Role of Political Elites

Role of Political Elites. Nowadays most sociologists, historians, psychologists, and political scientists have started giving sufficient attention to the study of elites because this type of class has played always a significant role in the working of past, as well as present governments. In ancient times Plato and Aristotle while maintaining the government and society in their books have also thrown light on the role of the political Elite. However, in the present century, Laswell was the first writer to draw attention to this aspect. Later on Yaetano Moxa, Pareto, Michels, James Burnham, Dwight Waldo, C. Write Mills, etc, highlighted the leading role played by the elites. They have sought to prove that there may exist in any society minority of the population which takes the majority decisions in the society.

Elite Defined and Explained:-

Aristotle held Thad some persons are fit to rule while others are fit to be ruled over. Elite means chose few. Elite consists of those persons who come at the top because of their superior quality. Such chosen few generally exist in trade-Unions, bureaucracy, armed forces, and almost everywhere. Criticism has been defined by various authorities is given below:

According to Pareto:

Elite consists of those successful persons who rise to top in every occupation and stratum of society; there is an elite of lawyers, an elite of mechanics and even an elite of thieves.

According to Michels, the elite consists of those

Few persons who are able to control the apathetic, indolent and slavish people who are susceptible to flattering and obsequious (seviler obdient) in the presence of strength.

According to Laswell,

Elites are the power holders of a body politic. They are the holders of a high position in a given society.

According to C. Wright Mills,

Elite are those who hold the leading position in the strategic hierarchies.

According to Laswell,

Elites are the power holders of a body politic. They are the holders of a high position in a given society.

According to C. Wright Mills,

Elite are those who hold the leading position in the strategic hierarchies.

Hunter says,

Those who enjoy reputation for leadership i in society and in the eyes of the community, religion, business, various committees, legislature, civic bodies, and who are in the real policy makers are the elite.

Consequently, all these definitions agree on the following points :

  1. Distinct qualities which make the elite.
  2. Rule by a microscopic minority.
  3. Prestige, status, and pre-eminence of the elite.
  4. Compact and united group feeling.
  5. Possession of power, authority; influence, and other sources.

The Elite Theory :

The Elite Theory consists of the idea that there are two groups;

  1. The selected few who govern the society because of their ability and
  2. The vast masses Who are governed because they are destined to be ruled.

Elite theory assures that men may be equal in the eyes of God but they are not so in the eyes of man. According to the theorists, inequality is largely found in every state and society, thus making every one of them oligarchical in different degrees. Elites arise in every type of society and state because of the ancient traditions, wealth, physical might, Economic Status, and ability.

Rule of Elite differentiated from Aristocracy and Oligarchy :

An elite according to Verney, appears to combine some of the characteristics of both an oligarchy (government by the few privileged) and an aristocracy (government by the best) but is not to be confused with either. It is a minority, like an aristocracy but there is neither in the sense of self-preparation and selfishness which often is associated with the latter. In simpler words, oligarchy and aristocracy are both distinct from the elite.

Oligarchy is a government by the few privileged and the Aristocracy is a government by the few best but with the Elite there is no grandeur of aristocracy and no desire for self-perpetuation and selfishness as we found in Oligarchy. The Elite always works in the interest of those from whom it derives its power and authority but still, it works against democracy because it believes in the rule of the few.

Therefore Maurice Duyerger holds the opinion that the government of the people and by the people must be replaced by another formula Government of people by an elite sprung from the people. Consequently, the theory of political elite stands on the principle of natural inequality and is opposed to the liberal democratic state.

Different Approaches of the Elites, Leading Elite Theorists:-

The study of the Elites came into being in the early nineteenth century and early twentieth century due to the writings of two sociologists of Italy Vilfredo Pareto and Gaetano Mosca. Besides that Burnham and Wright Mills have made their own contributions. Though there are differences of opinion amongst them, the common theme of all of them is that every society is ruled by a minority that possesses the qualities necessary for its succession to full social and political power. Those who get on top are always the best. They are known as the elites. The elites consist of those successful persons who rise to the top in every occupation and Stratum of society there is an elite of lawyers, an elite of mechanics, and even an elite of thieves and an elite of prostitutes.

1. Pareto (1848-1923) and his circulation Theory:

Pareto held the opinion that in every society there are people who possess in a marked degree the qualities of intelligence, character, skill, capacity, of whatever kind. According to him, there is in every civilized community an artistic, sporting, scientific elite, and also a relatively small group of persons who dominate the political and economic forces of the country. He argues that the elite possesses certain qualities on the basis of which they come to the top. He calls these qualities residues, by residues he means this quality owing to which one can come at the top.

