l>The Power Elite


Thomas Dye, a political scientist, and his students have been studying the upper echelons ofleadership in America since 1972. These "top positions" encompassed the posts with the authorityto run programs and activities of major political, economic, legal, educational, cultural, scientific,and civic institutions. The occupants of these offices, Dye"s investigators found, control half of thenation"s industrial, communications, transportation, and banking assets, and two-thirds of allinsurance assets. In addition, they direct about 40 percent of the resources of private foundationsand 50 percent of university endowments. Furthermore, less than 250 people hold the mostinfluential posts in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the federal government,while approximately 200 men and women run the three major television networks and most of thenational newspaper chains. Facts like these, which have been duplicated in countless other studies, suggest to many observersthat power in the United States is concentrated in the hands of a single power elite. Scores ofversions of this idea exist, probably one for each person who holds it, but they all interpretgovernment and politics very differently than pluralists. Instead of seeing hundreds of competinggroups hammering out policy, the elite model perceives a pyramid of power. At the top, a tinyelite makes all of the most important decisions for everyone below. A relatively small middle levelconsists of the types of individuals one normally thinks of when discussing American government:senators, representatives, mayors, governors, judges, lobbyists, and party leaders. The massesoccupy the bottom. They are the average men and women in the country who are powerless tohold the top level accountable. The power elite theory, in short, claims that a single elite, not a multiplicity of competing groups,decides the life-and-death issues for the nation as a whole, leaving relatively minor matters for themiddle level and almost nothing for the common person. It thus paints a dark picture. Whereaspluralists are somewhat content with what they believe is a fair, if admittedly imperfect, system,the power elite school decries the grossly unequal and unjust distribution of power it findseverywhere. People living in a country that prides itself on democracy, that is surrounded by the trappings offree government, and that constantly witnesses the comings and goings of elected officials mayfind the idea of a power elite farfetched. Yet many very intelligent social scientists accept it andpresent compelling reasons for believing it to be true. Thus, before dismissing it out of hand, oneought to listen to their arguments.

Characteristics of the Power Elite

According to C. Wright Mills, among the best known power-elite theorists, the governing elite inthe United States draws its members from three areas: (1) the highest political leaders includingthe president and a handful of key cabinet members and close advisers; (2) major corporateowners and directors; and (3) high-ranking military officers.Even though these individuals constitute a close-knit group, they are not part of a conspiracy thatsecretly manipulates events in their own selfish interest. For the most part, the elite respects civilliberties, follows established constitutional principles, and operates openly and peacefully. It is nota dictatorship; it does not rely on terror, a secret police, or midnight arrests to get its way. It doesnot have to, as we will see.Nor is its membership closed, although many members have enjoyed a head start in life by virtueof their being born into prominent families. Nevertheless, those who work hard, enjoy good luck,and demonstrate a willingness to adopt elite values do find it possible to work into higher circlesfrom below. If the elite does not derive its power from repression or inheritance, from where does its strengthcome? Basically it comes from control of the highest positions in the political and businesshierarchy and from shared values and beliefs. Top Command Posts. In the first place, the elite occupies what Mills terms the top command posts of society. Thesepositions give their holders enormous authority over not just governmental, but financial,educational, social, civic, and cultural institutions as well. A small group is able to takefundamental actions that touch everyone. Decisions made in the boardrooms of large corporationsand banks affect the rates of inflation and employment. The influence of the chief executiveofficers of the IBM and DuPont corporations often rivals that of the secretary of commerce. Inaddition, the needs of industry greatly determine the priorities and policies of educational andresearch organizations, not to mention the chief economic agencies of government. The power of the elite has also been enhanced by the close collaboration of political, industrial,and military organizations. As Washington has been called upon to play a more active role indomestic life, from regulating the business cycle to inspecting children"s sleepwear, governmenthas come to depend on the corporate world to carry out many of its activities. Conversely,industry now relies heavily on federal supports, subsidies, protection, and loans to ensure thesuccess of its ventures. To be sure, business people and politicians constantly carp at each other.But the fact remains that they have grown so close that