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C. Wright Mills, Floyd Hunter, and a Half-Century of Power Structure Research

by G. William Domhoff

Keynote address to the Michigan Sociological Association, 2006

NOTE: This document is based on "C. Wright Mills, Power Structure Research, And The Failures of Mainstream Political Science," but without the critique of mainstream political science. Instead, it includes more historical background on power structure research, a more detailed critique of pluralism, and a critique of structural Marxists. It is actually a lightly edited and extended reprint of a journal article with the following citation:

Domhoff, G. William. 2007. "C. Wright Mills, Floyd Hunter, and 50 Years of Power Structure Research." Michigan Sociological Review 21:1-54.

Video: 50 Years of Power Structure Research

Watch this video of Bill Domhoff addressing the Michigan Sociological Association in 2006.


The year 2006 was an ideal moment for someone with my research interests to be speaking to the meetings of the Michigan Sociological Association because it marked the 50th year of power structure research. It's the history, successes, and shortcomings of this field that will be the topic of this article, which is an adaptation and extension of my original presentation. I confess that I will give the story I am about to tell a triumphal twist even though I know power structure research has not triumphed in the social sciences, just in terms of its connection to the real world.

Technically speaking, it can be argued that 2006 was the 53rd year of power structure research, not the 50th, because the field actually began with Floyd Hunter's (1953) unexpected and generally unwelcome book on the power structure of Atlanta, Community Power Structure, which had an immediate impact within sociology and upset political scientists to no end. However, it was C. Wright Mills's unsettling and even more unwelcome The Power Elite (1956) that brought the field of power structure research into being and made it visible outside of sociology, which is why I use that date for the official founding. No one was happy with Mills's book -- not liberals, not journalists, certainly not most sociologists, and not even most Marxists, whose disagreements with Mills will be explored throughout this article.

What did Hunter and Mills say that was upsetting to mainstream social scientists and journalists? They simply concluded that an elite few -- business elites for Hunter, or a combination of corporate, government, and military elites for Mills -- dominate local and national governments in the United States in a very direct way, and that politics and politicians are secondary because they more or less have to do the bidding of the powerful elites. This is just about the opposite of how those in the mainstream see things, however much they may differ in their rival theories. For them, democracy, the right to assemble, freedom of speech, elections, competitive political parties, and the existence of a market economy make domination by business elites, power elites, or a corporate-based ruling class impossible; power is pluralistic by definition. It didn't help matters that Hunter and Mills agreed with the mainstream that greater equality and democracy are possible, but on the proviso that major changes would be needed in the current economic and political systems.

So, what is power structure research, exactly? It is first of all an attempt to construct the networks of people and institutions that run the show, although it must immediately be added that the overall theory concerns more than the top levels of society. Power relations run from top to bottom, like a pecking order, only more complicated. The social structure is not simply an organized elite or class at the top, with an unorganized mass or united working class below it. There are many power niches and potential bases for exercising power below the top, with middle-level workers, for example, trying to keep advantages over lower-level workers, and with established racial, ethnic, or religious groups trying to hold on to advantages they have over more recently arrived or previously subjugated racial, ethnic, and religious groups. In the specific case of the United States, there is a loosely knit liberal-labor coalition, sometimes joined by progressive social movement activists, that was able to develop some degree of power from the mid-1930s through the mid-1970s as part of the complex electoral coalition within the Democratic Party; the gradual fragmentation of this coalition is discussed later in the article.

Power structure research is a unique area within the social sciences in several ways. First, it appeared all of a sudden with the publications by Hunter and Mills -- there had been no previous studies like theirs, no gradual build-up of a literature. Contrary to some accounts, power was a minor issue, even a late addition, in the famous Middletown studies by the Lynds (Frank 1977; Lynd and Lynd 1929; Lynd and Lynd 1937). Furthermore, power structure research did not come from the elite graduate programs that shape the discipline to the degree that sociologists themselves work with an "academic caste system" (Burris 2004). Hunter and Mills were well-trained sociologists, but they were situated on the margins. They were iconoclasts.

Hunter, Mills, and present-day power structure researchers emphasize that power structures can vary widely from society to society and that detailed empirical studies are important in understanding them -- there is no one grand design to history, no inevitable unfolding of anything. This puts the theory in the middle ranges, which means it is sometimes looked down upon by those who like to work at the lofty heights of what Mills criticized as Grand Theory, a term that can encompass big-P pluralists, structural functionalists, and classical Marxists as well as those who came after them, namely, structural Marxists and state autonomy theorists. For example, just as Mills's The Sociological Imagination (1959) included a take-down of Talcott Parson's structural functionalism, so too The Marxists (1962, Chapter 6) contained a sustained rejection of the main philosophical and historical tenets of Marxism, concluding that it is a "labor metaphysic."

Then, too, power structure research has a relatively unique starting point because Hunter and Mills saw power as rooted first and foremost in organizations, not individuals, voluntary associations, or interest groups, as pluralists do, or in the ownership of private property, as Marxists do, although Hunter and Mills would certainly agree that voluntary associations, interest groups, and antagonistic economic classes locked in class struggle can arise historically in some countries from organizational roots, as has been the case in industrialized capitalist societies. On the other hand, they definitely did not see organizations in the neutral and benign way characteristic of most organizational theorists, whose primary focus starting in the 1920s has been to help make them function more efficiently and smoothly, which is just about the opposite of the approach Hunter and Mills would advocate.

Power structure researchers start with and are wary of organizations because they see them as power bases for those at the top. They become power bases due to the information and material resources their leaders control, along with the ability leaders have to hire and fire underlings, form alliances with other organizational leaders, and many other prerogatives. It all starts with the division of labor, but the specialists in managing, coordinating, and obtaining outside resources have the power advantage from the start. However, power structure researchers do not resign themselves to this situation, as Robert Michels (1915/1958; Mitzman 1973) did when he said that he who says organization says oligarchy, or celebrate it, as political scientist Thomas R Dye (1976) does in offering a theory somewhat similar to Mills's. Power structure researchers differ from theorists like Michels and Dye in that they believe in the promise of greater equality and participation. Activists can change the power structure, as they have proven at key junctures in American history that are discussed later in this essay, so agency matters in this theory. Organizations can be restructured and controlled by the rank-and-file through a variety of means when people organize themselves through a combination of unions, social movements, political parties, cooperatives, and other means. Both Mills (1963) and Hunter (1980, Chapter 11) offered suggestions on how to bring about such changes.

The field of power structure research inspired by Mills and Hunter has one further uniqueness. In the 1960s and 1970s it was often utilized by students and activists to aid their efforts in the civil rights movement and the social movements that soon arose, with universities as one of their key power bases -- the anti-war, feminist, and environmental movements. For example, Jack Minnis of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee wrote a pamphlet in 1965 on "The Care and Feeding of Power Structures," which was used to figure out which Northern companies, especially banks, were financially involved with segregationist enterprises in the South, and therefore targets for picketing, to the surprise and embarrassment of the companies' CEO's. Then, too, students at Columbia wrote "Who Rules Columbia" in 1968, students at Harvard wrote "How Harvard Rules" in 1969, and students at Yale wrote "Go To School, Learn to Rule" in 1970, all of which were useful in galvanizing activism on those and other campuses. These studies, and many more, were very well done, and can be seen as early instances of public sociology at its best.

Although mainstream social science often tries to dismiss power structure research as muckraking or mere investigative journalism, the field is actually based on a sophisticated methodological position that starts with the idea that "power," even though it is rather obviously a social relationship, is best conceptualized for research purposes as an underlying trait of a collectivity. This trait called "power" has to be studied with a number of different but overlapping indicators that together can overcome the individual weaknesses that any one indicator always has in any area of the social sciences (e.g., Lazarsfeld 1966; Webb, Campbell, Schwartz, Sechrest, and Grove 1981). This in itself was a well-nigh heretical notion in that the pluralists who set the methodological standards for good social science in the 1950s had decreed that power only can be studied by looking at who wins and loses on a wide range of issues that come before the government for final decision (e.g., Dahl 1957; Dahl 1958). In contrast, power structure research is based on a combination of network analysis -- more specifically, "membership network analysis," as explained by Ronald Breiger (1974) -- and content analysis, and it makes use of four power indicators that are familiar to most social scientists: (1.) what organization, group, or class in the social structure under study receives the most of what people seek for and value (who benefits?); (2.) what organization, group, or class is over-represented in key decision-making positions (who sits?); (3.) what organization, group, or class wins in the decisional arena? (who wins?); and (4.) who is thought to be powerful by knowledgeable observers and peers (who has a reputation for power?).

