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The term elites refers to a small number of actors who are situated atop key social structures and exercise significant influence over social and political change. Much of the power of elites stems from their economic resources, their privileged access to institutions of power, and their ability to exercise moral or intellectual persuasion. At the same time, however, elites embody the values and represent the interests of particular groups in society. This can limit their autonomy, complicate efforts to cooperate with each other, and narrow the support they elicit from the public. It is this contradictory aspect of elites—simultaneously empowered and constrained by their positions as leaders in society—that defines their role in the political system.
While traditional notions of elites have typically focused on members of an aristocracy (or oligarchy), whose positions were based on claims to hereditary title and wealth, elites today comprise key figures across various sectors of society. In and around government, they include political leaders within the executive and legislative branches of government, those in command of the bureaucracy and military, and leading representatives of organized interests in society (such as labor unions or corporate lobbying groups). Within the economy, elites reside at the pinnacle of finance, banking, and production. In the cultural sphere, elites include major patrons of the arts, cultural icons (including pop culture), writers, academics, religious leaders, and prominent figures within the mass media. Most recently, transnational elites have arisen within emergent supranational institutions, such as corporate actors in the World Economic Forum, technocrats working in the United Nations system, and the heads of international nongovernmental organizations.
Evolution of the Term
Although the idea of elites can be traced back to the writings of Aristotle and Plato, the term elites was first used in modern social science by the Italian economists Vilfredo Pareto (1902–1903) and Gaetano Mosca (1939) in the early twentieth century. In contrast to class theories, in which the sources of societal power inhered in institutions of property and class relations in society, early elite theories saw power concentrated among a minority of the population who were able to rule over the rest of the population with little accountability to them. As a result, elites were often conceptualized as “ruling elites,” by virtue of their authority over the masses. As critics noted, however, the origins of elite power were underspecified. It was not clear, for example, if elites were inevitable products of modern organization, or if their position was contingent on their ability to control vital resources in society and mobilize the public.
In 1915, in his book Political Parties, the German sociologist Robert Michels introduced the “iron law of oligarchy.” Michels contended that the existence of elites sprang from an inherent tendency of all complex organizations to delegate authority to a ruling clique of leaders (who often take on interests of their own). Accordingly, even the most radical organizations will develop a selfinterested elite. In a prominent 1956 study of the United States, C. Wright Mills proposed that elite power was defined by its institutional origins. Mills argued that the place of a “power elite” was maintained by their positions in government, the military, and major corporations, which enabled them to command the organized hierarchies of modern society. While these and other works of the time, including Joseph Schumpeter’s 1954 “competitive elitist” account of democracy, demonstrated the importance of the organizational bases of elite power, the origins of elites are more socially contingent on factors such as patronage and factionalism, leadership, and social structure than on institutional structure. Nonetheless, this classic work has heavily influenced elite studies, particularly scholars studying intra-elite political struggles within East bloc countries (through work termed “Kremlinology”).
Distinguishing themselves from these classical theorists, scholars since the 1960s have begun to differentiate elites and recognize their diverse roles. Major works, such as Suzanne Keller’s Beyond the Ruling Class (1963), have traced elites’ sociological origins, examined their varied social functions, and engaged in empirical studies of a range of actors at the apex of almost any area of human activity. In contrast to classical approaches, these authors have highlighted ways in which elites conveyed societal claims upon the state. While this opened new avenues of research, their tendency to rely on the social profile of elites (such as age, education and occupation, and region or country of birth) at times produced inaccurate predictions of elite behavior. Though influential in shaping latent political attitudes, empirical research has shown that background characteristics are mediated by personal beliefs and values. As scholars such as Robert D. Putnam (1976) have concluded, the attitudes and political styles of elites do affect political outcomes, but behavioral patterns must be placed in a context of elite linkages to different social strata.
There has also been considerable cross-national variation in the openness of elites. In many societies, the elite manipulation of political patronage and the organization of political parties have perpetuated elites’ positions. In some countries, however, government programs have been designed to desegregate elites (though the success of these programs has been limited). As Richard L. Zweigenhaft and G. William Domhoff demonstrated in Diversity in the Power Elite (1998), affirmative action initiatives within the United States have led to some openness along racial, gender, and class lines. However, they also showed that minorities and women absorbed into the elite often minimize their differences and, paradoxically, strengthen the existing system. Thus, government reforms (in the United States and elsewhere) seeking to enhance the diversity of elites have not produced the expected or hoped for results.
Elites and the Political System
As suggested in foundational studies of elites, the importance of elites to the political system is heavily affected by struggles within ruling cliques and by elites’ relationships to social structures. Although elites influence the political system in numerous ways, the focus here will be on their effects on political regimes and democracy, the politics of state development, and incidences of violent conflict.
