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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Who Are the “Power Elite”?

Sociologist Heather Gautney on how to understand the workings of power and the machinations of elites—without becoming a conspiracy theorist.

In 1956, sociologist C. Wright Mills published the classic book The Power Elite, which looked at how a narrow segment of the population with high positions in different institutions (legislators, corporations, the military) tended to make decisions for the population as a whole, with the consensus among these actors displacing authentic democracy. Now, sociologist Heather Gautney of Fordham University has produced a book, The New Power Elite, updating Mills’ thesis for the 21st century, looking at the high-level decision-makers of our own time and explaining how ordinary people are excluded from power. Prof. Gautney’s book helps us better understand the structure of power in the contemporary United States, and to think more clearly about what it would mean to live in a more democratic country.

Prof. Gautney was a senior policy advisor to presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders as well as his policy advisor for the U.S. Senate Budget Committee. In this conversation with Current Affairs editor-in-chief Nathan J. Robinson—which appeared originally on the Current Affairs podcast—she draws on her personal observations of how power works inside the U.S. government based on her experience trying to help Sanders fight against establishment politicians (both Democrats and Republicans) inside the halls of power. Gautney talks about what power is and who holds it, the media’s role in shaping consensus, and why a generalized understanding of how power works can help build solidarity among activists.

The conversation transcript has been lightly edited for grammar and clarity.

Robinson

Let’s imagine that I am a stranger sitting next to you on a plane or train. We strike up a conversation, and you mention that your new book is The New Power Elite. In response, I say, “Power elite? Sounds a bit like a conspiracy theory to me.” Now, in our own time, it’s probably more likely that instead, I would say, “Yes, I agree. There is a power elite, it’s a cabal of satanist, globalist baby eaters.” But, let’s first go the other way and assume that I say to you, “This idea of a power elite sounds a bit conspiratorial.”

How do you begin to explain what you mean?

Gautney

The explanation begins with C. Wright Mills himself, and what he was trying to do in the 1950s. He was trying to identify an institutional consensus among elites of three different major power centers in the United States: the military, corporations, and the political sphere or the state. He was trying to lift the veil on the fact that everyday Americans were essentially powerless against—for want of a better word—the collusion of elites at the top of these institutions. He examined how they interlock, and the revolving door between the command centers of those institutions.

The Power Elite was very impactful in the 1950s. All these years have passed, and we’ve come to accept, once again, this consensus—mostly in the sphere of the state and the private sector—around the neoliberal paradigm and ideologies of the primacy of the free market against public spending, and the incredibly mind-blowing control that major corporations have over everyday life.

Part of that consensus is, of course, not just the private sector, but also what we identify Democrats and Republicans as. Obviously, there are fundamental differences between the two, but in the arena of economic policy, they’re more alike than different. This is a consensus that I try to lay out in the book that’s been building really since Mills, but accelerating after the 1970s.

Robinson

For listeners and readers who may not be familiar with the work of C. Wright Mills, we should introduce him and the original Power Elite, because the title of your book is a reference to this classic in sociology. Yours is kind of an update of it. You open and close your book with Mills, so perhaps you could tell us more about the original work.

Gautney

C. Wright Mills was an academic who was not of the academy. He was a rebellious figure in academic circles, in part because he was trying to blow the lid off the consensus, but also [to show] how academia was providing cover for severely undemocratic and unequal arrangements in the country. So, he was not particularly popular among and was shunned by academics of his time. He wrote several books we would place in the field of sociology, but political scientists and other disciplines teach his work and identify with him.

He was trying to expose power relations and inequalities—what he believed to be a kind of burgeoning authoritarianism in the country. He was also trying, just by the way he wrote his books and the language that he used, to promote the idea of the “public intellectual,” or what Gramsci would call the “organic intellectual.” [The idea was] that intellectuals should be working on social problems that are relevant to the day and speaking to people in everyday language, and not inhabiting the ivory towers of the academy and writing in prose that is inaccessible to everyday people. That was a big part of what he was trying to do, and I also tried to do in my book.

In The Power Elite, Mills is picking up a project that came before him. The Frankfurt School is a collection of intellectuals who are writing during the Nazi takeover of Europe, and many of them are in exile. One of them named Franz Neumann writes this wonderful book called Behemoth, an analysis of the relationship in Nazi Germany between the dictatorship, military, corporations, and the party—the political sphere—and really teases out the ways in which elites in those institutions are collaborating on a project of authoritarian rule. Mills takes up that project for the United States. He looks at some of the analysis in Behemoth in terms of the ways these power holders are cutting into the institutional connectors that people have with the government, and really with each other, and he’s seeing that happening in the United States.

