The Power Elite


Thomas Dye, a political scientist, and his
students have been studying the upper echelons of leadership in
America since 1972. These “top positions” encompassed the posts with
the authority to 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 the nation’s industrial, communications,
transportation, and banking assets, and two-thirds of all insurance
assets. In addition, they direct about 40 percent of the resources of
private foundations and 50 percent of university endowments.
Furthermore, less than 250 people hold the most influential 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 the national newspaper chains.

Facts like these, which have been duplicated in
countless other studies, suggest to many observers that power in the
United States is concentrated in the hands of a single power elite.
Scores of versions of this idea exist, probably one for each person
who holds it, but they all interpret government and politics very
differently than pluralists. Instead of seeing hundreds of competing
groups hammering out policy, the elite model perceives a pyramid of
power. At the top, a tiny elite makes all of the most important
decisions for everyone below. A relatively small middle level
consists of the types of individuals one normally thinks of when

discussing American government: senators, representatives, mayors,
governors, judges, lobbyists, and party leaders. The masses occupy
the bottom. They are the average men and women in the country who are
powerless to hold 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 the middle level and almost nothing for the common
person. It thus paints a dark picture. Whereas pluralists 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 finds everywhere.

People living in a country that prides itself
on democracy, that is surrounded by the trappings of free government,
and that constantly witnesses the comings and goings of elected
officials may find the idea of a power elite farfetched. Yet many
very intelligent social scientists accept it and present compelling
reasons for believing it to be true. Thus, before dismissing it out
of hand, one ought to listen to their arguments.


Characteristics of the Power

According to C. Wright Mills, among the best
known power-elite theorists, the governing elite in the United States
draws its members from three areas: (1) the highest political leaders
including the president and a handful of key cabinet members and
close advisers; (2) major corporate owners and directors; and (3)
high-ranking military officers.

Even though these individuals constitute a
close-knit group, they are not part of a conspiracy that secretly
manipulates events in their own selfish interest. For the most part,
the elite respects civil liberties, follows established

constitutional principles, and operates openly and peacefully. It is
not a dictatorship; it does not rely on terror, a secret police, or
midnight arrests to get its way. It does not have to, as we will

Nor is its membership closed, although many
members have enjoyed a head start in life by virtue of 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 circles from below.

If the elite does not derive its power from
repression or inheritance, from where does its strength come?
Basically it comes from control of the highest positions in the
political and business hierarchy and fromv shared values and beliefs.

Top Command Posts.

In the first place, the elite occupies what
Mills terms the top command posts of society. These positions 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 take fundamental actions that touch
everyone. Decisions made in the boardrooms of large corporations and
banks affect the rates of inflation and employment. The influence of
the chief executive officers of the IBM and DuPont corporations often
rivals that of the secretary of commerce. In addition, the needs of
industry greatly determine the priorities and policies of educational
and research 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 in domestic life, from regulating the business cycle to
inspecting children’s sleepwear, government has 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 the success 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 they do 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 of professional warriors whose impact far transcends mere
military affairs. The demands of foreign affairs, the dangers of
potential adversaries, the sophistication and mystique of new
weapons, and especially the development of the means of mass
destruction have all given power and prestige to our highest military

As a group, then, this ruling triumvirate of
politicians, corporate executives, and military officers has, by
virtue of the positions they hold, unprecedented authority to make
decisions of national and international consequence. But the mere
occupancy of these command posts does not fully explain the
effectiveness of their power. Of equal significance is their common
outlook on life and their 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 the so-called power elite
constantly squabble among themselves. Such disagreements, which have
become part of the background noise of national politics, occur so
frequently as to be taken as proof that not one but a multiplicity of
elites exist.

According to Mills and others, however, these
differences are vastly overshadowed by agreement on a world view.
This world view is a set of values, beliefs, and attitudes that
shapes the elite’s perceptions 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 private economic power. They take giantism in the
world of commerce for granted. More important, they are united in
their belief that the primary responsibility of government is to
maintain a favorable climate for business. Other governmental
responsibilities, such as social welfare and concern for the
environment, are secondary to that task.

What produces the acceptance of this world
view? Participants in the elite tend to read the same newspapers,
join the same clubs, live in the same neighborhoods, send their
children to the same schools (usually private and the ones they
themselves attended), and belong to the same churches and charities.
They work and play together, employ one another, and intermarry. They
share, in a word, a life-style that brings them together in mutually
reinforcing contact.