they prosper together far more than theydo separately. At the same time, the Cold War has elevated the prestige and power of the military establishment.The United States has come a long way from the days of citizen-soldiers to its present class ofprofessional warriors whose impact far transcends mere military affairs. The demands of foreignaffairs, the dangers of potential adversaries, the sophistication and mystique of new weapons, andespecially the development of the means of mass destruction have all given power and prestige toour highest military leaders. As a group, then, this ruling triumvirate of politicians, corporate executives, and military officershas, by virtue of the positions they hold, unprecedented authority to make decisions of nationaland international consequence. But the mere occupancy of these command posts does not fullyexplain the effectiveness of their power. Of equal significance is their common outlook on life andtheir ability and willingness to act harmoniously on basic issues. Shared Attitudes and Beliefs. Leafing through the pages of Time or Newsweek one quickly realizes that the members of theso-called power elite constantly squabble among themselves. Such disagreements, which havebecome part of the background noise of national politics, occur so frequently as to be taken asproof that not one but a multiplicity of elites exist.According to Mills and others, however, these differences are vastly overshadowed by agreementon a world view. This world view is a set of values, beliefs, and attitudes that shapes the elite"sperceptions of government and prevents deep divisions from arising. Members of the elite agree on the basic outlines of the free enterprise system including profits,private property, the unequal and concentrated distribution of wealth, and the sanctity of privateeconomic power. They take giantism in the world of commerce for granted. More important, theyare united in their belief that the primary responsibility of government is to maintain a favorableclimate for business. Other governmental responsibilities, such as social welfare and concern forthe environment, are secondary to that task. What produces the acceptance of this world view? Participants in the elite tend to read the samenewspapers, join the same clubs, live in the same neighborhoods, send their children to the sameschools (usually private and the ones they themselves attended), and belong to the same churchesand charities. They work and play together, employ one another, and intermarry. They share, in aword, a life-style that brings them together in mutually reinforcing contact. Moreover, they undergo similar apprenticeships. Dye finds that 54 percent of the top corporateleaders and 42 percent of our highest political officials went to just 12 private colleges includingYale, Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford. But it is while advancing through their professions that the unity of thought begins to emerge. Bythe time men and women reach the top of the corporate or professional ladder, their commonexperiences have given them a shared way of looking at economics and politics so that theyexperience and react to events in the same ways. When they enter public service these peoplecannot, as Mills explains, shed their heritage: The interesting point is how impossible it is for such to divestthemselves of their engagement with the corporate world in general and with theirown corporations in particular. Not only their money, but their friends, theirinterests, their training--their lives in short--are deeply involved in this world...Thepoint is not so much financial or personal interests in a given corporation, butidentification with the corporate world. To ask a man suddenly to divest himself ofthese interests and sensibilities is almost like asking a man to become a woman.This inability to "divest" oneself of one"s past is perhaps what once led a former chairman ofGeneral Motors to declare "What"s good for GM is good for America." Candidates: Insiders and OutsidersSince the early 1970s when politics really began to develop a bad name--a negative reputationover and above the traditional distrust of politicians (see the essay on general-welfare liberalismor the quotes about politicians and parties)--candidates for national office frequently tell votersthat they are outsiders, that they are not part of the "establishment," that they will bring freshfaces and new ideas to Washington. Aspirants to office in the 1990s have been especiallynoteworthy for making this claim. What is interesting to note is that more often than not thesecandidates and the individuals they work with or appoint to office are themselves insiders, as therecent cabinet appointments suggest.Distribution of Political PowerHaving seen how the governing elite derives its strength, it is important to consider how thispower is exercised in the political arena. What roles do the three parts of the pyramid--the elite,the middle level, and the masses--play in American politics? The Role of the Elite in Making "Trunk Decisions." Imagine a tree in the dead of winter. With its leaves gone its outline is clearly visible. At thebottom, of course, is the trunk--cut it and the whole tree topples. Higher up three or four mainbranches support lesser branches, which in turn support still smaller ones until one comes to thetwigs at the edges. Cutting the twigs does not change the tree very