Our dysfunctional elite: A defense of C. Wright Mills

It’s been an ignominious few days for the United States political elite as they sought to avert a purported “fiscal crisis” that Paul Krugman argues is instead a political crisis and a diversion from a more important concern about unemployment.[1] President Obama’s negotiating skills were, yet again, called into question as he conceded ground he had pledged not to.[2] But the outcome, which the Republican-controlled House of Representatives finally approved—with mostly Democratic votes—was a labeled “a compromise that the White House and Senate leaders had carefully crafted,”[3] which is something like, we are to understand, what the people of the U.S. expect.[4]

Fig. 1. U.S. presidential candidates 2008 through 2012.
Fig. 1. U.S. presidential candidates 2008 through 2012.
The expectation of negotiated compromise and the notion of a middle path are implicit in a political system. But this requires that all legitimate views are within the scope of negotiation, and if this was ever the condition in U.S. politics, it is certainly less so since a rightward shift in the range of acceptable discourse that began roughly with the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and is reflected in a political compass plot of U.S. presidential candidates in 2008 and 2012 (figure 1). Further, it assumes that negotiating positions are chosen on their merits and that wisdom indeed lies in avoiding so-called “extreme” views.

C. Wright Mills picks apart the notion of a “romantic pluralism” in what he calls “the theory of balance,” writing that it further assumes “a plurality of independent, relatively equal, and conflicting groups.”[5] He sees a strategy which is essentially conservative because it rationalizes the status quo[6]:

You elaborate the number of groups involved, in a kind of bewildering, Whitmanesque enthusiasm for variety. Indeed, what group fails to qualify as a ‘veto group’? You do not try to clarify the hodge-podge by classifying these groups, occupations, strata, organizations according to their political relevance or even according to whether they are organized politically at all. You do not try to see how they may be connected with one another into a structure of power, for by virtue of his perspective, the romantic conservative focuses upon a scatter of milieux rather than upon their connections within a structure of power. And you do not consider the possibility of any community of interests among the top groups. You do not connect all these milieux and miscellaneous groups with the big decisions: you do not ask and answer with historical detail: exactly what directly or indirectly, did ‘small retailers’ or ‘brick masons’ have to do with the sequence of decision and event that led to World War II? What did ‘insurance agents,’ or for that matter, the Congress, have to do with the decision to make or not to make, to drop or not to drop, the early model of the new weapon [presumably, the atomic bomb]? Moreover, you take seriously the public-relations-minded statements of the leaders of all groups, strata, and blocs, and thus confuse psychological uneasiness with the facts of power and policy. So long as power is not nakedly displayed, it must not be power. And of course you do not consider the difficulties posed for you as an observer by the fact of secrecy, official and otherwise.[7]

This passage comes in chapter 11, at the beginning of what Alan Wolfe, in his afterword, views of the second of two books that make up The Power Elite:

In the first of these books (chapters 1 thorugh 10), Mills writes in a somewhat clinical language aimed at describing the structure of power in America. This part of the book is driven by data and makes use of extensional original research. Having presented his case, Mills then (in chapters 11 through 15) shifts to a language of outrage. . . . This is Mills the social critic, leaving descriptive science behind to make his feelings about the power elite quite prominent.

Contemporary commentators believe that Mills was an outstanding social critic but not necessarily a first-rate social scientist. Yet I believe that The Power elite survives better as a work of social science than of social criticism.[8]

I cannot complain that Alan Wolfe appended a critique[9] to C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite; it is better that criticisms should be readily available, so as to be easily dealt with, rather than lain in ambush. Still, it must be said that, as a whole, Mills’ work, published in 1956, has somewhat better survived the test of time than Wolfe’s critique, which appears in the 2000 reprint, and moreover, that Mills’ work, which details an effective unity among the elite of the economic, military, and political hierarchies, speaks directly to the dysfunction in U.S. political and economic governance today.

To be fair, a lot has happened since 2000. And it is possible that it was easier then to overlook some of what was already going on. Still, while Wolfe’s dissent is sometimes accurate in its particulars, it suffers from inconsistencies and often misses a larger picture that strengthens Mills’ claims.

