PR Problems for the Power Elite

Jacob Lederman

Rethinking the 2008 Financial Crisis and the Rise of Right-Wing Populism with C. Wright Mills.

In late September of 2008 a number of Bush administration officials held closed-door talks with congressional leaders. The reasons were obvious. The country’s banking system was creeping toward a major crisis, with each day bringing new rounds of frantic restructuring, corporate takeovers, and state-backed buyouts.

The problem for political leaders was that the rationale for a major bank bailout was hardly palatable to a skeptical public. Many progressive legislators opposed bailing out banks instead of homeowners. Free-market fundamentalists objected to picking winners rather than letting private firms sink or swim. Despite Bush administration officials’ free-market credentials, they ultimately proposed an $800 billion dollar bank rescue package. The entire congressional leadership as well as both parties’ then presidential candidates, Barack Obama and John McCain, eventually supported it.

Wright Mills’ Power Elite represents a widely mentioned and taught, though rarely employed framework for perceiving the forms and operations of power in US society. In some ways this is unsurprising. Mills’ work is deeply embedded in the institutional conjuncture of the 1950s, in which a vastly expanding military bureaucracy and budget came to play an increasingly prominent role in governance. His privileging of the military as an actor on par with political and business elites can appear dated. And unlike Pierre Bourdieu or Antonio Gramsci’s writings on power, Mills does not provide a particularly complex theory of how dominant subjectivities are formed, legitimated, and maintained in a given society. However, in what could be a read as an early gesture toward Bourdieu’s more expansive study of class reproduction, Mills’ holds that the strength of the power elite in military, business, and political circles stems from their similar backgrounds, schooling, and everyday ways of understanding the world. Unlike Bourdieu, the social mechanisms of this process are left mostly unexamined.

This lack of theoretical breadth does not detract, however, from the clarity of Mills’ insight. As an empirical study of American politics, Mills’ work offers a useful lens for conceiving of how lines are drawn in the sand before policy ever makes it to the centers of official legislative or executive power. In Gramscian terms, this is a question of how “common sense” is produced and defended by those with an interest in its continued dominance. Mills’ famous pyramid of power suggests that sovereignty does not lie in the official realms of decision-making—the Congress or Executive—but rather with those who create the boundaries of what is debatable: those located at the top of the pyramid, capable of setting the nation’s political and social agendas.

On September 29, 2008 TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) came before the US House of Representatives only to be voted down in a surprise revolt against the Bush administration among free-market Republicans. On balance, the bill appeared to be an easy target for this populist backlash. Bad bets made by banks would be socialized by the Treasury — bought up and distributed among the American people through taxation. 135 Republicans and 95 Democrats voted against the bill. The Dow Jones dropped 772 points the next day.

For Mills, the thinking of the power elite is well inculcated at various levels of society. It does not require the exercise of coercive power, but is rather a matter of generating limits around what is politically debatable. But sometimes, for Mills, the power elite is unable to arrogate for themselves the interests of society as a whole. Here they must engage with official institutions of power. Writing on the dilemmas produced when these middle-levers of power (such as the Congress) depart from the pre-determined boundaries of political debate, Mills writes:

On the fringes and below them…the power elite fades off into the middle levels of power, into the rank and file of the Congress, the pressure groups that are not vested in the power elite itself, as well as a multiplicity of regional and state and local interests. If all the men on the middle levels are not among those who count, they sometimes must be taken into account, handled, cajoled, broken or raised to higher circles. When the power elite find that in order to get things done they must reach below their own realms—as is the case when it is necessary to get bills passed through Congress—they themselves must exert some pressure…[1]

The aftermath of the failed TARP vote brought about just this kind of handling of legislators. In closed-door meetings they were warned of the consequences of not passing a bill. Some were incentivized with pork projects attached to the legislation. Administration officials displayed precisely the tactics and uniformity that Mills posits as a hallmark of elite consensus. Officials such as Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson – schooled by the same institutions and economic theories (Bernanke lived in the same Harvard housing as the CEO of Goldman Sachs, who was preceded at the firm by Henry Paulson, treasury secretary under Bush) – warned of a little understood but indisputable collapse should banks be left on their own. Other congressional leaders were treated to flattery, (Paulson is said to have gotten down on one knee before House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi), cajoling, and doomsday prophesies imparted by leading experts and officials of both parties.

