Where Does Political Power Lie in Liberal Democratic States?

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8th Feb 2020 Politics Reference this

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Over recent years, there has been debate over where political power is situated within a liberal democratic state. A liberal democracy can be seen to ensure the rights and freedoms of individuals through the enshrinement of such into law. This essay will seek to analyse where political power lies in the USA from an elitist standpoint. Whilst in theory political power seems shared in the USA, especially considering the large power individual states wield thanks to federalism, one will find that there is still a situation that is similar to the classical elitist principle of ‘a class that rules and a class that is ruled’ (Mosca, 1939), of which the former still holds a significant proportion of political power. Whilst classical elite theory will be used in comparison to the power concentration amongst the political elite, this essay will also argue that the political power distribution in the USA is more comparable to the modern power elite theory characterised by C. Wright Mills, and therefore provides a clearer picture as to the distribution of political power in the USA. However, this essay will also critique whether the political power in the USA really does reflect that outlined by the elitist argument, and whether in years to come the concentration of political power towards the elites may dissipate.

One example of where there is clear elitist dominance of the political power is when we look at the breakdown of the House of Representatives, in terms of the educational background of its members. In the 115th Congress, 94.1% of all House Members hold a bachelor’s degree, with 60% also holding a degree beyond that level of education (Manning, 2018). From this data we can see that the vast proportion of the country’s political representative were educated in higher education, with nearly 10% being educated at one of the eight Ivy League institutions (Morella, 2010). Therefore, the majority of USA’s legislators form what Evans would describe as a ‘socially cohesive group’ (Evans, 2006), however it is a group that does not represent the rest of the population, as less than 50% of Americans are recorded as attending or have attended higher education (Foundation, 2018). This shows that a small group of elites that do not represent the broader population, oversee the making of large amounts of political and legal decisions, further reinforcing the belief that significant political power within the USA is indeed held by the elite. However, this problem is much more than a temporary issue, as Domhoff (2012) argues that the rich will ‘coalesce’ into an upper class that it will socialise and educate its children in. In other words, the elite that are educated in the prestigious institutions will have the funding to educate their children in such institutions, with their offspring filling their shoes and maintaining the social elitist bubble. This was also a theory of Mosca’s, who stated that oftentimes elite power was transferred through inheritance (Mosca, 1939). There is strong evidence for this when looking at Harvard University’s student economic background. The median parental income of a Harvard student sits at $168,800, over three times the national median (Bolotnikova, 2017). What this characterises is a situation where the majority of students attending prestigious institutions – which will ultimately pave the way to the superior power-wielding job opportunities – are from highly privileged backgrounds, and therefore highlight a cycle where the children of elites, are educated by elite institutions, and will join the echelons of the elite consequently. This can be attributed to the sheer cost of attending these private colleges, where tuition costs average $34,740 per annum (CollegeData, 2017), over 50% of the annual median household income in the United States (U.S. Department of Commerce, 2018). Even with financial aid, this puts the elite education provided by these private institutions well out of reach financially for the majority of American families. Therefore, one can conclude that legislative power within the USA is held by a small group of elites, whose education and position is ‘closed off’ (Evans, 2006) from the rest of society.

However, there is increasing empirical evidence of a switch in trend from the concept of intergenerational influence on power, and more to a situation where elite job prospects for graduates of university are more based upon their skill set and success in higher education, and now with more students than ever completing higher education, the intergenerational influence of family origin on post educational attainment has ‘completely vanished’ (Maxwell, 2017). Therefore, if socio-economic background of students is becoming less important than educational success when it comes to post-graduate job prospects, then over the years coming one may see a change in the demographic makeup of the people manning the top jobs in the country, and therefore there might be a dilution of the elite makeup in such groups. If this trend continues to occur, then one could conclude that political power is becoming increasingly shared by multiple social classes, and not just the elite. This may limit the effectiveness of the perspective of elitism when trying to understand where political power lies in the USA.

A core standpoint of classical elite theory is that the ruling group of elites that hold the significant political power are ‘closed off’ from the ruled public, and that they are selected based upon their ‘economic, political or ideological resources’ (Evans, 2006, p. 39). In other words, one cannot simply join this group of elites, due to the various monetary and societal barriers that would stand in the way. A prime example of how the American elite are ‘closed off’ from the rest of the public is the wealth discrepancy. As of 2013, the highest 1% in America owned 36.7% of the nation’s wealth, with the top 20% owning 89% of the wealth (Domhoff, 2012). This trend has only worsened, with the discrepancy being at its worst in the last 50 years. Therefore, a larger proportion of the nation’s wealth is owned by the same proportion of the population, highlighting that the monetary gap between the ‘ruled’ and the ‘ruling’ is still significant. Whilst wealth in its broad term may seem ambiguously linked to political power, the top 1% of the population own 35% of stocks in the USA as of 2010 (Domhoff, 2012). This means that not only do the elites in the country own substantial wealth in the form of assets, but also own a dominating proportion of stocks compared to the rest of the country. With stock ownership comes strong business influence, meaning that the unequal wealth ownership links not only to personal gains, but leads to the elite having tremendous influence in the corporate sphere as well. Around half of the country’s banking, legal and communications assets are owned by the social elite (Dye, 2012 ). This once again highlights the over-representation by the social elite in the political sphere, as it is also estimated that 250 men and women hold the ‘most influential posts’ in the federal government (Dye, 2012 ). This holds true the elitist perspective that a vast amount of power across the board is held by the elites in society, and the fact that a few hundred individuals make over 50% of key political and corporate decisions highlights the presence of elitism in the decision-making process in the United States of America.