For example, after observing that at least partly due to a deregulatory sentiment, “the Sherman [Antitrust] Act is rarely invoked these days” (a difference from Mills’ time), Wolfe then argues that corporations face a much more dynamically competitive environment today, which would seem to suggest that monopolies are actually less of a problem today. Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, by contrast, attribute this demise to Wolfe’s earlier explanation, politics:

Listen to Sanford Weill, the former chairman of Citigroup: “People can look at the last twenty-five years and say this is an incredibly unique period of time. We didn’t rely on somebody else to build what we built.” Weill may not have relied on “somebody else” during this “unique period.” He did, however, rely a great deal on government. When Citigroup formed in 1998, one of the top bankers involved joked at the celebratory press conference that any antitrust concerns could be dealt with easily: “Sandy will call up his friend, the President.”[10]

Wolfe implies, contradicting Mills, that corporate leaders cannot rest on conformity and mediocre intellect—such leaders “would be best off moving to a university and obtaining tenure.”[11] But Christopher Hayes has shown in example after example how the putative meritocracy in the U.S. in fact functions to preserve the positions of the elite.[12] Wolfe more explicitly points to the decline of labor unions and global competition, “leading many of them to move parts of their companies overseas and to create their own global marketing arrangements.”[13] But U.S. corporations can hardly be seen as followers in economic globalization. Rather, they, along with U.S. politicians, have come to a “Washington [neoliberal] consensus” that prefers so-called “free trade” even as it has repeatedly proven ruinous for workers and the environment, and fiscal austerity even as it has proven ruinous for heavily indebted countries. This consensus is largely implemented through international institutions, over which the U.S. can hardly be said to have little influence, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.[14] Rather than speaking to any obsolescence of Mills or any diminution of corporate elite power or any change in the relationship between the corporate rich and the political elite, this suggests a change of scale: both political and economic governance are now more international and neocolonial. Indeed, the Obama administration’s participation in the secret TransPacific Partnership negotiation, which would allegedly undermine national governments’ abilities to protect labor and the environment, makes amply evident that the partnership Mills wrote of continues.[15]

This international neocolonial and neoliberal regime is, of course, backed up by western military forces, particularly including that of the U.S., as seen in two invasions and an occupation of Iraq. This, the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, prolonged saber-rattling at Iran, and a more discrete—at least for those not present to witness it in person—widening war in scores of countries[16] belies Wolfe’s imagination that the national security complex has become less significant among the power elite. The U.S. continues—as it nearly always has, but much more so since World War II—to rely heavily on war,[17] even as the limits of U.S. power become apparent.[18] The inability of U.S. leadership to solve problems through diplomacy offers considerable support for Mills’ view of the military not only as a part of the power elite but as having taken over the foreign policy establishment and as a source of conformist, regimented thinking that seemingly offers few solutions beyond compulsion.

Wolfe disagrees with Mills’ assessment of politics as lacking substance, yet Mills’ criticism of the U.S. political system hardly touches those by Gore Vidal and Noam Chomsky that the U.S. is governed by a one-party system.[19] Whatever the substance, and however many parties there are, a more cogent critique would assess the representativeness of the putative U.S. representative democracy. In 2006, voters handed control of Congress to Democrats with a mandate to reduce or end U.S. involvement in Iraq.[20] Campaigning for the presidency in 2008, Barack Obama called it the “wrong war.”[21] But U.S. troops did not withdraw until December 2011—and then only because Iraq’s regime could not or would not agree to immunity for U.S. troops.[22] A majority also believes the U.S. isn’t getting out of Afghanistan fast enough and that the war there has not been worth it,[23] but neither Obama the incumbent, despite winning a Nobel Peace Prize, nor his only viable challenger in the 2012 election could reasonably be said to be “peace candidates.”

Similarly, Gallup poll respondents are more concerned about the economy and unemployment than they are the federal budget deficit,[24] but the power elite seem not at all to share their concern,[25] even as it is apparent that austerity policies worsen the deficit and prolong human misery.[26] Both Democrats and Republicans continue to insist that stimulus measures be “paid for” and instead prioritize reducing the budget deficit.[27]

Taking a longer view, one might suppose that elites would share with constituents a concern over climate change, particularly after the weather-related catastrophes of 2012 (and also others of recent years). Again, polls suggest rising concern among respondents.[28] But we seemingly have little reason to expect significant action from U.S. elites, as climate deniers praise Obama administration policy and the administration claims to already be taking significant action.[29]

All this, on issues of considerable importance, suggests not only that the political elite are unresponsive to public opinion (in part due to the scale of the country, even in the 1950s) but that they are incompetent—just as Mills claimed.


