Who Rules America?
The Power Structure
Is there an American upper class? Of course there is, although the admission may go against the American grain. (It is interesting to reflect that the only other country with as much difficulty in admitting to a class structure is the Soviet Union.) But is the American upper class a ruling class? That is, does it, by virtue of its social and economic position, also hold the reins of political power? That is a more difficult problem, for it is possible to contend that power in America is exercised not by a class but by various elites who may not be members of a superior class, and whose allegiance to or alliance with it may be temporary or subject to change. It is over this question that the two books under review differ sharply. G. William Domhoff argues in Who Rules America? that the upper class is a governing class; Arnold M. Rose maintains, in The Power Structure, that this is not the way power is exercised at all.
Domhoff’s book is lean and precise, and largely devoid of the animus one expects in books that set out to demonstrate a thesis of its kind. It marshals its facts carefully and presents, on the whole, a convincing case that there exists an identifiable group
which receives a disproportionate amount of [the] country’s income, owns a disproportionate amount of [the] country’s wealth, and contributes a disproportionate number of its members to the controlling institutions and key decision-making groups of [the] country.
Who constitutes the group? Domhoff’s criteria are both social and economic. Membership in the upper class is attested by one or more of the following: (1) listing in the Social Register; (2) attendance at one of a fairly small number of prep schools (Choate, Groton, Lawrenceville, etc.); (3) membership in one of the small number of exclusive men’s clubs (in New York, the Brook, Knickerbocker, Harmonie); (4) family wealth (a millionaire entrepreneurial father or a $100,000 corporate executive or lawyer father); or (5) by marital or close family attachment to the above.
One can of course criticize such a list which, like any attempt to set forth formal criteria, fails to take into account every case. There are certainly some products of prep schools who are by no stretch of the imagination upper class, and there are millionaires who would never be allowed into the Knickerbocker. But it would be foolish to fault the effort because of its inadequacies. To my mind Domhoff has correctly identified a “crowd” that certainly has high social status, in large part derived from just these qualifications. It is, Domhoff hastens to add, an open class to which new recruits are constantly added, largely through advancement within the large corporations or other upper-class controlled institutions.
Finally we should note that, although Domhoff defines his upper class as a social group (whose members freely mix and intermarry), the characteristics he uses to define them include the all-important non-social element of …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.
An Empirical Question April 25, 1968