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Define elite power theory. List the strengths and weaknesses of this theory. How does it help explain the evolution of social welfare policy in the US?

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The Power Elite by C. Wright Mills was published in 1956. Mills drew on the work of earlier Italian theorists, notably the economist and sociologist Vilfredo Pareto, originator of the Pareto Distribution, another theory concerning elite groups and the way in which they behave.

The power elite theory posits that America, along with many other countries, is really run by a small group of people, most of them unelected, who share the same backgrounds and the same interests. These people control every aspect of government, finance, the military and all major corporations, as well as exercising social and cultural control over the nation and all its citizens. The homogeneity of the power elite’s aims and beliefs makes them an extremely cohesive group, which wields power very effectively. Most members of the power elite are born into it, but it is potentially open to new members who accept its aims and are ready to further them.

The power elite theory is obviously true in some respects. Powerful people often come from the same backgrounds and share the same objectives (such as safeguarding and increasing their wealth and power). Many are shadowy figures, heads of corporations who use their wealth to buy privacy rather than publicity. However, the very obviousness and explicability of these matters are weaknesses in the theory. Mills himself admitted that no conspiracy was necessary for power elites to operate. Wealthy and powerful people generally want to pass on their advantages to their children. People who attend elite schools and universities are more likely to succeed in their careers. The facts that many Supreme Court justices were educated at Harvard, and that the children of billionaires are more likely than other people to become billionaires themselves are not really surprising enough to require a theory.

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Power elite theory was first articulated by C. Wright Mills, a sociologist, in a late-1950s book. Essentially he argued that the levers of power in the United States were controlled by a "power elite" that controlled governmental institutions, corporate boardrooms, and the United States military. These people mostly attended the same colleges, were mostly Protestants, and, being from the same social class and cultural milieu, shared basic beliefs about civil liberties, democratic institutions, and especially the relationship between government and business. They generally promoted free trade and the creation of an environment in which big business could thrive. One major strength of this theory is that it is verifiably true that those in positions of power tend to come from similar social backgrounds, attend the same colleges, and so on. A major weakness is that it does not account for factors like race and gender, which can help shape the opinions of American political leaders. Nor does it really explain some of the cultural issues that have emerged as pivotal in American politics. There are, for example, "power elites" who oppose abortion and others who support it. Similar differences have developed with respect to social welfare policy. Historians sometimes use the phrase "New Deal consensus" to describe the general agreement on at least some social welfare policies in the United States. Such a consensus, even among so-called "power elites," has steadily eroded since the so-called "Reagan Revolution" of the 1980s.

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