The Shaping of the American Polity

excerpted from the book

Who Rules America Now?

by G. William Domhoff

Touchstone Books, 1983


The effort to influence public opinion is considered necessary because average citizens do not automatically agree with the corporate community on every policy initiative. Their life situations as wage and salary earners with little or no wealth beyond a house and life insurance often lead them to see things in a light different from the corporate rich. Thus, trade unions, minority organizations, and women's groups, among others, can find independent bases of power within the general populace, and they often suggest policy alternatives opposed to those supported by leaders within the corporate community. To the degree that these groups might be able to hinder the adoption of corporate-favored policy suggestions, to that degree is it necessary for the opinion-shaping network to counter their influence.

However, for all the hundreds of millions of dollars spent each year in the effort to mold public opinion, the importance of public opinion in the functioning of the social system should not be exaggerated. The opinions of the majority on a wide range of issues have differed from those of the corporate elite for many generations without major consequences for public policy. To assume that differences in opinion will lead to political activity does not give due considerations to t he fact that people's beliefs do not lead them into opposition or disruption if they have stable roles to fulfill in the society. Routine involvement in a daily round of activities, the most important of which are a job and a family, probably is. a more important factor in social stability and acquiescence in corporate-supported policies than any attempts to shape public opinion. Contrary to what many Marxian analysts have claimed, what happens in the economy and in government has more impact on how people will act than what is said in the opinion-shaping process and the mass media.


The policy-planning process begins in corporate board rooms, where problems are informally identified as "issues" to be solved by new policies. It ends in government, where policies are enacted and implemented. In between, however, there is a complex network of people and institutions that plays an important role in sharpening the issues and weighing the alternatives. This network has four main components-policy groups, foundations, think tanks, and university research institutes.

The policy-discussion organizations are nonpartisan groups, bringing together corporate executives, lawyers, academic experts, university administrators, and media specialists to discuss such general problems as foreign aid, tariffs, taxes, and welfare policies. In discussion groups of varying sizes, the policy-oriented organizations provide informal and off-the-record meeting grounds in which differences of opinion on various issues can be aired and the opinions of specialists can be heard. In addition to their numerous small-group discussions, these organizations encourage general dialogue within the power elite by means of luncheon and dinner speeches, written reports, and position statements in journals and books. Taken as a whole, the several policy-discussion groups are akin to an open forum in which there is a constant debate concerning the major problems of the day and the best solutions to those problems.

Foundations are tax-free institutions that are created to give grants to both individuals and nonprofit organizations for activities that range from education, research, and the arts to support for the poor and the upkeep of exotic gardens and old mansions. They are an upper-class adaptation to inheritance and income taxes. They provide a means by which wealthy people and corporations can in effect decide how their tax payments will be spent, for they are based on money that otherwise could go to the government in taxes. From a small beginning at the turn of the century, they have become a very important factor in shaping developments in higher education and the arts and they play a significant role in policy formation as well. The best-known and most influential are the Ford, Rockefeller, and Carnegie foundations.

Think tanks and university research institutes are nonprofit organizations that have been developed to provide settings for experts m various academic disciplines to devote their time to the study of policy alternatives free from the teaching and departmental duties that are part of the daily routine for most members of the academic community. Supported by foundation grants and government contracts, they are a major source of the new ideas that are discussed in the policy-formation groups.

No one type of organization within the network is more important than the others. Nor is any one organization or group the "inner sanctum where final decisions are made. It is the network as a whole that shapes policy alternatives, with different organizations playing different roles on different issues.


