One of the books I read in graduate school that has now become my go-to guide to understand what’s going on in American society is The Power Elite by sociologist C. Wright Mills.
Written in 1956, when conservatism was at one of its lowest points in the country’s history, The Power Elite stands out because it argues against the pluralistic thinking that was dominant at the time. Much of the political and social science of the era was very triumphant about American institutions and the ability of the common man to influence the nation’s politics. The country’s intelligentsia wasn’t the only ones with an overwhelming optimism in the country’s government.
A trend compiled by the Pew Research Center finds that in 1958 more than nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of Americans trusted the government in Washington to do what is right always or most of the time. This number includes 7-in-10 Democrats and Independents, and nearly 8-in-10 (79 percent) Republicans(!!!). It was also a time when income inequality was declining, in large part thanks to a postwar boom, a stronger labor movement, and government investment.
Mills is skeptical of the “kumbaya” narrative of power and money in the United States and says that there is a “power elite.” Not a conspiracy, but certain interlocking dominant classes in politics, business, the military, and arts, that reinforce themselves. THis power elite is not bound by ideology, but by a need to keep themselves at the top of American society. More than 60 years later, as the upper classes continue to horde opportunity and wealth, he looks like a visionary.
Frank Rich, writing in New York Magazine, lays out how the New York society, its “liberal” and mostly Democratic establishment abated the rise of Donald Trump by telling to story of Roy Cohn. Cohn was Trump’s mentor and better known for being the henchman of infamous U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisc.). The whole article reads like a gossipy version of The Power Elite, but nonetheless is a good window into how the powerful help themselves.