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Schattschneider: The semisovereign people

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Schattschneider. 1960. The semisovereign people.

In Brief

The single most important line to remember is this: "The flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper-class accent."

Schattschneider criticizes group theory for trying to explain too much and assuming that government merely ratifies the existing balance of power among groups. The outcome of a controversy is often determined by the success or failure of efforts to enlarge its scope and that the conflicts among private groups are taken into the legislative arena by those groups seeking to alter the power balance. Pressure groups fail to represent the lower income groups. The flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper-class accent. A vigorously competitive party system offers the semi-sovereign people their best chance for a role in the decision-making process, while one party politics tends to vest political power in the hands of those people who already have economic power. 40% of adult citizens do not vote. They will vote only if they perceive clearer differences between parties.

Conflict and Scope

A vigorously competitive party system, as opposed to competing interest groups, offers the semi-sovereign people their best chance for a role in the decision-making process. Conflict is key. The outcome of every conflict is determined by the extent to which the audience becomes involved in it (scope).

The scope of conflict is an aspect of the scale of political organization and the extent of political competition. Pressure groups are small-scale organizations while political parties are large-scale organizations. Hence, the outcome of the political game depends on the scale on which it is played.

Upper class bias

Since pressure groups are not universal by and means, when conflicts are played out in narrow scope, most of the people are not represented. For example, business groups dominate this pressure system, leading to an upper-class bias. This bias is strengthened by the tendency for participation in voluntary organizations to be related to upper social and economic status. The pressure system makes sense only as a political instrument of a segment of the community.

Political parties

Hence, it is a great achievement of American democracy that business has been forced to form a political organization designed to win elections i.e. the Republican Party. The party maintains some control in this relationship because the business community can not afford to be isolated. The party plays a mediating role in the diverse interests of American business. Parties are not aggregates of special interests groups geld together by negotiation and concession. After all, they have to win election by the people.

Since the 1930s politics has become more nationalized; the struggle between the parties has changed from a sectional conflict to a national conflict. This is a good thing in that the likely outcome of this will be the creation of a national electorate and a national majority. However, it is problematic that only 60% of adult Americans vote. The struggle is no longer over the right to vote but about the organization of politics.

Low turnout is terrible

Abstention reflects the suppression of the options and alternatives that reflect the needs of the nonparticipants. It is not necessarily true that the people with the greatest needs participate in politics most actively. Further, It is an outrage to attribute the failures of American democracy to the ignorance and stupidity of the masses. Only a pedagogue would suppose that the people must pass some kind of examination to qualify for participation in a democracy. The most important thing about any democratic regime is the way in which it uses and exploits popular sovereignty. The people are powerless if the political enterprise is not competitive.


The content from here down was submitted as a separate summary and should be merged into the above.

Main Points:

  1. The ability to change the SCOPE of a conflict dramatically alters the conflict itself. (Example: In a streetfight, an audience might form around it to watch. A potential "loser" may attempt to change the scope of the conflict (i.e. say something to bring the audience in on his side) to gain more strength on his side, and thereby become a "winner.")
  2. Any particular conflict is defined by the line of cleavage upon which it is drawn. (A potential "loser" may attempt to shift the line of cleavage by making an alternative conflict more salient, and thereby become a "winner." Thus, if my group (A) is losing (to B), I will try to draw attention to a new cleavage, so that my new group (C) can beat my new opponent (D) based on the new cleavage.)

Observations of the Characteristics of Conflict:

  1. "All conflict has about it some elements that go into the making of a riot. Nothing attracts a crowd as quickly as a fight. Nothing is so contagious."
  2. "Every fight consists of two parts: (1) the few individuals who are actively engaged at the center and (2) the audience that is irresistibly attracted to the scene... the spectators are an integral part of the situation, for, as likely as not, the audience determines the outcome of the fight."
  3. "Like all other chain reactions, a fight is difficult to contain."
  4. "The audience is overwhelming; it is never really neutral."


  1. "The outcome of every conflict is determined by the extent to which the audience becomes involved in it. That is, the outcome of all conflict is determined by the scope of its contagion."
  2. "The most important strategy of politics is concerned with the scope of conflict."
  3. "It is extremely unlikely that both sides will be reinforced equally as the scope of the conflict is doubled or quadrupled or multiplied by a hundred or a thousand."
  4. "The bystanders are a part of the calculus of all conflicts. And any attempt to forecast the outcome of a fight by estimating the strength of the original contestants is likely to be fatuous."


  1. "People are not likely to start a fight if they are certain that they are going to be severely punished for their efforts. In this situation repression may assume the guise of a false unanimity."
  2. "The civil rights of repressed minorities... becomes meaningful when we relate them to the attempt to make conflict visible. Scope is the stake in these discussions."
  3. Concealment of conflict. Example: The president of the Board of Education said that the school board "would continue to hold discussion meetings closed to the public and that only decisions reached would be announced."
  4. "The very words 'union,' 'collective bargaining'... and 'industrywide bargaining' imply a tremendous socialization of a conflict which was once regarded as a purely private matter concerning only the employer and the individual workman."
  5. "In the case of a village of 1,000 within a state having a population of 3,500,000 a controversy lifted from the local, to the state or the national level multiplies its scope by 3,500... Inevitably the outcome of a contest is controlled by the level at which the decision is made."
  6. "The nationalization of politics inevitably breaks up old local power monopolies and old sectional power complexes."
  7. "Universal suffrage, the most ambitious attempt to socialize conflict in American history, takes on a new meaning with the nationalization of politics and the development of a national electorate."
  8. "The expansion of the conflict may have consequences that are extremely distasteful to the original participants. The tremendous growth of the Democratic Party after 1932 gave rise to a conflict between the old regular organizations and the newcomers."

On the Group Theory of Politics:

  1. "The scope and bias of the pressure system suggests some of the limitations of pressure politics as a form of political organization."
  2. "If business groups can do nothing but support the Republican candidates, the Republican party dominates the pressure groups. The Republican party enjoys a substantial latitude in its relations with business because its only competitor is the Democratic party and business has no party alternative."
  3. "Republican critics of the Democratic party like to portray the Democratic party as the slave of organized labor. Actually, labor usually has no place else to go. As long as it thinks elections are important, it must support the Democratic party generally."


  1. "American politics is [not] a meaningless stalemate about which no one can do anything."
  2. "The role of people in the political system is determined largely by the conflict system, for it is conflict that involves the people in politics and the nature of conflict determines the nature of public involvement."
  3. "It is impossible to reconcile traditional concepts of what ought to happen in a democracy with the fact that an amazingly large number of people do not seem to know very much about what is going on."
  4. "If the assumption is that public opinion is important because it determines public policy, a comparison of the polls and the history of the decade raises a flood of doubts. How much difference did the opinions measured in these polls actually make?"
  5. "What 180 million people can do spontaneously, on their own initiative, is not much more than a locomotive can do without rails. The public is very much like a rich man who is unable to supervise closely all of his enterprise."
  6. "The people are powerless if the political enterprise is not competitive."
  7. "Democracy is a competitive political system in which competing leaders and organizations define the alternatives of public policy in such a way that the public can participate in the decision-making process."

Research on similar subjects


Schattschneider, EE (author)American PoliticsPluralismCollective ActionInstitutions

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