It seems to me that it scared, alarmed, and outraged him. The Power Elite is a wonderful, beautiful, caustically written analysis of the institutional power structures in the United States in the post-war era. It’s also a cultural analysis of the role of the media and celebrities legitimizing this fundamentally unequal system during that period.

Robinson

He’s a wonderful writer, and the book really holds up. But obviously, there needed to be an update, because it is about the Eisenhower era. A lot has changed since then. But he has this wonderful writing style, as you mentioned, where it’s very readable, but also very intellectually rich and deep, and this eye-opening map of how power works in the country.

I want to dwell on this on the idea of power and why these very different groups and institutions are together within a single book—the state, the military, Wall Street billionaires, celebrities, the media. It’s all centered around this idea of power, who makes decisions.

Could you explain the basic idea of what power means?

Gautney

Mills believed that power was derived from roles at the top of institutions, not necessarily the individual by warrant of their charismatic authority or public sway. It was the role of being the president of the United States (which he calls the executive), or the role of the CEO and the very rich—people with inordinate economic power—and then, of course, the generals in the military. For him, power is derived from being in a leadership position of these institutions, but also the collusion among them. Elites didn’t necessarily form a ruling class in the way that Marxists talk about a ruling class, because there were also differences and some competition, and this is present in Neumann’s work as well. He talks more in the language of consensus, that on the fundamental things in the society—the capitalist system, the hegemony of the state—there was a consensus among those at the very top, despite their differences, that bolstered their power.

He also talks about power in terms of decision, and pits that against the lack of ability or opportunity for everyday people to make the decisions that impact their lives and determine their future. George W. Bush used this language of, “I’m the decider.” What he meant was, “I’m the Executive: to know what happens in matters of war, and whatever else.” So Mills is very interested in and defines power in terms of who makes those decisions, who is in that room or at that table making the decisions to go to war, or shaping the economy. It’s an elite, and we take for granted now that we’re going to be shut out of the decisions that shape our lives.

When I teach this, I use this example with my students, and place them where we all were in 2003 when George W. Bush was talking about going to war. And if you turn on the TV, you’d see one ambassador after the other saying this is unfounded, we’re not for this, we don’t support this war. You see tens of millions of people in the streets around the world, breaking a Guinness World Record for street protests. When asked, Bush said he’s not going to make a decision based on a focus group. He just dismissed all of these people as a mere focus group. He was going to be the one to decide.

Now here we are. It was one of the worst, deadliest, most wasteful endeavors in contemporary history. And he and a group of other people were behind it. So that was where Mills really located the power, in decision and institutional leadership.

Robinson

So you have this hierarchy with a very small number of people at the top.

Gautney

That’s right. 

Robinson

Did your experience—not quite “within” the political system, obviously, because Bernie Sanders is both within and outside the political system—working for and advising Bernie Sanders influence the conclusions of the book or provide supporting evidence for the theory that you lay out in it?

Gautney

I set out to write this book in 2010. My impetus was that I had been involved in grassroots activism on the Left for a good amount of time. I thought, “Maybe it’s time to do a closer study of what I’m protesting, who’s really behind all of this.” What better way to study this than to try to find an access point to a center of power? The American Sociological Association just happened at the time to have a fellowship that placed sociologists in Congress. I could work for any senator, [but] I wanted to preserve some level of integrity.

I was there for years as a fellow, and then once you’re brought into the fold, you stay in it because you get the fight in your belly, because Sanders is fighting on the front lines, and I’ve been so used to fighting in the streets and that kind of thing. He’s really in there. The longer I stayed with him, the more in there he’s gotten. He’s got more of a seat at the table than he ever has, and I think we’re seeing some of the impacts of that in a positive way—minor, but really life-changing for some people.

But it absolutely confirmed all of this for me. Every step of the way, he has to fight for every little thing, and the compromises that he makes, there’s a lot of fight that goes on behind what we see on the surface of a compromise. I can give an example of something that I saw that was really illuminating during the passing of the Farm Bill in 2013. We had constituents in Vermont who wanted us to put some kind of amendment in the Farm Bill about GMO labeling, which one would think would be a fairly simple thing. The American people want to know what’s in their food, and we could require labels and put that in the Farm Bill as an amendment. Not one Democrat voted for our amendment. And I thought, how does this work? Why wouldn’t we be getting anybody? I went on one of those websites that tracks the donations, and every single one of the Democrats was getting money from Monsanto—every last one of them. They’re not going to vote for it because it’s against the interests of their corporate backer,.