If a shadowy elite could successfully cajole the official institutions of representative governance, the very nature of US democracy could be called into question.

The problem with this strategy was that it exposed a gap between popular opinion and elite consensus. If the power elite’s influence stems from its ability to narrow or eliminate this gap, the TARP bill represented a major failure. While the bill was eventually passed, substantial portions of these middle levels of power and the constituents they represent had contested elite opinion. Conventional wisdom created by powerful claims-makers and experts had not been enough to quell the contradiction of bailing out major financial institutions in the midst of significant foreclosures and six-digit monthly job losses. Moreover, the bill’s passage exposed, to a surprising degree, the inner workings of political power. If a shadowy elite could successfully cajole the official institutions of representative governance, the very nature of US democracy could be called into question.

The mechanisms of elite consensus and C. Wright Mills’ broader hierarchy of power also represent a useful lens for conceiving of new political movements such as the Tea Party. Despite its often shallow interpretation of American history and political ideology, the Tea Party has in fact quite correctly perceived some of the cleavages that emerged in elite framings of the financial crisis and its aftermath. But the depth of its critique moved beyond the particulars of the crisis. By positing a broader divide between elite opinion and the common sense of everyday voters, the Tea Party successfully contested the dominance of a consensual political discourse. This is not to deny that the Tea Party itself is supported by certain business and political elites. Yet in many ways, fundamentalist supporters such as the Koch brothers represent a narrow radicalism when compared to the otherwise stable consensus of elite opinion, characteristic of influential think tanks, lobbies, and opinion makers.

That this contestation has taken the form of an energized Right populism is not entirely surprising. Much of the major legislation emerging from the financial crisis—the Recovery Act and financial reform in particular—enjoyed widespread consensus among economic and political elites in the form of former government officials turned economic consultants, as well as the leadership of multi-lateral institutions such as the International Monetary Fund. That it was proposed by a purportedly progressive government such as Barack Obama’s meant that much of the political dynamism resulting from the failure of elites to generate a dominant narrative came from the Right. While the Tea Party is often framed as a backlash against the nation’s growing diversity, or the election of a person of color, it also represents a failure on the part of elites to construct a singular, dominant framing of political action. According to Mills, Congress is meant to debate small matters, the boundaries of which have been predetermined. They are not to question the architecture of elite consensus, which in many ways the Tea Party has done, albeit from a stance that hardly represents the interests of electoral majorities.

Mills’ insights remain a staple of Introduction to Sociology courses and the discipline’s broader self-identity. Yet he is rarely systematically employed in the study of political power, perhaps his main contribution to US sociology. It seems that the contemporary period represents an especially fruitful moment for reengaging with this material, as economic restructuring in the US and beyond has increasingly chipped away at the monopoly elites enjoy with regard to political frames. In the US as well as Europe the resurgence of right-wing nationalism may be understood in part as a reaction to progressive governments’ embrace of dominant elite opinion. The backlash against European integration or financial reform has much to do with the way in which ostensibly progressive governments have been unable to challenge the basic consensus of elite opinion at a time during which popular actors are questioning these foundations. With this consensus so deeply called into question in the aftermath of crisis, there are new opportunities for giving political voice to the lower tiers of Mills’ pyramid, typically relegated—according to Mills—to rubber stamping the agenda of elites.

Jacob Lederman is a PhD candidate in sociology at The Graduate Center, CUNY. His research focuses on economic crisis and urban change in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

References and Footnotes

  1. Mills, C. Wright. 1956/1999 The Power Elite. Oxford University Press. Pp. 290-291.