“[America has] democracy by coincidence, in which ordinary citizens get what they want from government only when they happen to agree with elites or interest groups that are really calling the shots.”
— Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page (1)
“America’s political establishment has created vast inequities not only in the economy, but in criminal justice, (where street crime is heavily punished, but white collar crime is not), war (it’s mostly not the sons and daughters of politicians and CEOs getting killed in overseas conflicts), healthcare (where much of the population lives in fear that getting sick will trigger bankruptcy), debt forgiveness (Wall Street bailout recipients got to write off losses, but people suffering foreclosures and student loan defaults are ruined), and other arenas.”
–Matt Taibbi (2)
Theories About American Politics
Over the years, political analysts have tended to split over how the American political system operates. This split involves three theoretical systems: pluralism, hyper-pluralism, and the power elite. Political scientists and others who take one of these perspectives disagree with each other about which theory best describes what is really going on in American politics.
Pluralism, the first branch in this debate, is well represented by French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville’s insights into the vitality of early American politics. Convinced that France was moving towards social equality similar to American democracy, de Tocqueville toured the United States in the 1830s to analyze democracy as a political potential. There, he was struck by how well developed the principle of association—a proto form of pluralism—was among average Americans. At the time, American politics was marked by a rich diversity of organized associations and interest groups vying with each other to see that their respective wishes were translated into government policy. (3) Pluralism is a theoretical approach that emphasizes how ordinary Americans are free to start or join any of these groups and that organized interests struggle with each other on a level playing field. In other words, no one set of interests is likely to dominate public policy—at least not for very long, because the many losers will temporarily put aside their differences to collaborate to influence policy. The pluralist argument is bolstered by the number and variety of interest groups and by the fact that interests in one category—business, for example—often struggle with each other and fail to put up a monolithic front vis a vis labor or environmental groups.
The second theoretical approach, hyper-pluralism, argues that America was at some point characterized by pluralism, but over time it transformed into something less healthy: an out-of-control hyper-pluralist polity. This approach is voiced by those political scientists who argue that hyper-pluralism suggests that the government has essentially been captured by the demands of interest groups. And rather than arbitrating the struggle between organized interests, the government tries to put into effect the wishes of them all to the detriment of the country. Political scientist Theodore Lowi called this pathological process interest-group liberalism, which is often used interchangeably with the hyper-pluralism label. (4) These theorists point to the contradictory nature of government policy—for example, spending money to subsidize fossil fuel extraction while at the same time passing regulations to limit carbon emissions—as evidence that there isn’t really a competition going on as envisioned by pluralism. The hyper-pluralism system more closely resembles a free-for-all.
The third approach is called elite theory, which is the theoretical perspective used in this text. Elite theorists hold that the many-interests-on-a-level-playing-field vision of the pluralists and the interest-group-chaos scenario of the hyper-pluralists fail to accurately show what is really going on: that a relatively small and wealthy class of individuals—the power elite—largely gets its way. (5) According to this theory, the power elite are either the decision-makers or they so influence the decision-makers that the elites get their way most of the time. Elite theory highlights the power of organized business and military interests combined with society’s affluent strata and points to many government policies that lavish benefits onto them. Moreover, business interests create interlocking and overlapping connections that reinforce their position and allow them to control the political system—witness the exclusive and overlapping memberships of corporate boards, foundation boards, trustee positions for public and private universities, as well as corporate media ownership. The fact that elites have disproportionate power and seek to continue their dominance is not new. As political essayist Noam Chomsky wrote, “Right through American history, there’s been an ongoing clash between pressure for more freedom and democracy coming from below and efforts at elite control and domination coming from above.” (6)
Think of elite theory like a teeter-totter in a public park. On one end sit large corporations and the elite, which is composed of a very small number of families firmly entrenched in the top five percent of America’s income and wealth distribution. On the other end sit ordinary Americans, comprised of everyone from an emergency room doctor with a very comfortable income and considerable assets to a college student living in their car and working for minimum wage at a big box store. In whose interest does government work? Elite theory, represented here by the teeter totter on the bottom of the image, holds that government primarily operates in the interest of corporations and the wealthy elite. Even though there are far fewer people on the elite side of the teeter totter, they weigh more in the deliberations of government than do the interests of the majority of the population. The aim of democratic engagement should be to better balance the teeter totter and see government serve the broad interests that ordinary Americans have for true equality of opportunity, healthcare, education, and an economy that provides a decent life for all. This aspiration is not for absolute equality, but for a political and economic system that ensures human dignity regardless of whether one is a banker or a busboy.
Applying the Three Dimensions of Power
Why does this text employ an elite theory perspective? What would we expect to see in the American political system to feel confident that this theoretical lens is a useful one? We’d expect to see public policy—the results of decision making—tilted toward the interests of the elite. This is the first dimension of power. With respect to the second dimension of power, we’d expect the rules of the game to be tilted in favor of elites getting what they want while hindering what ordinary people want. Lastly, through the third dimension of power, we would expect to see ordinary people taking on the viewpoints of the elites against their own interests.