National-level discussion groups were first created at the turn of the century coterminous with the development of the corporate community. The group that was to be the prototype for all the rest, the National Civic Federation, had outlived its usefulness by World War I but the several groups that gradually replaced it-the Conference Board (1916), the Council on Foreign Relations (1921), and the Committee for Economic Development (1942) became even more important in their own right and have been functioning in tandem since the

The Council on Foreign Relations

The largest and best-known of the policy organizations is the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). Founded by bankers, lawyers, and academicians who were fully cognizant of the larger role the United States would play in world affairs as a result of World War I, the council's importance in the conduct of foreign affairs was well established by the 1930s. The council has about 1,800 members, half from the New York area, half from the rest of the country. Before 1970 the members were primarily financiers, executives, and lawyers, with a strong minority of journalists, academic experts, and government officials. Since that time there has been an effort to include a larger number of government officials, including foreign-service officers, politicians, and staff members of congressional committees concerned with foreign policy.

... the council receives its general funding from wealthy individuals, corporations, and subscriptions to its influential periodical, Foreign Affairs. For special projects, however, it often relies upon major foundations for support.

... The council conducts an active program of luncheon and dinner speeches at its New York clubhouse, featuring government officials and national leaders from all over the world. It also encourages dialogue and disseminates information through books, pamphlets, and articles in Foreign Affairs. However, the most important aspects of the CFR program are its discussion groups and study groups. These small gatherings of about 15 to 25 people bring together business executives, government officials, scholars, and military officers for detailed consideration of specific topics in the area of foreign affairs. Discussion groups, which meet about once a month, are charged with exploring problems in a general way, trying to define issues and identify alternatives.

... Council leaders reacted to the large-scale international changes of the late 1960s and early 1970s by creating a new discussion organization called the Trilateral Commission, which included 60 members from Japan and 60 from Western Europe as well as American members. Its goal was to develop closer economic and political cooperation among the industrialized democracies in dealing with economic competition among themselves and with challenges from the underdeveloped countries. The council also launched a large number of its own research projects and discussion groups under the auspices of the 1980s Project to parallel the work of the Trilateral Commission.

The council is far too large for its members to issue policy proclamations as a group. Moreover, its usefulness as a neutral discussion ground would be diminished if it tried to do so. However, its leaders did help to mediate the dispute that broke out in the foreign policy establishment in the 1970s over the nature of Soviet intentions and the extent of its threat to United States interests. After holding several discussion groups and study groups on the topic, it created a special Commission on U.S.-Soviet Relations in the fall of 1980 that included representatives of both the Soviets-are-expansionists-and-dangerous view and the Soviets-can-be-worked-with view, at least to the degree that the latter view exists within respectable opinion. The discussants had worked in all recent administrations, Republican and Democrat, and they were chaired by the editor-in-chief of Time magazine. The report that emerged from these discussions was drafted by a specialist in international relations from a major Washington think tank. He had served as an aide to the National Security Council in the early 1970s. The 31-page report was distributed free of charge with the aid of a grant from the Ford Foundation and publicized in newspapers and magazines read by members of the power elite.

Time described the commission's recommendations as "tough-minded." The participants agreed that the Soviets were a "vastly more formidable foe" than had been thought a decade earlier and that their intentions were relentlessly hostile to Western interests. The report called for an even bigger defense buildup than either presidential candidate had advocated in the 1980 elections, and it branded the volunteer army a failure. Commentators during the early 1980s increasingly noted that foreign policy experts were once again basically in agreement in their overall view of the world situation. It is likely that the ongoing debate at the council and the report of its commission played a major role in maintaining dialogue between the opposing camps.

The Committee for Economic Development

The Committee for Economic Development (CED) was founded in the early 1940s to help plan for the postwar world. The corporate leaders who were instrumental in creating this new study group had two major concerns at the time: (1) There might be another depression after the war; and (2) if businessmen did not present economic plans for the postwar era, other sectors of society might present plans that would not be acceptable to the corporate community. The expressed purpose of the committee was to avoid any identification with special-interest pleading for business and to concern itself with the nation as a whole: "The Committee would avoid promoting the special interests of business itself as such and would likewise refrain from speaking for any other special interests.... The CED was to be a businessman's organization that would speak in the national interest."

