Bias In Agenda-Setting

Is There a Bias in Agenda-Setting?

Can you connect agenda, bias, politics, and power? Making these associations is the goal of this section.

Recall the classic definition of politics by Harold Lasswell (1958): Who gets what, when, and how? What any party gets is an outcome of the political process, but without even getting into the game --- getting on the agenda --- you can count on not getting an iota. To play the game, you must first find a seat at the table: You must get your issue to a specific institutional agenda. This requires, at the least, some influence and skill, if not power. Consider again a dramatic statement made before about the importance of agenda-setting:

The determination of what does and what does not become a matter of governmental action is, therefore, the supreme instrument of power

Attention is a scarce resource of a political system and the rate of generation of problems demanding consideration is greater than the amount of attention available. If problem generation decreased and if solutions to past issues were successful there would be less congestion. As it is, a filter is applied, which we suspect is subject to systematic bias.

Bias, Non-Issues, and Power

A bias is a systematic error encouraging one outcome over others. Someone gets attention while others do not in so systematic a manner as to suggest bias.

We must carefully distinguish among those issues which get attention and those that do not. Those problems which do not become issues and then agenda items is hard to identify, harder still to study systematically. Academic investigators, like politicians, tend to ignore them, thus reinforce the bias. The problematic of what has been called the non-issue, or non-decision as we discuss below, confounds our understanding of agenda setting (Bachrach and Baratz).

Access to the attention of government is uneven, even fickle. Capital gains tax relief, not homelessness, keeps moving to center stage. How the problems of some get on the agenda and not others is a fundamental question of broad significance and evokes serious questions regarding our understanding of American politics. This is a question of power: getting somebody else to do something even when she or he objects.

The classic definition of power is by Max Weber (152):

"Power (das Macht) is the probability that one actor within a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his own will despite resistance, regardless of the basis on which this probability rests."

The distribution of power is highly problematic and elusive, but is basic to the field of public policy. The controversy over the holding of power in American society has, as noted above, generated a long-standing debate. The study of power requires a course on its own. Below, the broad outline of three main schools of American thought are sketched and will be explained in class. The organization of the material follows that offered in Dye and Ziegler (9-13):

Power Elite

The power elite theory of W. Wright Mills and Floyd Hunter:

  1. Society is divided into the few who have power and the many who do not.
  2. The few who govern are not typical of the masses who are governed, but are drawn disproportionately from the upper strata.
  3. The movement of non-elites into elite positions can be slow and continuous so as to maintain political stability, but only non elites who have accepted elite values and ideology will be admitted to the governing class.
  4. Elites rule to promote their own interests and do not regard the interests of masses except for reasons of political stability, which ensures the continuation of elite dominance.
  5. The outcome: Public policy reflects not the demands of the masses but the interests of the elite.

Pluralist Theory

The pluralist theory of democracy is attributed to Robert Dahl: There are key influentials, who change and are permeable, but none run the whole show. The pluralist structure is characterized by competition for power among many groups in the society. There are multiple sources of power and through skillful negotiation, bargaining, and compromise, power can be transferred and substituted. The basic tenets of the pluralist school of power are:

  1. Although power is not equally divided, it is widely shared.
  2. The political system is characterized by competition, not by cohesion and consensus. This allows for competitive, circulating elites.
  3. The complex system dynamics provide opportunity for influence by those willing to participate.
  4. The pluralist hypothesis is best revealed in actual field studies of policy outcomes. Dahl did this in New Haven. Neglected were victims of urban renewal.
  5. The outcome: Actual public policy results reveal a competition among interest groups, none of which can persist over time and can extend their influence over a broad array of issue areas.

Democratic Theory

Anthony Downs, a real estate economist, contributed a democratic theory, later called public choice theory, based on competitive parties and rational, informed voters which, in the long term, produces a partisan political system which delivers policies desired by the voters. Elected officials who do otherwise will be turned out of office, or so the theory asserts. The argument is as follows:

  1. Voters are rational and fully informed. Citizenship is reduced to voting and robust levels of voter participation is taken for granted.
  2. Voters articulate clear policy preferences by voting for the candidates and parties which promise their preferred policies. Party platforms, past performance, elections promises, and candidate debates inform the astute public.
  3. Political parties are rational in their pursuit of winning elections and holding office by putting forth candidates and platforms consistent with the preferences of the voters.
  4. To win elections parties discover and promote policies preferred by the majority of voters. They are accountable to fulfill these policy platforms in the next election.
  5. The outcome: Public policies are subject to referendum through free elections and thus reflect the will of the people.


An important advance in the field of power studies was contributed by Bachrach and Baratz. They studied decision making in Baltimore but they specifically examined what was excluded from the agenda. They invented the term non decision:

A non decision, as we define it, is a decision that results in suppression or thwarting of a latent or manifest challenge to the values or interests of the decision maker. To be more nearly explicit, non decision making is a means by which demand for change in the existing allocation of benefits and privileges in the community can be suffocated before they are even voiced; or kept covert; or killed before they gain access to the relevant decision-making arena; or, failing all these things, maimed or destroyed in the decision-implementing stage of the policy process. (44)

This is a breakthrough conceptually, but poses daunting methodological problems: studying things which do not happen is, as noted above, elusive and indeterminate. We will probably never know with objective and accurate data just why one issue went forward onto the agenda and not another. Yet, following Dahl's insistence that we empirically examine who wins and who does not, we will examine the outcomes of public policy throughout the course.

Note here the populist theme of empowerment which endorses self-determination, decentralization, direct democracy over representation, broad human rights, proactive role of government, and strong local power sharing. This is the ideology of the Rainbow Coalition, the nascent Green Party, and the so-called Backyard Revolution. Even middle of the road voluntarism and libertarian rugged individualism fits here. The idea implies that the people at the margins of society can assume power: blacks, gays, women, environmentalists, greens, and an array of ethnic groups, including the recent immigrants, all of whom, it might be argued, are left off the agenda.

What do you think?

Works Cited

Bachrach, Peter, and Morton S. Baratz. Power and Poverty: Theory and Practice. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.

Dahl, Robert. Who Governs?. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961.

Dye, Thomas R., and L. Harmon Zeigler. The Irony of Democracy. Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 1970.

Lasswell, Harold. Politics: Who Gets What, When, and How. Cleveland, Ohio: Meridian Books, 1958.

Mills, C. Wright. The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University Press, 1958.

Weber, Max. The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. Translated and edited by A.M. Henderson and Talcott Parsons. Glencoe, Illinois: Free Press, 1964.

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Initialized: July 10, 2001 | Last Update: 05/29/2014