Let’s look at the first dimension of power and the results of decision making. Political scientist Michael Parenti highlighted that “every year the federal government doles out huge sums in corporate welfare in the form of tax breaks, price supports, loan guarantees, bailouts, payments-in-kind, subsidized insurance rates, marketing services, export subsidies, irrigation and reclamation programs, and research and development grants.” (7) The public cost of corporate welfare is enormous, and we should be clear about its two immediate effects. First, the welfare that corporations receive is rarely translated into lower prices for consumers. Instead, it translates into better dividends for stockholders and higher salaries for their upper-level employees, who are already in the upper 10 percent of wage earners. Secondly, corporate welfare translates into ordinary people making up for the lost revenues from corporate tax giveaways. For instance, according to political scientist and professor Robert Reich, “Every year, Americans spend an estimated $153 billion in taxes and on programs to subsidize McDonald’s and Walmart’s low-wage workers.” (8) In other words, while these corporations benefit from the federal government’s generous treatment, they pay their workers too little to stay off public assistance, and the rest of the population pays for food assistance, Medicaid, etc. In addition to corporate subsidies, public policy is tilted to the elite in other ways as well. The investment billionaire Warren Buffett once famously noted that he pays a lower tax rate than his secretary when taken as a percentage of their respective incomes. The tax code is littered with loopholes and deductions available to upper-income earners. The marginal tax rate for capital gains—passive forms of income like stocks, real estate, and artwork from which the wealthy benefit disproportionately—has dropped significantly and is now lower than that for income from wages.
Political scientist Martin Gilens examined peoples’ public policy preferences in surveys. He then subdivided the people by income and checked that data against actual public policy changes. Gilens found that “when preferences between the well-off and the poor diverge, government policy bears absolutely no relationship to the degree of support or opposition among the poor.” Further, he found that “government policy appears to be fairly responsive to the well-off and virtually unrelated to the desires of low- and middle-income citizens.” (9) Gilens found that when the poor and middle classes got what they wanted from the political system, it was only because the affluent wanted it as well. When the poor and middle classes wanted policies that the rich did not want, they didn’t get them even though the lower and middle classes constitute the majority of people in the United States. It’s almost as if the wealthy have a veto on popular policies if they do not benefit the top 5 or 10 percent of society.
We won’t spend much time on the second dimension of power here. Throughout this text you will see how the rules of the game benefit elites. The constitutional system is stacked in favor of elites being able to stop action. Because the American electoral system runs on money, “both major parties tend to be corrupted—and pushed away from satisfying the needs and wishes of ordinary Americans—by their reliance on wealthy contributors.” (10) We’ll note how Congress frequently tends to avoid passing the very legislation that majorities of people want. We’ll see how the structure and operation of the U. S. Senate is especially undemocratic. America’s corporate media system ensures that progressive ideas have a more difficult time getting heard. The system of organized interest groups in the United States is heavily stacked in favor of business groups and the wealthy. We’ll also see how the Supreme Court has a history of primarily “comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted.” (11) And we’ll see how corporations capture federal regulatory agencies.
It’s also easy to see how well elites do on the third dimension of power. We’ve already mentioned the neat trick of getting poor and middle-class people to fight against the estate tax. But the list goes on and on: working people have been marshaled by elites to support other tax breaks, limitations on unions, free-trade agreements, and cuts to the social safety net. As political journalist Thomas Frank famously once observed, “people getting their fundamental interests wrong is what American political life is all about.” (12) Elites “manufacture consent,” in the telling phrase coined by economist Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky. (13) They argued that just like consumer demand for products is manufactured by the public relations industry, political consent is similarly manufactured through election campaigns that focus on superficial considerations. Consent is also manufactured by frightening people or by getting them angry. Want to cut public assistance for the poor? Get people upset about “welfare queens.” Want to invade a country? Talk about that country’s leader being “worse than Hitler,” and posing an existential threat to the United States. Want to gin up gun sales and defeat attempts to regulate firearms? Talk about crime. It works just as well when crime is at record lows as when crime is high. All these measures have been successful. These measures only require that you control the media, decide what issues get addressed, and how those issues are framed. Elites have that kind of control.
How else do elites exploit the third dimension of power? Myths. Going back at least as far as the nineteenth century Horatio Alger stories, Americans have been fed a steady diet of “rugged individualism” and “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” myths. Objectively, we know that the economic success of individuals who truly do rise from rags to riches is a function of social investments in schools, roads, legal systems, monetary systems, and so on. But elites thrive on the myth that they did it on their own. They gain power from that myth, for it assumes that nothing needs to change about the status quo. According to the corollary to this myth, if you’re poor, hungry, and without healthcare, it’s your own damned fault.
Even the partisan stalemate in Washington—which is not a myth, but has taken on mythic proportions—plays into the hands of the elites because it creates a sense of futility among many people, a feeling that “politicians are all the same” or “it doesn’t matter who wins elections, so I might as well not vote.” The political demobilization of ordinary people is perhaps the best tool the wealthy and corporations have to achieve their aims. As South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko said, “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” (14) If the governed can be made to feel that they are powerless to effect change, then indeed they are powerless.
