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The Power Elite

Some years ago a prominent sociologist, C. Wrighf Mills (1956), developed the idea that American governmental and economic activitywas controlled by elite groups of executives who moved back and forth between governmental, academic, financial, and industrial positions. Mills viewed the corporation as either the base from which the executive elite originate or the goal toward which they are moving. He felt that their power meant that society becomes dominated by men primarily to a view of life expressed by a prominent executive in' the immortal words, "What's good for General Motors is good for the country Mills made a strong case for the theory that executives who have had similar training, assodauon, and outlook are often found in decision-making positions. There is no doubt that a professional managerial class 1 s developed in .the United States. But m ny social scientists argue that the case for a ruling elite with a virtual monopoly of social power has not been proved [Rossi, 1956; Reissman, 1956; Dahl, 1958; Bell, 1958; . , Lowry, 1965, pp. xviii-xix: Miller, 1970, pp. 202, 275-276).

IS THERE A CONSPIRATORIAL POWER ELITE? There are at least three fairly well defined views on this question. The pluralists reject the idea that there is anyone cohesive group , controlling American life [Dahl, 19.61, 1976, pp. 59-61; Rose, 1967 Von der Muhll, 1977; Polsby, 1980). Following the lead of Merton [1949bl, they see power .as polymorphic (literally, "having many fonns"), with "different persons exercising decision-making powers  for each separate issue" [Ferrell et al., 1973). Thus, a variety of different groups compete and share power. None of these groups alays wins, and major social decisions are the result of compromi e, competing influences, and the force of circum tances. The two oth r schools of thought see American social decision 'making dominated by cohesive quasi-conspiratorial groups but differ about who these groups are. The rightwingers [Smoot, ·1962; Schlafly, 1964; Mc- Birnie, 1968; Efron, 1975; Buchanan, 1975; Kirkpatrick, 1979) believe the power elite is comprised of radical intellectuals who have infiltrated the government, the schools, and the communications media. By their control of the press, radio, ¥td television, they determine the information which reaches the people. Likewise, by occupying key government posts, they make the decisions which sell out American individualism to a leftist internationalism. It is "they who are responsible for ever-increasing welfare payments and for the court decisions increasing the rights of alleged criminals versus the police. . In recent years the term "new class," which the Yugoslavian writer Ojilas gave to the communist bureaucrats, has been applied to journalists, television commentators, and some educators by conservative critics. The newclass label is based on the belief that those in the communications media tend to share a style of life, common economic interests, and a common point of view. This point of view is said to be scornful of such traditional values as familism, nationalism, and free enterprise [Phillips, 1977; Bennett and Oelattre, 1978; Berger, 1981]. Some leftists critics [Anderson, 1974; Dornhoff, 1970, 1978, 19801 are equally sure that a core of top-level academics, generals, government officials, and corporation executives dominate the society on behalf of big business. It is "they" who maintain an unequal distribution of income and intentionally preserve poverty in order to protect privilege [Cans, 1972] it is "they" who keep the country at war or on the brink of war to profit the "military-industrial complex." One recent study compared the "business elite (a sample of executives of large corporations) with the "media elite" (a sample of top journalists and television news commentators). This study concluded that "each group rates the other as the most influential group in America; moreover, each wants to reduce substantially the power of the other and to take its place as the most influential group [Rothman and Lichter, 1982, p. 118]. Almost any governmental action will be denounced by someone as the act of an elitist conspiracy. This conspiratorial elite (leftist or rightist, depending upon who is name-calling) is so sly and deceitful that it sometimes accepts a measure which seems to be against its own interests. Thus, according to leftists, the welfare system is supported by the rich a0s a device for "regulating the poor" and preserving the capitalist system [Piven and Cloward, 1971]. Any given act of government can be interpreted by either the leftist or the rightist critics to prove that the United States is dominated by a power elite. Can the power elite and pluralist views of power be reconciled? First, while there are few, if any, "conspiracies" and while most important maneuvers are conducted in the open, there is group action. Citizens with common interests do meet,  talk together, and  plan strategy. Sometimes they get the changes they desire. More often, they encounter opposition and must make compromises. Second, some people are experts in the management of organizations or in creating a public image. Whether born poor or rich, such people are soon affluent. They tend to join with people like themselves in both formal and informal' association and often coine to think very much alike. Finally.rwhile many people spend their careers in a single occupation, there is some movement of personnel between institutions. This is most marked in civil government, since many officials have had earlier careers in industry, education, or the military. . One scholar [)Nhitt, 1979] rejects the pluralist- elitist argument as irrelevant, since both views are partly true but inadequate. He proposes a class-dialectic model in which the state normally serves the interests of the dominant class, but this dominant class is sometimes disunited within itself and may be successfully challenged by organized competlng class interests. The question of who really runs the government has simple answer.

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