He has given six kinds of residues:

  1. Persistence of aggregates
  2. Sociability
  3. Activity
  4. Integrity
  5. Sex, and
  6. The instinct of combinations.

Of these Pareto attaches the greatest importance to the first and the last. Pareto says that there are two kinds of elites, one ruling force; the second ruling by cunningness. They clearly bear a close resemblance to Machiavelli’s characterization of governing cliques as foxes and lions.

Pareto conceded the necessity of the circulation of elites taking place from time to time, as he was interested in the maintenance of social equilibrium. Revolutions, he wrote, come about through the accumulations in the higher strata of society either because of a slowing down in class circulation, or from other causes of decadent elements no longer possessing the residue suitable for keeping them in power, or shrinking from use of force; while in the meantime in the lower strata of society elements of superior: quality is coming to the fore, possessing residues suitable for exercising the functions of governing and willing enough to use force.

2. Mosca (1858-1941), The organizational approach:-

While Pareto was basically a sociologist and a psychologist, Gaetano mosca (1858-1941) who further developed the theory of political elites and the concept regarding their circulation of elites, was basically a political scientist. He strongly refused the classification of the governments of Aristotle which divided the governments into monarchy, aristocracy, oligarchy, and democracy, and favored the only oligarchy. To quote his own words.

In all societies from societies that are meagerly developed and have barely attained the dawning of civilization, down to the most advanced and powerful societies two classes of people appear a class that rules and a class that is ruled. The first class, always the less numerous, performs all political functions, monopolizes power and enjoys the advantages that power brings, whereas the second, the more numerous class, is directed and controlled by the first, in a manner that is now more or less legal, now more arbitrary and violent and supplies the first, in appearance at least, with the instrumentalist that are essential to the vitality of the political organism.

The larger the political community, he adds later, the smaller will be the proportion of the governing minority to be governed by, and the more difficult it will be for the majority to organize for a reaction against the minority.

Like Pareto, Mosca also believed in the theory of the circulation of the elite. The distinguishing characteristic of the elite being the aptitude to command and to exercise political control, once the ruling class loses this aptitude and the people outside the ruling class cultivate it in large numbers, there is every possibility that the old ruling class will be replaced by the new one. Mosca asserts that new interests and ideals are formulated in society, new problems arise and the process of circulation of elites is accelerated. He also advises the governing elite to bring about gradual alterations in the political system in order to make it conform to changes in public opinion.

3. Robert Michels (1876-1936), (The Organizational approach) :

Robert Michels like his teacher Mosca repeats an organizational approach to the question of elite control in his well-known work Political parties although his treatment is much different from Mosca. While Mosca believes that the elite manages to maintain its control by virtue of its organizational ability that flows from the very fact of its being a minority, Michels contends that the very structure of modern organized society gives birth to elite rule.

His name is associated with what is known as the law of oligarchy, which he declares as one of the iron laws of history, from which the most democratic modern societies and within those societies, the most advanced parties, have been unable to escape. The primary factor supporting this jaw is the element of the organization.

No movement or party can succeed without organization in modern times. According to him, Organization is simply another way of spelling oligarchy. It becomes necessary in every organization to vest the wears into the leadership. This leadership cannot be checked and held accountable for everything.

Due to the technical knowledge, the control ultimately passes into the hands of the bureaucracy and other leading politicians of the party. This forms the central principle of elitism. In short, the party hierarchy becomes an established career, offering a rise in social status and income. This power of the elite is sustained because of the carelessness, apathy, ineptitude, and political neutrality of the masses.

Roberto Michels further says that once the leaders reach the pinnacle of power, nothing can bring them down. If laws are passed to control the domination of leaders, it is the laws that gradually weaken, and not the leaders.

4. Harold Laswell

Harold Laswell divided the people into elite and masses. He said The few who get the most of any value are the elite, the rest, the rank and file. However, it depends upon the ability and tactics of the elite to maintain its power. In his own words, The fate of an elite is profoundly affected by the ways it manipulates the environment. This is to say by the use of violence, goods, symbols, and practices.

However, he changed his position subsequently and based his elitism on the concept of power. So he said, the elite are those with the most power in a group mid-elite those with less power; the mass, least power. By power, Laswell meant the decision-making power. Consequently, the elite are those who make decisions and hold the highest position of power in the political system.

