The visible power elite
The typical American Government textbook describes the operation of the political system in terms of checks and balances of the three major organs of government--executive, legislative, judicial--and attempts to analyze how they function. Individual leaders and their actions are paid great attention while the operation of underlying institutional and historical forces are neglected. The traditional approach to the study of American government is an analysis of powerful leaders and official institutions.
Very recently alternative analyses to the traditional approach have appeared.1 Although they offer a broad overview of unofficial, as well as the official institutions which comprise the American political process, they seldom incorporate a detailed accounting of the institutions and their inner workings.
The following chapters of this part of the book offer contrasting analyses of the three institutions that we believe are the most important, powerful, and presently most visible in the American political system. In 1956, C. Wright Mills published The Power Elite2 in which he argued that three institutional structures, in coordination, determined the goals of American society. They were the military (the Joint Chiefs of Staff), the polity (the Office of the Presidency), and the economy (heads of major corporations). We feel that in the succeeding years other institutions have emerged as major visible power centers in American society. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), often thought of as adjuncts to the exercise of American power, have now shown themselves to be capable of setting the direction for American and foreign societies. The uncovering of their operation permits us to include them as full-fledged members of the political elite. This is not to say that other institutions that Mills identified, such as the corporations, are less powerful. They may, in fact, be more so. We only feel them to be currently less visible.
The structure of this book does not set forth in order the more powerful and then the less powerful political institutions. Rather, it operates from the principle of moving from the more obvious to the less obvious political institutions, at least insofar as we view these institutions. We recommend that students keep this in mind. We recommend further that students keep the purposes of this framework in mind as they read the following articles. We hope that students reach their own conclusions as to which individuals or institutions are the most important in running