The White Primary: Blurring the Lines Among Neuman’s Dimensions of Power

Note: Because it’s been longer than usual since my last post, and because I don’t see myself writing a new post in the near future (here’s to you, internship applications), I’ve decided to post a paper I wrote for a class last semester that used the white primary system to analzye Neuman’s dimensions of power. If you’re interested in systems of power, or the creative lengths to which racist southerners attempted to bar blacks from voting, feel free to take a look. Either way, no prior knowledge of white primaries nor of Neuman’s dimensions of power is necessary for understanding the paper. You can also view the essay here.



            According to W. Lawrence Neuman, there exist three distinct dimensions of power, each classified by its level of visibility.  These three dimensions represent a spectrum of visibility, ranging from the highly visible power of the first dimension, to the nearly invisible power found in the third. This paper will attempt to provide an overview of each dimension of power as crafted by Neuman, and then seeks to use the example of the white primary, a once-prominent mechanism of suppressing the black vote in the South, as a lens to explore overlap among the dimensions.  The white primary, as will be discussed in-depth, provides a historical example in which the lines between the different dimensions were blurred, and which may suggest that a less rigid distinction between the three is needed to more accurately describe various exercises of power.

The Three Dimensions of Power

            Power, according to Neuman, is a “relationship between two or more people (or groups)” which encompasses “a capacity or ability to influence others” (Neuman 12).  Although power is a widely applicable concept, Neuman confines his analysis primarily to political power.  Despite describing the three dimensions as a “continuum,” Neuman proscribes fairly rigid terms for each and compares them using various characteristics.  These characteristics include: the visibility of power relations, the main source of power, the awareness of people regarding their grievances, the outcomes of various policy decisions, the location of “real politics,” the connotations of the absence of power, and who is represented among participants in formal decision-making.

First Dimension of Power

Fundamentally, the first dimension of power is power that is highly visible.  Typically, this signifies that the power is exercised in formal settings, which often provide more visibility than informal, behind-the-scenes exercises of power.  Neuman defines the first dimension of power as follows: “The first dimension of power involves observable conflict among competing interests” (Neuman 12). This dimension is also known as decision-making or behavioral power, according to Neuman.

In terms of the aforementioned characteristics, the first dimension represents highly visible power relations in which the main source of power is “activated political resources” (Neuman 16). Furthermore, almost everyone under the first dimension of power is both aware and able to respond to his or her grievances. Participants in formal decision-making represent a large proportion of society’s interests and populations. If there is a lack of protest, this signifies that the people are either satisfied or are not interested enough to mount opposition. 

One common example of first dimensional power is a vote on a bill, which is extremely visible, as everyone has the right to know particular votes on a bill.  Other frequently cited examples include legislative sessions and public hearings.  These exercises of power are all considered examples of first dimensional power because they are highly visible and are typically representative of many groups and interests.

Importantly, Neuman indicates that the first dimension can be “pushed to its limits,” in his words (Neuman 13).  This stretching of the limits of the first dimension occurs when “decision-making rules are altered to influence an outcome” (Neuman 13).  Here, Neuman acknowledges somewhat of a deviation from the rigidity of each dimension of power, but still considers this scenario as falling under the umbrella of first dimensional power.  This version of the first dimension of power “pushed to its limits” poses significant questions about the limitations of the rigid dimensions themselves, as will be explored further later in the context of the white primary.

Second Dimension of Power

            The second dimension, unlike the first, centers on power that is only barely visible.  This power often influences the first dimension by controlling the range of issues that are considered under the first dimension.  As such, second dimensional power often occurs before first dimensional power, or, in terms of visibility, before decisions and power regarding a specific issue become visible to the public at large. However, it is also possible to use second dimensional power after first dimensional power, as Neuman indicates, by quietly nullifying or invalidating decisions made in the first dimension.

            With regard to the previously described characteristics of the three dimensions of power, the second dimension of power involves power that is only partly visible, wherein “the powerless have only limited expression and ability to act” (Neuman 16).  In addition, the powerless are often described as aware of their grievances, but frequently unable to respond.  Furthermore, policy decisions are more heavily representational of the interests of the powerful rather than of a diverse set of groups and interests.  Finally, when there is an absence of pushback and protest, this signifies that the powerless are unable to respond, not that they are unwilling.

