Posted by Political Issues in Sep 07, 2011, under Issues

Who really holds power in the United States’ Do “we the people” genuinely run the country through elected representatives? Or is there small elite of Americans that governs behind the scenes? It is difficult to determine the location of power in a society as complex as the Unite States In exploring this critical question, social scientists have developed two basic views of our nation’s power structure the elite and pluralism models.

Elite Model

Karl Marx essentially believed that nineteenth century representative democracy was a shape.

He argued that industrial societies were dominated by relatively small numbers of people who owned factories and controlled natural resources In Marx’s view, government officials and military leaders were essentially servants of the capitalist class and followed their wishes therefore, any key decisions made by politicians inevitably reflected the interests of the dominant bourgeoisie Like others who hold an elite model of power relations, Marx thus believed that society is ruled by a small group of individuals who share a common set of political and economic interests.

The Power Elite. In his pioneering work. The Power Elite, sociologist C. Wright Mills described the existence of a small ruling elite of military, industrial, and governmental leaders who controlled the fate of the United States. Power rested in the hands of a few, both inside and outside of government—the power elite. In Mill’s words:

The power elite is composed of men whose positions enable them to transcend the ordinary environments of ordinary men and women, they are in positions to make decisions having major consequences. … They arc in command of the major hierarchies and organizations of modern society.

In Mills’s model, the power structure of the United States can be illustrated by the use of a pyramid. At the top are the corporate rich, leaders of the executive branch of government, and heads of the military (whom Kills called the “warlords”). Below this triumvirate are local opinion leaders, members of the legislative branch of government, and leaders of special-interest groups. Mills contended that such individuals and groups would basically follow the wishes of the dominant power elite. At the bottom of society are the unorganized, exploited masses.

This power elite model is, in many respects, similar to the work of Karl Marx. The most striking difference is that Mills felt that the economically powerful coordinate their maneuvers with the military and political establishments in order to serve their mutual interests. Yet, reminiscent of Marx. Mills argued that the corporate rich were perhaps the most powerful element of the power elite (first among “equals”). And, of course, there is a further dramatic parallel between the work of these conflict theorists The powerless masses at the bottom of Mills’s power elite model certainly bring to mind Marx’s portrait of the oppressed workers of the world, who have “nothing to lose but their chains”.

Mills failed to provide detailed case studies which would substantiate the interrelationship among members of the power elite. Instead, he suggested that such foreign policy decisions as America’s entry into the Korean war reflected a determination by business and military leaders that each could benefit from such armed conflict. In Mills s view, such a sharing of perspectives was facilitated by the frequent interchange of commanding roles among the elite. For example, a banker might become the leader of a federal regulatory commission overseeing financial institutions, and a retired general might move to an executive position with a major defense contracting firm.

A fundamental element in Mills’s thesis is that the power elite not only has relatively few members but also operates as a self-conscious, cohesive unit. Although not necessarily diabolical or ruthless, the elite comprises similar types of people who regularly interact with one another and have essentially the same political and economic interests. Mills’s power elite is not a conspiracy but rather a community of interest and sentiment among a small number of influential Americans.

Admittedly, Mills failed to clarify when the elite acts and when it tolerates protests. Nevertheless, his challenging theories forced scholars to look more critically at the “democratic” political system of the United States.

The Ruling Class. Sociologist G. William Domhoff agreed with Mills that American society is run by a powerful elite. But, rather than fully accepting Mills’s power elite model, Domhoff argued that the United States is controlled by a social upper class “that is a ruling class by virtue of its dominant role in the economy and government”. This socially cohesive ruling class owns 20 to 25 percent of all privately held wealth and 45 to 50 percent of all privately held common stock.

Unlike Mills, Domhoff was quite specific about who belongs to this social upper class. Membership comes through being pan of a family recognized in The Social Register—the directory of the social elite in many American cities. Attendance at prestigious private schools and membership in exclusive social clubs are further indications that a person comes from America’s social upper class. Domhoff estimates that about 0.5 percent of the American population (or 1 of every 200 people) belongs to this social and political elite.

