G. William Domhoff: Power Elite & Politics

Instructor: Gaines Arnold

Gaines has a Master of Science in Education.

This lesson looks at G. William Domhoff's theory of power in America. The lesson describes who makes up the power elite - social upper class, corporate community, policy-planning network - and the means this group uses to influence politics.

A Lesson about Power and Politics

A recent classroom discussion left Tom with both questions and an uneasy feeling. He was raised to believe that anyone can achieve in America, and he has lived by that belief. He has dreams of wealth, and he even thinks that it would be cool to someday go into politics. He thinks that as a politician he can influence policy decisions and provide helpful change. Unfortunately, the discussion in class changed some of his ideas about America. According to G. William Domhoff who wrote a book called Who Rules America?, it is not the people, but wealthy business owners who make the rules. Domhoff is a professor at UC Santa Cruz who conducts research in psychology and sociology. In his book, he talked about the power elite and how they influence politics.

The Power Elite

To understand and define the idea of the power elite, it is necessary first to comprehend who, according to Domhoff, has power. There are three groups who hold power: the social upper class, the corporate community and the policy-planning network. At times, these three groups are realized in a single person or group of people, but they are often made up of individual people with different skills or means.

The social upper class are those people who not only have immense wealth, but they are also the ones who set the standard that people in their class follow. This group is made up of people who share the same social circle, intermarry to keep that class intact, and have enough wealth to ensure the continuance of their lavish lifestyle. In general, an individual is born into this class because it is difficult to gain enough wealth to gain admittance. Though, there are always exceptions.

The second group, the corporate community, is an assembly of individuals who find themselves on more than one board of directors. Every large company (and most medium sized and small ones) have a board of directors who oversees the running of the business. These boards are made up of CEOs, lawyers, and other well-connected people. According to Domhoff, approximately 15-20% of those people have a seat on two or more large company boards. These individuals represent about 80-90% of the largest corporations in the United States. This 15-20% makes up the corporate community.

The final group is the policy-planning network. This network is made up of nonprofits (such as think tanks and lobbying groups) that have a direct impact on governmental policy. Many times people from either the upper class or the corporate community are also members of this network, but experts in certain fields (lawyers, scientists, medical doctors) add needed knowledge also.

The power elite then is made up of members within these three groups. They are the people who take direct action to direct national policy and govern from the sidelines. According to Domhoff, the true power is controlled by people within the upper class who want to make policy, but he adds that this elite group is influenced by the corporate group and the experts in the network.

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