That’s the story of nearly every decision that’s made. You see Bernie, over and over again, saying we have to take on Wall Street, we have to take on the big corporations, we have to take on the media. He’s right, and he sounds like a broken record, and I think people are sick of hearing it, or it becomes background noise. But that’s literally what he’s doing on a daily basis.

And so, yes, my time with him has been extremely illuminating. Then, when you start doing presidential politics, you can see the ideological aspects of how candidates sell their ideas—and again, I only have insights into the Democratic Party. In 2016, the shenanigans of the Clinton campaign were open for all to see, thanks to WikiLeaks, but it wasn’t anything that people in the Bernie campaign didn’t already know. The kind of manipulations with the media—I go into some of that in the book, using Sanders as an example.

Also, I was there working for him during the Obama administration. Bernie is quite fond of Obama, but he took him on when Obama was trying to cut Social Security by manipulating the Cost of Living Index and chained CPI [Consumer Price Index]. Bernie got together with Social Security Works and got over a million signatures, presented them, and built a Social Security caucus. He fought every which way he could to try to prevent Obama from cutting Social Security, and that was a success story. He did it. He built up enough pressure that the administration didn’t go through with it.

Robinson

Could you say more about how the consensus that you talk about across elite institutions is reinforced by the media in particular?

Gautney

Yes. There’s the obvious example, just speaking from the perspective of the Sanders experience, of how the media lined up around Hillary Clinton. They were critical of her here and there, but they were horrifically critical of Bernie until they couldn’t be anymore, until he had so much popular support that they had to cover him in a semi-serious way.

There’s this combination that they do with him: red baiting and race baiting, and they switched back and forth with it. Chris Matthews, when Bernie won Nevada, said that this was similar to the Nazi takeover of France. Chuck Todd called Bernie supporters brownshirts. This alarmist, almost Fox News-style crazy talk when Bernie was doing well. So, there’s the sensationalism, the red baiting, and then the race baiting, which was relentless. “Bernie Sanders doesn’t care about racial inequality.” “Bernie Sanders doesn’t appeal to Black voters.” “Bernie Sanders comes from the white state of Vermont, so he doesn’t understand anything about poverty experienced by African Americans or the prison industrial complex or anything like that.”

Robinson

Also, don’t forget misogyny. He’s also a misogynist.

Gautney

Well, then there’s that. Mimi Rocah, a district attorney for 15 years who holds a very prominent, important position, gets on and says he’s bad and doesn’t like women. “He makes my skin crawl.” These people who have resumes a mile long, positioned as experts, and supposed to be trustworthy, get on the airwaves with millions and millions of viewers and sensationalized the entire race, malign him in the most adolescent kind of ways, and then have the audacity to complain about Fox News doing the same thing to their people.

Working for him became incredibly unnerving. Bernie’s response was —along with you and other like-minded people—to begin their own alternative media and use the followers that he had to start his own podcast and create his own little newspaper. We made a lot of videos and stuff like that on really substantive issues. We went into Denmark, South Carolina, where elderly people are turning on their faucets and brown water is coming out, trying to highlight what’s going on with the infrastructure in rural South Carolina.

But, if you watch the mainstream media, Bernie doesn’t care about South Carolina. Bernie doesn’t care about the people in that state because they don’t support him. Meanwhile, I was in South Carolina with Nina Turner—we were all over that state—talking to poor, severely disenfranchised people. Bernie came with us most of the time to see what was going on. We had a video team that would try to create alternative media to highlight that kind of stuff. And quite frankly, turning on any channel, from CNN and MSNBC to Fox News—for me, the outrage begins with Morning Joe and then ends with whoever the last person was at night. Constant, “Trump, Trump Trump.” I am no friend of Trump, but the shilling for the party apparatus is becoming so blatant. It’s hard to take.

Robinson

Elon Musk has just taken over Twitter, and he says a bunch of dumb things all the time, and so there’s a ton of reporting on things that he has done. Right now, The New York Times is very angry at Musk because I think he banned one of their journalists from Twitter. I mention this because something like this can look like the press is having an antagonistic relationship with a rich and powerful person. But one of the things that you do in the book is to encourage us to take our attention off the antics of one individual billionaire like Elon Musk and to start thinking about the role of billionaires as a group. Could you help us think about the distinction between thinking about Elon Musk, and thinking in the terms of The New Power Elite?