Though decisions taken by the elite are authoritative and backed by force, yet they have to get the support of the masses in order to be effective. In case the people do not obey, the elite loses power. Then the counter-elite backed by the people gets power.

5. Ortega Y. Gasset (1883-1955)

In order to further highlight the theory of the Political elite, Ortega Y. Gasset evolved the theory of the masses. He says that the People choose their leaders upon whom they pour out their vast store of vital enthusiasm. These leaders are men of outstanding ability and always lead the masses.

He says, A nation is an organized human mass, given structure by a minority of select individuals the legal form which a nation may adopt can be as democratic or as communistic as you choose, but its living and extralegal constitution will always consist in the dynamic influence of a minority acting on the mass. This is a natural law and as important in the biology of social bodies as the law of densities in physics.

The primary social fact, he writes further, are the Organization of a human heap in leaders and the lead. This supposes in some & Certain capacity of lead, in other a certain capacity to be lead. He asserts that the Masses revolt when the aristocracy becomes corrupt and inefficient, and the motive being the revolt is not that they have an objection to being ruled by the aristocracy but Would like to be ruled by a more competent aristocracy

6. Burnham :

Economic Approach: In explaining the theory of the elite, Burnham adopts the economic approach, which looks similar to the approach of Marx but it is not really so. According to him, the power of an elite depends upon the degree of control he has over the principal means of production and distribution. Because of this control, the elite manages to get preferential treatment in the society and is able to prevent the rest of others to enjoy the same position in society. Thus the easiest way to discover what the ruling group is In any society is usually to see that the group gets the biggest income. However, Burnham is not a Marxist on account of this reason but is to justify and defend the present capitalist system. He takes only the importance of the control of means of production from Marx but where Marx vests it in the hands of the labor class, he vests it m the hands of an elite.

7. C Write Mills :

C. Wright Mills refuses to share Burnham’s belief that the political power of the elite results from economic power. Power, according to Mills tends to be institutionalized. He used the term power elite instead of the term ruling class since to him the word ruling class smack of economic determinism, Power is thus an attribute of classes or persons but of institutions. He was opposed to the concept of class. He laid special emphasis on the history-making decisions by the power elite. According to him, the-power elite then consists of those, in positions of major hierarchies and organizations of modern society. He has asserted that the history-making power of the elite is sufficient to overturn the Status quo, call into question the existing social relations, and establish a new structure. The inner core of the elite is able, potentially, to determine the roles that others will play in society. He has also cited the example of bombing Hiroshima (Japan) in the 2nd World War in August 1945 by the American elite.

Role of Political Elites:-

The role of the elite in society is extremely important because it formulates the policies and takes the decisions. The elite gives political education to the masses and they set certain model standards in the society. It is throughout the elites, writes Rajni Kothari, that values of political development penetrate into society at various levels and by stages. The role of the writers, artists, social workers, and scientists is even more important than the bureaucrats and politicians. They enlighten the people. Thus they preserve and promote the culture.

T.S. Elite remarked: No society without a governing elite can hope to transmit the culture it has inherited, Karl Mannheim has praised the elite by calling it the culture creating groups. Frederich writes the elite itself sets the standards of excellence by which particular men are to be evaluated. Not only that the elite help the poor and remove their genuine grievances. In times of crisis, the people look to the elite to show them the way.

Criticism of Elitism:-

The elite theories which had been first advocated against Marxism have been put to searching questions and found lacking. Some of the points of criticism are:

1. Elite cannot control the whole sphere of political activity :

The advocates of elite theories wrongly believe that the elite can control the whole sphere of political, social, and economic activity. An elite may influence one field but it cannot influence all the trends. For example, Dahl holds that the economically well-off section of society cannot find any place in the sphere of education. Dahl has beautifully made a distinction between the economic notables, social notables, and political leaders.

2. Wealth and political position cannot be proportionate

The supporters of the elite theory wrongly hold the belief that wealthy persons may rise political power and control the political structure. It is not necessary that the most powerful man of the state may be also the wealthiest. Besides that, it is also not certain that the wealthiest person may rise to political power. In communist countries, wealth has no role to play. Even in democratic countries like India, though wealth has played a notable role in the elections, yet all the wealthy persons have not risen to power, Many big capitalists of India may exercise a political influence upon the government directly or indirectly but they have not contested the election so far. Hence there is no proportionate relation between the two.

