Goodbye to Pluralism? Studying Power in Contemporary American Politics, by Paul Pierson: The efforts of contemporary political scientists to understand American politics reveal a striking paradox. On the one hand, “Americanists” have documented a rapid increase in the inequality of political resources. On the other, they have largely failed to detect inequalities of power. Most political scientists continue to insist that we lack clear evidence that the inequality of political resources translates systematically into markedly unequal influence over American government.
For most non-inhabitants of the political science village the inference is probably obvious: so much the worse for political science. I’m inclined to agree, but as a fellow villager I’m forced to pause. These are very smart folks working at this very hard, and they are inclined to let their data do the talking. Moreover, many of them went looking for unequal influence. Nonetheless, they were unable to track it down in a manner that met their standards of evidence. That leaves two possibilities. One is that they’re largely right – which would suggest that concerns about rapidly rising political inequality are overblown. Or they’re mostly wrong, which is the argument I want to make today.
This isn’t just a quarrel among villagers. Explaining why I think the political scientists are mostly wrong requires a careful examination of how power is exercised in the American political system. Political scientists have mostly missed unequal influence because they’ve looked in the wrong places. If influence is hiding then we need to know where it is hiding. Looking in the right places reveals not just political inequality, but a distinctive take on the processes that are at the heart of modern governance. This in turn has implications for how we think about whether influence has become more unequal, and what needs to be done if we in fact consider inequalities of power to be a problem.
After briefly describing the central paradox in a bit more detail, the bulk of this essay explores how best to think about influence and how best to assess its distribution. I then briefly apply the argument to one important realm in American society, the provision of health care, before drawing out a few tentative conclusions about the distribution of influence in contemporary American politics. ...