Power, as defined by 19th century German sociologist Max Weber, is "the possibility of imposing one's will upon the behaviour of other persons." John Kenneth Galbraith says power is "someone or some group imposing its will and purposes on others, including on those who are reluctant or adverse to that position."
Power, as defined by Weber and Galbraith, is exercised in three different ways -- the ability to punish, the ability to reward, and the ability to influence beliefs.
Power by punishment is the realm in which governments primarily operate. The enforcers of government regulation -- be it the IRS, the environmental control bureaucrats, or the courts -- do not offer incentives or rewards. They have power only because they can punish those who do not comply with a stated regulation, law, or order.
In offering rewards it is the corporate world that holds most of the power. The political side of government can offer rewards to some extent, in that a newly elected official can sometimes make appointments and offer certain positions or titles, but beyond these types of situations, incentive-based power rests primarily in the corporate world.
When most people think of power they gravitate to these two ideas -- probably because the ability to punish or offer rewards is highly visible and easy to measure. Despite this, it is the third lever of power that is the most significant -- the process of influencing or defining beliefs. It's the most significant because what a person or society believes about themselves, morality, the role of government, and a host of other policy or behavioural issues is what determines identity.
Some social scientists refer to this type of power as "conditioning". In its most aggressive form it is called propaganda or brainwashing. In its mildest form, we call it advertising. People who have been heavily influenced by advertising usually don't connect their decision to buy certain brand names with the fact that the owner of the product has conditioned their attitude.
In a social and cultural sense, the influencing of beliefs is not all that different. Whether you call it public relations, advocacy, or educating the public, it amounts to the same thing.
Historically, the defining of beliefs in America was carried out by three separate institutions - the church, the education system, and the family. This has changed over the years. With the advent of the electronic media the role of defining beliefs has shifted. Today, a somewhat marginal group that may represent only a few dozen or few hundred people, if married to a media-wise leader, can thrust itself and its beliefs onto the public stage. This grants them the opportunity to expand their sphere of influence by wielding this third lever of power. It also means that more people with more ideas than ever before are able to influence the public agenda.
In some ways this means there are aspects of our culture that are less stable. It also means that there is a greater responsibility on mainstream citizens. A generation ago it was possible to sit back, stick to yourself, and not participate in associations, advocacy groups, and public policy issues.
Today, more mainstream citizens than ever are waking up to the fact that in order to ensure the continuance of the values that they hold dear, basic citizenship is going to require of them a higher level of involvement and participation than many of them had previously anticipated.