Gautney

I think you have to do a little bit of both. On the one hand, Musk needs to be called out, just like Jeff Bezos. We play this game, as if the Washington Post isn’t operating at the behest of Jeff Bezos. David Sirota has gone to lengths to demonstrate otherwise. Sheldon Adelson comes along and buys up the Las Vegas Review-Journal—he’s not alive anymore, but journalists were quitting in droves because he was trying to manipulate what ends up in print. We have to be worried about individual billionaires buying up the means of communication. But, I saw the business with Matt Taibbi recently, and a lot of people were very critical of him for operating at the behest of Elon Musk. Okay, maybe. All the people who are coming after Taibbi are working for NBC Universal and media conglomerates, and failing to point the finger back at the conglomerates. As soon as their airwaves shut off, there’s a commercial for pharmaceutical drugs. What are you a part of? What are the liberal media part of?

In addition to calling out individuals, it’s important to look at the corporate structuring of what Mills would call the means of communication. Who determines what we know, and who owns it? Who actually owns that infrastructure, and how are their interests being presented and at whose behest are they operating? More impactful than anything with Elon Musk or Bezos was that incident with Sinclair media, when a video came out showing hundreds of local newscasters repeating the same exact talking points that were basically pro-Trump. Sinclair is owned by a very conservative family, the same with with Rupert Murdoch-owned media.

It’s very obvious on the Right, but in the liberal sphere, reporters go to greater pains to try to conceal what they’re doing, but ultimately, they’re working for a profit-making enterprise that’s driven by elites in the entertainment and media world. When you start thinking about these arrangements and their implications for democracy and power, Rupert Murdoch has more control over the means of communication than any dictator has. That sounds alarmist, but it’s true. For the sake of how we come to know things or communicate, it’s a deeply corrupted sphere. Mills had defined the democratic public sphere in terms of the public’s capacity for two-way communication. Our infrastructure of communication should allow everyday people to express their views and to be able to communicate with people in leadership, that we would have institutions that would represent the interest of the people.

Robinson

From one perspective, it’s almost encouraging that polls show a loss of trust in American institutions, because people shouldn’t trust that corporate media is telling them the truth. So, when you see the collapse of trust in media, people in media say this is terrible for democracy. But on the other hand, it’s a precondition to building media that you can trust.

At the same time, there’s this very serious problem, a distorted mirror image of Mill’s power analysis from the Left perspective that you put forth in this book. At Current Affairs, we’re always being sent books from right-wing publishers—because we have to keep up on what the enemy is saying. Recently, there have been three books with the same title, The Great Reset, about how globalist elites are planning to force through this idea of “climate lockdowns,” where nobody will be allowed to leave their house in order to save emissions.

The person who sits next to you on the plane, who I mentioned at the beginning, might say, “I agree with you, there’s a power elite. It’s Anthony Fauci, Jeffrey Epstein, and Bill Gates. They’re all globalist Satanists.” This is a person who watches Infowars, they believe in a power elite, too. Could you say what it is they get a little bit right, and then what falls over the line into what Richard Hofstadter called the “paranoid style in American politics,” the belief that there’s a network of child molesters out to get us, lizard people that rule the government—that sort of thing.

Gautney

Yes, that’s a thing. I was watching MSNBC last night, when Trump came out with this big announcement about selling NFTs, another gimmick, and you have whoever on MSNBC laughing about it. On one hand, yes, it’s absurd. On the other hand, he’s gonna sell a bunch of those things. A lot of people believe and support him because he got up in 2016 alongside Hillary Clinton, one of the most hated, corrupt people in politics, and said he’s not going to be like her: take away your Social Security, be beholden to Goldman Sachs, and pass these horrible free trade deals. “I’m going to represent you. I’m going to be your voice.” I think that resonated with people, and they loved to see him make fun of Lindsey Graham and Jeb Bush. Quite frankly, I got a little satisfaction out of that myself, watching him make fun of those people. It’s refreshing when someone with that kind of visibility puts them in their place.

The huge “but” is, we know—we knew then, and we know now—that he was hoodwinking people and had in mind a deeply corrupt agenda. So, it’s a tough one. The way I like to think about it—or really don’t like to think about it—is: What gets in the way of this? What are the forces in our society that get in the way of people believing in wild conspiracy theories, or scapegoating immigrants, or allowing for hate to fester and for these really frightening elements in our society to have more free rein? What’s getting in the way of that?

My book doesn’t have a particularly happy ending, because I don’t know what’s getting in the way of that. It’s part of the reason why I’m so furious with the Democrats, because there were some elements of that party that could get in the way, and certainly with Bernie they had an opportunity, and there are other elected officials that are leaning in the right direction of taking on corporate interests. But they don’t. They made a decision with Clinton, especially, to go along with free market this-and-that.