The CED consisted of 200 corporate leaders in its early years. Later it included a small number of university presidents among its members. In addition, leading economists and public administration experts have served as advisers to the CED and conducted research for it; many of them have gone on to serve in advisory roles in both Republican and Democratic administrations, particularly on the Council of Economic Advisors. Although there is an overlap in membership with the larger Council on Foreign Relations, the committee has a different mix of members. Unlike the council,, it has few bankers and no corporate lawyers, journalists and academic experts.

Like the council, the CED works through study groups that are aided by academic experts. The study groups have considered every conceivable issue from farm policy to government reorganization to campaign finance laws, but the greatest emphasis is on economic issues of both a domestic and international nature. The most ambitious of its projects have been financed by large foundations, but its general revenues come directly from its corporation members.

Unlike the CFR, the results of committee study groups are released as official policy statements of the organization. The statements are published in pamphlet form and disseminated widely in business, government, and media circles. Several of the statements bear a striking similarity to government policies that were enacted at a later time.

The Conference Board

The Conference Board, founded in 1916 as the National Industrial Conference Board, is the oldest of the existing policy-discussion groups. It was originally a more narrowly focused organization, with a primary interest in doing research for the corporate community itself. During the 1930s and 1940s it drifted to an extreme right-wing stance under the influence of its executive director, who often denounced other policy groups for their alleged desertion of the free enterprise system. Only with the retirement of this director in 1948 and an infusion of new members into the board of directors did the organization move back into the corporate mainstream and begin to assume a role as a major voice of the corporate community. Further changes in the 1960s were symbolized by the shortening of its name to Conference Board and the election of a CED trustee as its president.

In addition to discussion groups and the publication of a variety of statistical and survey studies, the Conference Board has been innovative in developing international policy linkages. In 1961, in conjunction with the Stanford Research Institute, a West Coast think tank, the board sponsored a week-long International Industrial Conference in San Francisco, bringing together 500 leaders in industry and finance from 60 countries to hear research reports and discuss common problems. The International Industrial Conference has met every four years since that time. Along with the Trilateral Commission and the "sister" committees that the CED has encouraged in numerous nations, the International Industrial Conference is one of the major institutions in an international policy discussion network that has emerged since the 1950s.

Ultraconservative Policy Groups

The policy network is not totally homogeneous. Reflecting differences of opinion within the corporate community, there is an ultraconservative clique within the policy-planning network that has consistent and long-standing disagreements with the more moderate conservatives of the CED, CFR, and Conference Board. Historically, the most important of these organizations have been the National Association of Manufacturers and the Chamber of Commerce of the United States, but they were joined in the 1970s by the American Enterprise Institute, the Hoover Institution, the Institute for Contemporary Studies, and one or two other small groups.

It is the ultraconservative organizations that are most often identified with "big business" in the eyes of social scientists and the general public. The fact that they are generally nay-sayers who often lose on highly visible issues is one of the major reasons for the belief that the corporate community is not the dominant influence in shaping government policy. What is not understood is that those setbacks are usually at the hands of their more moderate and soft-spoken colleagues within the policy network and the corporate community.

The moderate conservatives and ultraconservatives have differed throughout the century on foreign policy, economic policy, and welfare legislation. Historically, the moderates have favored foreign aid, low tariffs, and increased economic expansion overseas, whereas the ultraconservatives tended to see foreign aid as a giveaway and called for high tariffs. Moderates came to accept the idea that government taxation and spending policies could be used to stimulate and stabilize the economy, but ultraconservatives have continued to insist that taxes should be cut to the very minimum and that budget deficits are the work of the devil. Moderates created some welfare-state measures, or they supported such measures in the face of serious social disruption; ultraconservatives have constantly opposed any welfare spending, claiming that it destroys moral fiber and saps individual initiative as well as costing them tax money and making it harder to keep wages down.