Power structure research contains only one basic assumption: there is a power structure of some kind or another -- no matter how weak, fragmented, or pluralistic -- in any large-scale society. A "power structure" is then defined as the network of people and institutions that stands at the top in any given city or nation on the combination of power indicators it has been possible to utilize. This straightforward methodology makes it possible for power structure researchers to uncover any concentration or configuration of power. It can find that power is highly concentrated or more dispersed, depending on the degree of difference between rival organizations, groups, or classes on the power indicators. It can show that some organizations, groups, or classes have power in one arena, some in another arena. It can reveal changes in a power structure over time by changes in the power indicators.

Once the power networks have been mapped, the substance of the policies and ideologies preferred by the power structure can be determined through content analyses of the verbal and written "output" of strategically located people or organizations in the network, that is, through the examination of speeches, policy statements, campaign literature, and proposed legislation. Content analyses are not always done formally, but content analysis is what investigators are doing, even if they are high-level post-modern theorists who "interrogate" texts, when they infer on the basis of a speech, policy statement, or abstract theoretical document that a person or organization has specific values or policy preferences, (see Domhoff 2006, Appendix A, for a detailed statement of the methodology of power structure research).

Although the main focus of this article is on the results of power structure research at the national level, the next section discusses findings at the local level because the original battles between pluralists and power structure researchers were fought out on an urban terrain, where the pluralists thought sure they had won hands down by the end of the 1960s. But it turns out that new ideas and new findings soon showed otherwise. It is gratifying to have a theory of local power that provides considerable vindication for Hunter and meshes better than past urban power theories with our understanding of power at the national level.

In concluding this introductory overview and celebration of Mills, Hunter, and power structure research, I want to stress that it is not my purpose to defend each and every detail of what Hunter and Mills claimed. I long ago concluded, based on subsequent research, including some of my own, that they were wrong about a number of issues, most of which I will touch on in this article. What is important about Hunter and Mills is that they stood outside the usual pluralist vs. Marxist debates and advocated methodologies that make it possible for power structure researchers to correct their mistakes. They led the way to what I think is a solid theoretical starting point, even though they did not themselves fully articulate that position: modern-day power structures are based on a complex mix of organizational and class factors that are rooted in overlapping economic, political, military, and ideological/religious networks (Mann 1986; Mills 1956; Mills 1962).

Local Power Structures

The story of how Floyd Hunter came to study the city of Atlanta provides a good introduction to the flavor and style of power structure research. After doing social work before and after his undergraduate years, Hunter received a B.A. in 1939 and an M.A. in 1941 in social service administration from the University of Chicago. He was employed as a social work administrator in a community agency in Indianapolis from 1940 through 1942, where he came in close contact with the Chamber of Commerce. In 1943, he went to Atlanta to administer the southeastern regional office of the U.S.O., with responsibility for setting up canteens for soldiers in various cities, which meant that he needed the support of the local elites with whom he of necessity had to coordinate. After the war, Hunter stayed in Atlanta as the head of the Atlanta Community Council, but he made it clear to the mildly liberal elites who hired him that he would call things as he saw them on segregation. As he put it in Community Power Structure, using the pseudonym "Joe Cratchett" to describe himself, he served under what he called "second echelon" personnel in the power structure.

Due to critical remarks he wrote in his agency newsletter about inadequate housing for African Americans in the city, and his willingness to allow a room in his agency's building to be used for an anti-segregation speech by former Vice President Henry A. Wallace, the Progressive Party candidate for president in 1948, Hunter was fired from his job (Hunter 1953, pp. 190-194). (A journalism professor active in the Progressive Party, Curtis MacDougal (1965, pp. 703-704) also tells the story of Hunter's involvement in the Progressive Party and his run-in with his bosses at the community agency.)

By then 37 years old, Hunter decided to go to graduate school in sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, hoping he could make more sense of his occupational and political experiences up to that point in his career. For his dissertation work, he returned to Atlanta to do a detailed study of how new policies are generated there. He thought he had a general idea of how policy and power operated in Atlanta, but it was only after he had supplemented his past experience with dozens of systematic interviews that he felt he had a grasp of the full picture. I have provided a concise systematic statement of his views elsewhere on this site and in the second edition of Who Rules America? (Domhoff 1983b, pp. 159-162), so suffice it to say here that he found overlapping "cliques" or crowds," and said that "I doubt seriously that power forms a single pyramid with any nicety in a community the size of Atlanta" (Hunter 1953, p. 62). These cliques consisted primarily of downtown land owners, real estate developers, public utility executives, department store owners, and commercial and mortgage bankers, a fact that puzzled nearly everyone because they assumed that the local industrialists and branch managers of national corporations were the "economic dominants" (e.g., Jennings 1964).

The round-robin interview method Hunter used to discover these power networks, pejoratively named the "reputational method" by pluralists to make the consensus among interviewees seem like mere fluff, was hardly the failure they proclaimed it to be in criticizing the book (Polsby 1980; Wolfinger 1960). Dozens of researchers, mostly sociologists, ventured into cities and communities in several different countries, usually reporting that upper-middle-class informants with professional and business occupations believed the biggest businessmen and corporate lawyers of the given locale to be at the center of a reasonably cohesive power structure (see Hawley and Svara 1972, for brief summaries of the many studies). The fact that business leaders were not as prominent in the foreign cities that were compared to American cities in two studies gave the method further legitimacy because it showed it could be sensitive to the cross-national differences that gave state officials more prominence (D'Antonio and Form 1965; Miller 1970). When other methods were used in conjunction with the reputational method, there was usually, but not always, a considerable overlap in the findings (e.g., D'Antonio and Form 1965; Miller 1970; Preston 1969; Thometz 1963). It's also worth noting the seldom-recalled fact that Hunter (1959) used the method in a study of "top leadership, USA," leading to a circle of 100 people who were later found to be among the central figures in a network of directors who link the largest corporations, foundations, and policy-discussion groups (Domhoff 1967, p. 27).

Despite all this evidence for the value of Hunter's method, his findings seemed dead and buried by the early 1970s, when most attention was focused on the national level in any event. Pluralism had emerged victorious at the local level, a point that I prematurely accepted at the time (Domhoff 1967, Chapter 6). However, political scientist Clarence Stone (1976; 1989) renewed the debate by returning to Atlanta to study the city in the context of its more recent battles over urban renewal and its transition to black political leadership. The results, using very different methods, including the decisional method advocated by pluralists, were basically a vindication of Hunter through two of the best case studies ever done on an American city (Stone 1988). Politics in Atlanta was a clash between landowners and developers on the one side, who wanted to expand the downtown, and the people in the neighborhoods on the other, who didn't want to be pushed out of their homes.

Stone's findings fit with the newly emerging idea that land owners, not industrial capitalists, are the major movers and shakers in most cities, with the primary goal of increasing real estate values through the intensification of land use (Mollenkopf 1975a; Molotch 1976; Molotch 1979). Working as "place entrepreneurs," these growth elites try to reach their goals by making their city attractive for outside capital, as well as for new federal government installations and the expansion of local university campuses. To the degree that these pro-growth coalitions face opposition, it comes at its core from neighborhoods that want to protect their amenities against downtown expansion, high rises, shopping malls, and freeways. More abstractly, this means there is a built-in conflict at the local level between the exchange and use values of land, which is resolved or compromised in a variety of ways, some halfway reasonable, some very ugly, as in the case of the urban renewal program that cleared the way for downtown elites to remake their cities (Domhoff 2005a; Logan and Molotch 1987). This conflict leads to some unexpected but understandable alliances, with building trades unions often siding with the growth elites in the name of more jobs, whereas environmentalists, university students, and left-wing activists usually line up with the neighborhoods, even though there is nothing inherently progressive about neighborhood protection (think racial or ethnic exclusion, for example).

