Local Power Structures

Although most political scientists thought there was no way Hunter's conclusions about the concentration of power in Atlanta could be plausible in a country with competing political parties, a free press, and the right to assemble and organize into interest groups, the critiques of his findings were methodological in nature. His interview method for constructing elite social networks and learning about their activities, based on asking knowledgeable people to nominate the people they thought to be powerful, and then in turn interviewing those who were nominated, was later shown to be a sophisticated way to uncover networks of power (Kadushin, 1968). However, it was pejoratively called the "reputational" method by Dahl and fellow pluralists to make it seem like mere fluff. They said it used questions that were too general to be of any use--even though it did ask people to discuss their involvement in policy issues they deemed important--and was probably contaminated by what informants read in the newspapers besides (Polsby, 1980; Wolfinger, 1960).

But the reputational method was hardly the failure that pluralists proclaimed it to be. Dozens of researchers 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 cohesive power structure (see Hawley and Svara, 1972, for a summary of 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 cross-national differences (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). Later the value of the method was demonstrated at the national level in Norway (Higley et al., 1976), Australia (Higley and Deacon, 1985), and the United States (Higley and Moore, 1981; Moore, 1979).

Despite all this evidence for the usefulness of this social network method, Hunter's findings seemed dead and buried by the early 1970s. However, political scientist Clarence Stone (1976, 1989) unexpectedly 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 different methods than Hunter did, 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. Even better, 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 main goal of increasing real estate values through the intensification of land use (Molotch, 1976). To the degree that this pro-growth coalition faces opposition, it comes from neighborhoods that want to protect their amenities against downtown expansion, high rises, and freeways. More abstractly, this means there is a built-in conflict between exchange values and use values in cities that 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 a vain attempt to create more jobs in the overall economy, whereas environmentalists, university students, and left-wing activists usually line up with the neighborhoods even though there is nothing inherently progressive or environmentalist 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 (Domhoff, 1983, Chapter 6). Then the idea gained further support in later studies by Todd Swanstrom (1985), John Mollenkopf (1983), and Richard Gendron (2006). This strong claim even encompasses New Haven, a fact I demonstrated in a case study based on documents unavailable to Dahl at the time of his study, along with my new interviews and a reanalysis of Dahl's own interviews, which he graciously shared with me in 1975 (Domhoff, 1978, 1983). My New Haven study is now updated with more recent archival documents discovered in the papers of Mayor Richard Lee and his main aide, Edward Logue, which became available in the late 1990s and early 2000s. These papers reveal that Yale 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). So, 50 years later, we can say that Hunter's basic findings on the dominance of cities by land-based growth elites have emerged triumphant. Although some differences remain among the theorists I have mentioned, which I have spelled out elsewhere (Domhoff, 2006a), 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 focus.

The National Power Structure

Mills's theoretical emphasis in claiming that a small and reasonably cohesive elite dominated the national levels of power was on the people who held leadership positions in the major bureaucratic organizations that had arisen in the United States in the course of its 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. Working together due to common social backgrounds, similar experiences in large-scale organizations, and the realization that they had shared interests, the people Mills called the corporate rich, the political directorate, and the warlords were closely enough knit and took in each other's washing just frequently enough to be a "power elite." To the degree that national-level decisions were made, Mills said, the power elite were the ones who made them.

But how did he know that the power elite were powerful if he didn't study any decisions? In effect, he assumed they were powerful because they managed large and strategically located hierarchies that dwarfed 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 had the ability to work together for common goals, especially when they joined together to defeat their common enemy, the liberal-labor coalition, and of course we know that there is nothing like a common enemy to bring people together. So, if you run a corporation, or the Department of State, or the Pentagon, then you are a Decider, to use the new term introduced by the current main Decider in the United States.

Methodologically speaking, however, there is a little more to it than that. Although he did not say so directly, Mills was making use of two of the power indicators I mentioned in the introduction, now often called the "who benefits?" and "who governs?" indicators of power. Specifically, Mills showed in detail that the corporate rich and their corporations had a disproportionate share of all privately held wealth and income, and that they were over-represented in the key decision-making positions in the executive branch of the federal government.

As might be expected, these two power indicators were no more convincing to Dahl and most other mainstream political scientists than the reputational method. According to pluralists, disproportionate wealth and income cannot be used as power indicators because some of these skewed distributions may be accidental. They may 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 was 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., Mintz, 1975; Zweigenhaft and Domhoff, 2006). The pluralists' niggling critiques once again overlook the fact that there are defects in all indicators, and perhaps most of all in the decisional--who wins?--indicator.