3. Elites are more concerned about their personal interests than the interests of the whole community:

Supporters of the elite theory wrongly lead us to believe that the elites look to the interests of the whole community. In fact, they never look to the interests of the whole community. In fact, they never look to the interest of the entire society but confine themselves to their own interests.

4. Decision-making does not lie solely in the hands of the elites:

It is argued by prominent supporters of the elite theory that the decisions in the government are generally taken by the elites. When the government takes decisions, several factors influence it and not only the wishes of the elites.

5. Ideas of elites never create values :

The supporters of the elite theory believe that the ideas of the elites create value for the society but this is only a one-sided picture. On the other hand, the truth is that the elite gives ideas in accordance with the values recognized by the masses because the elites can never force their values on society.

6. Elites are not cohesive, conscious, and conspiratorial:-

The main exponents of the elite theory hold that the elites are linked by ties of common interests and they are cohesive, conscious, and conspiratorial but it is not so. Friedrick says that It is not the class that rules but the class from which the rulers and in whose interest they exercise power. He further holds that their power is not cohesive because many rival groups hold power in society.

7. Elites do not rule with their inherent ability

It has been held that the elites rule any country because of their inherent abilities but it is not so. The hard fact is that they have to rule the country according to the consent of the masses. Even if a small section of the people is alienated from the political system, then it may resort to protests and demonstrations which may paralyze the elite rule and the theory of the elites.

Elite Theory and Democratic System:-

It is obvious that the theory of elites (Rule of the few) is opposed to democracy because democracy is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. However, Karl Mannheim (1893-1947), who in his earlier writings had connected elite theories with fascism and anti-intellectualism, played an important role in advocating this reconciliation. The actual shaping of policy, he wrote, is in the hands of elites; but this does not mean that the society is not democratic. He asserts For it is sufficient for democracy that the individual citizens, though prevented from taking a direct part in government a! the time have at least the possibility of making their aspirations felt at certain internals in a democracy the governed can always act to remove their leaders or to force them to take decisions in the interest of the many.

Mannheim came to believe that Pareto was right in stressing that political power was always exercised by minorities (elites) and Michels in his evolving the law of the trend towards oligarchic rule in party organizations, and in his late; writings, he sees no contradiction between the theory of political elites and democracy. The difference between a totalitarian system and democracy was that whereas in the former the minority ruled despotically, in the latter it could be removed by the majority or forced to make decisions in their interest.

A similar attempt has been made by two economists, Schumpeter, and Anthony Downs. Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950) is certainly more realistic than Michels in his application of the same empirical insight towards a reformation Of the democratic creed. Schumpeter affirms his faith in democracy in a sense that takes cognizance of the fact that as Michels saw, leadership is indispensable in any other organization. Schumpeter deliberately throws out the moral content that John Stuart Mill in the nineteenth century and writers like L. T. Hob. house, A.D. Lindsay, Earnest Banker, Woodrow Wilson, John Dewy, and R. M. Maclver had put into the idea of democracy. Democracy for him is simply a market mechanism; the voters are the consumers; the politicians are the entrepreneurs.

Anthony Downs expounds on an economic theory of democracy. Parties in democratic politics, writes Anthony Downs, are analogous to entrepreneurs in a profit-seeking economy. So as to attain their profit ends, they formulate whatever politics they believe will gain the most votes, just entrepreneurs produce whatever products they believe will gain the most profits for the same reasons. Dr, S. P. Verma observes, As different groups of men look for different ways of obtaining support from the masses, different political parties are formed and enter into competition with each other. This leads to a plurality of elites and a kind of system of checks and balances in the democratic societies, which are, on this account, often described as pluralistic societies. Associations of all kinds, professional as well as political, are formed and the government becomes a business of compromises.


The elitists lay too much emphasis on elite politics because they have utterly failed to offer an alternative to the Marxian doctrine of class war. They offer a political theory which is a negation of democracy a government of people, by the people, and for the people. They have forgotten that democracy implies the political movement of the lower classes of society against the dominance of the aristocratic or wealthy classes. What the twentieth-century theorists have done rather arbitrarily, is to identify democracy with a state-political system in which elite rule is sanctioned by periodic elections, There might be certain shortcomings in the Marxian Theory of economic change, yet it is extremely difficult to accept the theory of power elites as a satisfactory explanation of the social change.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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