Political Elites

Oxford Handbooks Online
Political Elites
Jean Blondel and Ferdinand Müller‐Rommel The Oxford Handbook of Political Behavior
Print Publication Date: Aug 2007 Online Publication Date: Sep 2009 Subject: Political Science, Comparative Politics, Political Institutions DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199270125.003.0044

Abstract and Keywords
This article examines the various forms that political elite theory took, from the end of the nineteenth century to the 1960s and 1970s. The career patterns, forms of recruitment, and duration and turnover among the political elite are studied. The article also discusses the role of the political elite. It is concluded that the use of the concept of the political elite can help in the understanding of political life, as long as it is treated as a flexible tool that takes into account the immense complexities of the power relationships between human beings.
Keywords: political elite theory, career patterns, forms of recruitment, duration and turnover, political elite, role of political elite, power relationships, political life

In what was probably the first comprehensive empirical study of political elites, published in 1976, Robert Putnam claimed that the main defect of the studies undertaken in the field was that “the gap” was “unusually large…between abstract, general theories and masses of unorganised empirical evidence” (1976, ix). The only reservation to be made about this statement might be that the empirical evidence, at the time the book was written, had a “mass” character. Putnam then indicated that the questions of “who rules?” and of “who should rule?” were “central” in empirical and normative political science respectively. He added: “Sage commentators, from Plato and Aristotle to our nightly television newscasters, tell us much about power and leadership, but their profundities, when carefully examined, often turn out to be incomplete and ambiguous” (1976, 2). Thanks to Putnam's own work and to the many studies, sometimes comparative, during the last quarter of the twentieth century, the overall assessment made in 1976 can be modified in part: much is still unknown or only partly known, however. In particular, the geographical scope of the generalizations that can be made on the basis of the collected evidence remains limited. The key changes, which have occurred since 1976, have gone in three directions. The first change concerns the balance between theoretical and empirical studies. Perhaps the emergence of democracy in the West in the nineteenth century led to widespread dissatisfaction as the contrast between ideal and reality seemed to be vast: the very concept of “elite” thus became a battleground. That concept may have had a positive flavor for those who felt that the people needed guidance, a guidance that was provided by the newly established representative systems. Probably for many more, the adjective “elitist” and the substantive with which it was closely connected, “elitism”, indicated dislike, even rejection. That is because writers at the time stressed that rulers tended to use their authority to frustrate democracy. Hence the passionate debates between those who regarded the elite, not only as a necessity, but as a beacon, and those who felt that members of the elite were merely exploiting the positions of privilege in which they found themselves. These views gave rise to the “abstract theories” to which Putnam referred. Since the third quarter of the twentieth century, these heated debates have abated, however. Instead, detailed empirical studies gradually began to show that, at any rate in the West, “extremist” viewpoints about the role of the elite were simply unrealistic. A second major change is connected to the spread of empirical studies (see the chapter by Hoffmann‐Lange in this volume). The political elite came to be seen increasingly as autonomous from other segments of the national elite. Early studies had an essentially global sociological outlook; they apparently took for granted, indeed sometimes plainly stated, that there was one elite and that its political component was not merely closely associated to, but indeed undistinguishable from its social and even economic components. On the contrary, empirical studies showed that the political elite were different from other elite groups. At least in the West, this distinction occurred both because of recruitment and career characteristics and because of the nature of the problems which political elites had to address, nationally and internationally. Third, empirical studies gradually demonstrated that the dichotomous opposition between elite and mass was an unrealistic simplification. In western democracies, groups of various kinds contributed to filling the gap between the two levels. Moreover, among those who could reasonably be regarded as part of the elite, one needs to introduce major distinctions, such as among party activists, parliamentarians, and members of governments. Above all, twentieth century political life was at least ostensibly orchestrated, if not dominated, by leaders, who seemed markedly more powerful than the rest of the political elite. Despite these three major changes, all of which resulted from the increase in the number and scope of empirical studies, much remains to be done to ensure that we have a true overall picture of the nature and role of political elites in the contemporary world. There are some comparative studies, to be sure, but almost all of these have a limited geographical scope. Putnam's 1976 work was in many ways a heroic attempt at undertaking a worldwide survey, but the author was the first to recognize that what could be said on the basis of empirical data about political elites outside the West was limited in the extreme. The situation has not changed markedly in this respect in the subsequent three decades. Despite the fact that analyses of political elites outside the western world would provide an alternative perspective on the nature of elites, the bulk of the studies on political elites are still devoted to western countries–basically to western and central eastern Europe as well as to Latin and North America (Czudnowski 1982, 1983; Dogan 1989, 2003; Higley and Gunther 1992; Higley and Dogan 1998; Higley et al. 2002; Williams and Lascher 1993; Yesilada 1999). The empirical
