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."
BUT BUSINESSMEN FEEL POWERLESS
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.
Rules America Now?