“The Power Elite” is a term both coined and defined by American sociologist C. Wright Mills. Mills first proposed the term in his 1956 book of the same name. It’s one of the most important theories to use in order to understand American society today and is much more meaningful than simply talking about “the one percent“.
According to Mills, the power elite are a group comprised of the most powerful individuals in the United States, drawn from the political, corporate, and military sectors. Though they represent different sections of American society, the power elite interact frequently with each other, leading to a system of collaboration between the government, corporations, and the military. Mills argues that these groups have grown more interconnected over time and that they will continue to do so. The power elite have existed in different manifestations since the country’s earliest days, but this basic description has remained true.
The power elite are the most influential members of American society and exercise total control over governmental, financial, educational, social, civic, and cultural institutions in the United States. Despite the fact that the power elite are a very small group, the decisions that they make day to day affect all citizens.
The power elite share a single set of beliefs and attitudes that help them to coexist as well as to maintain their consolidated power. The primary belief of the power elite is that of the fundamental correctness of the free market economic system, including the tenets of the fairness of profit, the right to private property, and the necessity of an unequal distribution of wealth. They all agree that the fundamental responsibility of government is to promote a strong business climate and that any other responsibilities that may exist are superseded by this primary one.
Almost all members of the power elite experience a similar upbringing and are in a sense groomed to accept these ideas. They attend many of the same schools and universities (most of them private), they live in the same areas, and they often intermarry as a group. They are essentially acculturated to be a part of the power elite, and the acceptance of their fundamental worldview is what gets them accepted into the elite as adult members.
Though at first glance things may appear differently, Mills argued that the power elite are not the result of any sort of malevolent conspiracy theory. He also held that the group is potentially open to new members—one does not always have to be born a power elite to become a part of the group. However, one must accept the fundamental ideas of the power elite as true. Membership in the power elite is in a sense self-regulating, and if the current members do not want a person to join then his or her entrance into the group is impossible. According to Mills, the power elite rose as a group thanks to the basic structure of the American political system and at this point the group has used its power to fine-tune the political and economic structure of the United States to allow the group to perpetuate itself indefinitely. In government they often from what political scientists call an iron triangle in various industries, the biggest one being centered on the military industrial complex.
Over time, the power elite have consolidated more and more power and in the era he was writing Mills decided that the power elite were in effect the lone group guiding the decision-making process of the United States. According to Mills, neither the average citizen nor even the mid-level politician (local governments, Congressmen, etc.) exercise any real power in the government of the country. They have been forced by the power elite to take a passive role and watch as the decisions of the power elite guide them into the future, simply making the best of the situations that present themselves.
Mills regretted that the strength of the power elite had been allowed to grow to the point that it had reached at the time of his writing. Now some social thinkers think the United States has become a form of inverted totalitarianism.