Who Rules America?

by G. William Domhoff

Representative Quotations

Mission Statement

"Power and class are terms that make Americans a little uneasy, and concepts like power elite and dominant class immediately put people on guard. The idea that a relatively fixed group of privileged people might shape the economy and government for their own benefit goes against the American grain. Nevertheless, this book argues that the owners and top-level managers in large income-producing properties are far and away the dominant power figures in the United States. Their corporations, banks, and agribusinesses come together as a corporate community that dominates the federal government in Washington. Their real estate, construction, and land development companies form growth coalitions that dominate most local governments. Granted, there is competition within both the corporate community and the local growth coalitions for profits and investment opportunities, and there are sometimes tensions between national corporations and local growth coalitions, but both are cohesive on policy issues affecting their general welfare, and in the face of demands by organized workers, liberals, environmentalists, and neighborhoods.

"As a result of their ability to organize and defend their interests, the owners and managers of large income-producing properties have a very great share of all income and wealth in the United States, greater than in any other industrial democracy. Making up at best 1 percent of the total population, by the early 1990s they earned 15.7 percent of the nation's yearly income and owned 37.2 percent of all privately held wealth, including 49.6 percent of all corporate stocks and 62.4 percent of all bonds. Due to their wealth and the lifestyle it makes possible, these owners and managers draw closer as a common social group. They belong to the same exclusive social clubs, frequent the same summer and winter resorts, and send their children to a relative handful of private schools. Members of the corporate community thereby become a corporate rich who create a nationwide social upper class through their social interaction. Members of the growth coalitions, on the other hand, are place entrepreneurs, people who sell locations and buildings. They come together as local upper classes in their respective cities and sometimes mingle with the corporate rich in educational or resort settings.

"The corporate rich and the growth entrepreneurs supplement their small numbers by developing and directing a wide variety of nonprofit organizations, the most important of which are a set of tax-free charitable foundations, think tanks, and policy-discussion groups. These specialized nonprofit groups constitute a policy-formation network at the national level. Chambers of commerce and policy grops affiliated with them form similar policy-formation networks at the local level, aided by a few national-level city development organizations that are available for local consulting."


"During the past twenty-five years the corporate-conservative coalition has formed an uneasy alliance within the Republican Party with what is sometimes called the 'New Right' or 'New Christian Right,' which consists for the most part of middle-level religious groups concerned with a wide range of 'social issues,' such as teenage sexual and drinking behavior, abortion, and prayer in school. I describe the alliance as an 'uneasy' one because the power elite and the New Right do not have quite the same priorities, except for a general hostility to government and liberalism, and because it is not completely certain that the New Right is helping the corporate-conservative coalition as much as its publicists and fund-raisers claim. Nevertheless, ultraconservatives within the power elite help to finance some of the single-issue organizations and publications of the New Right . . . .

"Despite their preponderant power within the federal government and the many useful policies it carries out for them, members of the power elite are constantly critical of government as an alleged enemy of freedom and economic growth. Although their wariness toward governemnt is expressed in terms of a dislike for taxes and government regulations, I believe their underlying concern is that government could change the power relations in the private sphere by aiding average Americans through a number of different avenues: (1) creating government jobs for the unemployed; (2) making health, unemployment, and welfare benefits more generous; (3) helping employees gain greater workplace rights and protections; and (4) helping workers organize unions. All of these initiatives are opposed by members of the power elite because they would increase wages and taxes, but the deepest opposition is toward any government support for unions because unions are a potential organizational base for advocating the whole range of issues opposed by the corporate rich."

"Americans have always believed that anyone can rise from rags to riches if they try hard enough, but in fact a rise from the bottom to the top is very rare and often a matter of luck—being at the right place at the right time. . . . Since 1982 the Horatio Alger story line has been taken up by Forbes, a business magazine that each year publishes a list of the allegedly 400 richest Americans. 'Forget old money,' says the article that introduces the 1996 list. 'Forget silver spoons. Great fortunes are being created almost monthly in the U.S. today by young entrepreneurs who hadn't a dime when we created this list 14 years ago. . . .' But the Horatio Alger story is no less rare today than it was in the 1890s. A study of all those on the Forbes list for 1995 and 1996 showed that at least 56 percent came from millionaire families and that another 14 percent came from the top 10 percent of the income ladder. But even these figures are probably an underestimate because it is so difficult to obtain accurate information on family origins from those who want to obscure their pasts. Even those in the upwardly mobile 30 percent often had excellent educations or other advantages. . . . .

"Contrary to Forbes . . . most upward social mobility in the United States involves relatively small changes for those who are above the lowest 20 percent and below the top 5 percent."

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