  1. Figure 1: Created by merging political compass graphs for 2008 U.S. presidential primaries, 2008 (nominated) candidates,[30] and 2012 candidates.[31] Barack Obama’s shift is traced in white, Joe Biden’s shift is traced in red, Mitt Romney’s shift is traced in orange, and John McCain’s shift is traced in yellow.
  1. [1]Paul Krugman, “The Forgotten Millions,” New York Times, December 6, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/07/opinion/krugman-the-forgotten-millions.html
  2. [2]Peter Baker, “View From the Left: Obama ‘Kept Giving Stuff Away’,” New York Times, January 1, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/02/us/politics/some-liberals-say-obama-squandered-his-tax-leverage.html; Elspeth Reeve, “Just How Bad Was Obama’s Fiscal Game?” Atlantic, December 31, 2012, http://www.theatlanticwire.com/politics/2012/12/just-how-bad-was-obamas-fiscal-game/60459/
  3. [3]Lori Montgomery and Rosalind S. Helderman, “Congress approves ‘fiscal cliff’ measure,” Washington Post, January 1, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/house-members-meet-to-review-senate-passed-cliff-deal/2013/01/01/6e4373cc-5435-11e2-bf3e-76c0a789346f_story.html
  4. [4]Jeffrey M. Jones, “Americans Widely Prefer Compromise on Fiscal Cliff,” Gallup, December 4, 2012, http://www.gallup.com/poll/159065/americans-widely-prefer-compromise-fiscal-cliff.aspx
  5. [5]C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (1956; repr., New York: Oxford University, 2000), 243.
  6. [6]Mills, The Power Elite
  7. [7]Mills, The Power Elite, 244-245.
  8. [8]Alan Wolfe, afterword to The Power Elite, by C. Wright Mills (1956; repr., New York: Oxford University, 2000), 377-378.
  9. [9]Wolfe, afterword to The Power Elite, 363-381.
  10. [10]Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington made the Rich Richer—And Turned Its back on the Middle Class (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010), 71.
  11. [11]Wolfe, afterword to The Power Elite, 370.
  12. [12]Christopher Hayes, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (New York: Crown, 2012).
  13. [13]Wolfe, afterword to The Power Elite, 370.
  14. [14]Scott Sernau, Worlds Apart: Social Inequalities in a Global Economy, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge, 2006); Joseph E. Stiglitz, Making Globalization Work (New York: W. W. Norton, 2007).
  15. [15]Roger Bybee, “Obama’s Double Game on Outsourcing,” Dollars and Sense, September 12, 2012, http://www.dollarsandsense.org/archives/2012/0912bybee.html; Lori Wallach, “NAFTA on Steroids,” Nation, June 27, 2012, http://www.thenation.com/article/168627/nafta-steroids
  16. [16]Karen DeYoung and Greg Jaffe, “U.S. ‘secret war’ expands globally as Special Operations forces take larger role,” Washington Post, June 4, 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/06/03/AR2010060304965.html; Greg Miller, “Under Obama, an emerging global apparatus for drone killing,” Washington Post, December 13, 2011, http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/national-security/under-obama-an-emerging-global-apparatus-for-drone-killing/2011/12/13/gIQANPdILP_story.html; Jeremy Scahill, “Obama’s Expanding Covert Wars,” Nation, June 4, 2010, http://www.thenation.com/blog/obamas-expanding-covert-wars; Scott Shane, Mark Mazzetti and Robert F. Worth, “Secret Assault on Terrorism Widens on Two Continents,” New York Times, August 14, 2010, https://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/15/world/15shadowwar.html; Nick Turse, “A Secret War in 120 Countries: The Pentagon’s New Power Elite,” TomDispatch, August 3, 2011, http://www.tomdispatch.com/archive/175426/; Nick Turse, “The New Obama Doctrine, A Six-Point Plan for Global War: Special Ops, Drones, Spy Games, Civilian Soldiers, Proxy Fighters, and Cyber Warfare,” TomDispatch, June 14, 2012, http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175557/tomgram%3A_nick_turse%2C_the_changing_face_of_empire/
  17. [17]Roger Lee, “United States Military History,” The History Guy, http://www.historyguy.com/american_military_history.html
  18. [18]Tom Engelhardt, “Overwrought Empire: The Discrediting of U.S. Military Power,” TomDispatch, October 7, 2012, http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175602/tomgram%3A_engelhardt%2C_disaster_on_autopilot/