Based on my review of the literature in the early 1980s, I concluded that the idea of the city as a "growth machine" dominated by landed elites and their allies fit with all the case studies that had been done up to that point, including Middletown (Domhoff 1983, Chapter 6). Then the idea gained further support in studies by urban researches such as J. Allen Whitt (1982), John Mollenkopf (1983), and Todd Swanstrom (1985). The finding that growth coalitions have been forced to make concessions to neighborhood-based progressive coalitions in some cities (DeLeon 1992; Dreier, Mollenkopf, and Swanstrom 2004), and have been defeated by citywide neighborhood coalitions in a few instances (e.g., Gendron 2006), further shows that this new theory of the local power structure has strength and flexibility.

These strong claims for growth-coalition theory even encompass New Haven, the site of a famous study by pluralist political scientist Robert A. Dahl, Who Governs? (1961). I first demonstrated this fact in a case study based on documents unavailable to Dahl at the time of his study, along with my new interviews and a re-analysis of Dahl's own interviews (Domhoff 1978; Domhoff 1983b, pp. 184-196). Since many pluralists were less than convinced by my evidence, and still talk of Dahl's book as though it had never been challenged empirically on all its main claims, I have continued to keep an eye on New Haven through documents in newly opened archives. My original New Haven study is now updated on this Web site with more recent archival findings concerning key decisions in the 1950s, especially those in the papers of the famous mayor during that era, Richard C. Lee, and his main aide, Edward Logue, which became available in the late 1990s and early 2000s. They reveal that Yale University, portrayed as an uninterested bystander by Dahl, played an even larger role than I originally thought in obtaining federal funds for the city in a timely manner. The paper trail on this issue is near-perfect (Domhoff 2005b). It is now my claim that Yale not only benefited from urban renewal in terms of the large amount of land that it acquired for expansion, but that it hastened the decline of New Haven by taking so much land off the tax rolls and paying miserly wages to its lower-level staff and workers, fighting against unionization with the ferociousness of industrial capitalists.

So, 50+ years later, we can say that Hunter's basic findings in 1953 on the dominance of cities by land-based growth elites have emerged unscathed, while at the same time noting that we now have a more sophisticated theory to encompass those findings. We have to distinguish between local place entrepreneurs, who seek to increase land values, and national-level capitalists, who seek to make profits through selling goods and services. They are two segments of a dominant ownership class that have many interests in common as well as some differences that can lead to real conflicts (Logan and Molotch 1987; Molotch 1998; Molotch 1999). Although some pluralists are not quite willing to concede that growth elites have the dominant role at the local level except under fairly unusual circumstances, just about every power investigator at the urban level now starts with the downtown land owners and developers as the primary suspects, and just about everyone agrees that growth is their primary interest.

The National Power Structure

By the 1960s, when the civil rights and other movements were in full swing, the main focus of the new generation of power structure researches was on the national level. For them, The Power Elite provided a natural starting point. However, they were also ready to entertain the ideas of the theorists Mills (1962) called "plain Marxists," meaning they do not hold to rigid Communist orthodoxies, as the "vulgar Marxists" allegedly do, or try to explain away and justify every mistake that Mills thought Marx had made, as "sophisticated Marxists" supposedly do. Instead, plain Marxists use Marx's method, of which Mills approved, and some of his insights about capitalist social structures, to develop a theory that is appropriate for the changed conditions of modern capitalism. This stance certainly left enough room for power structure researchers to draw from both Mills and Marxists if their findings indicated that such a combination made sense.

For Mills, power at the national level is concentrated in three large-scale bureaucratic domains that arose in the course of American history, starting with large corporations in the second half of the 19th century, the federal government during the New Deal and World War II, and the military during World War II and the postwar era. Due to (1) common social backgrounds and socialization patterns, (2) similar experiences in large-scale organizations, (3) the movement of managers from one domain to another, and (4) the realization that they had some shared interests, the leaders of these three separate hierarchies -- called the "corporate rich," the" political directorate," and the "warlords" -- work together just often enough to be called a "power elite." In effect, Mills assumed the leaders of these three domains are powerful because they manage large and strategically located hierarchies that dwarf labor unions, farmer's associations, middle-class voluntary associations, political parties, and Congress in terms of their resources and connections. As just mentioned, they also have the ability to work together for common goals, especially when they join together to do battle with their common enemy, the liberal-labor coalition, and of course we know that there is nothing like a common enemy to bring people together. To the degree that national-level decisions are made, Mills said, the power elite are the ones who make them.

But Mills hadn't studied any decisions, so as with Hunter, pluralist critics once again panned the methodology even while doubting the conclusions on other grounds. They said he hadn't shown the leaders of the three hierarchies had enough in common to work together cohesively. He did not examine the role of the political parties. He did not show how decisions were made within the federal government. He could not explain the liberal legislation of the New Deal, such as the Social Security Act and the National Labor Relations Act, both passed in 1935, just 21 years before Mills wrote (see Domhoff and Ballard 1968, for reviews of The Power Elite containing these criticisms). As for the Marxists of the day, they said Mills failed to see that the corporate rich were one and the same as the capitalist class, that the political directorate was drawn even more than he said from the capitalist class, and that the warlords were only secondary figures within the power equation; they therefore rejected the idea of a tripartite power elite in favor of their traditional concept of a ruling class (for the main Marxist reviews, see again Domhoff & Ballard 1968).

Methodologically speaking, there is a little more to what Mills did than the pluralists claimed. Although Mills did not say so directly, he was in part using the "who benefits?" and "who sits?" indicators of power, that is, inferring that the highly skewed distributions of wealth and income in the direction of the corporate rich, and their over-representation as appointees in the executive branch of the federal government, are indicators of their power. As might be expected due to the methodological fiats that had been laid down by mainstream gatekeepers, these two power indicators were no more convincing to pluralists than Hunter's reputational method. The wealth and income distributions could not be used as power indicators because some of their skew may be accidental or a mere systemic outcome. Their skew might even be due to events and decisions in foreign countries. Furthermore, maybe the elites had purposely conferred benefits on the poor, which would distort matters. As far as over-representation, there was the possibility the people in the key positions did not make the important decisions. Perhaps they were primarily figureheads, as Dahl claimed to be the case with the few business leaders involved in urban renewal in New Haven (Dahl 1961; Polsby 1980).

These criticisms point to plausible defects in these two power indicators, but they are not reasonable concerns when it comes to the general thrust of the findings on the wealth and income distributions in the United States, which are highly skewed even if the rich do give some of their money to the poor. It is equally unlikely that someone behind the scenes is making the decisions for the corporate leaders who have served in consistently large numbers in the cabinet and other high-level government positions down through the decades (e.g., Burch 1980; Mintz 1975; Salzman and Domhoff 1980; Zweigenhaft and Domhoff 2006). The pluralists' niggling critiques overlook the fact that there are defects in all indicators, and perhaps most of all in the power indicator they favor, who wins in governmental decision-making processes.

Although the pluralists' critique of these two power indicators is misguided, power structure research took the high road by responding to the various criticisms with new empirical studies that make it possible to study the decision-making process within a larger sociological framework. As a result of this effort, most new researchers in this tradition came to believe, contrary to Mills, that the corporate rich are at the heart of the power elite, putting them close to agreement with plain Marxists on this particular issue for the United States. Some of them therefore drew inspiration from the comprehensive work of the plain Marxist sociologist Ralph Miliband on The State in Capitalist Society (1969), who by coincidence had become personal friends with Mills in the late 1950s, sharing many of Mills's sensibilities, although not his theory (Miliband 1964; Miliband 1968).

In my own case, I came to the conclusion that the power elite is best understood as the leadership group for a corporate-based social upper class. I therefore redefined the power elite as the set of people who hold high-level positions in institutions controlled by members of the upper (capitalist) class through ownership, financial donations, and seats on boards of directors (Domhoff 1967, p. 8; Domhoff 2006, p. 103). The result is a theory that stresses the intermingling of class and organizational factors in understanding the American power structure (e.g., DiTomaso 1980; Domhoff and Dye 1987).

Using network methods, the power structure researchers of the 1960s and 1970s began by looking more closely at the top leaders of the corporations and the set of social institutions that provide the underpinnings of the social upper class. The main focus of the corporate studies was on the relationships among corporations, as studied most readily and objectively through an analysis of shared or "interlocking" directorships, leading to the conclusion that the corporations are indeed closely enough related through those people who sat on two or more corporate boards -- "the inner circle" -- to be considered a "corporate community" (e.g., Domhoff 1967; Mariolis 1975; Mizruchi 1982; Sonquist and Koenig 1975; Useem 1978; Useem 1984). Common stock ownership by wealthy families, along with shared bankers, accountants, and corporate lawyers, contributed to this corporate cohesion (e.g., Burch 1972; Dunn 1980; Mintz and Schwartz 1985; Mizruchi 1987).

