American Politics Term Paper

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Power Elite

Every country has its own powerful and influential groups that seem to control and literally run the state. These groups have unlimited powers and they seem to exert an unhindered and unobstructed influence on the economic, political and military decisions. Wright Mills was one of the pioneers in the field of power elite theorists who closely examined the nature and function of the elite and explained how the three powerful groups i.e. The economy, politics and military merge to dominate the state affairs and to certain extent even personal affairs of people. This is because this power elite enjoys the privileges to make major decisions that affect everything including life of the common man:

The powers of ordinary men are circumscribed by the everyday worlds in which they live, yet even in these rounds of job, family, and neighborhood they often seem driven by forces they can neither understand nor govern. 'Great changes' are beyond their control, but affect their conduct and outlook nonetheless. (p.3)

Early in the book, in fact on the very first page of the very first chapter 'The Higher Circles' the author makes it absolutely clear what he means by power elite. He identifies some important characteristics of this group that he discusses in detail later in the book. Mills argues that the power elite has its influence grounded in centralization of information and power. The group that according to him, controls the major affairs in politics, military and economy is composed of people who enjoy unlimited access to the central base where power resides:

As the means of information and of power are centralized, some men come to occupy positions in American society from which they can look down upon, so to speak, and by their decisions mightily affect, the everyday worlds of ordinary' men and women. They are not made by their jobs; they set up and break down jobs for thousands of others; they are not confined by simple family responsibilities; they can escape. They may live in many hotels and houses, but they are bound by no one community. They need not merely 'meet the demands of the day and hour'; in some part, they create these demands, and cause others to meet them. Whether or not they profess their power, their technical and political experience of it far transcends that of the underlying population." (p. 3)

For those who are only interested in the central thesis of the book and can do without the details given later, the first chapter is all they need to read. It contains a lengthy description of the thesis that there exists something called power elite and that they "are not solitary rulers." The rest of the book only further expands upon the information provided in the first chapter but make for highly interesting even if slightly controversial reading.

According to Mills, the power elite refers to "those political, economic, and military circles, which as an intricate set of overlapping cliques share decisions having at least national consequences. In so far as national events are decided, the power elite are those who decide them" (p. 18) This group is interlinked and it is because of the interlocking of the three that power elite enjoy immense power. In other words, the author maintains that power elite is immensely influential mainly because of its access to centralized information, which means they have access to those institutions that can make or break the state and individuals. These institutions that can be called the powerhouses of any country are as follows:

The economy-once a great scatter of small productive units in autonomous balance-has become dominated by two or three hundred giant corporations, administratively and politically interrelated, which together hold the keys to economic decisions...The political order, once a slim decentralized set of several dozen states with a weak spinal cord, has become a centralized, executive establishment, which as taken into itself many powers previously scattered, and now enters into each and every cranny of the social structure.

The military order, once a slim establishment in a context of distrust fed by state militia, has become the largest and most expensive feature of government, and, although well versed in smiling public relations, now has all the grim and clumsy efficiency of sprawling bureaucratic domain (p. 7)

The book offers highly interesting and useful insight into the lives of the rich and powerful. The author has focused more precisely on the American culture of celebrity worship but I personally believe that same analysis can be applied to all countries of the world because wealth and power enjoy universal appeal. Mills however argues from American viewpoint and feels that power elite exists because we have a celebrity culture in our society. We give undue attention and respect to all those who have wealth and power. Somehow they become our role models, the icons we look up to even if they are completely devoid of personal virtues or moral goodness. The celebrity here is not someone from the fashion or glamour world precisely but everyone who is anyone for the mass media. In the chapter 'The Celebrity', Mills explains how celebrity culture endures:

All those who succeed in America -- no matter what their circle of origin or their sphere of action -- are likely to become involved in the world of the celebrity.... But what are the celebrities? The celebrities are The Names that need no further identification. Those who know them so far exceed those of whom they know as to require no exact computation. Wherever the celebrities go, they are recognized, and moreover, recognized with some excitement and awe. Whatever they do has publicity value. More or less continuously, over a period of time, they are the material for the media of communication and entertainment. And, when that time ends -- as it must -- and the celebrity still lives -- as be may -- from time to time it may be asked, 'Remember him?' That is what celebrity means. (p. 70-71)

Mills goes back and forth in time to explain how this power culture was created and how it has remained intact since the independence. The author maintains that apart from the usual crowd i.e. The politicians and the entertainment professionals we have the corporate heroes who form an integral part of the power elite group. These are those obscenely rich people who made their fortunes during the industrial age and have managed to grow in wealth and power over the century. In the chapter 'The Very Rich', Mills argues that these very rich people have now been able to attain the support of the mass media that projects them in positive light even though they were once called the 'robber barons'. In the past, they at least had the academic community against them but with the passage of time, it seems everyone including the scholars are in awe of their power and affluence.

The fabulously rich, as well as the mere millionaires, are still very much among us; moreover, since the organization of the United States for World War II, new types of 'rich men' with new types of power and prerogative have joined their ranks. Together they form the corporate rich of America, whose wealth and power is today comparable with those of any stratum, anywhere or anytime in world history..." (p. 94)

The best and probably the harshest criticism of the power elite culture comes in the chapter titled 'The Power Elite'. Here the author makes it absolutely clear that he rejects the power culture because it is the main source of social disparities and injustices that prevail in our country. Mills argues that the reason why this elite group exists and has survived is grounded in the apathy of the general public. The public knows someone is meant to control the state affairs and take major decisions, so it sits back and relax without realizing that this apathy enhances the power elite.

It is not that the elite 'believe 'in' a compact elite behind the scenes and a mass down below. It is not put in that language. It is just that the people are of necessity confused and must, like trusting children, place all the new world of foreign policy and strategy and executive action in the hands of experts. It is just that everyone knows somebody has got to run the show, and that somebody usually does. Others do not really care anyway, and besides, they do not know how. So the gap between the two types gets wider. (p. 294)

Mills also focuses on the 'immorality' of power elite in the chapter 'The higher immorality' saying that because of unlimited power and the ability to access to certain institutions, power elite is generally immoral. This means that corruption, lack of personal and social responsibility, indifference to welfare of others and want of good values characterize this group. With the contemporary display of unethical behavior by major corporate giants, we…

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