Perhaps the best illustration of elites’ use of the third dimension of power is their ability to convince many Americans that democratic government is bad and that undemocratic, unregulated markets are good. President Ronald Reagan famously said in his 1981 inaugural address that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.” Reagan was articulating the view that predominates in the United States—that government should scale back and step out of the way so that corporations operating largely without regulation could better serve the needs of individuals and the broader society alike. The fact that so many Americans of all political stripes take this view is the result of a centuries long propaganda effort in schools, the media, academia, churches, and politics. It is the reason that ordinary people—who would benefit from a more progressive tax structure, better public transit, or less government welfare for upper-class homeowners and corporations—often vote for politicians who are opposed to those very things. Even though unregulated markets repeatedly fail Americans in ways that require government intervention (e.g., bank failures, pollution externalities, the climate crisis, and predatory check cashing operations), many of us keep looking to markets and corporations for our solutions. This exercise of the third dimension of power, or what the late anthropologist Eric R. Wolf called structural power, makes meaningful policy alternatives disappear from our political system. (15)
The People and the Elites
The last observation above leads us to an important caveat. The people have numbers. And votes. The question is whether the people have the will and organization to counteract elite power. At times in American history, popular will has translated into public policies that benefited average men and women over the elites. People have risen up and demanded protection from monopoly corporate power. People have demanded a minimum wage, worker safety laws, and laws against child labor. Women and men together demanded that women be able to vote. People of all races demanded that we have civil rights laws guaranteeing voting privileges, the right to equality in the workplace, the right to go to neighborhood schools, and freedom from sexual harassment. People demanded that the impoverishment of the elderly be ameliorated—and it was through programs like Social Security and Medicare. People demanded that America’s rivers no longer catch on fire due to their high levels of pollution. The message of this text is that elites have the most power in the American system. But the message is also to hopefully get you to acknowledge that this situation can change if the majority organizes itself to act in the interest of the public good.
Finally, we need to remember that when we state that elites have disproportionate power, we don’t need to make conclusions about the character of corporate executives, hedge fund directors, Wall Street bankers, or Silicon Valley titans. Like any group of people, the elite encompasses upstanding, exemplary individuals as well as those whose motives are less than admirable. They act like all other people act: in their own self-interest. The question for a political system is whether concentrations of economic and political power can coexist with democracy. Will the self-interest of a powerful elite—a minority of the population—distort the political and economic rules in ways that perpetuate vast inequality? Political philosopher Danielle Allen put the challenge this way:
“A proper role of government—nearly forgotten today, but the overriding concern of the Founders—is finding ways to prevent undue concentrations of power wherever they occur. Power tends toward self-perpetuation; where it is left undisturbed, it will draw further advantages to itself, shut out rivals, and mete out ever-bolder forms of injustice.” (16)
What if . . . ?
Imagine yourself in a national leadership role. What role would it be? Senator? Representative? President? Supreme Court Justice? How would you use your understanding of who has power in the United States to enhance the collective voice of ordinary Americans? How would you use it to, in Danielle Allen’s words, “prevent undue concentrations of power?”
- Martin Gilensand Benjamin Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” Perspectives on Politics. Fall 2014.
- Matt Taibbi, “Deval Patrick’s Candidacy is Another Chapter in the Democrats’ 2020 Clown Car Disaster,” Rolling Stone. November 14, 2019.
- Classic texts in the pluralist tradition include David B. Truman, The Governmental Process, 2nd edition. New York: Knopf, 1971; and Robert Dahl, Pluralist Democracy in the United States. Chicago: Rand-McNally, 1967.
- Theodore J. Lowi, The End of Liberalism, 2nd edition. New York: Norton: 1979.
- See C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University Press, 1956; and Ralph Miliband, The State in Capitalist Society. New York: Basic Books, 1969.
- Noam Chomsky, Requiem for the American Dream. The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth and Power. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2017. Page 1.
- Michael Parenti, Democracy for the Few. 9thedition. Boston: Wadsworth, 2011. Page 60.
- Robert Reich, “How Corporate Welfare Hurts You,” The American Prospect. July 23, 2019.
- Martin Gilens, Affluence & Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America.Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012. Page 81.
- Benjamin I. Page and Martin Gilens, Democracy in America? What Has Gone Wrong and What We Can Do About It. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017. Page 111.
- Ian Millhiser, Injustices: The Supreme Court’s History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted. New York: Nation Books, 2015.
- Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter With Kansas?New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004. Page 1.
- Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon, 2012.
- Takudzwa Hillary Chiwanza, The African Exponent. September 12, 2017.
- Eric R. Wolf, Pathways of Power: Building and Anthropology of the Modern World. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001. Page 385. Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, The Big Myth: How American Business Taught Us to Loathe Government and Love the Free Market. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2023.
- Danielle Allen, “The Road From Serfdom,” The Atlantic. December2019.
- Teeter Totter Graphic © David Hubert is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA (Attribution NonCommercial ShareAlike) license