No one factor is readily apparent as the sole basis for the division into moderate conservatives and ultraconservatives within the corporate community and power elite. There is a tendency for the moderate organizations to be directed by executives from the very largest and most internationally oriented of corporations, but there are numerous exceptions to that generalization. Moreover, there are corporations that support policy organizations within both ideological currents. Then, too, there are instances where some top officers from a corporation will be in the moderate camp and others will be in the ultraconservative camp. However, for all their differences, leaders within the two clusters of policy organizations have a tendency to search for compromise policies due to their common membership in the corporate community and the numerous interlocks among all policy groups. When compromise is not possible, the final resolution of policy conflicts often takes place in legislative struggles in Congress...


Among the many thousands of foundations that exist in the United States, only a few hundred have the money and interest to involve themselves in funding programs that have a bearing on public policy. They are of three basic types:

1. There are 26 general-purpose foundations with an endowment of $100 million or more that were created by wealthy families. Most of them are controlled by a cross-section of leaders from the upper class and corporate community, but there remain several ultraconservative foundations in the general-purpose category that are tightly controlled by the original donors.

2. There are dozens of corporate foundations that are funded by a major corporation and directed by the officers of that corporation. Their number and importance has increased greatly since the 1960s, especially in donations to education, medical research, and the arts.

3. Many cities have community foundations that are designed to aid charities, voluntary associations, and special projects in their home cities. They receive funds from a variety of sources, including other foundations, wealthy families, and corporations, and they are directed by boards that include both corporate executives and community leaders.

Upper-class and corporate representation on the boards of the large general-purpose foundations most involved in policy-oriented grants has been documented in several studies. In a study of the 12 largest foundations in the mid-1960s, for example, it was found that half the trustees were members of the upper class. A study of corporate connections into the policy network for 1970 showed that 10 of these 12 foundations had at least one connection to the 201 largest corporations; most had many more than one connection. There is also evidence of numerous interlocking memberships between foundations and policy associations. In 1971,14 of 19 Rockefeller Foundation trustees were members of the Council on Foreign Relations, with 4 of those members also serving as directors of the council. Ten of 17 trustees of the Carnegie Corporation, as the most important of four Carnegie foundations is named, were members of the council at that time, as were 7 of 16 trustees at the Ford Foundation."

By far the most extensive and revealing study of the relationship among foundations, policy groups, and think tanks was undertaken by sociologist Mary Anna Culleton Colwell, a former executive officer of a small foundation who also conducted lengthy interviews with foundation officials as part of her larger study. Starting with a sample of 77 large foundations for 1974, which included all 26 with over $100 million in assets, she found 20 foundations that gave over 5 percent of their total grants, or over $200,000, to public policy grants in either 1972 or 1975. These 20 foundations in turn led to a group of 31 recipient organizations in the policy-planning and opinion-shaping networks that received grants from three or more of these foundations.

The extent of the policy-planning network revolving around these core organizations was even greater than any previous studies had led social scientists to expect. Of the 225 trustees who served on the 20 foundations between 1971 and 1977,124 also served as trustees of 120 other foundations as well. Ten of the 20 foundations had trustee interlocks with 18 of the 31 policy-planning organizations and think tanks. The Rockefeller Foundation had the largest number of trustee interlocks with other foundations (34), followed by the Sloan Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation, the Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and the Russell Sage Foundation. The Rockefeller Foundation also had the largest number of trustee connections to the policy groups it finances (14), followed by the same five foundations named in the previous sentence. Moreover all six of these foundations tended to be involved with the same policy groups. These foundations, then, are part of the moderate-conservative portion of the network that includes the Council on Foreign Relations and the Committee for Economic Development as its most important policy groups.

Colwell's analysis also showed that another set of foundations, led by the Pew Memorial Trust, Lilly Endowment, and Smith Richardson Foundation, gave money to policy groups and think tanks identified with ultraconservative programs-the American Enterprise Institute, the American Economic Foundation, the Hoover Institution, the Foundation for Economic Education, and Freedoms Foundation. Unlike the large foundations in the moderate part of the network, all of the very conservative foundations are under the direct control of the original donating family. On the basis of tax records and interviews, Cowell concludes it is a "reasonable supposition" that many, if not all, of the ultraconservative organizations of nonprofit standing receive a very large percentage of their annual budgets from philanthropic foundations and corporations.