At the same time, power structure researchers drew on the detailed work on the upper class in Philadelphia by sociologist E. Digby Baltzell (1958) to study social clubs, summer vacation areas, prep schools, retreats, and in-group telephone books called "social registers" or "blue books." Using Baltzell's work to develop a set of upper-class "indicators," they showed there is an overlap between the owners, top executives, and corporate directors in the economic realm and those who are members of the interconnected social institutions that constitute the social upper class (Domhoff 1967; Domhoff 1980, for summaries of this research; Domhoff 1970). Not incidentally, studies of the activities and social institutions of women of the upper class are highly revealing in demonstrating this class-based social cohesion, including the fact that women of the upper class direct the cultural and voluntary associations that try to keep government involvement in American life at a minimum (Daniels 1988; Kendall 2002; Ostrander 1984; Ostrander 1987). Generally speaking, the rituals and retreats of the upper class, including the highly ritualized nature of debutante balls, demonstrate class consciousness through respect for traditions and the insistence upon proper conduct (Ostrander 1980). This research also provides evidence for both the social and cultural capital that is possessed by members of the intertwined corporate community and upper class, although the use of those fancy terms can lead to an overstatement of the importance of connections and classiness in comparison to the far greater clout of real capital. In terms of the critical issue of how the power elite is able to organize in order to influence government, the upshot of these studies of the corporate community and the social upper class is that social cohesion facilitates political and policy cohesion; however, it needs to be added that policy discussions rarely if ever happen in social settings (Domhoff 1974a, Chapter 3).

Building on the corporate interlock and social cohesion studies, power structure researchers then showed how the power elite dominates the federal government. Drawing on a detailed tracing of linkages among individuals, institutions, money flows, and policy issues, this research suggests there are four relatively distinct but overlapping networks through which the corporate-based power elite control the public agenda, and then win on most issues that are taken up by the federal government. They are the special-interest, policy-planning, opinion-shaping, and candidate-selection processes, with the last term referring to the individually oriented and relatively issueless political campaigns that have predominated in the American two-party system.

The special-interest process deals with the narrow policy concerns of specific corporations and business sectors seeking tax breaks, subsidies, and regulatory relief. It operates through lobbyists, company lawyers, and trade associations, with a focus on congressional committees, departments of the executive branch, and regulatory agencies. This is the process that is usually examined by those who study the American government. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of such studies by now that explain the hows and whys of corporate victories in this arena, with most of the relatively few defeats for any specific company or industry usually coming at the hands of other industries, and only rarely at the hands of the liberal-labor coalition (Domhoff 2006, pp. 173-176, for a more complete discussion of wins and losses for corporations in this process).

Mainstream social scientists do not think the overwhelming success of corporations in the special-interest process adds up to dominance by a power elite because there is supposedly not enough coordination among the many business sectors. They are said to be on their own, although there were studies by the 1970s that showed otherwise (Hall 1969; Melone 1977). More importantly, the special-interest process does not deal with the broader-gauged policies that are essential in shaping the general contours of the society, a criticism voiced long ago by one of the very best of the interest-group analysts, political scientist Grant McConnell (1966), whose conclusion that various interests control a substantial part of the American government made him something more than a pluralist. Nevertheless, he thought that the corporate community is fragmented enough to be "incapable of exercising political domination save in exceptional circumstances and for very limited objectives and very limited times" (McConnell 1966, p. 254). He concluded that "the party system, the Presidency and the national government as a whole represent opposing tendencies" (McConnell 1966, p. 8).

A good part of the answer to the kind of critique made by McConnell, and virtually every other political scientist since he wrote, can be found in a policy-planning network that has been almost completely overlooked by mainstream social scientists, They never bother to trace interlocks and money flows from the corporate community to the "nonprofit" or "third sector," perhaps because they assume by definition that all nonprofits are independent of the corporate community. To the contrary, a network of nonprofit foundations, think tanks and policy-discussion groups -- created, financed and overseen by corporate leaders -- strives to formulate policies concerning the general interests of the corporate community, with a focus on the White House, relevant Congressional committees, and the high-status newspapers and opinion magazines published in New York and Washington (e.g., Burris 1992; Colwell 1980; Colwell 1993; Domhoff 1979; Domhoff 1974b; Moore, Sobieraj, Whitt, Mayorova, and Beaulieu 2002; Salzman and Domhoff 1980; Salzman and Domhoff 1983; Useem 1980; Useem 1984). It has what Mills called "sophisticated" and "practical" conservative tendencies within it, which I prefer to call "moderate-conservative" and "ultra-conservative" orientations, or what others might call centrist and ultra-conservative perspectives. From the point of view of most social scientists, it is only the ultra-conservative part of this network, organizations such as the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Enterprise Institute, that represent the general interests of "big business," with moderate foundations and think tanks presumably looking out for the general interests of everyone.

Drawing on archival work by historians, power structure researchers have traced the history of these organizations from their creation by the corporate moderates and social reformers of the Progressive Era into the modern era (e.g., Domhoff 1970. Chapters 5 and 6 ; Eakins 1966; Slaughter and Silva 1980; Weinstein 1968). They have examined the internal workings of some of these organizations, such as the Carnegie Corporation and Resources for the Future, and shown how groups created by the Ford Foundation became the basis for the environmental movement (Alpert and Markusen 1980; Darknell 1975; Darknell 1980; Robinson 1993). They have shown how a local-level policy network arose in the Progressive Era to influence city and county governments, which was later added to and reorganized in the 1960s to deal with the disruptions caused by urban renewal and African American protests in the inner cities (Domhoff 1978; Domhoff 2005a; Roberts 1994). They have traced the rise of a revitalized right wing of the policy planning network beginning in the 1970s (e.g., Allen 1992; Burris 1992; Colwell 1993).

The discovery of the full extent of this network allowed power structure researchers to explain how most of the major new government initiatives of the 20th century were developed, everything from workmen's compensation to foreign policy to trade policy to social security to arts policy, and even labor policy to a surprising extent, along with the creation of such government agencies as the Federal Reserve Bank, Federal Trade Commission, Office of Management and Budget, and National Recovery Administration (e.g., Domhoff 1990; Domhoff 1996; Domhoff 1970, Chapters 5 and 6; Kahn 1997; Livingston 1986; Weinstein 1968; Whitt 1987a; Whitt 1987b; Zukin 1982, Chapter 4).

Although this is not the place to provide any detailed examples of how a power structure analysis of the policy-planning network refutes pluralists, it is worth noting that studies using the policy-planning network also have proven useful in arguments with the state autonomy theorists who came along in the 1970s. Even though Mills -- and most power structure researchers -- started with the assumption that states are potentially autonomous, thereby anticipating the state autonomy theorists' main claim to originality, they did not think that the evidence showed much autonomy for the American state. It is this empirical conclusion, not abstract theoretical differences, that distinguishes state autonomy theorists from Mills and power structure researchers. It led state autonomy theorists to ignore Mills and power structure research as they moved on to what they saw as the real issues, but new studies of their favorite cases soon showed the state autonomy theorists had not done their homework thoroughly enough.

For example, archival research refutes claims by political scientist Stephen Krasner (1978) concerning the alleged role of autonomous state elites in developing the postwar foreign policy that eventually led to the Vietnam War (Domhoff 1990, chapters 5 and 6; Hearden 2002; Shoup 1975). Even more satisfying, subsequent research by power structure researchers, using the policy-planning network to study the origins of the Agricultural Adjustment Admnistration (1933) and the Social Security Administration (1935), shows just how wrong Theda Skocpol (1980) and her students (Amenta 1998; Finegold and Skocpol 1995; Orloff 1993) are about the New Deal because they rely exclusively on secondary sources that miss all the important issues relating to power (Domhoff 1996, chapters 3 and 5). In fact, the origins of the Agricultural Administration and the Social Security Administration are best described as "state building by the capitalist class," an idea that is inconceivable to state autonomy theorists.