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These basic ideas of the classical elite theorists are thus often described as conservative or anti‐democratic (Nye 1977). they agreed that the political elite select their successors from the privileged classes that basically share the same value system. the political elite in modern democracies consist of distinct groups of individuals with varying socio‐demographic backgrounds and occupational positions. however. and emerging democracies. whether the political elite of a country is PRINTED FROM OXFORD HANDBOOKS ONLINE (www. (c) Oxford University Press. Thus Dahl's “revision” of what could be described as the “classical” elite theories gave impulse to a more detailed examination of the elites and indeed opened the way to the kind of empirical studies which Putnam also advocated. Vilfredo Pareto (1968). The latter are highly specialized experts who organize the daily business of politics. not give robust evidence of a truly general character. as well as between military and civilian regimes. authoritarian systems of the more “modern” and of the more “traditional” types. In this respect. every society consists of rulers and ruled. an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a title in Oxford Handbooks Online for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy). first. members of the American power elite are socially homogeneous: they derive from the upper social strata of the society and for this reason they have common interests and similar value systems. On the one hand. According to Mosca. Only the former hold the political power and dominate the masses. Their work developed at the end of the nineteenth century when the authority of the old political elite was threatened by the extension of the voting rights to the masses. and in the military. these categorizations being no more than an indicative nomenclature. In many cases. Thus. Subscriber: null. leaders are distinct from and more powerful than the bulk of the political elite. Meanwhile. there are four ways in which political elites differ profoundly from each other. Members of these groups hold overlapping elite positions or have successively held influential positions in various sectors. In the West at least. This chapter thus begins by examining the forms which political elite theory took from the end of the nineteenth century to the 1960s and 1970s. it does not seem that the western political elite is fundamentally united. between dictatorships and democratic polities. Most of these individuals are highly specialized and politically influential in single policy sectors. that composition bears almost no relationship with the way the nation is structured. The intense communication and cooperation among the top ‐position holders in the various sectors produces a power elite with an enormous manipulative impact on the majority of the citizens. this was the time of increasing socialist ideology. Yet. There is a tension. Although we will concentrate on findings from western countries. Dahl concluded that the political elite are divided into leaders and sub ‐leaders. According to Mills. its various elements oscillate between efforts at broad compromises and attempts at implementing sharply contested viewpoints. was that his evidence showed that no elite group had a dominant impact on all political issues. All Rights Reserved. all three elite theorists shared the view that the political elite should be autonomous in exercising power. despite apparent divisions. both within the political elite and between that political elite and what can be loosely described as rather inchoate and often unrealistic expectations coming from below.oxfordhandbooks. More realistically. Pareto. Based on empirical findings deducted from a local elite study in the City of New Haven. their socio‐demographic background is closer to the average citizens than that of the leaders. all three classical elite theorists agreed that there was an “iron law” of oligarchy. The characteristics of the political elite vary markedly from one of these types of political systems to another. the bulk of the findings are drawn mainly from western experience. there are two elements . For these reasons the sub ‐leaders reduce the distance between the political elite and the masses and legitimize the democratic structures of a political system. enormous perhaps. 1 The Theoretical Debates on Political Elites The classical elite theory is associated with Gaetano Mosca (1939). In their view. These are. Therefore. Perhaps the key finding of Dahl. the political power of any society must be in the hands of a small ruling elite. Thus. Dahl also argued that the recruitment into the caste of top leaders was not limited to aristocrats. the social composition of political elites does not reproduce even in broad terms the social structure of the citizenry. Wright Mills (1956) extended these theories. Thus. Differences in the nature of the political elite are manifestly large. and occupation may in principle belong to the political elite. Research often suggests that in some countries. Second. which all political elites share. Finally.com). 2013. nor is it true either that it is fundamentally disunited. and Michels questioned the basis of a democratic development in Europe and offered a “realistic” elite theory in contrast to “radical” Marxism. During the period. He portrayed a power elite of the post‐war USA that consisted of top ‐position holders in business. All persons with specific individual resources such as income. and Robert Michels (1962). The third section examines the role of the political elite. because the masses are usually unqualified to exercise power. but open to a wider group of citizens. date: 06 April 2014 . including among the many types of “emerging” democratic polities. one can only provide some insights into the nature of these elites. Under the terms of the licence agreement. prestige. Even more importantly. Furthermore. between traditional and “developing” political systems. 2 The Nature of the Political Elite in the Contemporary World Let us now turn to what empirical studies tell us about the characteristics of the political elite in the contemporary world.Political Elites evidence at our disposal about the composition of political elites outside the West has improved over the past thirty years but can still be described as patchy. in political administration. That is. education. the ruling elite are recruited largely in a self‐perpetuating manner from the upper class of the society. we can at least point out to similarities and differences on the basis of broad distinctions among traditional political systems. Mosca. The chapter then concentrates in its second section on career patterns and looks at forms of recruitment as well as at duration and turnover among the political elite. Michels introduces the idea that every organization consists of a division of labour where some skilled persons are the leaders and others are the followers. according to the classical elite theorists. Pareto refers to different innate personal qualities leading to oligarchic structures. First. In the mid ‐1950s C. Robert Dahl (1961) was the first political scientist who linked the debate about the political power of the elite to questions of political legitimacy and participation. Furthermore. Inspired by these theoretical ideas. the political elite are socially and ideologically united. matters are appreciably more complex. This theory constitutes the background against which empirical studies were subsequently developed. it was argued that in large organizations it appears inevitable that elites will direct the organization even if the goal was to have the members play an active decision‐making role.