Foundations often become much more than sources of money that respond to requests for funding. Some foundations set up programs that are thought to be necessary by their trustees or staff. Then they search out appropriate organizations to undertake the project or create special commissions within the foundation itself. A few foundations have become so involved in a specific issue area that they function as a policy-discussion organization on that particular issue. This is especially the case with the Carnegie Corporation and its affiliates in the area of higher education. Their study groups, commissions, and fellowship programs have been central to the history of college and university development throughout the twentieth century. For example, the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education of the late 1960s and early 1970s spent $6 million and produced 80 books with policy implications for all aspects of higher education.

Similarly, the Ford Foundation became the equivalent of a policy group on the issue of urban unrest in the 1950s and 1960s. It created a wide range of programs to deal with the problems generated by urban renewal programs and by the large black migration from the South into the inner cities of the North. One of these programs, called the Gray Areas Project, became the basis for the War on Poverty declared by the Johnson Administration in 1964 in the face of serious urban unrest.

Foundations, then, are an integral part of the policy-planning process both as sources of funds and program initiators. They are not mere donors of money for charity and value-free academic research. In contrast to the general image that is held of them, they are in fact extensions of the corporate community in their origins, leadership, and goals.



The deepest and most critical thinking within the policy-planning network does not take place in the discussion groups, as many academicians who have participated in them are quick to point out. This claim may be somewhat self-serving on the part of professors, who like to assume they are smarter than businesspeople and bankers. However, the fact remains that many new initiatives are created in various think tanks and university research institutes before they are brought to the discussion groups for modification and assimilation by the corporate leaders. Among the dozens of think tanks, some highly specialized in one or two topics, the most important are the RAND Corporation, the Urban Institute, the National Bureau of Economic Research, Resources for the Future, and centers for international studies at MIT, Harvard, and Georgetown. The institutes and centers connected to universities receive much of their funding from foundations, but the larger and less specialized independent think tanks are more likely to undertake contract research for businesses or government agencies.

Some organizations are hybrids that incorporate both think tank and policy-discussion functions. They do not fit neatly into one category or the other. Such is the case with the Brookings Institution, one of the most important Washington-based organizations in the policy network. Formed in 1927 with the help of foundation monies, the Brookings Institution is directed by corporate executives, but it is not a membership organization. Although it conducts some study groups, particularly for government officials, it is even more important as a kind of postgraduate school for specialists in a wide range of policy areas. Employing a very large number of social scientists, it functions as a source of new ideas and consultants for policy groups and government leaders. Its economists in particular have been prominent as advisers to both Republican and Democratic administrations. In terms of common directors, its greatest overlaps are with the Committee for Economic Development, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the American Assembly. In addition, 60 percent of its trustees were foundation trustees in the early 1970s.

Several hybrid organizations function in specialized issue-areas. The Population Council was established in 1952 to fund research and develop policy on population control. Relying at the outset on large personal donations from John D. Rockefeller III as well as grants from the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, it helped to create population research institutes at several carefully selected universities in different regions of the country that would aid in giving respectability to this area of concern. It also held conferences and publicized findings that showed that population growth was a major problem. Working closely within several other organizations, including the Population Reference Bureau and International Planned Parenthood, it had enormous success in popularizing its policy suggestions and having them implemented at both the national and international levels, as a detailed case study demonstrates. The step-by-step fashion in which the population groups proceeded, including the establishment of research institutes and spreading information through the mass media before approaching government, is a classic example of the policy network in action.

Resources for the Future was founded about the same time as the Population Council, with primary funding from the Ford Foundation. In part concerned with population because population growth puts pressure on resources, it has become one of the power elite's major sources of expertise on environmental issues. Its leaders share an informal coordinating role in this issue-area with the Conservation Foundation. Both work with the National Audubon Society, the National Wildlife Federation, and Nature Conservancy in attempting to infuse an environmental consciousness into the corporate community. At the same time they try to moderate the more militant demands of the middle-class environmental movement.