The policy-planning model also proved useful in refuting claims by Gregory Hooks (1991) concerning the industrial mobilization for World War II, which did not lead to an autonomous Pentagon, as he claims, but to the incorporation of the generals and admirals into the corporate-based leadership group (Domhoff 1996, Chapter 6; Waddell 2001). Mills (1956) had made this same point nearly 40 years earlier, although subsequent research has shown, contrary to his original claim, that the military leaders are junior partners in the power elite, as seen most clearly in the speed with which they are fired if they disagree with the eager civilian militarists from the corporate community and associated think tanks. Hooks, however, continues on his mistaken path with a new tack, claiming that a downgrading of the decision-making power of military commanders within the power elite is the same as saying that the United States is not heavily invested in militarism, which is manifestly not the case (2005).

The fact that there are distinctive special-interest and policy-planning networks makes it possible to explain the shortcomings of a book by a research team of pluralists in sociology and political science that is billed as a refutation of Mills (Heinz, Laumann, Nelson, and Salisbury 1993). Their data consist of a wide range of interview and questionnaire responses from the individuals and groups they thought to be influential in the 1980s in one of four "policy domains" that are the same as what power structure researchers mean by the special-interest process: agriculture, energy, health, and labor. Their main finding is that business organizations were in one camp and liberal and labor organizations in the other in all four domains, which they see as a refutation of Mills because there was no cohesive group in any domain. But that is exactly what Mills or any other power structure researcher would expect. No one ever claimed that liberals and labor are part of the power elite.

The authors believe their findings contradict what they understand to be the "power elite" thesis for still another reason: there were few or no connections among the four groups, which to them means that there is no overarching power elite. To make the contrast between their findings and Mills's theory more dramatic on the alleged absence of an overall power elite, they actually entitle their book The Hollow Core.

But neither Mills or any other power structure researcher has claimed that there would be united "issue networks" when it comes to the special-interest level. If the pluralist team had transcended the special-interest process and traced the connections of the corporate lawyers, investment bankers, and corporate CEO's who are members of policy-planning organizations like the Business Roundtable, which they mention without comment or any sense of ordering, they would have found a cohesive power group whose members do move between the corporate community and top-level government positions in just the way Mills claimed (e.g., Burris 1992; Domhoff 2006; Useem 1980, 1984).

Happily, the authors of The Hollow Core do report one interesting finding that fits with every study ever done by power structure researchers. When it comes to the issue networks in most special-interest domains, there is no distinct boundary between interest groups and government. That is, government agencies turn out to be part of the issue networks, especially in agriculture, as evidenced by the fact that 80% of executive department officials above the middle levels worked for an interest group in the private sector in the past. The authors therefore conclude, rightly in my view, that the claims of state autonomy theory are not tenable for the United States, but they don't mention that earlier pluralists might have been at least a little bit nonplussed by the extent to which former members of the special-interest process have colonized the federal government.

The efforts within the special-interest and policy-planning processes are supplemented and sometimes made a little easier by a third process, the opinion-shaping process, which attempts to influence public opinion and keep some issues off the legislative agenda. Often drawing on rationales and statements developed within the policy-planning network, this process operates through large independent public relations firms, the public relations departments of large corporations, and many hundreds of small opinion-shaping organizations, with middle-class voluntary associations, educational institutions, and the mass media as its main targets (Domhoff 2002; Page 2002). My emphasis in discussing this process is on "attempts" to influence public opinion. That's because public opinion is far more independent than is believed by those who claim that the American public is largely bamboozled, which in turn leads them to underestimate the role of organizational factors in understanding the relative lack to challenge to the power elite by wage and salary workers (see Page and Shapiro 1992, for evidence on the generally reasonable and independent nature of American public opinion).

Although the opinion-shaping process usually does not succeed in shaping opinion, it does muddy the water on specific issues and create a degree of momentary political confusion before everyone moves on to the next crisis or issue. To the degree that the opinion-shaping process has any major impact, it is through the financial donations that the corporate public relations departments and public relations firms make to middle-level voluntary associations, along with the presence of their employees on the board of directors of many of these organizations (Moore, Raffalovich, Whitt, Sobieraj, Dolan, and Beaulieu 2003). Financial support and a direct voice about the policies these nonprofits adopt tend to reinforce the apolitical tendencies already present in such organizations (Domhoff 2005b, Chapter 5; Eliasoph 1998; Himmelstein 1997).

Due to the independence of public opinion and the existence of liberal-labor and Christian Right coalitions that have their own agendas, it is insufficient to look to the special-interest, policy-planning, and opinion-shaping networks in order to understand how the power elite dominates federal decision making. It is also necessary to look at Congress and the political parties, where both Hunter and Mills came up short by neglecting their critical roles. Elections do matter, and they could matter much more to average working people if the power elite did not have ways to exercise their influence in these arenas. In particular, control of Congress is essential to the smooth functioning of the corporate/White House/Pentagon alliance that Mills saw as the pinnacle of power in the postwar era.

The candidate-selection process, a term I adapted from political scientist Walter Dean Burnham (1975) to indicate that American political parties have had little to do with policy formation or political education, is concerned with the selection of elected officials who are sympathetic to the agenda put forth in the special-interest and policy-planning processes. It operates first and foremost through large campaign donations and hired political consultants. In addition, there are many other ways that members of the power elite involve themselves in the careers of the politicians they like, including offers of cushy jobs as lobbyists, motivational speakers, and corporate directors when their political careers are over.

There are dozens of studies of how campaign finance matters, the best and most systematic of which have involved the large databases that have been constructed and analyzed since the 1970s (e.g., Alexander 1992; Allen and Broyles 1991; Burris 1987; Burris and Salt 1990; Clawson, Neustadtl, and Weller 1998). These studies clearly show the dominant role of corporate donors and the sophisticated nature of their donation patterns in terms of both industry needs and access to key members of relevant Congressional committee members from both parties. However, the basic elements of the system go back to the 19th century, including the role of a few key individuals in raising money from their large circle of rich friends for favored candidates (e.g., Domhoff 1990, Chapter 9; Katz 1968). Fat cats also were important during the New Deal era, as nicely shown in research which demonstrates that it was the Southern and ethnic rich who supported the Democrats (Webber 2000), not internationalists or retailers, as in the flawed work of narrow economic determinists such as Thomas Ferguson (1995) and Steven Fraser (1989).

However, as pluralists never grow tired of reminding us, the candidate with the most money does not always win, so there are obviously other factors to be considered. Besides, money for Democratic candidates now comes from rich liberals, an aroused professoriate, and organized labor as well as from the centrist multi-millionaires who have supported the party for generations. Still, as political scientist Alexander Heard (1960, p. 34) concluded way back when, money can provide a "choke point" in the party primaries, an insight that makes the main point that matters for power structure researchers. The simple truth is that it usually takes a very large minimum even to enter the game. When the barriers of entry are high, people with money become essential.

And yet, this hardly means that all politicians are bought and paid for by the power elite. There are numerous liberal and ultra-conservative elected officials who disagree with the perspectives favored by the power elite. However, there aren't enough of them, they aren't well enough organized, and they don't have the staying power of those who are sympathetic to the corporate point of view. Historically, the general result of the candidate selection process was a set of ambitious and relatively issueless elected officials who knew how to go along to get along. More recently, the corporate-oriented politicians, especially those in the Republican Party, often develop strong views on the social issues that help them get elected, but I would note that these issues are not of substantive concern to the power elite.

In considering the candidate-selection process, it is important to stress that there are structural and historical reasons why money has mattered so much in American politics. The electoral rules leading to a two-party system, that is, the single member district plurality system, when combined with the longstanding division of the country into Northern and Southern regions, with very different political economies until the 1960s, adds up to a situation where the parties have been such complex coalitions that it is not always clear to voters what one or the other stands for. Due to this state of affairs, personalities and name recognition can matter a great deal, which provides an opportunity for campaign finance to help distinguish one or another candidate. Even more critically, it offers an opening for the corporate-oriented policies that are offered to elected officials through the special interest and policy-planning networks.

