Is ‘Power Elite’ Permanent?

17 Dec, 2018

IMPACT

Is ‘Power Elite’ Permanent?

December 2018

For all the sniping that the two parties do at each other, in hopes of emphasizing their differences, the makeup of presidential cabinets remain remarkably similar no matter who sits in the Oval Office.

Building on previous studies of the composition of cabinets from 1897 through 1973, new research covering the period of 1968 to the present finds that most administrations are staffed at the highest levels with representatives of what Timothy Gill of the University of North Carolina Wilmington, the author of a new study calls “the elite corporate sphere.”

“Most cabinet secretaries come from the corporate world and, when they leave an administration, they return to it. During the earlier period, from 1897 to 1973, 76 percent of cabinet members were interlocked with business,” and despite their other differences, Republican cabinets had only a slight edge in corporate connections over Democrats — 78 to 73, respectively.

Democrat Bill Clinton’s cabinet was 80 percent interlocked, and Barack Obama’s, at 81 percent was even higher, though where some of Obama’s selections end up remains to be seen. Republican George W. Bush’s appointments, however, set a record at 100 percent.

The position that tends to rank lowest in corporate connections is the Secretary of Education, though Trump’s choice of Betsy DeVos in the latter position seems an exception to the rule. The daughter-in-law of Amway’s founder and wife of its former CEO, the former Elizabeth Prince is also the daughter of the founder of the Prince Corporation. The family, according to Forbes, is worth $5.4 billion. The secretary has invested in for-profit daycares, charter schools and colleges.

A ‘Deep State’?

Such ties trouble Democrats more than Republicans — and “democratic socialists” most of all — but the difference seems “one of degree,” as Charles Darwin would say, “not of kind.” Gill, whose research stresses the similarity between administrations and not their differences, is influenced by the work of C. Wright Mills and G. William Domhoff, who investigated the “Power Elite” and revealed “Who Rules America,” respectively. Even so, he backs off from offering an endorsement of one of the current administration’s claims — that, given all these interlocking connections at the highest levels of government and business, there really is a “Deep State.”

While “there is certainly a revolving door involving government administrations, Washington NGOs, and other public positions,” Gill says his research doesn’t support such a conclusion. “Too often, I find that journalists, politicians and others often speak in vagaries.”

Want More Information on This Topic?

Contact Kristin Brackemyre, senior manager of PAC and Advocacy Practice

Additional Resources

Webinar: Diversity and Inclusion in Public Affairs

How Electoral Reforms Have Backfired

Share with your community: