United States Government: Who is in control?

This migrant agricultural worker's family might find participating with government difficult when daily life is a struggle. Does socioeconomic status affect civic participation? (Dorothea Lange, photographer; Library of Congress Collection)

This migrant agricultural worker’s family might find participating with government difficult when daily life is a struggle. Does socioeconomic status affect civic participation? (Credit: Dorothea Lange; Library of Congress Collection)

Learning Objectives

  • Define important concepts such as unalienable rights and consent of the governed.
  • Understand basic theories of government–elitism and pluralism.
  • Acknowledge the existence of trade-offs.

The United States guarantees its citizens the right to participate in government. In fact, the republic is based upon the ideas of consent by those who are governed and individual participation.  If each individual, regardless of birth or circumstances, has value and possesses unalienable rights, individuals may band together to protect and defend these rights.  If individuals believe these rights are unalienable (inseparable) from the human condition either by human reasoning or personal recognition of divine authority, they may also believe that no government should separate them from their rights to life, liberty, and property without their consent.  Individuals in the new republic formed a government based upon consent; unfortunately, consent was not expanded to all individuals living within the borders of the new nation at the time of formation. Ideally, all individual citizens would acknowledge consent for the government while allowing this government to balance protection of individual liberty with maintenance of security and order.

Civic Participation and Political Equality

If citizens wish to form a representative government, participation in choosing representatives that will make the laws is necessary. This democratic ideal of civic participation is characterized by consent of the majority through citizen voting for these representatives. Moreover, in voting booths, each person has politically equal influence–one person/one vote. Thus, voting for representatives manifests three democratic ideals–civic participation, majority rule, and political equality.

Margaret V. Lally is pictured here at the door of a voting booth during the first election where women could vote. (From the Bain News Service, Library of Congress Collection)

Margaret V. Lally is pictured here at the door of a voting booth during the first election where women could vote. (Credit: Bain News Service, Library of Congress Collection)

The founders of the U.S. Constitution understood that citizens might band together in organized groups to attempt to influence elected representatives as they develop rules and laws. This form of civic participation is guaranteed in the Bill of Rights through the First Amendment’s right to petition the government to address your concerns and the right to assemble or organize political meetings or groups. The United States has many different levels and branches of government that any citizen or group might approach with concerns about protection of liberty and property or maintenance of order and security. Who is really in control of the government?

Patriotic Rally of the citizens of Philadelphia for the Home Defense Committee, March 31, 1917 (Library of Congress Panoramic Photographs Collection)

Patriotic Rally of the citizens of Philadelphia for the Home Defense Committee, March 31, 1917 (Credit: Library of Congress Panoramic Photographs Collection)

Elitism and Pluralism

Many people believe evidence indicates U.S. citizens, especially as represented by competing groups, are able to influence government actions. This viewpoint is called the pluralist theory of government, which states political power rests with competing interest groups sharing influence over governmental decisions. Some political theorists, however, argue that a minority of citizens, economic and political elite, control the government and others have no influence. This belief is called the elite theory of government or elitism. According to this theory, the United States is, in fact, an oligarchy where power is concentrated in the hands of the few.

Pluralists argue, political power is distributed throughout society. Rather than resting in the hands of individuals, a variety of organized groups hold power, with some groups having more influence on certain issues than others. Thousands of interest groups exist in the United States.[1]

Approximately 70–90 percent of Americans report belonging to at least one group.[2]

A veterans' interest group protests bonus bill delay. Protesting Congress' delay in considering the soldiers' cash bonus proposal, scores of Washington veterans paraded to the Capitol in a demonstration to seek immediate action. They were met on the Capitol steps by members of the House who are war veterans, where the photograph shows them being addressed by Rep. Patman of Texas. (Library of Congress Collection)

A veterans’ interest group protests bonus bill delay. Protesting Congress’ delay in considering the soldiers’ cash bonus proposal, scores of Washington veterans paraded to the Capitol in a demonstration to seek immediate action. They were met on the Capitol steps by members of the House who are war veterans, where the photograph shows them being addressed by Rep. Patman of Texas. (Credit: Library of Congress Collection)

