Power elite vs. pluralist model

Both the Elite and the Pluralist models are a means by which public policy is created. Both do not conform to the democracy created by our fore-fathers; a government for the people and by the people. The Elite model is one in which a small group of wealthy white males hold the power and control the policy making for our country. In contrast, the Pluralist model suggest that the power is distributed among interest groups that compete to control public policy. Both Karl Marx(1883) and C. Wright Mills (1956) are famous for their views on the “rule by few” or the power elite. Through money and power, the power elite has a large influence on how the government elects, makes laws and operates on a daily basis.

It has been said that one of the biggest threats to democracy in the United States is apathetic voters, more specifically, ignorance of the masses that leads to apathy (Dye, Zeigler, & Schubert, p. 79). Many blame citizens of the lower and middle class, claiming that they are lazy or that they simply do not care. Are citizens really to blame or has the government itself created apathy among the masses? Dating back to 1776, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, money equaled power.

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Those with money or “income producing land” had political power (Domhoff, p.55). Today these “landowners” are our high political leaders, corporate owners and military leaders. This leads to the question of: Is our country a true democracy, something we have prided ourselves on for centuries, or are we closer to a plutocracy, a government ran by the wealthy(Krugman)? By taking a closer look at special interest, policy-making and candidate selection processes, we can see how heavily our government relies on and answers to the power elite instead of the masses.

Who are the Power Elite?

First, we must understand exactly who the power elite are, a term coined by Karl Marx (Anderson & Taylor, p. 516). These are the top 1% of our population, earning about $1,300,000 annually, and hold almost 36% of our Nation’s privately held wealth (Domhoff, p.55). Worth noting is the top 20%, those making more than $225,000 annually, hold 89% of our Nation’s wealth, leaving only 11% of the remaining wealth to distribute to 80% of the population (Domhoff, p.56).

The power elite, top 1%, are a “close knit” group of predominantly white males, coming from “old-money”, but they are not banded together to conspire against the government. They are not dictators or terrorists; just citizens who were either born into wealth and adopted the elite theory or those who worked their way up through the tiers. A few hundred are political and military leaders, while the rest are owners of large corporations; i.e. General Electric and Boeing to name a few. Their interest lyes in their business but in order to prosper, they utilize their governmental ties to benefit their company. How are they able to influence governmental officials? By donating monies through PAC’s (Political Action Committees), business’s such as GE or Boeing influence politics through the power of money.

One might stop and ask, why is it that our whole country’s wealth is held by such few hands? What has changed over the recent decades to cause such a shift? There was a period of time when income and wealth were more evenly distributed. This was during the time of the “New Deal” programs and after World War II. In an article by Paul Krugman, “For Richer”, he argues that during the New Deal era of FDR and WWII, America became a middle-class society because the concentration of income dropped. The government programs that aided the poor, such as social security, caused wide acceptance of more economic equality in America. These new attitudes about equality helped to lessen the gap between the rich and the poor.

But, since the 1970’s, income gaps have been rapidly widening and norms of equality are once again fading away. Over the past thirty years, our nation experienced vast economic growth, before the recession, with “income growth for all but the poorest American families” (Porter, para. 3). The poor actually saw a decrease in income or an increase in unemployment. This is largely due to the outsourcing to other countries by our large corporations. The consequence of this large gap is a loss in hope for prosperity and in turn, resentment towards democracy and political instability. This has only benefitted the power elite, giving them more political control as the masses
have become dis-interested and more focused on their day-to-day.

How do the Power Elite Influence Special Interest Groups

A special interest group is a membership of people with the same or similar interests, banded together to shape public policy. These interest groups develop political action committees (PAC’s), “groups of people who organize to support candidates they feel will represent their views (Anderson & Taylor, p.516). Some examples of PAC’s are American Medical Association and National Auto Dealers Association. The larger the membership, the more influence a group can have on a politician.

They can use their size as a threat to support another politician or a more powerful tool is money. There are three ways in which an interest group can influence a political candidate, “campaign contributions, lobbying and propaganda”(Anderson & Taylor, p.516). The pluralists view these special interest groups or PAC’s as a representation of the public as various interest groups, representing the interest of the masses, compete against each other. What the pluralist view does not mention is the powerful elite who not only control these groups but use money, something they have an abundance of, as their tool for “buying a candidate” and essentially having a candidate act as their puppet. They may also use lobbying, the attempt to influence government or legislators by using their company as a tool, usually because of their high membership or powerful placement in society, where no finances are exchanged.

