Who Governs? Elitism, Pluralism, and Tradeoffs


Many Americans fear that a set of elite citizens is really in charge of government in the United States and that others have no influence. This belief is called the elite theory of government. In contrast to that perspective is the pluralist theory of government, which says that political power rests with competing interest groups who share influence in government. Pluralist theorists assume that citizens who want to get involved in the system do so because of the great number of access points to government. That is, the U.S. system, with several levels and branches, has many places where people and groups can engage the government.

The foremost supporter of elite theory was C. Wright Mills. In his book, The Power Elite, Mills argued that government was controlled by a combination of business, military, and political elites.C. Wright Mills. 1956. The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University Press. Most are highly educated, often graduating from prestigious universities (Figure). According to elite theory, the wealthy use their power to control the nation’s economy in such a way that those below them cannot advance economically. Their wealth allows the elite to secure for themselves important positions in politics. They then use this power to make decisions and allocate resources in ways that benefit them. Politicians do the bidding of the wealthy instead of attending to the needs of ordinary people, and order is maintained by force. Indeed, those who favor government by the elite believe the elite are better fit to govern and that average citizens are content to allow them to do so.Jack L. Walker. 1966. “A Critique of the Elitist Theory of Democracy,” The American Political Science Review 60, No. 2: 295.

A chart showing an inset of the east coast of the United States with the locations of the seven Ivy League universities labeled: “Cornell”, “Dartmouth”, “Harvard”, “Brown”, “Yale”, “Columbia”, “Princeton”, and “Penn”. The photographs of presidents who graduated from Ivy League universities are shown to the right. George W. Bush and Barak Obama are shown for Harvard. George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush are shown for Yale. Barak Obama is shown for Columbia. Donald Trump is shown for Penn.
The five most recent U.S. presidents have all graduated from an Ivy League university.

In apparent support of the elite perspective, one-third of U.S. presidents have attended Ivy League schools, a much higher percentage than the rest of the U.S. population.The Ivy League is technically an athletic conference in the Northeast comprised of sports teams from eight institutions of higher education—Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, and Yale University—however, the term is also used to connote academic excellence or social elitism. All five of the most recent U.S. presidents attended Ivy League schools such as Harvard, Yale, or Columbia. Among members of the House of Representatives, 93 percent have a bachelor’s degree, as do 99 percent of members of the Senate.Jennifer E. Manning, “Membership of the 113th Congress: A Profile,” Congressional Research Service, p. 5 (Table 5), November 24, 2014. Fewer than 40 percent of U.S. adults have even an associate’s degree.Kyla Calvert Mason. 22 April 2014. “Percentage of Americans with College Degrees Rises, Paying for Degrees Tops Financial Challenges,” http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/percentage-americans-college-degrees-rises-paying-degrees-tops-financial-challenges/. The majority of the men and women in Congress also engaged in either state or local politics, were business people, or practiced law before being elected to Congress.Manning, p. 3 (Table 2). Approximately 80 percent of both the Senate and the House of Representatives are male, and fewer than 20 percent of members of Congress are people of color (Figure). The nation’s laws are made primarily by well-educated white male professionals and businessmen.

An aerial image of a large group of people standing in a room.
This official photograph of the the 114th Congress depicts the fairly uniform nature of congressional representation. Most are men, and nearly all are white. Members of Congress also tend to resemble one another in terms of income and level of education.

The makeup of Congress is important because race, sex, profession, education, and socioeconomic class have an important effect on people’s political interests. For example, changes in the way taxes are levied and spent do not affect all citizens equally. A flat tax, which generally requires that everyone pay the same percentage rate, hurts the poor more than it does the rich. If the income tax rate was flat at 10 percent, all Americans would have to pay 10 percent of their income to the federal government. Someone who made $40,000 a year would have to pay $4,000 and be left with only $36,000 to live on. Someone who made $1,000,000 would have to pay $100,000, a greater sum, but he or she would still be left with $900,000. People who were not wealthy would probably pay more than they could comfortably afford, while the wealthy, who could afford to pay more and still live well, would not see a real impact on their daily lives. Similarly, the allocation of revenue affects the rich and the poor differently. Giving more money to public education does not benefit the wealthy as much as it does the poor, because the wealthy are more likely than the poor to send their children to private schools or to at least have the option of doing so. However, better funded public schools have the potential to greatly improve the upward mobility of members of other socioeconomic classes who have no other option than to send their children to public schools.

Currently, more than half of the members of Congress are millionaires; their median net worth is just over $1 million, and some have much more.Alan Rappeport, “Making it Rain: Members of Congress Are Mostly Millionaires,” New York Times, 12 January 2016. As of 2003, more than 40 percent of Congress sent their children to private schools. Overall, only 10 percent of the American population does so.Grace Chen. “How Many Politicians Send Their Kids to Public Schools?” http://www.publicschoolreview.com/blog/how-many-politicians-send-their-kids-to-public-schools (February 18, 2016). Therefore, a Congress dominated by millionaires who send their children to private schools is more likely to believe that flat taxes are fair and that increased funding for public education is not a necessity. Their experience, however, does not reflect the experience of average Americans.

Pluralist theory rejects this approach, arguing that although there are elite members of society they do not control government. Instead, pluralists argue, political power is distributed throughout society. Rather than resting in the hands of individuals, a variety of organized groups hold power, with some groups having more influence on certain issues than others. Thousands of interest groups exist in the United States.“The Non-Governmental Order: Will NGOs Democratise, or Merely Disrupt, Global Governance?” The Economist, 9 December 1999. Approximately 70–90 percent of Americans report belonging to at least one group.Ronald J. Hrebenar. 1997. Interest Group Politics in America, 3rd ed. New York: Routledge, 14; Clive S. Thomas. 2004. Research Guide to U.S. and International Interest Groups. Westport, CT: Praeger, 106.

According to pluralist theory, people with shared interests will form groups in order to make their desires known to politicians. These groups include such entities as environmental advocates, unions, and organizations that represent the interests of various businesses. Because most people lack the inclination, time, or expertise necessary to decide political issues, these groups will speak for them. As groups compete with one another and find themselves in conflict regarding important issues, government policy begins to take shape. In this way, government policy is shaped from the bottom up and not from the top down, as we see in elitist theory. Robert Dahl, author of Who Governs?, was one of the first to advance the pluralist theory, and argued that politicians seeking an “electoral payoff” are attentive to the concerns of politically active citizens and, through them, become acquainted with the needs of ordinary people. They will attempt to give people what they want in exchange for their votes.Dahl, Who Governs? 91–93.

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The Center for Responsive Politics is a non-partisan research group that provides data on who gives to whom in elections. Visit OpenSecrets.org: Center for Responsive Politics to track campaign contributions, congressional bills and committees, and interest groups and lobbyists.