The idea of the power elite comes from C. Wright Mills’ 1956 book of that name. Mills posited that there is a very small power elite at the top of the US political, economic, and military systems that holds a tremendous amount of power over our society. The power elite is the elite of the elite. In other words, most members of Congress and most of the “1 Percent” are not members of this power elite. The power elite maintains its influence in two major ways.
First, the power elite maintains its influence through what sociologists call “homosocial reproduction.” This term refers to a process where one sort of people systematically promotes other people of the same sort into positions of power. So, for example, let us imagine that there is a very large and important company. Its CEO and other top personnel are white Protestants who went to Ivy League schools. Homosocial reproduction is a system in which those top personnel choose other white Protestant Ivy Leaguers (who share their general values and attitudes) to be the next generation of top personnel. In that way, the power elite maintains its presence and influence at the top.
Second, the power elite maintains its influence by making what can be called “trunk decisions.” If we think of the US political system (or its economic system) as a tree (this is not a perfect metaphor, but it is one that is used), major decisions are those which affect the trunk of the tree. Minor decisions are those that cut off small branches. The power elite maintains power by making the really big, fundamental decisions. It decides, for example, that we will have a fairly extensive welfare state, leaving those who are not part of the power elite to argue over how much money will be directed to which programs.
Thus, the power elite is said to maintain its power by making big decisions that shape our society in the way the power elite wants and by grooming and promoting people who are similar to them to be the next generation of the power elite.