According to pluralist theory, people with shared interests will form groups to make their desires known to politicians. These groups include environmental advocates, unions, and organizations representing various business interests. Because most people lack the inclination, time or expertise necessary to actively advocate for their interests in Washington, D.C., these groups assume this role. As groups compete with one another and find themselves opposed on important issues, government policy forms. In this way, government policy is shaped from the bottom up and not from the top down, as in elitist theory. Robert Dahl, author of Who Governs?, was one of the first to advance the pluralist theory, and argued that politicians seeking an “electoral payoff” are attentive to the concerns of politically active citizens and through them become acquainted with the needs of ordinary people. They will attempt to give people what they want in exchange for their votes.[3]

The foremost supporter of elite theory was C. Wright Mills. In his book, The Power Elite, Mills argued that government was controlled by a combination of business, military, and political elites.[4]

Most political elites are highly educated, often graduating from prestigious universities. According to elite theory, the wealthy use their power to control the nation’s economy such that those with little influence cannot advance economically. Wealth or political connections allow the elite to secure for themselves the politically important positions used to make decisions and allocate resources in ways that benefit this group. Politicians do the bidding of the wealthy instead of attending to the needs of ordinary people. Those who favor government by the elite believe the elite are better fit to govern and that average citizens are content to allow them to do so.[5]

In apparent support of the elite perspective, one-third of U.S. presidents have attended Ivy League schools, a much higher percentage than the rest of the U.S. population.[6] All five of the most recent U.S. presidents attended prestigious East Coast or Ivy League schools such as Harvard, Yale, Columbia or University of Pennsylvania.

Formal presidential portraits of G.H.W. Bush, W.J. Clinton, G.W. Bush, B.H. Obama, and D.J. Trump.

Currently, more than half of the members of Congress are millionaires; their median net worth is just over $1 million, and some have much more.[7]

There is considerable dispute over the validity of elite theory. While a clearly differentiated socio-economic group appears to exist in positions of power, members of this group often do not have the same political viewpoints. For example, while Presidents Bush, Obama and Trump all attended prestigious east coast universities, they do not share similar political views on many issues. Outside government, extremely wealthy billionaires can often be found on different sides of the issues, such as George Soros supporting Democrats and Sheldon Adelson supporting Republicans.

Representative Government: Pluralism and Elitism

Do pluralist interests groups and lobbying efforts fulfill the original concept of representative government?

Pluralism can undermine some of the basic democratic ideals of representative government. Since not all groups are equally powerful–they do not fulfill precisely the principle of political equality or one person/one vote. Moreover, lobbying influence is not the same as majority rule. Governmental responsiveness to interest groups, even when all are combined, do not represent the true majority view of the people–only the view of those organized individuals.

Clearly, elitism does not fulfill the democratic principles of political equality or majority rule either. By definition an elite is not a majority of the population–it is then the opposite of political equality.

link to learningThe Center for Responsive Politics is a non-partisan research group that provides data on who gives to whom in elections. Visit OpenSecrets.org: Center for Responsive Politics to track campaign contributions, congressional bills and committees, and interest groups and lobbyists.

Questions to Consider

  1. What is the difference between elite and pluralist theory?

  2. Can you describe unalienable rights?

  3. From what/who/where do unalienable rights arise or originate?

  4. Is citizen consent to government essential to liberty?

Terms to Remember

consent–individual citizens of a government recognize governmental authority; individual citizens vote or give consent to be ruled by a particular elected group of representatives

elite theory (elitism)–claims political power rests in the hands of a small, elite group of people

pluralist theory (pluralism)–claims political power rests in the hands of groups of people; competing groups

unalienable rights–rights possessed by every person; rights not conferred by the government; individual rights to life, liberty, and property


  1. "The Non-Governmental Order: Will NGOs Democratise, or Merely Disrupt, Global Governance?" The Economist, 9 December 1999.
  2. Ronald J. Hrebenar. 1997. Interest Group Politics in America, 3rd ed. New York: Routledge, 14; Clive S. Thomas. 2004. Research Guide to U.S. and International Interest Groups. Westport, CT: Praeger, 106.
  3. Dahl, Who Governs? 91–93.
  4. C. Wright Mills. 1956. The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University Press.
  5. Jack L. Walker. 1966. "A Critique of the Elitist Theory of Democracy," The American Political Science Review 60, No. 2: 295.
  6. The Ivy League is technically an athletic conference in the Northeast comprised of sports teams from eight institutions of higher education—Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Harvard University, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, and Yale University—however, the term is also used to connote academic excellence or social elitism.
  7. Alan Rappeport, "Making it Rain: Members of Congress Are Mostly Millionaires," New York Times, 12 January 2016.