H. T. Reynolds, Ph. D. 1996. email - email@example.com
Reprinted with permission
Thomas Dye, a political scientist, and his students have been studying the upper echelons of
leadership in America since 1972. These "top positions" encompassed the posts with the
authority to run programs and activities of major political, economic, legal, educational,
cultural, scientific, and civic institutions. The occupants of these offices, Dye's investigators
found, control half of the nation's industrial, communications, transportation, and banking
assets, and two-thirds of all insurance assets. In addition, they direct about 40 percent of the
resources of private foundations and 50 percent of university endowments. Furthermore, less
than 250 people hold the most influential posts in the executive, legislative, and judicial
branches of the federal government, while approximately 200 men and women run the three
major television networks and most of the national newspaper chains.
Facts like these, which have been duplicated in countless other studies, suggest to many
observers that power in the United States is concentrated in the hands of a single power elite.
Scores of versions of this idea exist, probably one for each person who holds it, but they all
interpret government and politics very differently than pluralists. Instead of seeing hundreds
of competing groups hammering out policy, the elite model perceives a pyramid of power. At
the top, a tiny elite makes all of the most important decisions for everyone below. A relatively
small middle level consists of the types of individuals one normally thinks of when discussing
American government: senators, representatives, mayors, governors, judges, lobbyists, and
party leaders. The masses occupy the bottom. They are the average men and women in the
country who are powerless to hold the top level accountable.
The power elite theory, in short, claims that a single elite, not a multiplicity of competing
groups, decides the life-and-death issues for the nation as a whole, leaving relatively minor
matters for the middle level and almost nothing for the common person. It thus paints a dark
picture. Whereas pluralists are somewhat content with what they believe is a fair, if admittedly
imperfect, system, the power elite school decries the grossly unequal and unjust distribution
of power it finds everywhere.
People living in a country that prides itself on democracy, that is surrounded by the trappings
of free government, and that constantly witnesses the comings and goings of elected officials
may find the idea of a power elite farfetched. Yet many very intelligent social scientists accept
it and present compelling reasons for believing it to be true. Thus, before dismissing it out of
hand, one ought to listen to their arguments.