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A Critique of the Ruling Elite Model

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 September 2013

Robert A. Dahl
Yale University


A great many people seem to believe that “they” run things: the old families, the bankers, the City Hall machine, or the party boss behind the scene. This kind of view evidently has a powerful and many-sided appeal. It is simple, compelling, dramatic, “realistic.” It gives one standing as an inside-dopester. For individuals with a strong strain of frustrated idealism, it has just the right touch of hard-boiled cynicism. Finally, the hypothesis has one very great advantage over many alternative explanations: It can be cast in a form that makes it virtually impossible to disprove.

Consider the last point for a moment. There is a type of quasi-metaphysical theory made up of what might be called an infinite regress of explanations. The ruling elite model can be interpreted in this way. If the overt leaders of a community do not appear to constitute a ruling elite, then the theory can be saved by arguing that behind the overt leaders there is a set of covert leaders who do. If subsequent evidence shows that this covert group does not make a ruling elite, then the theory can be saved by arguing that behind the first covert group there is another, and so on.

Research Article
Copyright © American Political Science Association 1958

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1 See Dahl, Robert A., “The Concept of Power,” Behavioral Science, Vol. 2 (July 1957), pp. 201215CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Mills, C. Wright, The Power Elite (New York, 1956)Google Scholar, passim.

3 Mills, op. cit.; Hunter, Floyd, Community Power Structure (Chapel Hill, 1953)Google Scholar.