as they do in traditional systems or in more “modern” dictatorships. Especially where a single party is created. This support ranges from admiration for what the leader may have previously achieved. There has been a marked decline in the number of upper‐class parliamentarians. Yet democratic leaders are also typically very powerful in many systems. The power of leaders in dictatorships is based on a combination of characteristics. are abolished or severely curtailed. while the political elite in western countries does not entirely depend on the leaders of these countries. these systems tend to be replaced. the extent to which the elite is internally differentiated into lower and uppermost echelons. There are many examples of such a development in the contemporary world. while more “modern” authoritarian systems are typically ruled by dictators. Instead there developed a preponderance of lawyers. In non‐democratic systems. Indeed the whole regime. whether “modern” or not. Under the terms of the licence agreement. and which were unable to meet the challenges that they faced. where members of the political elite are almost exclusively drawn from among the “upper classes” (Eulau and Czudnowski 1976). and then the characteristics that differentiate elites. to the recognition by a segment of the population that the new regime is bringing about social and economic arrangements which that section of the population prefers. date: 06 April 2014 . Those regimes with weak leadership. Sinyavsky 1997. This is even true of democracies. the patterns of duration and turnover of members who belong to the political elite. of the regime are typically to be found. whatever may have been originally thought by those who put forward the concept of representative government. Libya being one of the most clear‐cut cases. First. Only the increased representation of women in the last years of the twentieth century can be said to have led to a fairer social composition of western parliaments (Lovenduski and Norris 1993. the bias in the social characteristics among the elite also increases. as well as women. Kittilson 2006). PRINTED FROM OXFORD HANDBOOKS ONLINE (www. as some.com). often grossly underrepresented. 2. as in the case of communist or of some other “progressive” regimes. 499–501). 2. for instance from the military or from a party created by the regime. are typically under‐represented. in the social composition of western European parliaments in the course of the last two centuries. when it has not been wholly created by the leader (Hermassi 1972. but in one of two entirely different ways. These western elites often induce their members to follow policies which these leaders together with perhaps a small entourage have put forward. the nature of mechanisms by which individuals are recruited in the political elite and. including western systems. political and social and economic elites remain undistinguishable (Taras 1989). third. the political elite are indeed undistinguishable from the rest of the elite. second. This often occurs through brutal revolutions.Yet strong leadership is found in parliamentary systems as well. especially in the case of dictatorships. As a matter of fact. Stoess. indeed increasingly professional politicians. Putnam (1976. a new elite attempts to impose. largely depends on the leader—with the corollary that the political elite is ultimately dependent on the leader as well. This is true of traditional systems. Second. in many cases with a variety of forms of support. in this case. The political elite are not only much smaller than the citizenry in terms of numbers: in no political system is it a microcosm of the nation. Subscriber: null. Norris and Lovenduski 1995. In the case of the presidential systems. for instance Saudi Arabia or “emirates” in the Arabian peninsula (Perthes 2004). admittedly. merely a monarch who rules. 2013. such as Michels. The nature of the institutions accounts in part for this preponderance. in traditional systems there is no political elite as such because the “pyramidal” social structure inherited from the past constitutes the backbone of political life.2 Similarities: The Power of the Leaders The small number of traditional political systems are still dominated by hereditary monarchs. Steen and Gelman 2003). (c) Oxford University Press. indeed strong supporters. The following sections examine the shared characteristics of elites. the role of leaders is ostensibly overwhelming. Sadri 1997). including in socialist parties. an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a title in Oxford Handbooks Online for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy). 2. This is also true of dictatorships. but this has not led to a corresponding increase of the representation of all social groups. As a result. such as the freedom of the press and the freedom of demonstration. or civil servants. 37) refers in this context to the “law of increasing disproportion:” as the level of elite status increases.Political Elites distinguishable or not from the social and economic elite of that country. and to a lesser extent. where traditional systems become unable to meet demands for change arising in some quarters of the society. too. a decline in the working‐class composition of parliaments subsequently took place in western European parties of the left. while various freedoms. researchers have argued that the long history of failures of presidentialism in Latin America could be attributed to the power that constitutions gave to presidents.1 Similarities: The Social Composition of the Political Elite The social composition of the political elite is always different from the social structure of a country. were partly due (or were claimed to be due) to the fact that leadership was regarded as preponderant. Weßels 