In commenting on the scandals that have rocked major corporations such as Enron and Arthur Andersen, observers have noted that members of the business elite are closely interrelated. In a study of the members of the business elite of directors of Fortune 1,000 corporations, researchers found that each director can reach every other board of directors in just 3.7 steps. That is, by consulting acquaintances of acquaintances, each director can quickly reach someone who sits on each of the other 999 boards. Furthermore, the face-to-face contact directors regularly have in their board meetings makes them a highly cohesive elite. Finally, the corporate elite is not only wealthy, powerful, and cohesive; it is also overwhelmingly white and male.
Nevertheless, those who work hard, enjoy good luck,and demonstrate a willingness to adopt elite values do find it possible to work into higher circlesfrom below.
Over and beyond the issue of campaign finance, the party system is important because the independence claimed for the executive branch by Mills is in good part premised on the structure of power in Congress. From the 1790s until fairly recently, elite control at the legislative level started with the fact that the Northern industrial and finance capitalists controlled the Republican Party (and its predecessors) and the Southern plantation and merchant capitalists controlled the Democrats in a context where it is near impossible for a third party on the left or right to arise--or last very long--due to the nature of the electoral rules (Domhoff, 2003, Chapter 2; 2006b, Chapter 6). So, to the degree that the liberal-labor coalition that developed during the New Deal could exercise any power, it had to do so inside the Democratic Party and in the context of a bargain with the segregationist Southern Democrats that included acquiescence in elite domination of the low-wage labor force in the South, especially African Americans. It also meant tacit acceptance of the exclusion of African Americans from craft unions and good jobs in the North, which assuaged the feelings of the many Northern white workers who saw African Americans as racially inferior or as potential threats to their job security.
The multiplicity of high-prestige organizations to which the elite usually belong is revealed by even casual examination of the obituaries of the big businessman, the high-prestige lawyer, the top general and admiral, the key senator: usually, high-prestige church, business associations, plus high-prestige clubs, and often plus military rank. In the course of their lifetimes, the university president, the New York Stock Exchange chairman, the head of the bank, the old West Pointer — mingle in the status sphere, within which they easily renew old friendships and draw upon them in an effort to understand through the experience of trusted others those contexts of power and decision in which they have not personally moved.
Thus, the liberal-labor coalition, with fewer than a majority of senators and only 100 or so seats in the House, had far less power within the Democratic Party than liberal analysts and historians usually suggest. When it came to domestic spending, the liberal-labor coalition had to agree that the South received more than its share of the pork and that the Southern whites could exclude African Americans if they so desired (Brown, 1999). On the occasions when the Northern liberals could convince the urban machine Democrats to support them on an issue in opposition to the Southerners, the Southerners joined with Northern Republicans after 1938 in a highly successful conservative voting bloc to stop any legislation they did not like, which usually involved issues related to control of labor markets in both the North and the South (Manley, 1973; Patterson, 1981; Shelley, 1983).
The power elite is composed of political, economic, and military men, but this instituted elite is frequently in some tension: it comes together only on certain coinciding points and only on certain occasions of ‘crisis.’ In the long peace of the nineteenth century, the military were not in the high councils of state, not of the political directorate, and neither were the economic men — they made raids upon the state but they did not join its directorate. During the ‘thirties, the political man was ascendant. Now the military and the corporate men are in top positions.
The shape and meaning of the power elite today can be understood only when these three sets of structural trends are seen at their point of coincidence: the military capitalism of private corporations exists in a weakened and formal democratic system containing a military order already quite political in outlook and demeanor. Accordingly, at the top of this structure, the power elite has been shaped by the coincidence of interest between those who control the major means of production and those who control the newly enlarged means of violence; from the decline of the professional politician and the rise to explicit political command of the corporate chieftains and the professional warlords; from the absence of any genuine civil service of skill and integrity, independent of vested interests.
Of the three types of circle that compose the power elite today, it is the military that has benefited the most in its enhanced power, although the corporate circles have also become more explicitly intrenched in the more public decision-making circles. It is the professional politician that has lost the most, so much that in examining the events and decisions, one is tempted to speak of a political vacuum in which the corporate rich and the high warlord, in their coinciding interests, rule.
Based on my review of the literature in the early 1980s, I concluded that the idea of the city as a "growth machine," dominated by landed elites and their allies, fit with all the case studies that had been done up to that point (Domhoff, 1983, Chapter 6). Then the idea gained further support in later studies by Todd Swanstrom (1985), John Mollenkopf (1983), and Richard Gendron (2006). This strong claim even encompasses New Haven, a fact I demonstrated in a case study based on documents unavailable to Dahl at the time of his study, along with my new interviews and a reanalysis of Dahl's own interviews, which he graciously shared with me in 1975 (Domhoff, 1978, 1983). My New Haven study is now updated with more recent archival documents discovered in the papers of Mayor Richard Lee and his main aide, Edward Logue, which became available in the late 1990s and early 2000s. These papers reveal that Yale played an even larger role than I originally thought in obtaining federal funds for the city in a timely manner. The paper trail on this issue is near-perfect (Domhoff, 2005b). So, 50 years later, we can say that Hunter's basic findings on the dominance of cities by land-based growth elites have emerged triumphant. Although some differences remain among the theorists I have mentioned, which I have spelled out elsewhere (Domhoff, 2006a), just about every power investigator at the urban level now starts with the downtown land owners and developers as the primary suspects, and just about everyone agrees that growth is their primary focus.
Despite all this evidence for the usefulness of this social network method, Hunter's findings seemed dead and buried by the early 1970s. However, political scientist Clarence Stone (1976, 1989) unexpectedly renewed the debate by returning to Atlanta to study the city in the context of its more recent battles over urban renewal and its transition to black political leadership. The results, using different methods than Hunter did, including the decisional method advocated by pluralists, were basically a vindication of Hunter through two of the best case studies ever done on an American city. Even better, Stone's findings fit with the newly emerging idea that land owners, not industrial capitalists, are the major movers and shakers in most cities, with the main goal of increasing real estate values through the intensification of land use (Molotch, 1976). To the degree that this pro-growth coalition faces opposition, it comes from neighborhoods that want to protect their amenities against downtown expansion, high rises, and freeways. More abstractly, this means there is a built-in conflict between exchange values and use values in cities that is resolved or compromised in a variety of ways, some halfway reasonable, some very ugly, as in the case of the urban renewal program that cleared the way for downtown elites to remake their cities (Domhoff, 2005a; Logan and Molotch, 1987). This conflict leads to some unexpected but understandable alliances, with building trades unions often siding with the growth elites in a vain attempt to create more jobs in the overall economy, whereas environmentalists, university students, and left-wing activists usually line up with the neighborhoods even though there is nothing inherently progressive or environmentalist about neighborhood protection (think racial or ethnic exclusion, for example).
Mills's theoretical emphasis in claiming that a small and reasonably cohesive elite dominated the national levels of power was on the people who held leadership positions in the major bureaucratic organizations that had arisen in the United States in the course of its history, starting with large corporations in the second half of the 19th century, the federal government during the New Deal and World War II, and the military during World War II and the postwar era. Working together due to common social backgrounds, similar experiences in large-scale organizations, and the realization that they had shared interests, the people Mills called the corporate rich, the political directorate, and the warlords were closely enough knit and took in each other's washing just frequently enough to be a "power elite." To the degree that national-level decisions were made, Mills said, the power elite were the ones who made them.