Explaining the Right Turn
Just about the time power structure researchers provided satisfactory explanations for the big legislative decisions that mainstream political scientists usually refer to as evidence for pluralism, the power elite took a right turn. Explaining that right turn became a new acid test for rival theorists. One thing was for sure. It 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 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 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.

Although the right turn did in the state autonomy theorists, who now call themselves historical institutionalists and are largely indistinguishable from the pluralists, except for their rediscovery of "institutions" as a substitute for "interest groups," it did provide an opening for a new brand of pluralists with a new angle. Now neo-pluralists could say that big business had not ruled in the 1960s and 1970s, but that it did take charge once again after 1980, a tack 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 tide. But we already knew through mountains of research that the corporations were highly organized among themselves, and closely linked to the policy-planning network and the federal government, so this is a completely inadequate explanation that I have dismantled elsewhere (Domhoff, 1990, Chapter 10).

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 the New Deal to the mid-1960s. 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 potential power bases 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. Traditional black colleges and the sleeping car porters union also provided power resources that Mills had overlooked.

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), we now know, based on historical research by James Gross (1974, 1981, 1995) on the origins and activities of the National Labor Relations Board, 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 so threatened by a labor board decision in 1962 giving unions the right to bargain over outsourcing, subsequently upheld by the Supreme Court, that in 1965 they quietly started to organize a counteroffensive to reverse the decision. It was victory in this battle, finally achieved in the early 1970s, in conjunction with the attack on construction unions that began in the late 1960s as part of the fight against inflation, that spelled the beginning of the end for the limited power labor unions had achieved. Once outsourcing was no longer an issue that could be contested by unions, the internationalization of American corporate production could take place at a faster pace in the face of the increased European and Japanese competition in American markets. 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 a capitalist economic system over wages, 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. I do not believe that capitalism contains an inevitable and uncontainable 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, with most capitalists favoring low wages, minimal taxes on their profits, and minimal regulation of their activities, while most wage workers desire just the opposite, along with help from the government in creating unions (Hahnel, 2005). Mills was therefore wrong to downplay a conflict which inevitably leads to battles over state policy.

Within the context of civil rights militancy on the one hand and capital-labor conflict on the other, the old power arrangements fractured. 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 help them keep African Americans powerless. Southern white elites, who were industrializing the region in any case, thanks to runaway northern corporations and defense contracts directed their way by the Southern Democrats, therefore began efforts to carry a majority of white Southerners into the Republican Party with them on the basis of appeals to racial resentments, religious fundamentalism, super-patriotism, and social issues like gun control (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 statements showing that the words spoken by right-wingers in the late 1960s were being said quite openly in the early 1960s 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 among labor leaders, of course, 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 Alabama Governor George Wallace 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). Then, in the 1972 Democratic primaries, Wallace presaged the more coded and symbolic politics of the New Right by mixing tirades against busing and welfare with revivalist religious appeals to win majorities in Michigan and Maryland just as 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 white trade unionists to inadvertently aid in the weakening of their unions at a time when they were starting to come under more pressure than most members realized. Many of them did not like the feminists or environmentalists either, whom they saw as a danger to their jobs or 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 antiwar movement. They were not crazy about the war, but they came to dislike the protestors even more (Mueller, 1984). 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.

The nationwide white turn to the Republicans made it possible for the moderate conservatives to make a right turn on many policy issues in the 1970s once the inner cities were finally calm and the corporations were faced with new economic problems due to spiking oil prices, inflation, and rising unemployment, as well as the previously mentioned challenge to their markets and profits by German and Japanese corporations. 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, 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.

The same scenario is revealed by the deliberations at a moderate-conservative policy-discussion group, the Committee for Economic Development, where the majority of corporate trustees rejected permanent wage and price controls as well as other plans for greater government involvement in the economy that some members had been entertaining. Instead, they advocated monetary policies that would throw people out of work, cutbacks in the welfare state, deregulation of key business sectors, and continuing attacks on unions (Domhoff, 2006b, pp. 97-100; Frederick, 1981).

This analysis of the right turn might momentarily gladden the hearts of pluralists because it reveals some temporary alliances and even some complicated cross-class coalitions, as in the case of the corporate-conservative coalition that now dominates the country (Domhoff, 2006b). But it differs from pluralism 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, and the driving force of the process is rooted in the functioning of the corporate-dominated economy. Most of all, this account disagrees with any version of pluralism because it shows the continuing domination of the government by the 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 and Hunter would have expected than what pluralists, state autonomy theorists, or historical institutionalists within mainstream political science projected. Even the idea that business has a privileged position falls far short of what is needed. If political scientists had used the 2006 meetings to reconsider power in the light of events and research over the past 50 years, then they would have ended up with an open-ended, empirically grounded, and historically contingent class domination theory of the kind briefly sketched in this article. They wouldn't have to become Marxists because there are power networks other than those that are class-based, a statement that includes the claim that states are potentially autonomous. Moreover, they could still say there is democracy because there is freedom of speech, regular elections that are often vigorously contested, and occasional victories for labor, liberals, and environmentalists on class-oriented issues, along with the more numerous victories for people of color, feminists, and other previously marginalized groups on a variety of social issues relating to individual rights. But they would have to abandon pluralism, state autonomy theory, or historical institutionalism as their starting point, replacing them with a theory based on the mix of class and organizational factors that have been spelled out in this article.


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