Over and beyond the issue of campaign finance, the party system is important because, as I noted earlier, the independence claimed for the executive branch by Mills is in good part premised on the structure of power in Congress. From the 1790s until fairly recently, class dominance at the legislative level started with the fact that the Northern industrial and finance capitalists controlled the Republican Party (and its predecessors) and the Southern plantation and merchant capitalists controlled the Democrats in a context where it is impossible for a third party on the left or right to grow large or last very long due to the nature of the electoral rules (Domhoff 2003, Chapter 2; Domhoff 2006, Chapter 6, for summaries of the evidence for this claim). So, to the degree that the liberal-labor coalition that developed during the New Deal could exercise any power, it had to do so inside the Democratic Party and in the context of a sordid bargain with the segregationist Southern Democrats, which included acquiescence to complete elite white domination of the low-wage labor force in the South, especially African-Americans. It also meant tacit acceptance of the exclusion of African-Americans from craft unions and good jobs in the North, which mollified the many Northern white workers who saw African Americans as racially inferior or as potential threats to their job security.

Thus, the liberal-labor coalition, with fewer than a majority of Senators and only 100 or so seats in the House, had far less power within the Democratic Party than pluralist social scientists, political liberals, and historians usually suggest. When it came to domestic spending, the liberal-labor coalition had to agree that the South would receive more than its share of the pork and that the Southern white elites could exclude African-Americans if they so desired (Brown 1999). On the occasions when the Northern liberals could convince the urban machine Democrats to break their longstanding bread-and-butter alliance with Southern Democrats and support liberals on an issue in opposition to the Southerners, the Southerners joined with Northern Republicans after 1938 in a highly successful conservative voting bloc to stop any legislation they did not like, which usually involved issues related to control of labor markets in both the North and the South (Clausen 1973; Domhoff 1990, Chapter 9; Manley 1973; Patterson 1981; Shelley 1983). The conservative voting bloc was prematurely pronounced dead and gone starting as early as the 1970s, and it did finally disappear in the late 1990s, because most of the white South has joined the Republicans, but it is worth mentioning that it was the key to Clinton's success in passing NAFTA over the strong objections of the liberal-labor coalition within his party.

The crucial role of the conservative voting bloc for the smooth functioning of the power elite before 1994 can be seen through an analysis of two major pieces of liberal legislation that changed the United States dramatically in the 1930s and the 1960s, the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This analysis is of theoretical importance because both acts, and the National Labor Relations Act in particular, are often considered to be excellent evidence against the idea of class dominance through a power elite in the United States. Although it was most certainly the militancy of industrial workers in the 1930s and the civil rights movement in the 1960s that put these issues on the public agenda, and it was most certainly liberals in Congress who pushed the legislation sought by these movements, it was in fact rare differences in interests and opinions between Northern and Southern segments of the dominant class that made passage possible. In the case of the National Labor Relations Act, the liberal and labor Democrats gained the support of Southern Democrats by excluding the great bulk of the Southern labor force -- that is, agricultural, seasonal, and domestic workers (Domhoff 1990, Chapter 4; Farhang and Katznelson 2005).

If there is any doubt that the plantation capitalists and their elected representatives could have stopped the National Labor Relations Act cold, recall their close relationship with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, their control of congressional committees through the seniority system, and their willingness to use the filibuster on issues of deadly concern to them, which in those days could not be ended with a vote. One of the best arguments for this analysis is that the usefulness of the act soon began a fateful decline when the Southerners turned against it in 1937 and 1938 due to their annoyance with integrated Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) organizing in the South and the use of sit-down strikes in the North. The handwriting was on the wall as early as 1938 when the Southern Democrats entered into negotiations with the ultra-conservatives in the National Association of Manufacturers and the leaders of the American Federation of Labor, by then feeling threatened by the fast-growing CIO, to make the changes in the law that became the Taft-Hartley Act. This handwriting was temporarily obscured by the need to delay the counterattack on labor until the successful completion of World War II (Gross 1981).

As for the Civil Rights Act, it passed because enough Northern Republicans agreed to end their support of the Southern filibuster, which by then could be accomplished with 67 votes. Northern Republican acquiescence in ending the filibuster came at the urging not only of moderate middle-class Republicans outside of Congress, who were supporters of civil rights at that juncture, but at the behest of the many Northern corporate leaders who did not want to see further disruption and upheaval for a variety of reasons, including its effect on downtown real estate values and its embarrassing impact on foreign policy in a day when the power elite was fighting for the hearts and minds of people of color in the Third World.

Would the Civil Rights Act have passed eventually due to public opinion, as pluralist sociologist Paul Burstein (1985) asserts? I think he seriously underestimates the willingness of powerful groups everywhere, including those in the United States, to use violence when the power structures they dominate are challenged. Without the threat of further disruption, and the fear that disruption was going to spread to the North, I don't think the Northern Republicans would have responded.

Since everyone is into what-if scenarios now that they have been elevated in theoretical stature by the term "counterfactuals," I'd like to offer my views on what might have happened in 1935 and 1964 if there had not been divisions between Northern and Southern members of the power elite. I think both acts would have failed to pass Congress and that there would have been violence on the part of corporate capitalists in the 1930s and the Southern capitalists in the 1960s in reaction to continuing disruption by the aggrieved insurgents. Further, I believe the government would have repressed and jailed the insurgents in order to restore tranquility. Elements within organized labor would have tried to escalate the struggle in the mid-1930s, but as we well know from Senate hearings at the time, many corporations had stockpiled weapons and were ready, even eager, for a confrontation (Auerbach 1966). After being defeated in the streets, the labor movement would have been right back where it was at the start of the 1930s, confined to a few areas of the economy where skilled tradesmen could tightly organize to shut down or damage work sites if businesses tried to hire non-union labor.

As for the 1960s, I think a failure to pass the Civil Rights Act would have accelerated the move towards black militancy and the use of violent tactics, and that the black militants would have been joined in their efforts by the revolutionary white left that in any case soon thereafter turned to violence in the anti-war struggle (Ellis 1998, Chapters 4-6). The result would have been extremely violent repression all across the South, where the white leaders were only restrained by the federal government from worse violence than they already had carried out. In the case of the North, the outcome would have been much as it was in the face of the violence that emerged even with the passage of the Civil Rights Act -- government and foundation programs as the carrot and SWAT teams as the stick.

So, contrary to the claims by pluralists, the only significant defeat for a united power elite within living memory concerns the establishment of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 1970, which was strongly opposed by corporate leaders as both a possible precedent for enlarging government regulation and as a potential stronghold for unions. Even here, the ensuing history of this new agency is instructive in terms of how corporate power usually wins out. By the 1980s the power elite had turned the agency into a political prisoner through legislative amendments limiting its power, delays in providing required information, courtroom victories that further reduced its power, and budget cuts that made inspections fewer and more superficial (Noble 1986; Szasz 1984). As if to make this case even more difficult for pluralists, these changes occurred despite strong public sentiment in favor of enforcing workplace safety laws.

"The Privileged Position of Business"

The pluralists completely ignored the four-process model for understanding decision-making at the national level. Any debates with power structure researchers were over by the late 1960s as far as they were concerned. However, they could not so easily ignore events of the 1960s, so some of the pluralists, led by Dahl and his long-time colleague and coauthor, Charles Lindblom, took a forward step that most pluralists refused to accept. They asserted that business has a "privileged position" in a market economy because it controls the right to invest. If politicians are to succeed in office, they therefore have to do whatever is necessary to "induce" business to invest, which gives business a privileged position over and beyond that of a mere interest group (Dahl and Lindblom 1976).

Unfortunately, Dahl and Lindblom believe that this argument is sufficient to explain the great power of business and therefore makes the kind of work done by the likes of Hunter and Mills unnecessary. As Lindblom (1977, p. 175) put it in making clear there would be no concessions to Mills's type of analysis, "To understand the peculiar character of politics in a market-oriented systems requires, however, no conspiracy theory of politics, no theory of common social origins uniting government and business officials, no crude allegations of a power elite established by clandestine forces." Instead, "business simply needs inducements, hence a privileged position in government and politics, if it is to do its job."

However, this theory really only concerns the relationship between business and government, leaving out the fact that there are wage and salary workers in the society who may not acquiesce in the current arrangements if they suffer unemployment during a lengthy depression or develop the strength through unions to challenge corporations. At such times workers may destroy private property, refuse to work, or even take over private property, as in the sit-down strikes in the 1930s, a powerful tactic that was of course banned by the Supreme Court in 1939 (Domhoff 2006, pp. 46-48, for a summary and relevant references).

