In his book Who Rules America? Domhoff (2013) examines the basis of power in contemporary America. He discusses several social, political, and economic groups and illustrates their roles in the governance of the United States. Domhoff contends that America is ruled by the power elite, a group which includes members from the corporate community, growth coalitions that function based primarily on real estate, and a policy-formation network created by nonprofit national organizations. The principal power goal of the power elite is to maintain dominance so that governance is minimized and that any governance which does exist is severely limited (Domhoff, 2015). Moderate conservative within the power elite recognize that there is some government necessary but they want it limited; ultra-conservative would prefer no government intervention at all.
The corporate community is made up of the leaders — owners and “C” level executives — of corporations, banks, and agricultural-industrial multinationals. Due to their personal and corporate wealth, they are able to strongly influence the actions and opinions of governing officials. Members of the corporate community or corporate rich form social connections through country clubs, private schools, vacation resorts, and organizations, which leads to the development of the social upper class. The social upper class overlaps with the power elite but the two groups are not identical. That is, some members of the social upper class are not part of the power elite, while some members of the power elite are not in the social upper class (Domhoff 2013).
Together with growth coalitions, which consist of companies focused on real estate, land development, and construction, the corporate community uses a policy-formation network of nonprofit organizations to ensure that government policies will favor its own interests. They are opposed by unions, liberals, environmentalists, and neighborhood groups, they are generally victorious unless the corporate coalition is split due a disagreement between members (Domhoff 2015).
Domhoff (2014) compared class dominance theory, which involves the power of the elite, with another theory that stipulates a “fractured elite.” This is an elite group whose members have different goals and preferred strategies. These differences can sidetrack the groups from focusing on another group that is their true opposition. The cause of the loss of cohesion is speculated to be related to the significant victories obtained in the 1970s and 1980s which made the coalition less important. Dumhoff, however, believes that domination, which he defines as “the institutionalized outcome of great distributive power,” remains in the hand of national and international corporations and financial institution (Domhoff 2014). Although there are occasional disruptions, such as the current conflict between moderate House Republicans (e.g. John Boehner) and Tea Party Republicans, Domhoff does not believe they are enough to break the stranglehold of corporate dominance.
Domhoff points out that in the United States, income and wealth inequality are worse than in any other industrialized country. Only one percent of the population hold approximately three-fourths (or more) of the wealth. This creates substantial resentment for the other 99 percent (Domhoff 2013). As a result, labor organizations, liberals, and some churches are strongly against the power elite. Labor unions fight to maintain and improve working conditions such as minimum wage laws and vacation time. Liberals believe in social programs and are often anti-war, which means that they become angry when money is taken from social programs and spent on defense (Domhoff 2015).
In order to study the corporate community, the social upper class, and the power elite, Domhoff utilized a number of different methods (Domhoff 2012). For example, by analyzing the structure of a network one can connect people and corporations with other people and other corporations, and then determine how they connect to the government to influence its policies. Social indicators, such as belonging to an exclusive club or sending one’s child to a prestigious school, can be used to identify the elite in a network analysis. Another method is content analysis, in which written materials (including transcripts of speeches, videos, etc.) are closely examined to achieve an in depth understanding of the group’s basic ideology and preferred policies. Domhoff notes that a great deal of information, at least on the national level, is available from the Internet (Domhoff 2012).
The social upper class is being reproduced every year as the children of upper class members enter the exclusive educational and social system which begins with restricted neighborhoods, country homes, lake homes, summer and winter homes, and fashionable clothes and toys. From preschool up, children attend private schools that are well-known for their elite character. Prep schools are only one part of this system. Young women become part of the upper class via debutante balls and teas. Adults in the upper class visit in exclusive golf clubs, luncheon clubs, hunting clubs, and garden clubs.
Women join volunteer organization such as the Junior League then move to cultural, service, and hospital associations. Domhoff points out that all this exclusivity creates a sense of “we-ness” that separates the upper class from the other classes (Domhoff 2015). Children are brought up believing themselves and their families to be superior, especially in the area of leadership. Reproducing the upper class is crucial to maintaining the power elite; if the process were to fail, it would be more likely for “undesirables” to gain power. This could be devastating for the members of the elite (Domhoff 2013).