much. As one saws offbranches lower down, however, the shape--and possibly the existence of the tree--is affected. Inother words, to determine the direction and extent of growth of the tree, one cannot simply pruneoff a few boughs at the top but has to cut main limbs or the trunk.Public policies can be thought of in the same way. There is a hierarchy among them in the sensethat some (corresponding to the trunk and main branches) support others. Trunk decisionsrepresent basic choices--whether or not welfare the federal budget must be balanced in sevenyears, for example--that, once decided, necessitate making lesser choices--cutting food stamps orAid to Families with Dependent Children. Whoever makes the trunk decisions sets the agenda forsubsequent debates about secondary or branch and twig policies. Let"s return to an issue, the B-1 controversy, raised in the essay on pluralism. As important as itseemed, the B-1 in the eyes of power elite theorists is only a twig. In order to appreciate theircontention, ask why the United States needs bombers in the first place. Why not rely on land-based missiles and submarines to deter the Soviet Union? The answer lies in a prior decision to maintain a "triad," a nuclear retaliatory force consisting ofland-based missiles, submarines, and bombers. Having three separate weapons systems, Americandefense planners concluded, provides an extra margin of safety in the event of a confrontationwith the Russians. Are they right? Do we need three types, or could we get along with two? Thisis an important question--far more important than whether we develop a new bomber or keep anold one--and who decides it structures the debate on this and a host of other issues. Suppose, fora moment, the United States had decided that bombers were unnecessary. The B-1 debate wouldthen be moot and resources allocated to it could be devoted to other purposes such asconventional arms or schools or tax reductions. Yet the triad is itself only a branch policy; it rests on an even more fundamental policy,containment. Early in the post-World War II era, the United States had to develop a policytoward the Soviet Union. A controversy arose. Some urged a conciliatory approach that wouldrecognize Russia"s legitimate security concerns. Others took a harder line. Fearing the spread ofinternational communism, they advocated the use of diplomatic, economic, and especially militarymeans to contain what they perceived to be inexorable Soviet expansionism. The first alternativeemphasized cooperation, the second containment; the first implied relatively modest nationalsecurity efforts, the second enormous expenditures for arms and foreign aid. Ultimately the United States adopted the strategy of containment, which has been the backbone ofAmerican foreign policy since 1947.Containment represents a trunk decision, while most other defense policies such as the triad or theB-1 are either branches or twigs. Containing the Russians put us on a long and arduous path overwhich we trod for nearly half a century. National defense swallowed a huge portion of the federalbudget; it called for the maintenance of an enormous peacetime army; it led us into alliances withnations in the farthest corners of the globe, including some of the most corrupt and dictatorialregimes on earth; it demanded massive military aid programs; it consumed the talents of ourscientific establishment and the attention of our national leaders. In short, containment, unlike theB-1, was no ordinary policy but a fundamental commitment of American resources and energies. Who decides trunk decisions like these? According to the power elite theory, the top of thepyramid usually does. Or it has greatest influence on their formation. The middle levels ofgovernment (the Congress, the courts, the states) worry mainly about how best to implementthem. This seems to have been the case in the period after World War II when containment firstemerged. Most of the key decisions were made behind closed doors in the White House, the StateDepartment, and the Pentagon. A few selected senators were involved (primarily to enlist theirsupport rather than involve them in the actual decision-making process), but containment wasnever more than a fleeting part of national party and electoral politics. Instead, once the policyhad been formulated at the top it was sold to the public. The Middle Level of Politics. Where does this put the workaday politicians, the inhabitants of the middle level of politics?Sadly, the elite school reports, their influence has largely dissipated over the years, leaving themwith only the outer limbs and twigs to manage. It is certainly true that government in the middle iscolorful and noisy and attracts the attention of the popular press. But for the most part itsactivities hide an important point: Far from competing with the power elite, professionalpoliticians today have lost their ability to control the nation"s destiny. Elite theorists think that most of the participants in the middle are actually motivated by ratherselfish and parochial interests. Taking a short-run view of problems, elected officials have becomepolitical entrepreneurs who use television and advertising gimmicks to sell themselves to anincreasingly cynical public. In their hands policy becomes a means to an end, getting reelected,rather than an end in itself. Most important, they have lost the will and capacity to grapple with national