Two organizations, the American Law Institute and the American Judicature Society, join with committees of the American Bar Association in dealing with problems within the issue-area of the law. The focus of the American Law Institute is on such general areas of law as tax law or the penal code. Its goal is to write model acts for state legislatures to consider, or to propose revisions in areas of the law through its written documents of restatement and clarification. The Judicature Society, on the other hand, is more specifically focused on the functioning of the court system, proposing methods to improve or streamline the administrative procedures of the judicial process. As one aspect of this interest, it is concerned with the processes by which state and federal judges are selected, and it attempts to influence standards of judicial conduct

The leadership of the American Law Institute and the American Judicature Society comes primarily from the corporate lawyers who also play the dominant role within the American Bar Association. However, this is not exclusively the case with the Judicature Society. Its chair in 1981, for example, was an economist who heads the Henry Luce Foundation and serves as a director of the Council on Foreign Relations, New York Telephone, Bristol-Myers, American Express American Can, and Chemical Bank.

There are hybrid organizations in other specialized areas as well, including farm policy, municipal government, and the arts. In each case, many of their expert members and directors are part of the larger policy organizations as well. There is hardly a think tank of note that does not include directors from the Committee for Economic Development or Conference Board, or the Ford, Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations. In the case of the larger Council on Foreign Relations, the overlaps are of course even more numerous.


The opinion-shaping process involves a wide range of organizations and methods through which members of the power elite attempt to influence the beliefs, attitudes, and opinions of the general public. In order to prevent the development of attitudes and opinions that might interfere with the acceptance of policies created in the policy formation process, leaders within the opinion-molding process attempt to build upon and reinforce the underlying principles of the American belief system. Academically speaking, these underlying principles are called laissez-faire liberalism, and they have their roots in such great systematizers of the past as Locke, Hume, Montesquieu, Adam Smith, and the American founding fathers. These principles emphasize individualism, free enterprise, competition, equality of opportunity, and a minimum of reliance upon government in carrying out the affairs of society. Slowly articulated during the centuries-long rise of the capitalist system in Europe, they arrived in America in nearly finished form and had no serious rivals in a nation that did not have a feudal past or an established church.

Popularly speaking, these values are known to most citizens as plain "Americanism." They are seen as part of human nature or the product of good common sense, not as just another belief system that may or may not have any more validity than the dozens of others that have been developed by nations and peoples around the world. Americanism, including the all-important component of patriotism that is a fanatical constant in all tribes and nations, is the world view or ideology, of the United States. If Americans can be convinced that some policy or action can be justified in terms of this emotion-laden and unquestioned body of beliefs, they are likely to accept it. Thus the organizations that make up the opinion-shaping network strive to become the arbitrators of which policies and opinions are in keeping with good Americanism, and which are "un-American," meaning foreign and treasonous at the very least. These organizations struggle to define for everyone what policies are in the "national interest" and to identify those policies with Americanism.

One of the most important goals of the opinion-shaping network is to influence public schools, churches, and voluntary associations. To that end, organizations within the network have developed numerous links to these institutions, offering them movies, television programs, books, pamphlets, speakers, advice, and financial support. However, the schools, churches, and voluntary associations are not part of the network. Rather, they are relatively autonomous settings within which the power elite must constantly contend with spokespersons of other social strata and with critics of the economic system. To assume otherwise would be to overlook the social and occupational affiliations of the members as well as the diversity of opinion that often exists in these institutions of the middle and lower levels of the social hierarchy.

Operating at the center of the opinion-shaping process are many of the same foundations, policy-planning groups, and think tanks that are part of the policy-formation process.

