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Who’s Running This Show?

Who Rules America?

by G. William Domhoff
Prentice Hall, 184 pp., $4.95

The Power Structure

by Arnold M. Rose
Oxford, 506 pp., $8.50

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 business wealth. Later he uses the words “business aristocracy” (the term is taken from the work of Digby Baltzell) as synonymous with the upper class—meaning by this not that all members of the upper class are businessmen, which they are not, but that a tie of business interest underlies and unifies most of the upper class.

THIS IS ALL preliminary to the main argument. Having established the existence and the peculiar marks of an upper class, Domhoff now must show that in the hands of this class reside the control of the corporate economy, the shaping of the American polity, and the basic direction of the Federal government, including its military policy.

There are two ways of demonstrating such a claim. One is to prove that the key decisions within these areas of power are in fact made by members of the upper class—to establish that it is they who call the shots. The other is simply to show that the institutions within which these decisions are made—the corporation, the State and Defense Departments, the White House, etc.—are headed or staffed by upper-class members who can therefore be presumed to control the policies that flow from these institutions. That is, instead of showing who makes decisions, one analyzes the “situations” in which decisions are made. Domhoff chooses the second method for several reasons, some having to do with the accessibility of the data (it is much easier to find out who sits where than to ascertain who says what), and partly, I suspect, because this method is more congenial to establishing what he wants to establish.

What does Domhoff’s analysis reveal? It is hardly surprising to discover that the upper class is intimately connected with the corporate structure and with the system of wealth based on that structure. Wealth and income in America may be more equally divided than in the past, but the share going to the very top remains very large: 45,000 families (0.1 percent of all families) receive an average income of $110,000 a year, and some 90,000 families own between two-thirds and three-quarters of all corporate stock. There is no proof that this propertied elite is identical with the social elite, but all evidence points to a very large overlap. Moreover, there is no doubt that the social upper class provides more than 50 percent of the directors of the top-most companies, while many of the remaining directors are members of various elites (lawyers, professional men of various kinds, college presidents), some of whom are on the road to entering the upper class.

The American polity—i.e., its political will—is a more difficult matter to analyze by Domhoff’s method. Essentially what he shows is that the upper class has a predominant voice (or, more accurately, a predominant representation) in many of the organizations that seek to influence American thought. The big foundations, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Foreign Policy Association, the NAM and the CED, the universities, the important media, etc., are by and large run by members of the upper class. Whereas Domhoff does not maintain that these institutions can “make” public opinion at will, he agrees with Richard Rovere that the Establishment has “very nearly unchallenged power in deciding what is and what is not respectable opinion in this country.”

Moving on to the Federal government, Domhoff shows that the upper class provides the main financial backing of both the Republican and the Democratic parties, that it is an important source of recruitment for Cabinet posts, that it furnishes Presidents (who are usually not members of the upper class themselves) with their coteries of advisers, that it permeates the diplomatic corps and the regulatory agencies, at least at the top. The military, too, are usually subject to the leadership of the upper class, as evidenced by a study of the personnel heading the Department of Defense: “Of eight men who have served in the [Secretaryship of Defense] since it was created in 1947, five were listed in the Social Register and the remaining three were a corporation lawyer, a president of General Motors, and a president of the Ford Motor Company.”

Thus, in area after area, Domhoff succeeds in showing that the command posts are filled by representatives of a small, socially identifiable group. Quite properly he does not push this claim too far. There are loci of power in American life—mainly Congress, and state and local government, and certain agencies such as the FBI—where the representation of the upper class is missing and its influence, presumably, minimal. “The national upper class…does not control every aspect of American life,” Domhoff concedes, but weighing the evidence as a whole he is led to conclude that “the income, wealth, and institutional leadership of…’the American business aristocracy’ are more than sufficient to earn it the designation ‘governing class.’ ”

THIS IS, of course, a radical analysis—radical not in the sense of advocating wholesale social change (Domhoff’s book has no programmatic intent) but by virtue of its description: Domhoff quotes C. Wright Mills that, “when little is known, or only trivial items publicized, then plain description becomes a radical fact—or at least is taken to be radically upsetting.” Hence Domhoff’s position is apt to provoke stiffened attitudes from many readers, and a reception which is less interested in assessing his findings as a whole than in taking exception to this or that aspect of them.

That would be unfortunate, for as far as it goes the book sheds a good deal of light on an aspect of American society where the floodlights of publicity can hardly be said to play. The designation of an “upper class” and its association with power are attributes of reality that it is well to call to our attention, if only because these attributes are politely or pointedly overlooked by most social analysts. Yet, having made this important identification, one can legitimately ask what else Domhoff has shown.

Here the book displays two weaknesses. The first, which is perhaps inherent in his mode of analysis, is a failure to specify exactly what is meant by the “control” that the upper class wields. Take, for example, the least disputable fact—that the upper class controls the corporate economy. Certainly it is true that the upper class holds the directorships and that it receives a large share of the dividends. But what is the “control” that it exercises? The corporate economy is not a single machine to be steered at will, but rather a congeries of semi-competitive institutions whose activities impinge on each other. Certainly individual boards of directors control the course of their corporations (within the limits allowed them by pressure of the market), but it is difficult to see what is meant by the “collective” control of the upper class when each board of directors is out to undercut—certainly not to augment—the income and prerogatives of the boards competing wth it.

THE MEANING of the key word control becomes even more elusive when we turn to other sectors of the nation. “Control of America’s leading universities by members of the American business aristocracy is more direct than with any other institutions which they control,” writes Domhoff. In so far as “control” means occupancy of certain seats (here designated as Trustees) this is undoubtedly true. But what is the limit or effectiveness of this “control”? Occasionally, as in Berkeley, the Trustees will assert their right to hire or fire a president. But it is one thing to fire a president, and another to interfere with or to shape the curriculum, the expression of faculty views, the temper of the student body, etc. Here it would be my judgment that the Trustees are very nearly powerless. Or to turn from the university to the Federal government, it is again one thing to note that advisers and Secretaries are noticeably of upper-class background, but another to demonstrate that specific interests, policies, and decisions follow from this class domination which would not take place were another class to have those positions.

