C. Wright Mills and the Past of Elite Theory

I’m digging a further into elite theory and uncovering a rich history of material that makes me feel both inadequate and intensely interested in learning more. I’m currently working my way through The Power Elite by C. Wright Mills published in 1956. The book is a great snapshot of mid 20c sociology of elites.

Mills describes three levels of American mid-century society, the masses, a middle level, and the power elite. The power elite itself is composed of three more overlapping groups, political, miltary, and economic. The theory of a power elite explains three characteristics of mid-20c American society, and much of today’s society as well.

  1. The convergence of interests between political, military, and economic interests. Mills was writing during the Eisenhower presidency so it was easy to see the direct connections between military and political power. Today those connections are less likely to make the newspaper headlines but they still exist in the form of the “revolving door” between the defense department and military contractors.
  2. The psychological and social similarities between men at the top command posts of society. James Fallows recently made a joke recently about the common educational backgrounds of the Supreme Court at the expense of a cultural conservative. Yale, just one among the ivy league, connected three presidents - Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II.
  3. A totality of decision making that unifies all of these interests and ignores any democratic objections.

Additional evidence for a power elite includes, the decline of party politics to the middle level of decision making, stalemated local interests that make legislation impossible, the absence of a dedicated civil service, and the growth of governmental secrecy.

As a result the political directorate, the corporate rich, and the ascendant military have come together as the power elite, and the expanded and centralized hierarchies which they head have encroached upon the old balances and have now relegated them to the middle levels of power. Now the balancing society is a conception that pertains accurately to the middle levels, and on that level the balance has become more often an affair of intrenched provincial and nationally irresponsible forces and demands than a center of power and national decision.

The sad thing is that a 60-year-old description of power in America hasn’t really changed. Political, economic, and military decisions are still made by a select elite within government. The legislative branch has ceded most of its power to the executive, and what deliberation there is left is stymied by irresponsible forces that reject any compromises.

I’m personally interested in the relationship between the power elite, scientists, and expertise. Mills ignores science for the most part but he does say that expertise may be one possible criteria for the selection of elites, and a route to power that bypasses the high class social origins of most members of the power elite.

For the most important set of facts about a circle of men is the criteria of admission, of praise, of honor, of promotion that prevails among them; if these are similar within a circle, then they will tend as personalities to become similar. The circles that compose the power elite do tend to have such codes and criteria in common. The co-optation of the social types to which these common values lead is often more important than any statistics of common origin and career that we might have at hand.

If we accept that science is a meritocracy and that meritocracy is the general path to power then scientists and the powerful would seem to share a lot in common. Do these shared values bring scientists and the elite together or do they separated them? Mills asserts that common values can overwhelm differences of origin and career. I agree in theory but current practices aren’t supportive.

I think that science might more accurately be called a middle level activity in Mills schema. In the political middle the ideal of balance is promoted, even if that balance is rarely achieved. Objectivity and peer review accomplish similar functions in science. Science appears to have little effect upon the decsion making of the power elite, instead being used opportunistically for specific policies, while ignoring the general attitude of science, its humility, which never seeps through; instead the powerful harvest it for self-serving certainties and leave the carcass behind.

Todd Suomela
Associate Director for Digital Pedagogy & Scholarship Department

My interests include digital scholarship, citizen science, leadership, and communications.