Although the pluralists' critique of these two power indicators was misguided, power structure research took the high road in responding to the insistence on decisional studies by creating a framework within which good historical case studies can be carried out to test pluralist claims on their own methodological turf. In the process, most researchers in this tradition came to believe, contrary to Mills, that the corporate rich were are the heart of the power elite. Drawing on a detailed tracing of linkages among individuals, institutions, money flows, and policy issues, this decisional model suggests there are four relatively distinct but overlapping processes through which the corporate community, and more generally the 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. 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 thousands of such studies by now, a great many of them by political scientists, that explain the hows and whys of corporate victories in this arena. Most of the relatively few defeats for any specific company or industry usually come at the hands of other industries, and only rarely at the hands of the main opposition to the power elite, the liberal-labor coalition (see Domhoff, 2006b, pp. 173-176, for a more complete discussion of wins and losses for corporations in this process).

Most political 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. More importantly, the special-interest process does not deal with the broader-gauged policies that are important in shaping the general contours of the society, a criticism voiced long ago by one of the very best of the interest-group analysts, Grant McConnell (1966), whose conclusion that various interests controlled a substantial part of the American government made him something more than a pluralist. Nevertheless, he thought that the corporate community was 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 McConnell's critique can be found in the policy-planning process, which strives to formulate policies concerning the general interests of the corporate community. It operates through a policy-planning network of foundations, think tanks, and policy-discussion groups that are financed and overseen by corporate leaders, with a focus on the White House, relevant Congressional committees, and the high-status newspapers and opinion magazines published in New York and Washington. It has what Mills called "sophisticated" and "practical" conservative tendencies within it, which I prefer to call "moderate-conservative" and "ultraconservative" orientations. The discovery of this network allowed power structure researchers to explain how most of the major policies of the 20th century were developed, but this is not the place to provide the details (e.g., Domhoff, 1990, 1996).

However, it is worth noting that the policy-planning network also has proven useful in arguments with the state autonomy theorists who came along in the 1970s. Although Mills, and most power structure researchers, start with the assumption that states are potentially autonomous, thereby anticipating the state autonomy theorists' main claim for originality, they did not think that the evidence reveals any autonomy for the American state. It is this conclusion, not abstract theoretical differences, that distinguishes state autonomy theorists from Mills. It led state autonomy theorists to ignore Mills and doubt power structure research, but new studies of their favorite cases soon showed the state autonomy theorists had not done their homework thoroughly enough.

For example, new archival research refutes claims by 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). Even more satisfying, subsequent research using the policy-planning network to study the origins of the Agricultural Adjustment Act and Social Security Act 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 (Domhoff, 1996, Chapters 3 and 5). In fact, these latter two cases are best described as "state building by the capitalist class," something that is not conceivable to state autonomy theorists.

The policy-planning model also proved useful in refuting claims by Gregory Hooks (1991) on the industrial mobilization for World War II, which did not lead to the autonomous Pentagon he imagines, 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 only 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.

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 (an aspect of the "second face of power," which is not a problem at all if full-scale power studies of the kind suggested here are undertaken). 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 small opinion-shaping organizations, with middle-class voluntary organizations, educational institutions, and the mass media as its target (Domhoff, 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, a notion that is at the heart of the mistaken idea that there is a "third face of power," which leads to an overemphasis on ideology at the expense of organizational factors in explaining why most wage workers do not more regularly and actively challenge the power elite. The process does not so much shape opinion as it muddies the water on specific issues and creates a degree of momentary political cover before everyone moves on to the next crisis or issue. To the degree that it has a major impact, it is through the corporate public relations departments and public relations firms that make large financial contributions to middle-level voluntary associations and sometimes sit on their board of directors, thereby reinforcing the apolitical tendencies of such organizations, which are not hothouses of discussion and democracy in any event (Domhoff, 2006b, Chapter 5; Eliasoph, 1998).

Due to the independence of public opinion and the existence of liberal-labor and conservative Christian coalitions that have agendas of their own, 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.

The candidate-selection process, a term I adapted from 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. However, there are many other ways that members of the power elite involve themselves in the careers of the politicians they favor, including the cushy jobs as lobbyists, motivational speakers, and corporate directors that are available to reasonable elected officials when their political careers are over.

The emphasis on campaign finance, long a critical issue for power structure researchers, gradually gained traction within political science as an explanatory factor, thanks in good part to the work of Alexander Heard (1960) and Herbert Alexander (1992), which has been followed up by more recent political scientists as well. Now, if anything, the issue is overdone. As pluralists never grow tired of reminding us, the candidate with the most money does not always win, so there are other factors to be considered. Still, as Heard (1960, p. 34) said way back when, money can provide a "choke point" in the primaries, an insight that makes the main point as far as power structure researchers are concerned.


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