Shaping Opinion on Foreign Policy

The opinion-shaping network achieves its clearest expression and greatest success in the area of foreign policy, where most people have little information or interest and are predisposed to agree with top leaders out of patriotism and a fear of whatever is strange or foreign. Because so few people take a serious interest in foreign policy issues, the most important efforts in opinion shaping are aimed toward a small stratum of highly interested and concerned citizens of college-educated backgrounds.

The central organizations in the shaping of opinion on foreign policy are the Council on Foreign Relations and the Foreign Policy Association. However, the council does very little to influence public opinion directly. It publishes Foreign Affairs, the most prestigious journal in the field, and occasionally it prints pamphlets on major issues that can be used by other discussion groups. However, these efforts are primarily for consumption within the foreign-policy establishment. For local elites, the council sponsors Committees on Foreign Relations in over 35 cities across the country. These committees meet about once a month or on the occasion of the visit of a special dignitary to hear speakers that are usually provided by the council or the government. The aim of this program is to provide local leaders with the information and legitimacy in the area of foreign affairs that makes it possible for them to function as opinion leaders. A 1951 report by the council on these committees explained their role as follows:

In speaking of public enlightenment, it is well to bear in mind that the Council has chosen as its function the enlightenment of the leaders of opinion. These in turn, each in his own sphere, spread the knowledge gained here [Committees on Foreign Relations] in ever-widening circles.

The most important organization involved in shaping upper-middle-class public opinion on foreign affairs is the Foreign Policy Association, based in New York. Forty-two percent of its 74-person governing council were also members of the Council on Foreign Relations in 1972. Although the association does some research and discussion work, its primary focus is on molding opinion outside the power elite a division of labor with the Council on Foreign Relations that is well understood within foreign-policy circles. A council director of the 1930s wrote that the FPA had "breadth of influence," whereas the CFR had "depth"; he went on to say that "anyone with the slightest experience in such matters knows that you must have policy-making individuals and groups working closely in a government" as well as "the support of the electorate" made possible in part by organizations that function "as channel-ways of expression." More bluntly, a retired president of the council explained to historian Laurence Shoup that the council and its Committees on Foreign Relations attempt to reach top-level leaders, whereas the Foreign Policy Association attracted the "League of Women Voters type."

The association's major effort is an intensive program to provide literature and create discussion groups in middle-class organizations and on college campuses. It sponsors a yearly Great Decisions program that prepares thematic discussions each year for groups around the country. It publishes a Headline Series of pamphlets for use in discussion groups, and it attempts to place its material on radio programs and into extension courses. It works closely with local World Affairs Councils to provide speakers and written materials, and it compiles foreign-policy briefings that are sent to all incumbents and candidates for Congress.

The council and the association, in turn, are linked to other opinion-molding organizations influential in foreign affairs. Perhaps the most important of them is the United Nations Association, which attempts to build support for American involvement in that organization.

... even on foreign policy there are limits to the shaping of public opinion. Opposition to both the Korean and Vietnam wars grew consistently as the number of American casualties continued to mount. Vehement sentiment in the case of the Vietnam War helped to limit presidential alternatives in the late 1960s, and the constant complaints between 1975 and 1980 from foreign-policy leaders about the "post Vietnam syndrome" attested to the effects of a lingering antiwar sentiment on foreign-policy options.

Advertising and Public Opinion

Advertising is usually thought of in terms of the efforts used by corporations to sell specific products, but it can be used to sell the corporations and the economic system as well. Many corporations 'attempt to sell the free-enterprise system through what is called institutional advertising. Instead of talking about their products, they tell what they have done to benefit local communities, schools, or service organizations. Other corporations promote a good image by providing funds for local charities, donating services to community organizations, or sponsoring programs on public television. The quiet sponsorship on public television is especially useful in revealing the image-building efforts that motivate such sponsorship. A sociological study of donors to the public broadcasting system in the 1970s showed that the biggest donors were those companies that were having the most problems with the general public or regulatory -bodies, especially oil companies and pharmaceutical companies.

