Recently, a senator stated that a bill would not be voted upon “because I get to decide what we vote on.”

I recall a complete philosophy of exercising power at various levels, of which deciding when to vote was one. Other levels I recall are controlling who votes and controlling what is voted upon.

Who was the philosopher who wrote about this?


You might be thinking of the 3 dimensions of power conceptualised in Steven Lukes' book Power: A Radical View. Lukes defines power as such:

I have defined the concept of power by saying that A exercises power over B when A affects B in a manner contrary to B's interests. - Lukes (1974, pp. 37)

Using this definition, Lukes builds a theory of three types of power:

  1. Decision-making Power: This form of power is direct and explicit. For example, a government creating a new law exercises power because the rest of the population is obligated to obey the law they make, even if they don't want to. It is clear who is making the decision and what the decision is. In exerting this form of power, there is confrontation between two groups (A and B). A exerts power over B by forcing B to do something that B would not otherwise have done.
  2. Non-decision-making Power: This is the power to set the agenda. Where decision-making power is direct power, non-decision-making power is indirect. This form of power involves suppressing debate about certain types of issues, defining an acceptable realm of topics and ideas. An example of this sort of power would be the power to decide the agenda for a political debate. If you decide the topics discussed, you get a lot of power over the types of decisions made.
  3. Manipulation/Ideological Power: Where the first two manifestations of power focus on power to make parties act against their interests, ideological power is the power to change those interests. A government exercises this type of power if they convince their population to support a policy that is against their interests and against their original preferences. Propaganda is an example of this sort of power.

You mention a politician exclaiming: "I get to decide what we vote on". This is an example of non-decision-making power. The politician is claiming that they set the agenda. If something is not available to be voted on, nobody has the choice to exert decision-making power over it.

If you'd like to read up on Lukes, I'd recommend the following blog post: Understanding Society: Lukes on Power

Lukes was building on some previous work undertaken on Power, so these are also good resources to further your understanding. Robert A. Dahl, cited as an influence in Lukes' work, was arguably the first to conceptualise decision-making power. His work Who Governs? is particularly influential. He is also cited as influence on Bachrach and Baratz, who wrote Two Faces of Power, a paper critiquing Dahl, proposing the existence of non-decision-making power.

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