Nor is it simply in dire situations that the power elite need to dominate the state on the issues of concern to them. For example, the first version of the Employment Act of 1946, created by liberals and leftists inside the federal government, included a provision that mandated government investment if studies showed that private investment would fall short of what was needed for full employment in any given year. True, the provision was removed soon after the legislative process began, at the behest of pro-corporate Senators, but other liberal aspects of the measure remained in place. The corporate community had to fight them vigorously through the conservative voting bloc, a story that was first told in detail by political scientist Stephen Bailey in Congress Makes a Law (1950). Since Bailey wrote, I have supplemented and used this case for theoretical purposes as part of a general argument about why the corporate community needs to dominate the state in order to endure (Domhoff 1990, Chapter 7). Corporations have structural economic power, but there is more to social power than that one dimension.

Explaining The Right Turn

Just about the time power structure researchers were coming up with satisfactory explanations for the liberal-leaning decisions that mainstream social scientists usually refer to as evidence for pluralism, the moderate conservatives within the power elite took a right turn. Few if any theorists saw that right turn coming, including power structure researchers, so explaining it became a new acid test for rival theorists. One thing was for sure, however. The right turn finished off the state autonomy theorists, who by and large deduced from their flawed studies of the Progressive Era and New Deal that the economic problems of the 1970s would be solved by state managers through the expansion of the state. They already had egg on their faces due to the clear involvement of moderate conservatives in decisions they thought were made without any capitalist participation, such as the Social Security Act, but those decisions were made decades earlier, so the new research on them could be ignored. What they could not explain away was capitalists so blatantly and straightforwardly taking charge of the state and trying to shrink parts of it right in front of their noses. According to them, something like this could never happen. They quietly began to call themselves "institutionalists" and are by now largely indistinguishable from the pluralists, except for their rediscovery of institutions as a substitute for interest groups (Domhoff 1996; Finegold and Skocpol 1995; Skocpol 1992).

The right turn also proved difficult for another theory that developed in the 1970s, structural Marxism. According to this view, the heart of the matter is a set of structural economic imperatives within the corporate capitalist economy that lead the state to act in the interests of capital whether or not it is directly controlled and staffed by members of the capitalist class (Poulantzas 1969; Poulantzas 1973). If anything, it is probably just as well if the fragmented and disputatious capitalists and their hired experts are not in the government at all, making it possible for the state managers to do a better job of looking out for the general interests of capital, as argued in the case of the New Deal in one frequently cited article (Block 1977). It is a view that has much in common with the pluralist idea of a "privileged position of business," although it was arrived at independently within a Marxist logic (Block 1987). Perhaps it is not surprising that structural Marxists saw little need for power structure research and dismissed it as beside the point, if not a little misleading (e.g., Balbus 1971; Gold, Lo, and Wright 1975; Mollenkopf 1975b).

However, the successful cutbacks on various government programs by cabinet members and expert consultants in the Reagan Administration, who clearly came from the corporate community and its associated think tanks and policy discussion groups, show the limits of such structural constraints, just as the very real battle over the Employment Act of 1946 shows the limits of the privileged position of business argument. The cutbacks therefore caused many structural Marxists to rethink their theory (for a more detailed discussion of this argument and its aftermath, see Domhoff 1990, pp. 40-44). As one structural Marxist later noted, "One of the tacit assumptions in much Marxist work of the early 1970s was the conviction that the statist turn in capitalism could not be dramatically reversed," which meant that "no one seriously envisioned the wholesale dismantling of the welfare state, the deregulation of markets, the partial reversal of statist capitalism as a way of coping with the crisis tendencies of the period" (Wright 2005, p. 252).

Although the right turn caused major problems for the state autonomy theorists and structural Marxists, it did provide an opening for a new pluralist angle. Now pluralists could say that big business had not ruled in the 1960s and 1970s, but that it did take charge after 1980. This tack is best exemplified in the work of David Vogel (1989) on the "fluctuating fortunes" of business. According to Vogel, the previously disorganized corporations, with their interests under siege, finally were able to pull themselves together and reverse the labor-liberal-consumer-environmentalist dominance of the 1960s. Since we already knew through mountains of research that the corporations were highly organized among themselves, closely linked to the policy-planning network and the federal government, and following a moderate path in the face of all the upheaval of the 1960s, this is a completely inadequate explanation that I have dismantled elsewhere (Domhoff 1990, Chapter 10).

So how do power structure researchers explain the change? By looking at the shifting constellation of forces between the power elite and the liberal-labor coalition. In a word, the civil rights movement dynamited the power arrangements that persisted from 1877 to the mid-1960s, which rested, as I already have said, on the acceptance of African-American exclusion by the liberal-labor coalition as well as by the Northern Republicans, urban machine Democrats, and Southern Democrats. The story begins with a correction of what turned out to be Mills's biggest mistake as a power analyst: his conclusion that there were no longer any independent bases of organization and power in the middle and lower levels of the society. This belief led him to ignore the possibility of independent mobilization and political action by African Americans, using what turned out to be a surprisingly resourceful and resilient organizational base -- the black churches of the South, which provided organizational skills, money, cultural and social solidarity, and charismatic leadership (Morris 1984).

However, the churches did not act alone. Historically black colleges and the sleeping car porters union also provided power resources that Mills had overlooked. When combined with the brilliant use of strategic non-violence, and with the help of a handful of white allies, many of them religious leaders, the result was great pressure on the political system. With the defeat of the Southern filibuster that I mentioned earlier, most of the original demands of the movement were finally handled in a moderate way, although we shouldn't forget that key enforcement provisions were dropped at the insistence of Southern white elites.

There is one more mistake by Mills that has to be addressed before we can understand the right turn. He thought there was a "truce" between organized labor and the moderate conservatives in the power elite that was a stable and permanent one, with class conflict contained within administrative and judicial structures. Contrary to that claim, which Mills discussed for only a sentence or two in The Power Elite after giving it several paragraphs in The New Men of Power (1948, pp. 23-25), historical research by James Gross (1974; 1981; 1995) on the origins and activities of the National Labor Relations Board reveals that there never was any real acceptance of unions on the part of the moderate conservatives.

Moreover, thanks to Gross's (1995) now-it-can-be-told interviews with corporate lawyers and National Labor Relations Board officials, we also know that the moderate conservatives felt deeply threatened by a labor board decision in 1962 that reversed an earlier decision by a Republican-dominated board and gave unions the right to bargain over outsourcing. Interpreting that decision as a direct challenge to their right to manage and to invest resources when and where they pleased, the moderate conservatives within the power elite quietly organized a counteroffensive to reverse that decision within the labor board shortly after it was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1965. Such a reversal would require a Republican president in order to insure that all labor board appointees would be anti-union. It was victory in this battle, finally achieved in the early 1970s, in conjunction with a concurrent successful attack on construction unions as part of the fight against inflation, that spelled the beginning of the end for the limited power labor unions had achieved. This corporate effort also led to the creation of the Business Roundtable, which became the central policy group in the power elite in the mid-1970s, to the shock and awe of many observers, including Vogel (1989), who then decided that business had become powerful because it had finally organized.

In other words, Mills underestimated the inherent class conflict within the capitalist system over wages, hours, working conditions, and control of the production process, as well as the desire on the part of most capitalists to eliminate unions if they possibly can, because unions have the potential to cut into profits and interfere with the right to manage. I do not believe that capitalism generates an inevitable and uncontainable economic crisis due to an unfolding dialectic that involves overproduction, underconsumption, a falling rate of profit, and increasingly unmanageable depressions, but it does contain ongoing conflict between capitalists and workers over the distribution of the surplus, with most capitalists favoring low wages, minimal taxes, and minimal regulation of their activities, and most wage workers desiring just the opposite, along with help from the government in creating unions (see Hahnel 2005, Chapter 3, for a critique of the Marxist view from a perspective that recognizes the important of inherent class conflict). Mills was therefore wrong to downplay a conflict which inevitably leads to battles over state policy, but of course he is not alone. Pluralists and institutionalists avoid any suggestion of class conflict as if it were the plague.