and internationalissues. They seem all too eager to leave these questions to presidents and their inner circles.Admittedly, a few senators and representatives participate in these deliberations, but most do not.And neither do state and local officials. Thus, instead of debating the merits of containment or thetriad, they are content to argue about how much of the B-1 will be built in their own hometowns.Forty years ago, C. Wright Mills lamented on this state of affairs:More and more of the fundamental issues never come to any point of decisionbefore the Congress, or before its most powerful committees, much less before theelectorate in campaigns....When fundamental issues do come up for Congressionaldebate, they are likely to be so structured as to limit consideration, and even to bestalemated rather than resolved.Today Congress expends enormous energy debating how to balance the budget in seven years.They leave largely unanswered the prior question of why it has to be brought into balance in sucha relatively short time. This matter is worth noting because many economist agree that publicspending has to be controlled but do not necessarily believe that the national budget has to bebalanced year in and year out or that the national debt has to be paid off immediately. (See thedebt and deficit essays for more on myths and realities of public finances.)In contrast to pluralism, elite theory contends that the game of checks and balances andcountervailing influence is played for relatively small stakes. Because ordinary politicians areexcluded from the higher circles, where fundamental choices are decided, the agenda ispredetermined for them. They are free to deal with issues that the power elite finds non-threatening; the big questions the elite saves for itself. The Public. What disturbs power elite theorists most, however, is the demise of the public as an independentforce in civic affairs. Instead of initiating policy, or even controlling those who govern them, menand women in America have become passive spectators, cheering the heroes and booing thevillains, but taking little or no direct part in the action. Citizens have become increasingly alienatedand estranged from politics as can be seen in the sharp decline in electoral participation over thelast several decades. As a result, the control of their destinies has fallen into the lap of the powerelite. Today, of course, it is hard to deny the apathy and disinterest among average citizens. Butwhereas pluralists view this passivity as understandable (people are too preoccupied with otherconcerns to take part in public affairs), if not beneficial (too many individuals placing demands ongovernment can clog the system), elite theorists see it as the inevitable consequence of importantdecisions being made at the highest levels. People lose interest to the degree that they losecontrol. Moreover, in spite of Independence Day platitudes about good citizenship, the elite doesnot really encourage mass participation. Such involvement would make its control too uncertain.The containment strategy adopted after World War II illustrates this point. As noted previously,the initial policies, which were developed largely behind the scenes, called for drastic changes inthe way the United States conducted foreign affairs. In the years after 1947 the United Statesfought a major war in Korea and began spending billions and billions of dollars at home andoverseas for national security. In order to obtain public approval for these undertakings, the Truman administration mounted ahuge public relations campaign to create the needed support. As it and subsequent administrationsemphasized the seriousness of the threat, the people were led to believe that they faced a ruthlessenemy determined to take over the world by subversion if possible and by force if necessary. Yetthey had almost no opportunity to hear a full debate between the proponents of containment andalternative policies. Nor did they decide the matter themselves. That the outcome might have beenthe same is not the issue. What matters is that the chance to make a trunk decision was effectivelylost. Americans were consumers, rather than creators, of the policy. Herein lies a supreme irony of American politics, Mills and his supporters claim. Foreign policy isa trunk. From it grow a host of decisions with far-reaching political, economic, social and moralimplications. Since foreign relations affect everyone every day in every way, how can a country bedemocratic if it takes these matters out of the hands of its citizens? How can people be free unlessthey discuss and debate the things that affect them the most? The B-1 controversy, for all of itsthunder and lightning, is not nearly as important as containment, which at the most criticalmoments was hardly mentioned in the halls of Congress or in election campaigns.Elite theory tells us why this silence has lasted for so long: The power elite establishes the basicpolicy agenda in such areas as national security and economics. Of course, since it only sets thegeneral guidelines, the middle level has plenty to do implementing them, but the public has beenvirtually locked out. Its main activities--wearing campaign buttons, expressing opinions topollsters, voting every two or four years--are mostly symbolic. The people do not directly affectthe direction of fundamental policies.
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