This can be both a fair and unfair process, depending on the group and/or issue at stake. The influence that is seen most widely, especially by the masses, is the Power Elites use of propaganda. These are the numerous television advertisements we as viewers see in the media that largely influence how voters feel about a specific candidate. These ads are funded by interest groups, most often aimed at making the opposing candidate look less desirable. It is the larger interest groups are heard, seen and responded to by candidates and the masses. These groups are larger because they are headed by the Power Elite who have the numbers and money, creating an un-equal playing field which contradicts the assumptions of the pluralist theory.

How do the Power Elite Influence Policy Making?

Public policy is a response by government to a problem or issue that exists in this country. Sometimes public policy can be mistaken for a law; they are based on law but set by various groups other than legislators. The typical steps to forming public policy are: “recognizing the problem, agenda setting, formulating the policy, adopting the policy, and implementing the policy”(Independence Hall Association, para 1).

The first step, recognition of the problem, is usually brought to the governments attention by interest groups, political parties, media or branches of government. Aside from times of war or the time immediately after a president has been elected, priority of agenda setting goes to the interest groups with the most influence; power and money (Independence Hall Association, para. 2). This is where government recognizes there is a problem and it should be solved. Next, special task forces, research groups and legislators are assigned to the problem in hopes to formulate a new policy to remedy the problem. Then, the adoption and implementation typically go through congress and then “administrative agencies in the executive branch” (Reynolds, para. 2). Last, the policy must be evaluated to determine whether it is accomplishing what it was set forth to do initially.

Although policy making is divided between various entities, the power elite still have a major influence on what problems are brought forth and heard. Pressure from interest groups in the form of bribery for votes or money is one way the power elite get the attention of policy makers. Lobbyists are also effective for pushing issues on policy makers. An example of an issue pushed by interest groups is smoking. Using media, tobacco companies have been made out to be the villain while alcohol companies face much less criticism, a substance that kills more people each year. The reason for the difference is agenda setting. The media, owned and essentially run by the power elite, have put pressure on the government. Their influence created laws that banned smoking in almost all public places.

How do the Power Elite Influence the Candidate Selection Process?

To run for Presidential or Vice-Presidential office, it takes millions of dollars in funding. Most often this funding comes in large part from the elite (special interest groups and PAC’s). The candidates are selected by the elite, where they compete in elections run by organizations that are
supported by the elite (political parties). Prior to voting, the mass-public receives their information about the social and political world through mass media, controlled by the elite, which the public in turn uses to vote for their desired candidate. From start to finish, the elite have control of who is selected as candidate, what the candidate will stand for and how the public will view the candidate. The masses are essentially kept at a distance in regards to real political participation. The masses are like pawns, used to portray a democratic system when in reality, they have little input as far has who their candidates will be or action towards controlling what policies will be enacted. In essence, the public is only important to our government on election day.

Once elected officials are in office, they must maintain their seat by serving those who funded their way to election. By serving, they are adopting and implementing policies pushed by the powerful interest groups who may have funded them. This is how the elite continue to control elected officials, even after they have assumed office.

As our nation has grown and progressed since the signing of the Declaration of Independence, our government has changed a great deal as well. The democratic nation that we were hundreds of years ago was vastly different from the technological, capitalistic society that we currently live in. The corporations and government have become so intertwined, it is hard to decipher where one begins and one ends; both need each other for survival. There is no doubt that the elite theory is more than just a theory. The extent to how much influence the elite has is a question that is difficult to answer. There are checks and balances for a reason, so that no one group or person can overpower everyone. They may not run the nation but their influence can almost be considered a fourth branch of government.


  • Anderson, Margaret L. & Taylor, Howard Francis. (2008). Sociology: Understanding a diverse society. (4th Ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth
  • Domhoff, G. William. (2005). The class domination theory of power. Retrieved August 27, 2013, from http://www2.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica/power/class_domination.html
  • Dye, T.R. & Zeigler, H. (2012). The irony of democracy: An uncommon introduction to American politics. (15th Ed.). Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth
  • Independence Hall Association. (2008-2013). American government: policy making: political interactions. Retrieved August 27, 2013, from http://www.ushistory.org/gov/
  • Krugman, Paul. (2002, October 20). For richer. The New York Times. Retrieved from www. nytimes.com/2002/10/20/magazine/for-richer.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm
  • Porter, Eduardo. (2012, March 20). Inequality undermines democracy. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/21/business/economy/tolerance- for-income-gap-may-be-ebbing-economic-scene.html?_r=0
  • Reynolds, H.T. (1996). The power elite. Retrieved August 27, 2013, from http://www.socialstudieshelp.com/apgov_power_elite_htm

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Power elite vs. pluralist model. (2016, Nov 19). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/power-elite-vs-pluralist-model/