Quiescence (Chicago: Markham Publishing Co., 1971).

63. R. Miliband in Divided Societies: Class Struggle in Contemporary Capitalism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), p. 3.


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State and Local Government and Politics by Christopher A. Simon, Brent S. Steel & Nicholas P. Lovrich is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.