Moreover, they undergo similar apprenticeships.
Dye finds that 54 percent of the top corporate leaders and 42 percent
of our highest political officials went to just 12 private colleges
including Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford.

But it is while advancing through their
professions that the unity of thought begins to emerge. By the time
men and women reach the top of the corporate or professional ladder,
their common experiences have given them a shared way of looking at
economics and politics so that they experience and react to events in
the same ways. When they enter public service these people cannot, as
Mills explains, shed their heritage:

The interesting point is how impossible it is
for such [political appointees] to divest themselves of their
engagement with the corporate world in general and with their own
corporations in particular. Not only their money, but their friends,
their interests, their training–their lives in short–are deeply
involved in this world…The point is not so much financial or
personal interests in a given corporation, but identification with
the corporate world. To ask a man suddenly to divest himself of these
interests and sensibilities is almost like asking a man to become a

This inability to “divest” oneself of one’s
past is perhaps what once led a former chairman of General Motors to
declare “What’s good for GM is good for America.”

Candidates: Insiders and

Since the early 1970s when politics really
began to develop a bad name–a negative reputation over and above the
traditional distrust of politicians (see the essay on general-welfare
liberalism or the quotes about politicians and parties)–candidates
for national office frequently tell voters that they are outsiders,
that they are not part of the “establishment,” that they will bring
fresh faces and new ideas to Washington. Aspirants to office in the
1990s have been especially noteworthy for making this claim. What is
interesting to note is that more often than not these candidates and
the individuals they work with or appoint to office are themselves
insiders, as the recent cabinet appointments suggest.

Distribution of Political

Having seen how the governing elite derives its
strength, it is important to consider how this power 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

Imagine a tree in the dead of winter. With its
leaves gone its outline is clearly visible. At the bottom, of course,
is the trunk–cut it and the whole tree topples. Higher up three or
four main branches support lesser branches, which in turn support
still smaller ones until one comes to the twigs at the edges. Cutting
the twigs does not change the tree very much. As one saws off
branches lower down, however, the shape–and possibly the existence
of the tree–is affected. In other words, to determine the direction
and extent of growth of the tree, one cannot simply prune off 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 sense that some
(corresponding to the trunk and main branches) support others. Trunk
decisions represent basic choices–whether or not welfare the federal
budget must be balanced in seven years, for example–that, once
decided, necessitate making lesser choices–cutting food stamps or
Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Whoever makes the trunk
decisions sets the agenda for subsequent debates about secondary or
branch and twig policies.

Let’s turn to an issue, the B-1 controversy,
raised in the essay on pluralism. As important as it seemed, the B-1
in the eyes of power elite theorists is only a twig. In order to
appreciate their contention, 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 of land-based
missiles, submarines, and bombers. Having three separate weapons
systems, American defense planners concluded, provides an extra
margin of safety in the event of a confrontation with the Russians.
Are they right? Do we need three types, or could we get along with
two? This is an important question–far more important than whether
we develop a new bomber or keep an old one–and who decides it
structures the debate on this and a host of other issues. Suppose,
for a moment, the United States had decided that bombers were
unnecessary. The B-1 debate would then be moot and resources
allocated to it could be devoted to other purposes such as
conventional 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 policy
toward the Soviet Union. A controversy arose. Some urged a
conciliatory approach that would recognize Russia’s legitimate
security concerns. Others took a harder line. Fearing the spread of
international communism, they advocated the use of diplomatic,
economic, and especially military means to contain what they
perceived to be inexorable Soviet expansionism. The first alternative
emphasized cooperation, the second containment; the first implied
relatively modest national security efforts, the second enormous
expenditures for arms and foreign aid. Ultimately the United States
adopted the strategy of containment, which has been the backbone of
American foreign policy since 1947.

