Thursday, July 19, 2012

On Political Elites


Elite refers to a minority of individuals who have the most of what (power, wealth, status, etc.) there is to have or who get the most of what there is to get in society.  They have the highest indices (of success) in their branch of activity and they directly or indirectly play some considerable part in government.  Normative elitism contends that elite rule is desirable and that political power should be vested in the hands of a wise or enlightened minority (Heywood 2007:84). The classical philosophers (i.e. Plato, Aristotle, and Machiavelli) attempted to answer the question: Who is fit to rule? The major assumption of political leadership is that not everybody can rule. Leadership is reserved for those who possess certain qualities which distinguish them from ordinary people.  

Classical elite studies claim to be empirical (although normative judgments intrude) and sees elite rule as an inevitable, and unchangeable fact of social existence (Heywood 2007:85). For Mosca (1939), there are only two types of people in society—the rulers and the ruled. The organizational nature of the elites makes them the most convenient rulers of the society. In the same manner, Pareto (1968) considered the elites are the appropriate rulers because they have the skills and expertise. Using the German Social Democrat Party as a case study, Robert Michels (1949) introduced the “iron law of oligarchy” to explain the elitist/oligarchical tendencies of all socio-political organizations. Direct/participatory democracy although noble is physically and technically impossible.   

Modern elitist perspectives developed as empirical analyses but are more critical and discriminating about the causes of elite rule. Mills’s The Power Elite (1956) contends that elite power is subject to historical variations. There are three major keys in understanding the group: 1) psychological/social similarity; 2) structural coincidences (relationship with social institutions); and 3) explicit coordination (strategies for unity). An empirical study by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), The Rulemakers (2004), reveals the aforementioned characteristics of elites. The work shows how Philippine legislators  cannot live up to their title as “representatives of the people” given their economic status and political prestige.

For Guttsman[1], one of the shortcomings of elite theories is that they consider the ruling political group as belonging to the top group of society There is a little systematic study of the changing political elites within the framework of a changing social structure.. Also, no one can generalize the attitudes of elites vis-à-vis democracy.[2] It means they can also provide and espouse democratic values/ethos (democratic elitism). Schumpeter’s “realistic” model of democracy[3] argues that political power shall always be exercised by the elites (inter-elite rivalry). This is supported by Anthony Down’s idea of “competitive elitism”[4] which explains the entrepreneurial tendencies of politicians due to the need to satisfy the demands of political market wherein the electorate behave as consumers.


[1] W.L.Guttsman,"Social Stratification and  Political Elite,”  British Journal of   Sociology, 11  (June 1960)137-150.
[2] Frank Bealey, “Democratic Elitism and the Autonomy of Elites,” International Political Science Review, Vol 17, No. 3 (July 1996), p. 319-331.
[3] Schumpeter, Joseph. 1942. Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. London: Allen and Win.
[4] Downs, Anthony. 1990. An Economic Theory of  Democracy. New York: Harper and Row.

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