Power elite refers to societal power under the control of a small number of actors or organizations sharing common interests. Working together, this elite can either create or ameliorate social problems. For many people, the very existence of a power elite would be a social problem.
Who really holds power in the United States? Do “we the people” genuinely run the country, through our elected representatives? Or is it true that behind the scenes, a small elite controls both the government and the economic systems? This is not an easy question to answer, for it is difficult to determine the location of power in a society as complex as the United States. In exploring this critical question, social scientists have developed two basic views of the nation’s power structure: the elitist and the pluralist models.
The elitist view of power usually derives from the analysis of Karl Marx. For Marx, economics was the basis of society, with other social institutions like the family, law, and religion playing marginal roles directed by the economic elite.
The significance of the elitist perspective is that a relatively small segment of society exercises power. Furthermore, while decision making may be shared, those who exercise power are largely in agreement on major issues. So, for example, one might argue that elitists would be in agreement in efforts to avoid overtaxation but be less concerned about eliminating homelessness.
Karl Marx believed that 19th-century representative democracy was essentially a sham. 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 this 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 believed that society is ruled by a small group of individuals who share a common set of political and economic interests.
Sociologist C. Wright Mills (1916-62) took the Marxist model a step further in his pioneering work The Power Elite. Mills described a small group of military, industrial, and government leaders who controlled the fate of the United States—the power elite. Power rested in the hands of a few, both inside and outside government. At the top of the power pyramid are the corporate rich, leaders of the executive branch of government, and heads of the military (whom Mills called the “warlords”). Directly below are local opinion leaders, members of the legislative branch of government, and leaders of special interest groups. Mills contended that these individuals and groups would in essence follow the wishes of the dominant power elite. At the bottom of the pyramid are the unorganized, exploited masses.
The most striking difference from Marx is that Mills believed that the economically powerful coordinate their maneuvers with the military and political establishments to serve their common interests. Yet, reminiscent of Marx, Mills argues that the corporate rich were perhaps the most powerful element of the power elite (first among “equals”). And 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 had only their chains to lose.
A fundamental element in Mills’s thesis is that the power elite is indeed a societal problem and not only includes 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 people.
Mills failed to clarify when the elite opposes protests and when it tolerates them; he also failed to provide detailed case studies that would substantiate the interrelationships among members of the power elite. Nevertheless, his challenging theories forced scholars to look more critically at the democratic political system of the United States.
In commenting on the scandals that have rocked major corporations such as Enron and Arthur Andersen, observers have noted that members of the business elite are closely interrelated. In a study of the members of the business elite of directors of Fortune 1,000 corporations, researchers found that each director can reach every other board of directors in just 3.7 steps. That is, by consulting acquaintances of acquaintances, each director can quickly reach someone who sits on each of the other 999 boards. Furthermore, the face-to-face contact directors regularly have in their board meetings makes them a highly cohesive elite. Finally, the corporate elite is not only wealthy, powerful, and cohesive; it is also overwhelmingly white and male.
While the notion of powerful elite interests does not seem as news breaking now as it did in the 1950s, criticisms of the power elite thesis have continued. The major criticism has been that decision making is more broadly shared (“the pluralist model”) or that even if power is concentrated there are counteracting interests (“checks and balances”).
Several social scientists insist that power in the United States is shared more widely than the elite models indicate. In their view, a pluralist model more accurately describes the nation’s political system. According to the pluralist model, many competing groups within the community have access to government, so that no single group is dominant.
- Davis, Gerald F., Mina Yoo, and Wayne E. Baker. 2003. “The Small World of the American Corporate Elite, 1982-2001.” Strategic Organization 1:301-26.
- Domhoff, G. William. 2006. Who Rules America? Power, Politics and Social Change. 5th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Horowitz, Irving Louis. 1983. C. Wright Mills: An American Utopian. New York: Free Press.
- Mills, C. Wright.  2000. The Power Elite. New ed. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Mizruchi, Mark S. 1996. “What Do Interlocks Do? An Analysis, Critique, and Assessment of Research on Interlocking Directorates.” Pp. 271-98 in Annual Review of Sociology, edited by J. Hagan and K. Cook. Palo Alto, CA: Annual Reviews.