The Power Elite and Government

excerpted from the book

Who Rules America Now?

by G. William Domhoff

Touchstone Books, 1983



... there is evidence that a two-party system discourages voting, for those in a minority of even 49 percent receive nothing for their efforts. In countries where single-member districts have been abandoned for proportional representation, voting has increased considerably. It is also the case that the percentage of people voting in the United States has decreased during the twentieth century even while it remains constant or increases in most European countries. Perhaps the major conclusion to be drawn about the political con- ~c sequences of the two-party system is not that it allows citizens to express their policy preferences but that it creates a situation where there is very little relationship between politics and policy. As Lowi concludes: "Majorities produced by the American two-party system are simply numerical majorities; they usually have no political content whatsoever."

In a system where policy preferences become blurred, the emphasis on the images of individual candidates becomes very great. Individual personalities become more important than the policies of the parties. This tendency has been increased somewhat with the rise of the mass media, in particular television, but it is a reality of American politics that has existed far longer than is understood by the many columnists and pundits who lament the "recent" decline of political parties. The executive director of a congressional watchdog organization, the National Committee for an Effective Congress, put the matter even more strongly well before the alleged deterioration of the parties become a media cliché:

For all intents and purposes, the Democratic and Republican parties don't exist. There are only individuals (i.e., candidates) and professionals (i.e., consultants, pollsters, and media advisers)."

It is because the candidate-selection process in the American two-party system is so individualistic, and therefore dependent upon name recognition and personal image, that it can be in good part dominated by members of the power elite through the relatively simple and direct means of large campaign contributions. In the roles of both big donors and fund raisers, the same people who direct corporations and take part in policy groups play a central role in the careers of most politicians who advance beyond the local level in states of any size and consequence. "Recruitment of elective elites," concludes political scientist Walter D. Burnham, "remains closely associated, especially for the most important offices in the larger states, with the candidates' wealth or access to large campaign contributions."


Despite these various kinds of objective evidence that the power elite has great power in relation to the federal government, many corporate leaders feel that they are relatively powerless in the face of government. To hear them tell it, the Congress is more responsive to organized labor, environmentalists, and consumers than it is to them. They also claim to be harassed by willful and arrogant bureaucrats who encroach upon the rightful preserves of the private sector, sapping them of their confidence and making them hesitant to invest their capital.

These feelings have been documented most vividly by David Vogel and Leonard Silk, one a political scientist, the other a business columnist for the New York Times. They were permitted to observe a series of meetings at the Conference Board in 1974 and 1975 in which the social responsibilities of business were being discussed. The men at these meetings were convinced that everybody but them was listened to by government. Government was seen as responsive to the immediate preferences of the majority of citizens. "The have-nots are gaining steadily more political power to distribute the wealth downward," complained one executive. "The masses have turned to a larger government."

Some even wondered whether democracy and capitalism are compatible. "Can we still afford one man, one vote? We are tumbling on the brink," said one. "One man, one vote has undermined the power of business in all capitalist countries since World War II," announced another. "The loss of the rural vote weakens conservatives." However, Silk and Vogel believe that businessmen in America are unlikely to go so far as to be fascists, even with their antidemocratic bias, because they are so antigovernment:

Even with their elitist, anti-populist, and even anti-democratic bias, however, few American businessmen can fairly be regarded as "fascist," if by that term one means a believer in a political system in which there is a combination of private ownership and a powerful, dictatorial government that imposes major restrictions on economic, political, social and religious freedoms. Basically, the anti-governmental mind set of the great majority of American businessmen has immunized them against the virus of fascism.

The fear business leaders express of the democratic majority leads them to view recessions as a saving grace, for recessions help to keep the expectations of workers in check. Workers who fear for their jobs are less likely to demand higher wages or government social programs. For example, different corporate executives made the following comments:

This recession will bring about the healthy respect for economic values that the Depression did.

People need to recognize that a job is the most important thing they can have. We should use this recession to get the public to better understand how our economic system works. Social goals are OK, provided the public is aware of their costs.

It would be better if the recession were allowed to weaken more than it will, so that we would have a sense of sobriety.

