“Elites” (and “elite overproduction”) are key concepts in the structural-demographic theory (SDT). In this blog post I’d like to explain the meaning of this term. This is especially important because the popular usage (see Liberal Elite) has very little in common with the sociological definition (which is how it’s used in SDT). Thus, we have “Trump vs. the Elites” which is, sociologically speaking, nonsense.
As a term in sociology, elites are simply a small segment of the society who concentrate social power in their hands. They are the power-holders (and I increasingly use this term in my lectures, to avoid confusing them with those “latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading” folks that the right-wingers love to hate).
Next question, what is social power? Answer: ability to influence other people’s behavior. Sociologists such as Michael Mann distinguish four sources of social power: military (coercion), economic, administrative or political, and ideological.
Put simply, there are many ways to influence people behavior. I can make you to do something by force, or a threat of force; I can pay you to do it; I can order you; or I can persuade you. The last is one of the most important, if often underappreciated, forms of social power.
In most situations, different kinds of power are combined in various proportions. For example, military officers primarily influence the behavior of soldiers by giving them direct orders (political power), but this is buttressed by the threat of court martial (coercion). Most effective power involves all four components. Thus, a charismatic military chief (think Alexander the Great) gives direct orders through the chain of command, rewards followers with loot, hangs the deserters, and inspires his followers to fight for an idea.
Although the elites governing a country use a combination of all four kinds of power, there is a lot of variation in how ruling elites are recruited and from whom. Interestingly enough, an elite deriving its power from a particular source tends to dominate others. For example, in Egypt it’s the military elites. Modern Egypt has been ruled by generals from Nasser to Sadat to Mubarak, and now (after a brief intermission) by Sisi.
China, France, and Russia have traditionally been ruled by administrative elites. In Russia during the last Time of Troubles of the 1990s, a clique of wealthy billionaires, known as “oligarchs,” attempted to install themselves as the ruling elite. But they were easily defeated by the bureaucrats, led by Putin. Some oligarchs were exiled, another ended up in prison and then was exiled, and the rest accepted subordinate positions in the political order.
In the United States coercive power is thoroughly controlled by the political leaders. Political (and ideological) bases of power, in turn, are subordinated to the economic elites. I won’t go into details here, just note that power is exercised indirectly and in subtle ways. Those interested in understanding how this works should read William Domhoff’s Who Rules America (see also his web site) or Chapter 4 of Ages of Discord. The conclusion that we reach is that, to a first approximation, American power holders are wealth holders.
Thus, a pretty good answer to the question, who are the elites in America? is “those whose personal worth exceeds X million dollars.” What is X? It’s somewhat arbitrary, but it’s around 5-10 million as the following graph suggests:
You can see from the chart, that if you want to be in the proverbial 1 percent, you need to amass at least $7.8 million.
An alternative way to define the elites would be to start enumerating the most important political offices and bureaucratic positions, from the US president down; the officers of Fortune 500 companies; the owners and editors-in-chief of major media companies; major donors to politicians, and so on. But you would end up pretty much with the same group of people, because the great majority of these people would also be significant wealth holders. In America, wealth (economic power) is very closely correlated with overall social power.