More modern elite theory can be attributed to Wright Mills (1956), who wrote that power was concentrated to three elite groups: the leading military officials, the chief executives of corporation and the political leaders of the legislative and executive branches. This close relationship between the ‘corporate rich’ and the ‘political directorate’ led to a decentralisation of power from professional politicians to ‘outsiders’ from big corporation (Mills, 1956, pp. 167-9). This corporate influence on political decisions goes by the name of lobbyism in America. Lobbyists spend hundreds of millions of dollars through the media, and donating to political candidates PACs to try to influence said politician’s opinion on certain legislative issues. By promising to control legislation to fit the corporations’ agenda, candidates can receive millions of dollars. A prime example of this would be Hilary Clinton’s campaign committee, which had over $563,756,928 worth of funding (OpenSecrets, 2016). This huge sum of money donated mostly from corporation’s highlights big business’ ability to influence political candidates and the public’s perception of these frontrunners. In 2016, only 18% of Hilary Clinton’s financial contributions to her campaign were of donations smaller than $200 (OpenSecrets, 2016). Through the funding of campaign ads and countrywide rallies, political candidates can become the face of newspapers and gain far more media attention than other candidates, which in turn will lead to a stronger influence on the public to vote for them.  In comparison, Bernie Sanders campaign fund total of $228,154,501 came in a majority from small donations (57.70%), so not only did he raise substantially less than Clinton, but the majority of his donations came from individuals rather than big business, the polar opposite of the former. The difference in these financial contributions therefore highlights the sheer financial contributions that the corporate elite funnel into political candidate races, in exchange for promises to fit their agenda. Therefore, it is fair to say that Mills concept of the three groups of elites being interwoven with the corporate elite having increasingly more influence in politics, leads one to conclude that the corporate elite have substantial political power when it comes to aiding the outcome of elections and furthering their agenda with political allies. One can also conclude that the political power distribution in America today is more easily explained through power elite theorists such as Mills as opposed to more classical elite theory.

However, one may question whether Mills power elite theories ring true in today’s world, with the political sphere filled with new political parties and pressure groups. Pluralists such as Dahl (1961) would emphasise that some pressure groups provide and exert a good challenge to the political elite over some decisions, and therefore help to check the political power of a society and reduce oligarchical power. An example of this is the pressure group 350.org’s protest and opposition to Obama’s proposal for the Keystone XL pipeline, eventually resulting in Obama deciding to reject the proposal (350.ORG, 2015). Examples like this highlight the pluralist’s belief that power is not concentrated, but rather dispersed and interest groups can be successful in balancing attempts to take power. This goes some way to challenge the elitist belief that the interwoven elite institutions work to each other’s benefit. However, this argument is flawed, because the state tends to listen and appease the pressure groups to which fits their agenda. An example of this would be Trump’s staunch defence of gun rights and support towards the NRA, resulting in a $30,000,000 campaign donation (Gambino, 2018). To conclude, the pluralism critique of elitism goes to little extent to dispel the belief that most of the political power lies with the elite in America.

Thus, in conclusion, political power in the United States lies significantly in the hands of the corporate and political elite, from the big business owners who can strongly influence political agendas, to the socially homogenous group of educated elites that man the positions in the legislative, executive and even the judiciary, where all 12 supreme justices went to Ivy league schools (Wan, 2018). This creates a situation where much of the political decision making is done by a group of individuals who represent a minute proportion of the population of the United States, a group that is well and truly cemented into the upper echelons of society. Therefore, it can be stated that the elitist perspective of power presents a very strong argument as to where the political power lies. Furthermore, the situation currently in the United States clearly resonates very strongly with Wright Mills’ theories relating to the three interwoven groups of elites, as there is undeniable evidence of the strong influence the corporate elite have in pushing or controlling the agenda of political candidates through election campaign financing. However, whilst the current state of power balance in the United States can draw similarities to the original elitist theories of Mosca and Evans, that of the elite being ‘closed off from the ruled (Evans, 2006), new data argues that it is becoming increasingly likely that the socio-economic background of individuals carries less weight when compared to educational success, and this may lead in the future to a move away from the generational elite patterns, and one may see more individuals penetrating into this once closed group of elites. At present though, political power still lies very much in the hands of the elite in the United States of America.

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