November 2, 1999
by Townsend L. Walker, Sr.
Professor Domhoff has taught at the University of California, Santa Cruz, for many years. In my opinion the book I quote from here is the most direct route to understanding who really holds the reins of political power in the U.S. In Domhoff’s words, “the owners and top-level managers in large income-producing properties are far and away the dominant power figures in the United States” -- not the great American public traipsing into the voting booth as we are taught so naively to think. The quotations from Who Rules America? are selectively focused on only two of several factors involved in the super-rich’s holding on to the power by which they rule America: the institutional infrastructure that explains their cohesiveness and social identity, and the policy-formation process by which they are able to define and deify the American character. Make Who Rules America? your primer to understanding why things are as they are. What follows is taken from the book, without benefit of quotation marks. Italic is my emphasis.]
This chapter has three main points: ... there is a nation-wide social upper class in the United States that has its own exclusive social institutions and is based in the ownership of great wealth; ... this upper class is closely intertwined with the corporate community; ...the social cohesion of the upper class is another basis for the creation of policy agreements within the policy-making network...This social cohesion is based in the two types of relationships found in a membership network: common membership in specific social institutions and friendships based on social interactions within those institutions. Research on small groups in laboratory settings...suggests that social cohesion is greatest when (1) the social groups are seen to be exclusive and of high status, and (2) the interactions take place in relaxed and informal settings....Many of the social institutions of the upper class fit these specifications very well. From the viewpoint of social psychology, the people who make up the upper class can be seen as members of numerous small groups that meet at private schools, social clubs, retreats, resorts, and social gatherings....Social bonding can be seen as another reason why the corporate rich are cohesive enough to dominate the rest of society despite their small numbers.
The more extravagant social activities of the upper class -- the expensive parties, the trips to spas and vacation spots all over the world, the involvement with exotic entertainers -- are often viewed...as superfluous trivialities best left to society-page writers. However, there is reason to believe that these activities play a role in both in solidifying the upper class and in maintaining the class structure. Within the upper class itself, these occasions provide an opportunity for members to show that they are similar to one another and superior to the average children. As political scientist Gabriel Almond concluded in his study of the New York upper class and its involvement in city politics: “The elaborate private life of the plutocracy serves in considerable measure to separate them out in their own consciousness as a superior, more refined element.” Even more relevant, the values on which the class system is based are conveyed to the rest of the population in this conspicuous consumption. Such activity make clear that there is a gulf between members of the upper class and ordinary citizens, reminding everyone of the hierarchical nature of the society. Social extravaganzas bring home to everyone that there are great rewards for success, helping to stir up the personal envy that can be a goad to competitive striving....Exhibiting high social status, in order words, is a way of exercising power. This “status power” operates by creating respect, envy, and deference in others.
The policy-formation process begins informally in corporate boardrooms, social clubs, and discussion groups where problems are identified as “issues” to be solved by new policies. It ends in government, where policies are enacted and implemented. In between, however, there is a complex network of people and institutions that play an important role in sharpening the issues and weighing the alternatives. This network has three main components -- foundations, think tanks, and policy-discussion groups.
Foundations are tax-free institutions created to give grants to both individuals and nonprofit organizations for activities that range from education, research, and the arts to support for the poor and the upkeep of exotic gardens and old mansions. They are an upper-class adaptation to inheritance and income taxes. They provide a means by which wealthy people and corporations can in effect decide how their tax payments will be spent, for they are based on money that otherwise could go to the government in taxes. From a small beginning at the turn of the twentieth century, they have become a very important factor in shaping developments in higher education and the arts, and they play significant role in policy formation as well. The most influential of them historically are the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Sloan Foundation. Foundations, then, are an integral part of the policy-formation process....They are in fact extensions of the corporate community in their origins, leadership, and goals.
One of the most important goals of the opinion-shaping network is to influence public schools, churches, and voluntary associations. To this end, organizations within the network have developed numerous links to these institutions, offering them movies, television programs, books, pamphlets, speakers, advice, and financial support. However, the schools, churches, and voluntary associations are not part of the network. Rather, they are independent settings within which the power elite must constantly contend with spokespersons from the liberal-labor coalition. To assume otherwise would be to overlook the social and occupational affiliations of the members as well as the diversity of opinion that often exists in these institutions of the middle and lower levels of the social hierarchy.
To prevent the development of attitudes and opinions that might interfere with the acceptance of policies created in the policy-formation process, leaders within the opinion- molding process attempt to build on and reinforce the underlying principles of the American belief system. Academically speaking, these underlying principles are called laissez-faire liberalism, and they have their roots in the work of several European philosophers and the American Founding Fathers. These principles emphasize individualism, free enterprise, competition, equality of opportunity, and a minimal reliance on government in carrying out the affairs of society. Slowly articulated during the centuries-long rise of the capitalist system in Europe, they arrived in America in nearly finished form and had no serious rivals in a small new nation that did not have a feudal past or an established church.
Although this individualistic ideology remains pervasive, it is an independent factor in shaping the opinions and behaviors of Americans only because rival power groups like the liberal-labor coalition have not been strong enough to create alternative organizations to challenge its acceptance from a more communal or cooperative viewpoint. American cultural beliefs that seem timeless are in fact sustained by organizations created and funded by the power elite. Such beliefs, in other words, are “institutionalized,” made into taken-for- granted habits and customs and constantly reinforced by how organizations function. Popularly speaking, these unchallenged values are known to most citizens as plan “Americanism.” They are seen as part of human nature or the product of good common sense. If Americans can be convinced that some policy or action is justified in terms of this emotion-laden and unquestioned body of beliefs, they are more likely to accept it. Thus, the organizations that make up the opinion-shaping network strive to become the arbitrators of which policies and opinions are in keeping with good Americanism, and which are “un-American.”
The power elite described in this book commands great wealth, the best advice money can buy, and direct access to government officials. It has polished antigovernment ideology and rags-to-riches success stories to a small science. Its allies...know how to use divisive social issues to recruit new activists and put liberals on the defensive. Still...power structures evolve or crumble from time to unpredictable time ... There remains the possibility that class domination could be replaced by a greater sharing of power in the future