That’s what scares me, and as a person who was involved in the “anti-globalization” or “Global Justice Movement” in the ’90s, I believe those protests did have some good impact in terms of raising flags about the dangers of so-called free trade. But we don’t have anything like that now. We don’t really have movements that are taking on corporate power in that way. Occupy Wall Street was like a little blip, and I think the target was right: Wall Street. But it didn’t last. People are rightly critical and skeptical, or outraged, but they don’t have anywhere to go for truth. And so it’s easy to insert all kinds of craziness in there. Then add to that, desperation.

I live a middle class life; I’m fairly privileged in that way. But during the Bernie campaign, as I mentioned, I saw a lot of human misery. You don’t have to look too hard for it in this country. People have had their livelihoods taken away from them, year after year, their quality of life going down, down, down. Who can blame them for trusting in someone who gets up and claims to care about them and represent their interests, when the only other alternative is a person who’s getting $500,000 a pop from Goldman Sachs for their speeches? I think we’re in trouble.

Robinson

But what I think is so valuable about this book is that the first thing we need to do is to be able to think very clearly about how power works, what the problems are, who is causing them, how to have a clear analysis and an understanding of the operations of politics, economics, and society. As you elaborated, if we don’t have a clear story, it’s so easy for people who have a sense that something is wrong, a sense that there is some kind of deep structural injustice, and a sense that there are elites out there who make decisions that control their lives, to slip into things like antisemitism, which is sometimes called the “socialism of fools.” As you know, people sense that there’s a small group of people making a lot of money, and they misidentify who the small group of people is with terrible consequences, and then fall for right-wing populists. I feel one of the duties, the real strong imperatives, that we on the Left have is to really help people think clearly about what the sources of injustice are.

Gautney

Yes, and when Mills wrote The Power Elite, Paul Sweezy, a prominent Marxist at the time, wrote a wonderful review of the book. He liked what Mills did, of course, and was very supportive. But one aspect of his critique was he felt that Mills talked about the character and culture of elites and the sources of power, but never talked about exploitation. When you talk about very wealthy people, when I’m on that plane talking to the person next to me, I want to be clear that I want to live comfortably, too. I wish that we all could be rich and live that way. So, it’s not enough to just point to wealthy people or people in power, you have to talk about how they got it. You have to talk about how Jeff Bezos got so wealthy, and it’s impossible to get that wealthy without exploiting many people along the way. It’s the relation of exploitation that’s crucial, because that’s where outrage can be provoked. That’s where the injustice is. And you have to look at it not just in terms of politicians and billionaires, but also the role of the media and the entertainment industry, and culture and hegemony.

I do think, also, that the project of really digging into the depth of concentrated power does have obvious implications for activists, because there is this tendency on the Left now to silo. “I’m an environmentalist.” “I care about racial inequality.” “I care about mass incarceration.” Until people start to look at the bigger picture, I don’t think that this kind of siloing is going to have much of an impact on defusing this severely unequal, and even [authoritarian, system]. I say “authoritarian turn,” because I don’t want to say we live in an authoritarian society. But certainly, when so few people are holding the reins, that’s what it is.

That is a natural implication of doing this kind of work, that we have to start thinking about solidarity and what Jane McAlevey and Adolph Reed talked about in their work: we have to talk about organizing, not mobilizing. It’s not enough to get the people we know, and like-minded people, riled up on Twitter. It’s fundamental that we start talking to those people who, as you point out, might turn toward conspiracy theory, because all the other stuff is a big turn-off to them, for whatever reason. That’s the thing that really upsets me about the Democratic Party and the way the media is operating on their behalf. Go ahead and make fun of these people, but you’re just pushing them away, and that’s not what we need to be doing if we really care about the future of everyday people.

Robinson

Well, the book that will illuminate so much for our audience and for anyone who wants to understand how institutions and decision-making works in this country is The New Power Elite by Professor Heather Gautney, available from the Oxford University Press. I just want to close by reading a quote from C. Wright Mills that you open the book with, from his “Why I Wrote The Power Elite.” He says,

“Today, as readers and writers, we must make an effort to avoid being taken in, for this is an age of the myth and the distraction. In such an age, the task of any serious book is to unmask illusion in order to define important features of social reality. The task cannot be accomplished merely through providing information, although the information on the high and mighty is badly needed. We must also try to grind a lens through which we can perhaps see a little more clearly the world in which we live.”

I think this book grinds that lens and helps us see the world in which we live a little more clearly. Professor Heather Gautney, thank you so much for joining us.

Gautney

Thank you so much.


Hear more great conversations on the Current Affairs podcast.


Transcript edited by Patrick Farnsworth.

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