The nature of competition and compromise among ruling elites carry major implications for democracy. Although pluralist theory suggests that the dispersion of power in democratic systems across interest groups and institutions leaves elites in charge of different sectors of democratic politics, elites have a coordinated effect in mobilizing public opinion and ushering in political change. In The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion (1992), John Zaller describes how, even in established democracies, elites attempt to construct a political world through messages delivered via media outlets to the mass public. In nondemocratic regimes, concentrations of power within ruling circles means that stability and prospects for political change hinge on the skill and engineering of elites, who can negotiate compromises between competing factions. Indeed, it has been long held that elite failures to rise above societal divisions can contribute to the rise of extremist politics, as typified by the rise of Nazism in interwar Germany. As Dankwart A. Rustow (1970) and more recently John Higley and Michael Burton (1989) have argued, democratic elites must not only establish a language of compromise across factions, but also accept the boundaries of political competition, and become habituated to the rules of the game. Recent studies, however, have shown that extremist popular mobilization can coexist with elite negotiations, and that the success of democratic transition depends not on moderation per se, but on elite calculations and projections of whether the forces of political change—moderate or extremist—will threaten their interests after they cede power (Bermeo 1997).
In addition to power struggles within ruling circles, the struggle between rulers and local elites has been crucial in centuries-long efforts to complement states’ juridical sovereignty with empirical statehood. As much of western European history attests, nobles, magnates, and landlords (among others), supported by property holdings and large armies, posed substantial challenges to the centralization of state power. Initially, future sovereign rulers were little more than members of the elite, as illustrated by Perry Anderson’s reprint of the famous oath of allegiance among Spanish nobility: “We who are as good as you swear to you who are no better than we to accept you as our king and sovereign lord, provided you observe all our liberties and laws; but if not, not.” (Anderson 1974, p. 65) Such diffuse systems of authority under local societal elites are also found in many “weak states” in contemporary Asia, Africa, and post-Communist Eurasia. Both historically and today, therefore, the emergence of effective state infrastructures depends on whether mixtures of coercion and patronage dispensed by rulers convince entrenched elites to cede political authority.
A final realm of politics in which elites play a critical role is violent conflict within society. In particular, intraelite politics and elite-mass linkages reside at the center of civil wars, and elite power-sharing models have been applied across a diversity of contexts. Among the most well-known is Arend Lijphart’s “consociational” model (1977), which claims that a coalition of elites, drawn from the conflicting sides, can mitigate violence through a system of elite consensus built on mutual veto power, proportional allocation of offices, and granting each group partial autonomy. The success of such negotiated pacts has been variable, deterring violence in the Netherlands and in post-apartheid South Africa but failing to prevent an explosion of intra-state conflicts in the immediate post–cold war period. Ultimately, the prevention or cessation of violence is causally related to how elites interact with one another and how effectively they channel societal claims through political institutions.
- Anderson, Perry. 1974. Lineages of the Absolutist State. London: Verso.
- Aron, Raymond. 1950. Social Structure and the Ruling Class. British Journal of Sociology 1 (1): 1–16, 126–143.
- Bermeo, Nancy. 1997. Myths of Moderation: Confrontation and Conflict during Democratic Transitions. Comparative Politics. 29 (3): 305–322.
- Bottomore, Thomas B. 1964. Elites and Society. London: C.A. Watts.
- Higley, John, and Michael G. Burton. 1989. The Elite Variable in Democratic Transitions and Breakdowns. American Sociological Review 54 (1): 17–32.
- Keller, Suzanne. 1963. Beyond the Ruling Class: Strategic Elites in Modern Society. New York: Random House.
- Lijphart, Arend. 1977. Democracy in Plural Societies: A Comparative Exploration. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Michels, Robert. 1915. Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracies. Trans. Eden and Cedar Paul. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1999.
- Mills, C. Wright. 1956. The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Mosca, Gaetano. 1939. The Ruling Class. Trans. Hannah D. Kahn. New York: McGraw-Hill. Originally published as Elementi di scienza politica (1896).
- Pareto, Vilfredo. 1902–1903. Les systemes socialistes. 2 vols. Paris: Giard.
- Putnam, Robert D. 1976. The Comparative Study of Political Elites. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
- Rustow, Dankwart A. 1970. Transitions to Democracy: Toward a Dynamic Model. Comparative Politics 2 (3): 337–363.
- Schumpeter, Joseph. 1942. Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. London: Harper & Brothers.
- Zaller, John. 1992. The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Zweigenhaft, Richard L., and G. William Domhoff. 1998. Diversity in the Power Elite: Have Women and Minorities Reached the Top? New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
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