            The second dimension of power takes on two major forms: agenda-setting and nondecision-making.  Agenda-setting, according to Neuman, occurs when “alternative options or issues exist but are prevented from entering the formal decision-making process or assigned a very low priority” (Neuman 14).  The historic version of political party primaries are one example of agenda-setting.  Before candidates were selected by voters in open or partially open primaries and caucuses as they are now, candidates were chosen by the leaders of each political party.  Non-elite party members had no formal say in the decision-making.   This is an example of agenda-setting because, while voters eventually voted for the candidate of their choosing, they had no say in which candidates were on the ballot.  As such, this also exemplifies second dimensional power influencing first dimensional power, a typical characteristic of the second dimension of power.

            Nondecision-making, the second form of second dimensional power, consists of “situations that occur when a policy alternative is not formulated, people do not mobilize, or candidates do not advance because of the overwhelming odds of failure” (Neuman 14). Neuman notes that nondecision-making and agenda-setting often overlap. One example that Neuman relies on is a case study of air pollution in one particular city.  This city faced abysmal air pollution levels, but, strangely enough, never encountered strong public opposition.  As it turned out, the reason for the lack of protest was that the city’s primary polluter was also the main pillar on which the local economy relied for support.  This is a classic example of the second dimension of power because the decision was never made to stop the pollution; instead, it was a non-decision because of the vast importance of the major polluter in the local economy. There was no visible, formal decision.  The decision was instead informal, and a non-decision. Furthermore, the public’s acquiescence with the status quo was not for lack of want to change the situation, but because it was powerless to enact the desired change.

            Despite the difficulty in challenging only partially visible power, Neuman proposes a few tactics to overcome second dimensional power. “Opposing or resisting second dimensional power,” he says, “requires an unmasking or debunking tactic that raises awareness, redefines a situation, and calls attention to an issue” (Neuman 14).

Third Dimension of Power

On one end of the spectrum of visibility of power lies the third dimension of power, which includes “invisible influence and domination that is built into patterns of thoughts, terms and categories of language, and the very way that activities are organized” (Neuman 14). This form of power is so subtly ingrained into our thinking that people are largely unable to recognize its influence at all. Indeed, the third dimension of power is so insidious that it may not be perpetuated or used consciously; rather, it is often employed subconsciously and not as a result of an individual’s conscious decision.

Relying once more upon Neuman’s characteristics of power, the third dimension of power is defined by nearly invisible power relations that often create “only limited and indirect evidence” (Neuman 16).  Furthermore, people are often completely unaware of their grievances, and as such, policy decisions largely reflect the desires of a small group of people and exclude the vast majority of the population.  In addition, because of the camouflaged nature of this dimension of power, the decisions that are made often appear fair and representative of many interests despite their actual lack of fairness and representation.

The third dimension of power’s near invisibility poses particular difficulty in providing well-evidenced examples.  However, feminist theory provides one oft-cited example, as feminist theorists suggest that women are subconsciously treated as inferior in the course of everyday events, rather than conscious attempts to subordinate women. 

The White Primary

As such, Neuman’s conception of the three dimensions of power provides distinct categories for each dimension of power rather than a “continuum,” as he initially claims.   However, Neuman’s brief mention of the first dimension “pushed to its limits” suggests there is room for consideration of the dimensions of power as a spectrum of visibility rather than disparate categories.  Indeed, the white primary system provides further credence to this claim by demonstrating the extent to which the first and second dimensions of power can overlap. An overview of the history of the white primary followed by an analysis of the dimensions of power at play will illuminate the need for a continuum in evaluating dimensions of power.

History of the White Primary

            The white primary was at one point so effective that one Southern legislator used its success to argue against the need of another mechanism to prevent blacks from voting.  Indeed, in a letter written by the legislator and published in the Atlanta Constitution, precursor to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the legislator wrote: “We already had the Negro eliminated form politics by the white primary,” and then went on to argue that any further disenfranchisement mechanisms were unnecessary (Marshall 250).

Thurgood Marshall, the chief legal strategist behind the de-segregation efforts of the Civil Rights movement turned Supreme Court justice, articulately sketched out the history of the white primary in an article entitled The Rise and Collapse of the “White Democratic Party.”  The white primary, according to Marshall, originated sometime after the end of Reconstruction.  These primaries were by no means formal or regulated by law.  Instead, they operated on so-called gentlemen’s agreements and informalities to determine the candidates for office.  In the 1921 Supreme Court case of Newberry v. United States, the court ruled that primaries were not considered elections.  This decision isolated the primary system from legal challenges on the basis of discrimination because the constitution only outlaws discrimination by the state and federal government, not private individuals.  As such, because primaries were not elections and consequently were not considered under the state or federal government’s domain, there was no way to charge them with discrimination. In general, Newberry aided and protected the white primary system of excluding blacks.