... the most pervasive and longstanding use of advertising by the leaders within the corporate community and the opinion-shaping network can be seen in the functioning of the Advertising Council.


The Advertising Council is in some ways unique because of its prominence, massive resources, and wide range of concerns. In its major activities, however, it is typical of a wide variety of opinion shaping organizations that function in specific areas from labor relations, where they battle union organizers, to something as far removed as the arts, where they encourage the development of the arts as a booster to the morale of those trapped in the inner city. Those functions are basically three in number:

1. They provide think-tank forums where academics, journalists, and other cultural experts can brainstorm with corporate leaders about the problems of shaping public opinion.

2. They help to create a more sophisticated corporate consciousness through forums, booklets, speeches, and awards.

3. They disseminate their version of the national interest to the general public on issues of concern to the power elite.



The mass media-newspapers, magazines, television, and radio-are one outlet for much of the material generated by the organizations of the opinion-shaping network. Many social scientists believe that the media, and in particular television, play a large role in the shaping of public opinion. However, it seems more likely to me that they have a much more secondary role, reinforcing existing viewpoints and helping to set the outer limits of respectable discourse.

The mass media have a complex relationship to the upper class and corporate community. On the one hand, they are lucrative business enterprises owned by members of the upper class and directed by members of the corporate community who have extensive connections to other large corporations. On the other hand, editors and journalists, fortified by a professional code of objectivity and impartiality, have some degree of independence in what they report and write, and their opinions are sometimes at variance with those of corporate executives and policy experts. The result is a relationship between media and corporate community that is marked by tension, with corporate leaders placing part of the blame on the mass media for any negative opinions about business that are held by the general public.

... The growing rift between the corporate community and the liberal elements of the mass media led to a number of corporate initiatives in the late 1970s. In 1977, for example, the Ford Foundation sponsored an off-the-record, two-day conference between business and media representatives that was designed to air mutual grievances. Programs to teach "business reporting" were created at several universities with the goal of improving the skills and judgment of reporters. Finally, corporations led by Mobil Oil began to run advertisements on opinion pages in major newspapers, and in liberal weeklies and reviews. They presented the corporations' viewpoints in their own words on a variety of issues. By 1976 corporations were spending $140 million a year on such advocacy advertising.

For all the corporate community's complaints about specific stories, newspapers, or television stations within the mass media, the overall effect of the media efforts nevertheless tends to reinforce the stability of the present corporate system. First of all, as highly profitable companies whose primary goal is to sell advertising, their basic allegiance is to the corporate system. This is evidenced in the fact that their owners and directors play an active role in setting limits beyond which their reporters cannot go without facing reassignment, demotion, or firing. Then, too, editorial policies make a distinction between criticizing the system and exposing the wrongdoing of specific corporations, industries, or politicians. For example, the Wall Street Journal, perhaps the favorite newspaper of the corporate community and a fierce champion of the free enterprise system, has nonetheless published numerous stories exposing unacceptable behavior by corporate leaders and policy experts. Especially damning was a story in 1980 that showed that President-elect Ronald Reagan's top foreign-policy adviser, Richard Allen, a former fellow of the Hoover Institution, had worked as a paid consultant to Japanese corporations while serving as a government adviser.

Finally, the media reinforce the legitimacy of the social system through the routine ways in which they accept and package events. Their style and tone always takes the statements of business and government leaders seriously, treating their claims with great respect. In the area of foreign policy, for example, the media cover events in such a way that America's diplomatic aims are always honorable, corporate involvement overseas is necessary and legitimate, and revolutionary change in most countries is undesirable and must be discouraged whatever the plight of the majority of their citizens.

Whatever the exact role of the mass media, it should be clear that they are not the be-all and end-all of the opinion-shaping process that has been outlined in this section. In my view, the mass media are merely one dissemination point among many. They reach the most people, but the people they reach are those who matter least from the point of view of the opinion molders, and the message they provide is sometimes ambiguous besides.

Who Rules America Now?

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