Of course, this would mean that the ruling class has more than 1 million members and could hardly achieve the cohesiveness that Mills attributed to the power elite. However, Domhoff adds that the social upper class as a whole does not rule the nation. Instead, members of this class who have assumed leadership roles within the corporate community or the nation’s policy-planning network join with high-level employees of profit-making and nonprofit institutions controlled by the social upper class to exercise power.

In Domhoff’s view, the ruling class should not be seen in a conspiratorial way, as “sinister men lurking behind the throne.” On the contrary they tend to hold public positions of authority. Almost all important appointive government posts— including those of diplomats and cabinet members—are filled by members of the social upper class. Domhoff contends that members of this class dominate powerful corporations, foundations, universities, and the executive branch of government. They control presidential nominations and the political party process through campaign contributions. In addition, the ruling class exerts a significant (though not absolute) influence within Congress and units of state and local government.

Perhaps the major difference between the elite models of Mills and Domhoff is that Mills insisted on the relative autonomy of the political elite and attached great significance to the independent power of the military. By contrast, Domhoff suggests that high-level government and military leaders serve the interests of the social upper class. Both theorists, in line with a Marxian approach, assume that the rich are interested only in what benefits them financially. Furthermore, as advocates of elite models of power. Mills and Domhoff argue that the masses of American people have no real influence on the decisions of the powerful.

One criticism of the elite model is that its advocates sometimes suggest that elites are always victorious. With this in mind, sociologist J. Alien Whitt (1982) examined the efforts of California’s business elites to support urban mass transit. He found that lobbying by these elites was successful in San Francisco but failed in Los Angeles. Whitt points out that opponents of policies backed by elites can mobilize to thwart their implementation.

Domhoff admits that the ruling class does not exercise total control over American society. However, he counters that this elite is able to set political terms under which other groups and classes must operate. Consequently, although the ruling class may lose on a particular issue, it will not allow serious challenges to laws which guarantee its economic privileges and political domination.

Pluralist Model

Several social scientists have questioned the elite models of power relations proposed by Marx, Mills, Domhoff, and other conflict theorists. Quite simply, the critics insist that power in the United States is more widely shared than the elite model indicates. In their view, a pluralist model more accurately describes the American political system. According to the pluralist model, “many conflicting groups within the community have access to government officials and compete with one another in an effort to influence policy decisions”.

Veto Groups. David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd suggested that the American political system could best be understood through examination of the power of veto groups. The term veto groups refers to interest groups that have the capacity to prevent the exercise of power by others. Functionally, they serve to increase political participation by preventing the concentration of political power. Examples cited by Riesman include farm groups, labor unions, professional associations, and racial and ethnic groups. Whereas Mills pointed to the dangers of rule by an undemocratic power elite, Riesman insisted that veto groups could effectively paralyze the nation’s political processes by blocking anyone from exercising needed leadership functions. In Riesman’s words, “The only leaders of national scope left in the United States are those who can placate the veto groups”.

Dahl’s Study of Pluralism. Community studies of power have also supported the pluralist model. One of the most famous—an investigation of decision making in New Haven, Connecticut—was reported by Robert Dahl in his book, Who Governs? (1961). Dahl found that while the number of people involved in any important decision was rather small, community power was nonetheless diffuse. Few political actors exercised decision-making power on all issues. Therefore, one individual or group might be influential in a battle over urban renewal but at the same time might have little impact over educational policy. Several other studies of local politics, in such communities as Chicago and Oberlin, Ohio, further document that monolithic power structures do not operate on the level of local government.

Just as the elite model has been challenged on political and methodological grounds, the pluralist model has been subjected to serious questioning. Domhoff (1978) reexamined Dahl’s study of decision making in New Haven and argued that Dahl and other pluralists had failed to trace how local elites prominent in decision making were part of a larger national ruling class. In addition, studies of community power, such as Dahl’s work in New Haven, can examine decision making only on issues which become pan of the political agenda. This focus fails to address the possible power of elites to keep certain matters entirely out of the realm of government debate. Conflict theorists contend that these elites will not allow any outcome of the political process which threatens their dominance. Indeed, they may even be strong enough to block discussion of such measures by policymakers.


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