To this it may be said that the interests, decisions, and policies of the government (or of the universities, etc.) need be no more than those that generally protect the United States as a social order in which there can be an upper class based mainly on wealth—that the “control” of the upper class need consist in no more than maintaining the general compass setting that steers us toward social, economic, and political objectives compatible with the maintenance of property as the basis of the social order.

As a general historical statement this is true, and important to say. But once we have said it, the course of history is still left indeterminate. For Domhoff is careful to stress that the upper class is not a unified group with a single defined strategy or goal. It includes among its members civil libertarians as well as segregationists, hard-line anti-Communists as well as advocates of rapprochement, supporters of Eugene McCarthy as well as of Joseph McCarthy. In a word, the identification of an upper class, and the demonstration that it occupies the seats of power, do not allow one to make essential predictions as to the future course of American national behavior. If we withdraw from Vietnam or advance there, if we disengage from the Cold War or intensify it, if we rebuild the cities or allow them to rot, in each case and on each side we will be able to discern the “controlling” influence of the upper class. What we have, then, is an analysis that cannot be put to practical use. Mr. Domhoff’s analysis cuts through much obfuscation with a sharp knife, but just when that knife is applied to the purposes for which we need it most, it loses its cutting edge.

THIS BRINGS US to Arnold Rose’s The Power Structure, a much longer, less well organized, and generally more polemical book, but one that contrasts with it almost perfectly—for Rose reaches (or should I say, begins from) conclusions totally different from those of Domhoff. For one thing, the concept of class structure does not really enter Rose’s book at all. He is not interested in the question that absorbs Domhoff: Is there a social group whose interests are dominant? Rose wants to know what the elites are up to, and elites—the outstanding members of any profession or occupation or function—need not belong to a given class. Rose pursues the question of power along lines that take him away from an examination of the social position of institutional leaders into the smoke-filled back rooms where somebody, very likely not in the Social Register, is deciding what policy is really going to be.

This leads Rose into the investigation of particular struggles, such as the Kennedy nomination or the passage of the Medicare bill or the local political structure of Texas. These stories do not enlist much new information, but they all arrive with considerable persuasiveness at a common conclusion—that businessmen do not constitute a power elite of any overriding importance: or, conversely, that the power of the business elite is effectively hedged or countered by that of other elites, such as the military or the political elites. “The relationship between the economic elite and the political authorities,” writes Rose, “has been a constantly varying one of strong influence, co-operation, division of labor, and conflict…. Further, neither the economic elite nor the political authorities are monolithic units which act with internal consensus and coordinated action with regard to each other…. In fact there are several economic elites which only very rarely act as units within themselves and among themselves, and there…are actually four political parties, two liberal ones and two conservative ones….” In other words, Rose seeks to substantiate (with “facts that leave no significant areas of omission”) the hypothesis that the power structure must be defined as a product of many influences rather than as the result of the domination of a single economic elite.*

Thus Rose’s book provides in some detail—although not really on a broad national scale—a sense of the clash of interests from which emerges the determination of actual issues. Yet, to my mind, as an over-all attempt to explain how America is ruled, it suffers from a fault as vitiating as those in Domhoff’s book. The trouble is that Rose does not explain the nature of the interests that bind the contestants, over and above the issues that divide them. He does not see, as Domhoff does, that the politician who struggles against a businessman, especially on a national rather than a local issue, may also be a representative of the interests of the upper class. To bring this point out clearly would require a wider canvas than Rose has used. An analysis of the forces which were for and against such measures as the attempt to regulate the auto industry, or to control business-caused pollution; or, for that matter, an analysis of the politics of the entire New Deal or the New Economics, would clearly reveal that certain members of the upper class were ranged against the business community, because those sectors of the upper class saw their long-term interest in broader terms than immediate profits.

But the weakness of Rose’s book goes deeper than that. In portraying America as a society ruled by the clash of elites, he loses sight of the fundamental fact that America is also a class society—that is, a society in which a certain form of privilege, reward, ideology, and interest have emerged to surround and protect a particular social and economic hierarchy. As a result, whereas Domhoff’s analysis has no predictable direction, Rose’s had no center of gravity. If C. Wright Mills were alive he would criticize Rose’s effort for failing to give his elites “coherence as an historical force” (The Power Elite, p. 16), and I think in this instance he would be right.

Is it possible to define the nature of the American social and economic structure, and its relation both to history and to political events, more clearly than this? I would think that we need to combine the two approaches, beginning with Domhoff’s essential identification of the hegemony of a national upper class based on private property, and then proceeding along Rose’s lines, first to specify the divisions of this upper class into factions, and then to trace the influence of these factions in the processes of politics. Such a composite approach, combining historicity and particularism, would constitute a major contribution to American sociology. I wonder if anyone will succeed in producing a book that will be at once so objective and so radical.


An Empirical Question April 25, 1968

  1. *

    Mr. Rose is a sociologist and should not therefore be chastized too severely for economic ignorance, but in two isstances his references to economics are too much for me to take. On p. 53 he writes, “Just as in economics, where supply determines price in the short run and demand determines it in the long run, so….” Mr. Rose, it is just the other way around. And on p. 107, discussing the Kennedy steel confrontation, he writes, “The steel companies did not raise their prices until about a year later, when the normal increase in productivity made a price increase compatible with the anti-inflation policy.” Mr. Rose, productivity increases made possible price decreases.

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