The negative feelings these business leaders have toward government are not a new development in the corporate community, as some pluralists have claimed in blaming the New Deal and the social programs of the 1960s. A study of businessmen's views in the nineteenth century found that they believed political leaders to be "stupid" and "empty" people who went into politics only to earn a living. As for the ordinary voters, they were "brutal, selfish and ignorant." A comment written by a businessman in 1886 could have been made at the Conference Board meeting in 1975: "In this good, democratic country where every man is allowed to vote, the intelligence and the property of the country is at the mercy of the ignorant, idle and vicious."

The emotional expressions of businesspeople, or anyone else, about their power or lack of it, cannot be taken seriously as power indicators. To do so, as Mills wrote, is to "confuse psychological uneasiness with the facts of power and policy," which are in the realm of sociology, economics, and politics, not subjective feelings and verbal protestations. But it is nonetheless interesting to try to understand why businessmen complain about a government they dominate. There are several intertwined aspects to the answer.

First of all, complaining about government is a useful political strategy. It puts government officials on the defensive and forces them to keep proving that they are friendly to business. McConnell makes the point as follows:

Whether the issue is understood explicitly, intuitively, or not at all, denunciations serve to establish and maintain the subservience of government units to the business constituencies to which they are actually held responsible. Attacks upon government in general place continuing pressure on governmental officers to accommodate their activities to the groups from which support is most reliable.

However, it still seems surprising that corporate leaders would feel the need to resort to this tactic. This is especially the case given the evidence that bureaucrats who in any way speak out or criticize their elected or appointed superiors are removed from their positions, left with no duties, or otherwise punished in a dramatic and public way that is a clear lesson to other civil servants. Silk and Vogel suggest that part of the explanation might be found in the fact that so few civil servants are part of the upper class and corporate networks. They quote economist Edward S. Mason on the contrast between Western Europe and the United States on this point:

It is clear to the most obtuse observer that there is a much more distant relationship between business and government in the United States than, say, in Britain, or France or the Netherlands.... A British businessman can say, "Some of my best friends are civil servants," and really mean it. This would be rare in the United States.

In Western Europe, the government officials whom American businessmen vilify with the hostile label "bureaucrats" are part of the same old-boy networks as the business leaders due to common class background and common schooling. But such is not the case in the United States, where the antigovernment ideology tends to restrain members of the upper class from government careers except in the State Department. Because middle-class people who are not part of the in-group network staff the bureaucracies, the different method of domination that McConnell describes is necessary. It means that "tough-talking" members of the corporate community have to come into government as top-level appointees in order to "ride herd" on the "bureaucrats" in Washington. In other words, lack of social contact in a situation of uncertainty explains much of the hostile feelings toward bureaucrats whose great power exists more in imagination than in reality.

There also seems to be an ideological level to the businessmen's attitude toward government. In a perceptive discussion of "why businessmen mistrust their state," Vogel explains their attitude in terms of their fear of the populist, democratic ideology that underlies American government. Since power is in theory in the hands of all the people, there always is the possibility that someday "the people," in the sense of the majority, will make the government into the pluralist democracy it is supposed to be. In that sense, the great power of the ruling class is illegitimate, and the existence of such power is therefore vigorously denied. Another political scientist, James Prothro, studying businessmen's views during what are thought of as their halcyon days of the 1920s, nonetheless found the same mistrust of government. He reached conclusions similar to those of Vogel, conclusions that show that the hostility expressed by businessmen is not a response to "big government": "The conspicuous anti-governmental orientation of business organizations is itself an incident of the more basic fear that popular control will, through the device of universal suffrage, come to dominate the governmental process."

The expressions of anguish from individual business leaders concerning their powerlessness also suggests an explanation in terms of the intersection of social psychology and sociology. It is the corporate community and the power elite that have power, not individuals apart from their institutional context. It is therefore not surprising that specific individuals might feel powerless. As individuals, they are not always listened to, and they have to convince their peers of the reasonableness of their arguments before anything begins to happen. Moreover, any policy that is adopted is a group decision, and it is sometimes hard for people to identify with group actions to the point where they feel personally powerful.

Who Rules America Now?

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