Who Rules America?
Articles on this website often refer to the "ruling elite," the "corporate elite," "ruling class," "plutocracy" or "upper class." Who exactly do we mean? Good question.
One quick answer is this: By 'upper class' we mean that top 0.5% to 1% of the population who exercise effective control over the corporations, the banks, the media, the government. We do not mean people who simply have a higher than average income. People like those described here are who we mean.
A more thorough and scholarly answer is provided by sociology professor G. William Domhoff, who has researched this question for decades, and who wrote a book titled Who rules America? Domhoff describes the ruling class in great detail online here also. He writes in a Questions and Answers section and elsewhere the following:
[start of Domhoff's words, indented]
Q: So, who does rule America?
A: The owners and managers of large income-producing properties; i.e., corporations, banks, and agri-businesses. But they have plenty of help from the managers and experts they hire. You can read the essential details of the argument in this summary of Who Rules America?, or look for the book itself at Amazon.com.
Q: Do the same people rule at the local level that rule at the federal level?
Q: Do they rule secretly from behind the scenes, as a conspiracy?
A: No, conspiracy theories are wrong, though it's true that some corporate leaders lie and steal, and that some government officials try to keep things secret (but usually fail).
[Domhoff unfortunately pays little or no attention to the fact that the upper class leaders know that, in order to preserve their privileged status and power, they need to control the rest of the population and prevent them from making society more equal and democratic, by implementing policies of social control (like standardized testing in public schools and market-driven health care and Orwellian wars based on lies like WMD in Iraq) while lying to the public about the true purposes of these policies. The conspiracy of the corporate and government elite consists of the facts that a) the corporate and government elite's meetings are sometimes behind closed doors (such as Council on Foreign Relations meetings, attendees of which are not allowed to report what was said), and b) the fact that the elite do not tell the public the true purpose of the policies they promote.--JS]
Q: Then how do they rule?
A: That's a complicated story, but the short answer is through open and direct involvement in policy planning, through participation in political campaigns and elections, and through appointments to key decision-making positions in government.
Domhoff elsewhere writes:
[I]t is usually concluded by most power analysts that elected officials, along with "interest groups" like "organized labor" and "consumers," have enough "countervailing" power to say that there is a more open, "pluralistic" distribution of power rather than one with rich people and corporations at the top.
Contrary to this pluralistic view, I will try to demonstrate how rule by the wealthy few is possible despite free speech, regular elections, and organized opposition:
"The rich" coalesce into a social upper class that has developed institutions by which the children of its members are socialized into an upper-class worldview, and newly wealthy people are assimilated.
Members of this upper class control corporations, which have been the primary mechanisms for generating and holding wealth in the United States for upwards of 150 years now.
There exists a network of nonprofit organizations through which members of the upper class and hired corporate leaders not yet in the upper class shape policy debates in the United States.
Members of the upper class, with the help of their high-level employees in profit and nonprofit institutions, are able to dominate the federal government in Washington....
The upper class probably makes up only a few tenths of one percent of the population. For research purposes, I use the conservative estimate that it includes 0.5% to 1% of the population for determining the over-representation of its members in corporations, nonprofit organizations, and the government. Members of the upper class live in exclusive suburban neighborhoods, expensive downtown co-ops, and large country estates. They often have far-away summer and winter homes as well. They attend a system of private schools that extends from pre-school to the university level; the best known of these schools are the "day" and "boarding" prep schools that take the place of public high schools in the education of most upper-class teenagers. Adult members of the upper class socialize in expensive country clubs, downtown luncheon clubs, hunting clubs, and garden clubs. Young women of the upper class are "introduced" to high society each year through an elaborate series of debutante teas, parties, and balls. Women of the upper class gain experience as "volunteers" through a nationwide organization known as the Junior League, and then go on to serve as directors of cultural organizations, family service associations, and hospitals (see Kendall, 2002, for a good account of women of the upper class by a sociologist who was also a participant in upper-class organizations).
These various social institutions are important in creating "social cohesion" and a sense of in-group "we-ness." This sense of cohesion is heightened by the fact that people can be excluded from these organizations. Through these institutions young members of the upper class and those who are new to wealth develop shared understandings of how to be wealthy. Because these social settings are expensive and exclusive, members of the upper class usually come to think of themselves as "special" or "superior." They think they are better than other people, and certainly better able to lead and govern. Their self-confidence and social polish are useful in dealing with people from other social classes, who often admire them and defer to their judgments...
The Power Elite
Now that the upper class, corporate community, and policy-planning network have been defined and described, it is possible to discuss the leadership group that I call the "power elite." I define the power elite as the leadership group of the upper class. It consists of active-working members of the upper class and high-level employees in profit and nonprofit institutions controlled by members of the upper class through stock ownership, financial support, or involvement on the board of directors. This does not mean that all members of the upper class are involved in governing. Some are only playboys and socialites; their social gatherings may provide a setting where members of the power elite mingle with celebrities, and sometimes they give money to political candidates, but that is about as close as they come to political power.
Conversely, not all those involved in the power elite are members of the upper class. They are sons and daughters of the middle class, and occasionally, the blue-collar working class, who do well at any one of several hundred private and state universities, and then go to grad school, MBA school, or law school at one of a handful of elite universities -- e.g., Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, MIT, Johns Hopkins, University of Chicago, and Stanford. From there they go to work for a major corporation, law firm, foundation, think tank, or university, and slowly work their way to the top.
The idea of the power elite intertwines class theory and organizational theory, two theories which are often thought of as distinctive or even as rivals. The basis for the intertwining of the two theories is to be found in the role and composition of the boards of directors that govern every large profit and nonprofit organization in the United States. It is on boards of directors that the values and goals of the upper class are integrated with those of the organizational hierarchy. Upper-class directors insure that their interests are infused into the organizations they control, but the day-to-day organizational leaders on the board are able to harmonize class interests with organizational principles.
It is important to stress that I am not saying that all experts are members of the power elite. People have to be high-level employees in institutions controlled by members of the upper class to be considered part of the power elite. Receiving a fellowship from a foundation, spending a year at a think tank, or giving advice to a policy-discussion organization does not make a person a member of the power elite. It also may be useful to note that there are many experts who never go near the policy-planning network. They focus on their teaching and research, or work for groups that oppose the policies of the power elite. In short, experts and advisers are a separate group just below the power elite in the pecking order.
[end of Domhoff's words, indented]
The notion--that in so-called democracies like the United States some people act in concert and in secrecy to do things that seriously affect the public's well-being--this notion is dismissed by many people as "conspiracy theory." These people assume that no conspiracies ever happen. But they do. Here is a summary of 33 Conspiracies That Turned Out To Be True.
Here is an academic study, based on a large amount of data and statistical modeling, that concludes we live in a dictatorship of the rich, except it doesn't use that inflammatory phrase; instead its abstract concludes with these words that mean the same thing:
"Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence."