United States Government: Who is in control?

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 tradeoffs

The United States allows its citizens to participate in government in many ways. In fact, the republic is based upon the ideas of consent 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.

The formation of representative government implied citizen participation in choice of representation.  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?  Many people believe evidence indicates U.S. citizens, especially as represented by competing groups, are able to influence government actions. Some political theorists, however, argue that this is not the case. They claim that only a minority of economic and political elites have any influence over government.


Many Americans fear that a set of elite citizens control government and others have no influence. This belief is called the elite theory of government or elitism. In contrast to that perspective is the pluralist theory of government, which says political power rests with competing interest groups sharing influence in government. Pluralist theorists assume that citizens who want to get involved do so because of the abundant access points to government. That is, the U.S. system with several levels and branches has many places where people and groups can engage and influence the government.

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.[1]

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.[2]

A chart showing an inset of the east coast of the United States with the locations of the seven Ivy League universities labeled:

The four most recent U.S. presidents have all graduated from an Ivy League university.

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.[3]

All four of the most recent U.S. presidents attended Ivy League schools such as Harvard, Yale, or Columbia. Among members of the U.S. House of Representatives, 93 percent have a bachelor’s degree, as do 99 percent of members of the U.S. Senate.[4]

Fewer than 40 percent of U.S. adults have even an associate’s degree.[5]

The majority of the men and women in Congress also engaged in either state or local politics, were business people, or practiced law before being elected to Congress.[6]

Approximately 80 percent of both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives are male, and fewer than 20 percent of members of Congress are people of color. The nation’s laws are made primarily by well-educated white male professionals and businessmen.

An aerial image of a large group of people standing in a room.

This picture depicts the fairly uniform nature of Congress. Most are men and nearly all are Caucasian.

The makeup of Congress is important because race, sex, profession, education, and socioeconomic class frequently influence people’s political interests.

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]

As of 2003, more than 40 percent of Congress sent their children to private schools. Overall, only 10 percent of the American population does so.[8]

Pluralist theory rejects this approach, arguing that although there are elite members of society they do not control government. Instead, 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.[9]

Approximately 70–90 percent of Americans report belonging to at least one group.[10]

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.[11] Do interests groups and lobbying efforts fulfill the original concept of representative government?

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 over life, liberty, and property; agree to give up some liberties

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. C. Wright Mills. 1956. The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University Press.
  2. Jack L. Walker. 1966. "A Critique of the Elitist Theory of Democracy," The American Political Science Review 60, No. 2: 295.
  3. 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.
  4. Jennifer E. Manning, "Membership of the 113th Congress: A Profile," Congressional Research Service, p. 5 (Table 5), November 24, 2014.
  5. Kyla Calvert Mason. 22 April 2014. "Percentage of Americans with College Degrees Rises, Paying for Degrees Tops Financial Challenges," http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/percentage-americans-college-degrees-rises-paying-degrees-tops-financial-challenges/.
  6. Manning, p. 3 (Table 2).
  7. Alan Rappeport, "Making it Rain: Members of Congress Are Mostly Millionaires," New York Times, 12 January 2016.
  8. Grace Chen. "How Many Politicians Send Their Kids to Public Schools?" http://www.publicschoolreview.com/blog/how-many-politicians-send-their-kids-to-public-schools (February 18, 2016).
  9. "The Non-Governmental Order: Will NGOs Democratise, or Merely Disrupt, Global Governance?" The Economist, 9 December 1999.
  10. 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.
  11. Dahl, Who Governs? 91–93.