Mills Analyzes Political Power in the United States Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

C. Wright Mills sought in The Power Elite to alert the American people to the emerging danger to their democracy posed by an interlocking ruling class composed of the top leaders of the economic, military, and political sectors. This thesis generated a fierce debate.

Summary of Event

In his farewell address on January 17, 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower Eisenhower, Dwight D. [p]Eisenhower, Dwight D.;military-industrial complex[military industrial complex] delivered a sober warning to his fellow citizens about a new phenomenon on the American scene. Eisenhower well recognized the necessity of a large military force and ample stockpiles of munitions to meet the long-term external challenges of the Cold War. He nonetheless feared that such a combination could by its sheer size create a “military-industrial complex” Military-industrial complex[Military industrial complex] capable of intimidating or corrupting the internal democratic processes of the American republic. He urged continual vigilance against this danger. Power Elite, The (Mills) Elites [kw]Mills Analyzes Political Power in the United States (1956) [kw]Political Power in the United States, Mills Analyzes (1956) [kw]United States, Mills Analyzes Political Power in the (1956) Power Elite, The (Mills) Elites [g]North America;1956: Mills Analyzes Political Power in the United States[05070] [g]United States;1956: Mills Analyzes Political Power in the United States[05070] [c]Political science;1956: Mills Analyzes Political Power in the United States[05070] [c]Sociology;1956: Mills Analyzes Political Power in the United States[05070] [c]Publishing and journalism;1956: Mills Analyzes Political Power in the United States[05070] Mills, C. Wright Marx, Karl Weber, Max Pareto, Vilfredo Dye, Thomas R.

Some five years earlier, a young American sociologist named C. Wright Mills had in his best-selling book The Power Elite (1956) expressed this concern in broader terms. He had detected a growing alliance of the military with big industry generally, to the possible detriment of the American system of government. The publication of his book in the mid-1950’s had launched a wide-ranging debate about the nature of power in relation to social structure in the contemporary United States.

Born in Waco, Texas, Mills studied philosophy and sociology at the University of Texas before completing his doctoral studies in 1941 at the University of Wisconsin. There, he absorbed the works of classic sociologists such as Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Vilfredo Pareto, many of whose ideas he would later adapt to his own purposes. He taught at Columbia University from 1946 until his death in 1962 at the age of forty-five.

Although Mills wrote eleven books between 1948 and 1962, his reputation would rest on three in particular. White Collar White Collar (Mills) (1951) analyzed the plight of the American middle class in the early post-World War II era, while The Sociological Imagination Sociological Imagination, The (Mills) (1959) conveyed Mills’s scathing critique of his own profession for its failure to address the great social issues of the day.

The middle book of the three, The Power Elite (1956), attracted an audience far beyond that of the usual sociological treatise, largely because of the central question it raised, namely that of the structure of American society. It raised this question in an irate, provocative fashion that generated immediate controversy. From the outset of his academic career, Mills was something of a flamethrower, a radical thinker who became a passionate advocate for greater equity in American society and a better life for all Americans. He urged his fellow social scientists to champion social change through their teaching, writing, and public action. Mills intended The Power Elite to serve as a model of social engagement by intellectuals like himself.

The continued concentration and consolidation of power in twentieth century America was a very disturbing trend to Mills. He believed that the prime wielders of this power consisted of a relative handful of people: several hundred top executives of large corporations, the leaders of the military establishment, and the senior officials of the federal government. These included corporate chief executive officers (CEOs), the military joint chiefs, other top generals and admirals at the Pentagon, and, finally, the president and vice president of the United States, as well as their key cabinet officials and close advisers.

Of all these people, only the president and vice president were elected by the American people. Mills saw this elite of big businessmen, high military officers, and major politicians as constituting the basic movers and shakers of American society. As a rule, their decisions alone had a national impact. At a secondary level were the middle managers, the lower-ranking military officers, state governors, and members of Congress, who usually dealt only with lesser issues or more local concerns. In short, Mills saw American society as organized from the top down, with a tiny elite at the apex of the pyramid and a large segment of middle-class managers just below them and generally serving the interests of the elite. At the bottom of the pyramid were the great masses of the common people who also served, knowingly or not, the broad purposes and agendas of the elite.

The twentieth century American elites that Mills observed were not yet a hereditary aristocracy rooted in land ownership, as elites had been in previous eras of Western civilization. Rather, their authority and prestige derived mainly from merit and the positions members held, the “command posts” as Mills called them. Further, these elites shared on the whole a well-defined ethos or value system.

Among these values were a clear sense of superiority as a group to the lesser orders and, conversely, a strong social bonding with others of their social rank, with whom they often coordinated their business dealings. Like gravitated to like. Members of the elites tended also to intermarry and to send their children to elites schools that reinforced the childen’s sense of exceptionalism and gave them a head start in future endeavors. Finally, many positions within the higher realms of corporate, military, and political affairs were frequently interchangeable. Top business executives joined the president’s cabinet, while retired generals became prominent businessmen or “soldier-statesmen” involved in foreign policy.

Mills stressed, however, that America had not yet become a closed society. Talented people from the lower echelons could still break through to elite status by means of hard work, good fortune, and a willingness to adopt the ethos of the ruling class. The elite also remained supportive of the constitutional guarantees of citizens’ rights and liberties. No secret police threatened private citizens with arbitrary arrest, and Mills found no conclusive evidence of any conscious conspiracy by the governing elite. He did, however, see signs of an emerging closed oligarchy of power responsible to none but itself.

Mills’s great hope was that books like his could rouse the “impotent masses” of the American people to demand that their government be more accountable for its actions. The American people as a whole had to confront, and soon, the interlocked system of power consolidating around them. Such a regime could be tempted eventually to bypass or suppress inconvenient constitutional rights and thereby subvert the very foundations of American democracy. Further, such an oligarchy, lacking a genuine sense of the national interest as a whole, could readily find itself trapped in a cycle of economic boom and bust. This cycle would be accompanied by frequent wars to aid business recovery.

In sum, The Power Elite was no dispassionate scholarly examination of its topic, but rather an urgent, highly engaged polemic against what Mills regarded as the creeping menace of a de facto oligarchy. He had written the book quickly, in a fluid, popular, sometimes flamboyant style, in order to reach beyond the usual circle of fellow scholars. He challenged the masses to recover their heritage as citizens who had a stake in their society. Through their votes, they could hold responsible the governing elite. The task of intellectuals like himself was to sound a clarion call to action. As to the likelihood of success in this great endeavor, Mills seemed to veer from hope to pessimism and back over the course of the book.


The Power Elite was met with both high praise and harsh denunciation. It was criticized for, among other things, its sometimes angry and militant tone, its allegedly blatant exaggeration of the political power of the military, and its claim regarding the level of coordination among the three branches of the power elite, even if such a single entity existed. Mills himself was sometimes described as an academic maverick who sought to pass off sensationalized journalism as serious scholarship. The book was also acclaimed, however, for its brilliant sociopolitical insights and especially for its vivid, persuasive analysis of the stark realities of contemporary American society. Even some of Mills’s critics expressed their own concerns about the direction of American government at mid-century.

The central themes of The Power Elite continue to be debated, both in discussions of the book itself and in more general debates about the state of American culture. There was a strong revival of interest in Mills’s work in the early twenty-first century, and political scientist Thomas R. Dye founded an interdisciplinary approach to the study of power elites meant to bring to bear the resources of different branches of the Academy. More generally, The Power Elite, with all its flaws, was widely recognized as an inspirational model of a scholar’s almost missionary personal commitment to engage the great issues of his time in a way that would move readers to seek remedies for the great problems that beset their society. Power Elite, The (Mills) Elites

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Aronowitz, Stanley, ed. C. Wright Mills. 3 vols. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 2004. Extensive, well-selected collection of essays by a wide spectrum of authorities on Mills. The Power Elite receives prominent attention.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hayden, Tom, ed. Radical Nomad: C. Wright Mills and His Times. Boulder, Colo.: Paradigm, 2006. Collection of essays by and about Tom Hayden discussing his connection with C. Wright Mills and the effects of Mills’s work upon social activism and leftist politics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Horowitz, Irving Louis. Behemoth: Main Currents in the History and Theory of Political Sociology. New York: Transaction, 1999. Chapter 12 discusses The Power Elite. Especially valuable for its summary of major criticisms made of Mills’s work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. C. Wright Mills: American Utopian. New York: Free Press, 1983. Published concurrently in the United States under the title The Armada, this biography traces Mills’s intellectual development. Stresses main ideas and experiences that shaped his outlook.

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