The next significant Supreme Court case involving the white primary occurred in 1927, in the case of Nixon v. Herndon.  This case involved a Texas law, partially inspired by the decision in Newberry, to outlaw blacks from voting in Democratic primaries.  It is important to note the domination of the Democratic party in the south, which essentially created a one-party region.  This made the white primary system particularly effective at excluding blacks from selecting candidates. In Nixon v. Herndon, the Texas law was struck down as a violation of the Fourteenth amendment.  Justice Holmes, in a unanimous majority opinion, wrote: “It seems to us hard to imagine a more direct and obvious infringement of the Fourteenth Amendment” (Nixon v. Herndon, 1927).

Unfortunately, this was not the end of the white primary system.  Southern legislators found clever ways of evading the spirit of the decision handed down in Nixon v. Herndon and continued devising methods to exclude blacks from voting in primaries.  One such mechanism in Texas was the passage of a law in 1928, just one year after the Nixon v. Herndon decision, to give the state executive committees of political parties the power to decide the eligibility of voters in primaries.  This law was rather transparently passed with the intention to shift the responsibility to excluding blacks from voting in primaries to the Democratic party, which was immune from the anti-discrimination laws of the constitution, unlike the state government. Immediately after the passage of this law, the Democratic party unsurprisingly barred blacks from voting in Democratic primaries.

On and on, the Democratic party and black would-be voters fought, back and forth, with the Democratic party creating crafty measures to avoid the law and perpetuate the use of the white primary and the African-American community continually relying on the courts for support. The lengthy nature of the judicial process ensured that proponents of the white primary could always find a way to continue the discrimination until the next case would be funneled through the system. 

However, in the 1935 Grovey v. Townsend Supreme Court decision, it seemed as though the white primary supporters had finally found a way to avoid judicial scrutiny.  In response to being barred from primaries by the Democratic Party in Texas, R.R. Grover, a black citizen from Texas, filed suit, claiming discrimination.  The Supreme Court, however, ruled that because the Democratic primary was a private affair and not any sort of state action, the fourteen and fifteenth amendments had not been violated.  Although there was obviously private discrimination at hand, private discrimination was not outlawed by the constitution. Consequently, the discrimination was legal and white primaries could continue to legally exclude blacks from voting.

Eventually, in United States v. Classic, the Supreme Court changed course, as Marshall writes: “The Court… unanimously agreed that Congress had the right to regulate primary elections and that the criminal sections of the Civil Rights law could be invoked to penalize infractions thereof in the course of primary elections involving nominations for Federal office” (Marshall 252). This case provided the state action component necessary to supporting claims of discrimination.  Soon after, in Smith v. Allwright, the court applied this precedent to the white primary, stating: “The party takes its character as a state agency from the duties imposed upon it by state statute; the duties do not become matters of private law because they were performed by a political party” (Smith v. Allwright, 1944).  These two decisions essentially ended the immunity originally given to the Democratic party as a private organization by declaring that because primaries were primarily a state function, parties were acting as a state agency when running the primaries. As such, the Democratic party was obliged to follow the same laws as the government, including the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments.  

Of course, those attempting to exclude blacks from primaries mounted another attempt to maintain the white primary.  The Jaybird Party (also known as the Jaybird Democratic Party) was a private, all-white organization that was created to hold its own primary before the Democratic Party’s primary.  The winner of the Jaybird election would move on to the Democratic party and run unopposed, and then move on to the general election, which, because of the one-party nature of the South, guaranteed victory in the general election to the winner of the Jaybird election.  Because the Jaybirds were all white and private, this system guaranteed that blacks would have no say in selecting the candidates and that the Jaybirds could discriminate without impunity, as a private organization.  Eventually, in 1952, the Supreme Court dismantled the system once and for all in Terry v. Adams, when it ruled that such practices were unconstitutional. Though there was still much progress to be made, the white primary was finally defeated, and one significant barrier to black influence in elections was dismantled.