  19. [19]Noam Chomsky, “Containing the Threat of Democracy,” Chomsky on Anarchism, Barry Pateman, ed., (Edinburgh: AK Press, 2005); Gore Vidal, interview by David Barsamian, “Gore Vidal Interview,” Progressive, August 2006, http://www.progressive.org/mag_intv0806
  20. [20]Adam Nagourney and Megan Thee, “With Election Driven by Iraq, Voters Want New Approach,” New York Times, November 2, 2006, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/02/us/politics/02poll.html
  21. [21]David E. Sanger, “Rivals Split on U.S. Power, but Ideas Defy Labels,” New York Times, October 22, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/23/us/politics/23policy.html
  22. [22]Tim Arango and Michael S. Schmidt, “Iraq Denies Legal Immunity to U.S. Troops After 2011,” New York Times, October 4, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/05/world/middleeast/iraqis-say-no-to-immunity-for-remaining-american-troops.html; Tom Engelhardt, “Debacle! How Two Wars in the Greater Middle East Revealed the Weakness of the Global Superpower,” TomDispatch, January 3, 2012, http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175484/tomgram%3A_engelhardt%2C_lessons_from_lost_wars_in_2012/; David Martin, “Immunity for troops was Iraq deal breaker,” CBS News, October 21, 2011, http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-18563_162-20124021/immunity-for-troops-was-iraq-deal-breaker/
  23. [23]Elisabeth Bumiller and Allison Kopicki, “Support in U.S. for Afghan War Drops Sharply, Poll Finds,” New York Times, March 26, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/27/world/asia/support-for-afghan-war-falls-in-us-poll-finds.html; CNN, “CNN Poll: Afghan war support hits new low,” March 30, 2012, http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2012/03/30/cnn-poll-afghan-war-support-hits-new-low/
  24. [24]Andrew Dugan, “Economy Still Top Problem in U.S. but Less So Than in Past,” Gallup, December 20, 2012, http://www.gallup.com/poll/159434/economy-top-problem-less-past.aspxf
  25. [25]Jamelle Bouie, “Why Our Elites Don’t Care About Mass Unemployment,” Nation, August 3, 2012, http://www.thenation.com/blog/169235/why-our-elites-dont-care-about-mass-unemployment
  26. [26]Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, “What Krugman & Stiglitz Can Tell Us,” review of End This Depression Now!, by Paul Krugman, and The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future, by Joseph E. Stiglitz, New York Review of Books, September 27, 2012, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2012/sep/27/what-krugman-stiglitz-can-tell-us/
  27. [27]CNN, “Transcript: Second presidential debate,” October 16, 2012, http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2012/10/16/transcript-second-presidential-debate/; Federal News Service, “Transcript of the third debate between President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney, Oct. 22 in Boca Raton, Fla.,” National Public Radio, October 22, 2012, http://www.npr.org/2012/10/22/163436694/transcript-3rd-obama-romney-presidential-debate; Ezra Klein, “The politicians-are-failing theory of unemployment,” Washington Post, September 11, 2012, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2012/09/11/the-politicians-are-failing-theory-of-unemployment/; New York Times, “Transcript of the First Presidential Debate,” October 3, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/03/us/politics/transcript-of-the-first-presidential-debate-in-denver.html
  28. [28]Chris Mooney, “Is Climate Change the Sleeper Issue of 2012?” Mother Jones, October 3, 2012, http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2012/10/swing-voters-climate-change-issue
  29. [29]Democracy Now! “‘His Nickname Is George W. Obama’: Leading Climate Change Denier Embraces U.S. Stance at U.N. Talks,” December 8, 2011, http://www.democracynow.org/2011/12/8/his_nickname_is_george_w_obama; Democracy Now! “In Doha, Lead U.S. Negotiator Plays Down Expectations of Climate Action in Obama’s Second Term,” December 4, 2012, http://www.democracynow.org/2012/12/4/in_doha_lead_us_negotiator_plays
  30. [30]Political Compass, “US Presidential Election 2008,” July 11, 2012, http://www.politicalcompass.org/uselection2008
  31. [31]Political Compass, “The US Presidential Election 2012,” July 11, 2012, http://www.politicalcompass.org/uselection2012

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