Within the context of civil rights militancy on the one hand and capital-labor conflict on the other, the old power arrangements fractured. That is, both Southern and Northern capitalists were having trouble with their workers. To begin with the South, the civil rights movement set in motion a train of events that led to the abandonment of the Democratic Party by the Southern rich because it could no longer keep African Americans powerless due to the fact that they could vote against the worst racists in Democratic Party primaries. Southern white elites, who were in the process of industrializing in any case, thanks to runaway shops and defense contracts handed to them by their representatives in Congress, then carried a majority of white Southerners into the Republican Party on the basis of appeals to racial resentments, religious fundamentalism, superpatriotism, and social issues like gun control. They had a huge assist from Alabama governor George Wallace in this endeavor, who was working the racial angle for his own reasons, not to help out the Southern white rich (Carmines and Stimson 1989; Carter 2000).

But it was not just racial conflict in the South that destroyed the New Deal coalition within the Democratic Party. It was also racial conflict in the North, as historians are now revealing in detail as they reexamine the documents and press releases showing that the words later mouthed by allegedly prescient right-wingers in the late 1960s were already being said quite openly by the many white trade unionists who were not prepared to share jobs or power with African Americans (e.g., Sugrue 2001). There were a few notable exceptions, of course, and many union leaders supported the civil rights movement at the legislative level, but enough of the rank-and-file resisted integration in housing, schooling, and unions to put the Democrats on the defensive in the North as well as the South. This point is seen most dramatically in the votes for Wallace, an avowed segregationist, in Democratic primaries as early as 1964 -- 30% in Indiana, 34% in Wisconsin, and 47% in the former slave state of Maryland, where he won 16 of 23 counties, the state capitol, and the "ethnic" neighborhoods of Baltimore (Carter 2000, p. 215). In 1972, mixing tirades against busing and welfare with revivalist religious appeals, Wallace then presaged the more coded and symbolic racist politics of the Christian Right by winning Democratic primaries in Michigan and Maryland just when he was forced to drop out of the race by the assassination attempt that left him paralyzed and in excruciating pain (Carter 2000).

Nor was it just racial conflict that led rank-and-file union members to aid unwittingly in the weakening of their movement at a time when it was beginning to come under siege. Many of them did not like the feminists or environmentalists either, whom they thought of as competitors for their jobs or as threats to their status as proud white males. Moreover, many white union members did not like what they saw as the anti-Americanism of the anti-war movement. They were not crazy about the war, but they came to dislike the protestors even more (Mueller 1984). Although I strongly believe that racism was the primary issue, all of these factors contributed to the disintegration of the liberal-labor coalition and made it possible for Nixon and his right-wing allies to attract more and more white Middle Americans (blue collar and white collar, union and non-union) into the Republican Party. Some political scientists now tell us that after 1975 these newly minted white Republicans tended to have higher incomes, but their analysis too readily reduces the issue to income levels in a context where appeals to racism and moralistic religious whiteness already had set the new course ten years earlier (e.g., McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal 2006).

For several reasons, then, enough Middle Americans switched to the Republicans to solidify a corporate-conservative coalition that then got what it wanted from Nixon and future Republican presidents in terms of a National Labor Relations Board that would legitimate outsourcing and in other ways continue to undercut the union movement, a story that once again is best told by Gross (1995). From the point of view of power structure research, it was these crucial power dynamics -- not the sudden organization of the corporate community, as in Vogel's (1989) theory, nor something so general and subsequent as "internationalization" or "globalization," as in some recent theories -- that started the decline of the union movement in the 1970s. This analysis is also supported by the fact that the unions have not declined nearly as far or as fast in Canada and Western Europe.

The nationwide white turn to the Republicans also made it possible for the moderate conservatives to make a right turn on other policy issues in the 1970s once inner cities were contained again and corporations were faced with new economic problems due to spiking oil prices, inflation, and rising unemployment, not to mention the challenge to their markets and profits by the German and Japanese corporations they had decided to nurture after World War II in order to solidify a global capitalist system. We know in detail about this decision to turn right because the issues were debated in the policy-planning network, thereby making content analyses of their policy intentions possible. For example, political scientist Joseph Peschek (1987) showed in a study of the policy positions proposed in the 1970s by five different think tanks and policy-discussion groups that centrist groups like The Brookings Institution turned rightward in the face of the new problems and possibilities, with former Democratic appointees leading the way. And sociologists Craig Jenkins and Craig Eckert (2000) looked at both policy-discussion groups and think tanks to show how the various tendencies within the policy-planning network did battle on these issues.

The inner tensions and disagreements over how much policy should change are revealed by the deliberations at a moderate-conservative policy-discussion group, the Committee for Economic Development, where the majority of corporate trustees turned their backs on the mildly liberal line they said taken from 1960 to 1974 and said no to permanent wage and price controls as well as to the other plans for greater government involvement in the economy that some members had been entertaining. Instead, they advocated monetary policies that would cure inflation through throwing people out of work, cutbacks in the welfare state, deregulation of key business sectors, and continuing attacks on unions (Frederick 1981). The Business Roundtable took charge of the right turn and made the Committee for Economic Development into a research satellite (Domhoff 2006, pp. 97-100).

It is here that we encounter the grain of truth in Vogel's (1989) analysis. The power elite were more politically mobilized in a rightward direction -- not more "organized" -- now that the streets were calm and they could work as part of a corporate-conservative coalition housed increasingly within the Republican Party. Further aided by the fact that the liberal-labor coalition was weakened by its internal conflicts, the power elite could start a new "class war" that would undercut many of the economic reforms that had been forced upon them by the social movements of the 1960s. This rightward political mobilization, which actually began during the Carter Administration, is chronicled extremely well by Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward (1982), although they go astray in their final chapter by predicting that the development of a "new moral economy" in the 1960s and 1970s would make it possible for an expanded liberal-labor-left-welfare-elderly coalition to mount a successful resistance (Domhoff 1983a).

Ever since that time, the power elite has been reasonably united in taking a rightist direction on most issues. Yes, they argue among themselves over who is going to receive the most tax breaks or the largest subsidies, or over how much the economy can be deregulated without creating the kinds of temptations that lead to accounting scandals, investment scams, kickbacks, and rigged markets, but they agree that taxes need to be cut as much as possible to limit the size of government. They also disagree on how much Social Security and Medicare need to be cut, and over whether they should go it alone or make certain that allies are on board when they decide to intervene in other countries, as seen in the moderate conservatives' anguished commentaries on the op ed pages of the New York Times and Washington Post concerning the war in Iraq. (I think the moderate conservatives were ready to support a war in Iraq, but only with legitimation from the United Nations and military support from major American allies.) Even with the bitter acrimony once the war effort faltered, however, both moderate conservatives and ultra-conservatives agree that defense spending should increase, that social spending should be cut whenever possible, and that the United States should rule the world to the greatest extent possible.

This analysis of the right turn since the mid-1970s is one that might momentarily gladden the hearts of pluralists and institutionalists because it reveals some temporary alliances and even some complicated cross-class coalitions, including the development of the coalition between the power elite and middle-level social conservatives that dominated the country during the George W. Bush years. But it differs from pluralism and institutionalism because the fundamental axis runs along class lines, with the complications being added by the historic differences between the Northern and Southern political economies, and by the introduction of racial, religious, and gender issues into the candidate-selection process. The shifting coalitions for the most part involve class segments, not mere "interest groups," and the driving force of the process is rooted in the functioning of the economy. Most of all, this account disagrees with pluralism and institutionalism because it shows the continuing domination of the federal government by a corporate-based power elite, first tacking "leftward" in the face of the militancy of the civil rights movement and its offshoots, then rightward when it had to choose between government-oriented and market-oriented solutions to the new economic problems that it faced in the 1970s.


I think the American power structure of today looks far more like what Mills, Hunter, and the plain Marxists would have expected than what pluralists, state autonomy theorists, institutionalists, or structural Marxists projected. Furthermore, power structure researchers piled up a large amount of work that answered most, if not all, of the questions and criticisms raised by the pluralists and institutionalists. If sociologists were to reconsider theories of power in the light of events and research over the past 50 years, then I believe we would have to start with a theory in which a power elite wields power as the leadership group for the corporate community and the upper class, winning far more often than not against their many opponents, who have never been able to negotiate the compromises and alliances among themselves that would be needed in order to make full use of the power bases they actually have. In fact, figuring out how these disparate oppositional forces might become united enough to take advantage of the divisions within the power elite would be a worthy challenge for all those who share the egalitarian vision that inspired Floyd Hunter, C. Wright Mills, and the power structure researchers who continue in their footsteps.


My thanks to Val Burris and Rhonda F. Levine for their very helpful comments on the first draft of this paper.


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