My son and I enjoyed the distinct pleasure of having lunch in a Chinese restaurant in Santa Cruz, California with G. William Domhoff the other day. Bill Domhoff has long studied and written about the sociology of power, which means he explores who has power in the United States, how they got it, how they use it and what they do with it.
His Who Rules America is a classic study on power in America and is routinely reprinted with his always cogent updates. The Powers That Be, describes a social policy model by which a small percentage of our citizens end up defining the terms for all political, social and economic discussions and thereby dominate all others despite the fact they have few actual votes. Domhoff’s model, now included in revisions of Who Rules America, roughly depicts wealthy people and corporations forming foundations and financing university research to produce reports advocating policies which filter to the public through the news media and government commissions comprising the very experts whom the wealthy have financed. Over the past 30 years, right-wingers with money have followed the progressive Domhoff’s social policy model to seize and exercise power on such issues as taxation, privatization of government functions, gun control, abortion rights, capital punishment and voting rights.
Domhoff recognizes that one of the most important denominators of power is money. With it, you can buy other types of power, including social and political influence, and even knowledge. Domhoff has therefore studied income and wealth distribution in the United States and among the various industrialized countries for decades. Years ago, Domhoff was one of the first to see that we were becoming a less equitable nation, with the wealthy gathering an ever growing portion of both income and wealth. He was also one of the first to notice the relative lack of mobility between economic classes in the United States compared to other industrialized countries.
His rigorously scientific approach and open-minded progressivism make Domhoff a delight to engage in conversation. Always the pragmatist, Domhoff states on his website that “it is not easy to change power arrangements, even in a country where people have won freedom of speech and the right to vote. To start with, it is necessary to understand the intricacies of a power structure and how it was constructed in order to change.” In a follow-up email to our talk, Domhoff wrote “I think there has to be a combination of social movements and progressive candidates within the Democratic Party to make advances. Social movements in the USA have usually done best when they have used various forms of strategic non-violence, which can encompass sit-downs, sit-ins, and much else.”
In our chat, he freely roamed among a wide range of subjects, including how to rebuild the progressive voting rolls, the large parts that racism and anti-unionism play in political and economic beliefs, the formation of tax policy, some of his approaches to the study of power and the issue of class identity. I appreciated the fact that he used the term “welfare state” enthusiastically and positively, viewing the welfare state as the means of ensuring that a rich nation doesn’t forget its most needy and that our marketplace has as level a playing field as possible.
The highlight of the lunch for me was his passionate replay of the tragedy of the 2000 election, in which many progressives voted for Ralph Nader, thereby throwing the Electoral College vote and the presidency to the loser of the popular vote, George W. Bush. Domhoff made it clear to his progressive colleagues that the differences between Gore and Bush made a vote for Nader dangerous to the future of the country. At the end of the day, about 2.9 million voters didn’t listen to the pleas of Domhoff and other progressive pragmatists, including 22,000 in New Hampshire and 97,000 in Florida. If those New Hampshire or Florida voters had voted for Al Gore instead of Nader, we might not have pursued the needless and expensive Iraqi War; fewer of our civil liberties would have been curtailed in the aftermath of 9/11 (that is, if 9/11 occurred); our taxation system would not be so skewered in favor of the wealthy; we would almost certainly have a lower deficit; and we would have made much more progress in developing alternative energy and slowing down global warming.
Let’s hope progressives have learned our lesson. Let’s vote for Barack Obama in November, even as we continue to aggressively push him to the left with our support of progressive candidates for other offices and our letters, emails and comments on key issues such as raising taxes on the top one percent.
For anyone interested in any issue related to power in America, there is no better place to start than Domhoff’s website, Who Rules America at www2.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica.
The Who Rules America home page presents an introduction by Domhoff with links to various topics and a list of articles, some by Domhoff and some by others, all studies of who has and doesn’t have power in the United States.
The menu bar sends you to six broad topic areas, each of which presents a cornucopia of research, all presented in the breezy language and style of journalism:
- Power in America: This section includes Domhoff’s theory that the owners and executives of large corporations and banks constitute a class that dominates American public policy. Other articles explore the distribution of wealth and income in the United States, analyze the prevalence of the dominant class as members of federal advisory committees that set long-term governmental policy and dismantle the myth that public employee and union pension funds have acquired power over corporations.
- Power at the Local Level: Here Domhoff details his growth coalition theory, which essentially proposes that a specific segment of the dominant class—the owners of land and buildings—has the lion’s share of power at the local level because they join together to create a growth coalition that biases the area in favor of unmitigated development. Perhaps the most interesting part of this section of the website is the case studies of New Haven, Atlanta and San Francisco. I have found this section particularly useful in my public relations business, especially in my advice to outsiders wishing to break into regional business markets and social circles.
- Social Change: The articles in the Social Change section of the Who Rules American website include analyses of the successes and failures of social change movements in the U.S. and advice for progressive activists on how to move forward.
- Theories of Power: In this section, Domhoff considers a number of older theories of power, including the still-relevant ideas expressed by C. Wright Mills in The Power Elite.
- Studying Power: This section studies how to study power. It includes a history of power structure research in the United States and a step-by-step guide on how to do research in the power structure in your community.
- Santa Cruz: The Leftmost City is a long essay by Domhoff on progressive politics in the beach and university town of Santa Cruz, California, where Domhoff has resided for more than 40 years.
For anyone interested in learning how things really work in the United States, perusing Who Rules America is akin to eating potato chips. It’s hard to read just one article.
Once you’ve pored over the website for a bit, why don’t you go to your nearest bookstore or visit the website of your favorite online book dealer and order/buy one or more of Domhoff’s books. Not only will you support the research of one of our most important sociologists, you will also be alerting the publishing industry and the political elite that carefully monitor media sales that there is a large and growing market for political and social books from a left and progressive perspective.