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Learning objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Describe the pluralism-elitism debate
  • Explain the tradeoffs perspective on government

The United States allows its citizens to participate in government in many ways. The United States also has many different levels and branches of government that any citizen or group might approach. Many people take this as evidence that U.S. citizens, especially as represented by competing groups, are able to influence government actions. Some political theorists, however, argue that this is not the case. They claim that only a handful of economic and political elites have any influence over government.

Elitism vs. pluralism

Many Americans fear that a set of elite citizens is really in charge of government in the United States and that others have no influence. This belief is called the elite theory    of government. In contrast to that perspective is the pluralist theory    of government, which says that political power rests with competing interest groups who share influence in government. Pluralist theorists assume that citizens who want to get involved in the system do so because of the great number of access points to government. That is, the U.S. system, with several levels and branches, has many places where people and groups can engage the government.

The foremost supporter of elite theory was C. Wright Mills . In his book, The Power Elite , Mills argued that government was controlled by a combination of business, military, and political elites.

C. Wright Mills. 1956. The Power Elite . New York: Oxford University Press.
Most are highly educated, often graduating from prestigious universities ( [link] ). According to elite theory, the wealthy use their power to control the nation’s economy in such a way that those below them cannot advance economically. Their wealth allows the elite to secure for themselves important positions in politics. They then use this power to make decisions and allocate resources in ways that benefit them. Politicians do the bidding of the wealthy instead of attending to the needs of ordinary people, and order is maintained by force. Indeed, those who favor government by the elite believe the elite are better fit to govern and that average citizens are content to allow them to do so.
Jack L. Walker. 1966. “A Critique of the Elitist Theory of Democracy,” The American Political Science Review 60, No. 2: 295.

A chart showing an inset of the east coast of the United States with the locations of the seven Ivy League universities labeled: “Cornell”, “Dartmouth”, “Harvard”, “Brown”, “Yale”, “Columbia”, “Princeton”, and “Penn”. The photographs of presidents who graduated from Ivy League universities are shown to the right. George W. Bush and Barak Obama are shown for Harvard. George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush are shown for Yale. Barak Obama is shown for Columbia. Donald Trump is shown for Penn.
The five most recent U.S. presidents have all graduated from an Ivy League university.

In apparent support of the elite perspective, one-third of U.S. presidents have attended Ivy League schools, a much higher percentage than the rest of the U.S. population.

The Ivy League is technically an athletic conference in the Northeast comprised of sports teams from eight institutions of higher education—Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, and Yale University—however, the term is also used to connote academic excellence or social elitism.
All five of the most recent U.S. presidents attended Ivy League schools such as Harvard, Yale, or Columbia. Among members of the House of Representatives, 93 percent have a bachelor’s degree, as do 99 percent of members of the Senate.
Jennifer E. Manning, “Membership of the 113th Congress: A Profile,” Congressional Research Service , p. 5 (Table 5), November 24, 2014.
Fewer than 40 percent of U.S. adults have even an associate’s degree.
Kyla Calvert Mason. 22 April 2014. “Percentage of Americans with College Degrees Rises, Paying for Degrees Tops Financial Challenges,” http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/percentage-americans-college-degrees-rises-paying-degrees-tops-financial-challenges/.
The majority of the men and women in Congress also engaged in either state or local politics, were business people, or practiced law before being elected to Congress.
Manning, p. 3 (Table 2).
Approximately 80 percent of both the Senate and the House of Representatives are male, and fewer than 20 percent of members of Congress are people of color ( [link] ). The nation’s laws are made primarily by well-educated white male professionals and businessmen.

Questions & Answers

Is it possible for a serious third party to emerge in the United States, positioned ideologically between the Democrats on the left and the Republicans on the right? Why or why not?
Richard Reply
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Omohowho
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Official Reply
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Austin
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international political economy
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Luretta
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Emmanuela Reply
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Paulina Reply
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Ivan Reply
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girunit Reply
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WONDERS Reply
What is government
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Three majors the National Liberation council adopted to transfer powers to the civilian government
Boateng
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Source:  OpenStax, American government. OpenStax CNX. Dec 05, 2016 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11995/1.15
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