Containment represents a trunk decision, while
most other defense policies such as the triad or the B-1 are either
branches or twigs. Containing the Russians put us on a long and
arduous path over which we trod for nearly half a century. National
defense swallowed a huge portion of the federal budget; it called for
the maintenance of an enormous peacetime army; it led us into
alliances with nations in the farthest corners of the globe,
including some of the most corrupt and dictatorial regimes on earth;
it demanded massive military aid programs; it consumed the talents of
our scientific establishment and the attention of our national
leaders. In short, containment, unlike the B-1, was no ordinary
policy but a fundamental commitment of American resources and

Who decides trunk decisions like these?
According to the power elite theory, the top of the pyramid usually
does. Or it has greatest influence on their formation. The middle
levels of government (the Congress, the courts, the states) worry
mainly about how best to implement them. This seems to have been the
case in the period after World War II when containment first emerged.
Most of the key decisions were made behind closed doors in the White
House, the State Department, and the Pentagon. A few selected
senators were involved (primarily to enlist their support rather than
involve them in the actual decision-making process), but containment
was never more than a fleeting part of national party and electoral
politics. Instead, once the policy had 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 them with only the outer limbs and twigs to manage. It
is certainly true that government in the middle is colorful and noisy
and attracts the attention of the popular press. But for the most
part its activities hide an important point: Far from competing with
the power elite, professional politicians 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 rather selfish
and parochial interests. Taking a short-run view of problems, elected
officials have become political entrepreneurs who use television and
advertising gimmicks to sell themselves to an increasingly 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 international issues. 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 the triad, 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 decision before the Congress, or before
its most powerful committees, much less before the electorate in
” When fundamental issues do come up for
Congressional debate, they are likely to be so structured as to limit
consideration, and even to be stalemated rather than

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 such a relatively short time. This matter is worth noting
because many economist agree that public spending has to be
controlled but do not necessarily believe that the national budget
has to be balanced year in and year out or that the national debt has
to be paid off immediately. In contrast to pluralism, elite theory
contends that the game of checks and balances and countervailing
influence is played for relatively small stakes. Because ordinary
politicians are excluded from the higher circles, where fundamental
choices are decided, the agenda is predetermined 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 independent force in civic
affairs. Instead of initiating policy, or even controlling those who
govern them, men and women in America have become passive spectators,
cheering the heroes and booing the villains, but taking little or no
direct part in the action. Citizens have become increasingly
alienated and estranged from politics as can be seen in the sharp
decline in electoral participation over the last several decades. As
a result, the control of their destinies has fallen into the lap of
the power elite.

Today, of course, it is hard to deny the apathy
and disinterest among average citizens. But whereas pluralists view
this passivity as understandable (people are too preoccupied with
other concerns to take part in public affairs), if not beneficial
(too many individuals placing demands on government can clog the
system), elite theorists see it as the inevitable consequence of
important decisions being made at the highest levels. People lose
interest to the degree that they lose control. Moreover, in spite of
Independence Day platitudes about good citizenship, the elite does
not 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 in the way the United States conducted foreign
affairs. In the years after 1947 the United States fought a major war
in Korea and began spending billions and billions of dollars at home
and overseas for national security.

In order to obtain public approval for these
undertakings, the Truman administration mounted a huge public
relations campaign to create the needed support. As it and subsequent
administrations emphasized the seriousness of the threat, the people
were led to believe that they faced a ruthless enemy determined to
take over the world by subversion if possible and by force if
necessary. Yet they had almost no opportunity to hear a full debate
between the proponents of containment and alternative policies. Nor
did they decide the matter themselves. That the outcome might have
been the same is not the issue. What matters is that the chance to
make a trunk decision was effectively lost. Americans were consumers,
rather than creators, of the policy.

Herein lies a supreme irony of American
politics, Mills and his supporters claim. Foreign policy is a trunk.
From it grow a host of decisions with far-reaching political,
economic, social and moral implications. Since foreign relations
affect everyone every day in every way, how can a country be
democratic if it takes these matters out of the hands of its
citizens? How can people be free unless they discuss and debate the
things that affect them the most? The B-1 controversy, for all of its
thunder and lightning, is not nearly as important as containment,
which at the most critical moments 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 basic policy
agenda in such areas as national security and economics. Of course,
since it only sets the general guidelines, the middle level has
plenty to do implementing them, but the public has been virtually
locked out. Its main activities–wearing campaign buttons, expressing
opinions to pollsters, voting every two or four years–are mostly
symbolic. The people do not directly affect the direction of
fundamental policies.

Reprinted with permission

Author: H. T. Reynolds, Ph. D. 1996. email –