The White Primary and the First Dimension of Power

The white primary can be conceived of as an example of the first dimension of power for numerous reasons.  First, and perhaps most importantly, the power of the white primary was quite visible.  Although the white primary was essentially ruled constitutional in Grovey v. Townsend, this was not because the justices were unaware of the power in the white primary system but rather because of laws they felt obligated to adhere to. Indeed, as is evidenced by the Southern legislator’s open letter to the Atlanta Constitution, the power and purpose of the white primary was no secret to any party involved.  The visibility of the white primary was partly what allowed the black community to fight against it.  Thus, there was no lack of protest and the people were in fact able to act on their grievances, which correlates more with the first dimension of power than any other. 

However, there are also characteristics of the white primary that plainly do not align with the first dimension of power.  First, “real politics” did not occur in formal-decision making arenas, as the first dimension requires.  Instead, they were made in the context of private groups, like the Jaybirds. Second, policy decisions and outcomes were clearly not “the result of open and fair votes, compromises, and negotiations among participants,” as Neuman describes for the first dimension.  Nor were the participants of the formal decision-making representative of most of society’s “diverse social interests and groups” (Neuman 16). Furthermore, to some extent, the black population was unable to act on their grievances because the Democratic party was able to constantly remain one step ahead, while the court system struggled to keep up.  Thus, while many aspects of the first dimension fit the historical example found in the white primary (primarily in terms of visibility), numerous others do not, mainly regarding the fairness and representation of the decisions made.

The White Primary and the Second Dimension of Power

            Similarly, the white primary fits some but not all of the characteristics of the second dimension of power.  As was mentioned earlier, primaries are often considered a classic example of agenda-setting, one form of second dimensional power.  In this case, all-white groups, whether they be the leaders of the Democratic party or the Jaybirds, were able to select the pool of candidates from which black voters then had to choose to vote.  This is a rather explicit form of agenda-setting, and consequently, a form of second dimensional power.  However, as was discussed earlier, there are also characteristics of the white primary that fall more squarely under the category of first dimensional power. 

The White Primary and The First Dimension “Pushed to its Limits”

            Despite the strict divisions Neuman drew between the three dimensions of power, he did allow for one category of overlap: the first dimension of power “pushed to its limits,” as he puts it.  Under this category, decision-making rules “are altered to influence an outcome” (Neuman 13).  In the case of the white primary, laws were skirted with and creatively rendered useless by the Democratic party.  The lengthy back and forth between the Democratic party and the decisions handed down by the Supreme court in response to cases filed by black southerners demonstrates the extent to which the Democratic party attempted to evade the law.  First by shifting the power to determine eligibility of voters in primaries to the Democratic party, then by shifting power once more to the Jaybirds, and in countless other ways, white Democratic party leaders were able to ensure that only they would have the power to select candidates running for office.  In doing so, they maintained a firm grip on power through agenda-setting; that is, maintaining a monopoly on determining which candidates could eventually be voted into office. Consequently, the white primary appears to fall under the category of the first dimension of power “pushed to its limits” more so than the first or second dimension alone, though it presents a mixture of all three.


            As the white primary example demonstrates, many exercises of power cannot easily be classified under one dimension of power.  For various reasons that this paper does not attempt to delve into, elements of each dimension appear to meld together in actual instances of exercises of power.  Thus, while the three dimensions provide a useful introduction to the concept of the visibility of power, when historical case studies are explored, their rigidity proves limiting toward the goal of achieving a fuller understanding of the dimensions of power. As such, rather than a strict hierarchy of visibility predicated on distinct classifications of power, a graduated spectrum of visibility may prove more helpful, and indeed, more accurate, when evaluating power on the basis of visibility.









Works Cited


Grovey v. Townsend. U.S. Supreme Court. 1935. Print.

Newberry v. United States. U.S. Supreme Court. 1921. Print.

Neuman, W. Lawrence. Power, State and Society: An Introduction to Political

Sociology. Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc., 2004. Print.

Nixon v. Herndon. U.S. Supreme Court. 1927. Print.

Marshall, Thurgood. The Journal of the Negro Education, Vol. 26, No. 3. The Negro

Voter in the South (Summer, 1957), pp. 249-254.

Smith v. Allwright. U.S. Supreme Court. 1944. Print.

Terry v. Adams. U.S. Supreme Court. 1952. Print.

United States v. Classic. U.S. Supreme Court. 1953. Print.







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