1991. however. democratic leaders can at least shape in many ways the composition of the political elite. have tended to be replaced by authoritarian systems or have introduced stronger forms of leadership. There have been changes.oxfordhandbooks. wanted to achieve. fourth. especially on the left. where the political elite is composed of those segments of the society from which supporters. In both cases. The same holds true in the case of post‐communist Russia. the working class (even where trade unions are strong) or the peasantry. Fear is combined. businessmen (Best and Cotta 2000.3 Differences: The Distinction between the Political Elite and the Rest of the Elite Many elite theorists did not distinguish the political elite from the socioeconomic elite. The political elite become so preponderant that it seems to encompass the whole of the elite. Thus. There was no such move in the United States where the traditional two parties continued to prevail. by dictatorships based on the military (not a “political institution” in the strict sense of the word) or on an entirely newly created single party arrangement (or a combination of both). there are no political institutions as such. All Rights Reserved. This is the case in some of the traditional monarchies which remain in the contemporary world. not just a different form of politics but a different social and economic structure. In parliaments. and the combination changes over time in many cases. In these nations. for instance in liberating the country from occupying forces or from its colonial status. where the communist legacy as well as the presidential power led to the rise of a new powerful political elite (Klingemann. although moves towards a more accurate “social representation” occurred to an extent with the emergence of socialist parties in the twentieth century. including long‐established western democracies. the pessimistic views of many early twentieth‐century observers. teachers. One element which generally exists is fear: dictatorships typically begin by rounding up opponents or forcing them into exile. such as that of France up to 1958. Indeed. for instance.

When the party subsequently comes to power. the party is in control and the leadership of that party effectively appoints the members of the parliament. There are other reasons for such interference. Yet. however. sometimes done to stop the nomination of candidates whose views do not coincide with those put forward by the party nationally. from the end of the twentieth century in particular. about a quarter of members of governments are drawn directly from the civil service or from business (Blondel and Thiebault 1991). many western European parties have made efforts to nominate a substantial proportion of women among the candidates (Vianello and Moore 2000. Recruitment to the government is appreciably less open. In communist systems. Eyal. Daloz 2002. Kittilson 2006). PRINTED FROM OXFORD HANDBOOKS ONLINE (www. This is. and Bermeo 2003). parties also select candidates for local governments. The differentiation in the career background of members of legislatures and members of governments can be particularly sharp. there are subdivisions of these three sets of institutions: the parties between the centre and the regional and local bodies. which are autonomous from each other. and especially the party “elites. Meanwhile. even if the views of members of parliaments or congresses have to be discussed and taken into account. and governments between top ministers or secretaries and junior ministers or assistant secretaries (Blondel and Müller‐Rommel 1993). the Netherlands. As a matter of fact. Where the chances of success at the election are low. are set up. the centre of power. generally or in a particular district.Political Elites This is not the case in western democracies and indeed to a large extent in “emerging” or “less consolidated” democracies (Best and Becker 1997. the political elite are usually united. while this is typically not the case in authoritarian systems (Laurentiu 2004). as members of the government tend to be drawn from among members of parliament.com). Szelenyi. Subscriber: null. In some western European countries. In addition. such as a parliament and a pluralistic system of parties. the power to decide on the selection of members of the political elite may be devolved at levels below. 2013. there is always some leeway and in some cases even full autonomy in the recruitment of the political elite (Eulau and Czudnowski 1976). In some parliamentary systems. and above all in the United States. the political institutions acquire greater strength if the democratic system is successfully maintained: a kind of modus vivendi emerges. legislature. distinct from the social and economic elites. The strong distinction between legislature and executive results in the fact that most important public decisions are initiated by that executive. in institutional terms. Gradually. the nomination process at least takes place in the local committees of the parties. A political elite. Kerstiens 1966). China and Vietnam. an indirect influence of the rank‐and ‐file members of parliament can find its way to the top if. Patterns of recruitment to the political elite become more “elitist” as one moves up towards the national leadership (Blondel 1985). a vertical division exists between the lower and upper echelons of the political elite in democratic systems. for instance. Elsewhere. date: 06 April 2014 . Parties select their “elites” typically by means of elections. Norris 1997). the executive of the opposition parliamentary party is elected by the parliamentarians. The first step in the recruitment process in democracies is at the party level. Shlapentokh et al. Costa Pinto. Since there were difficulties in ensuring that a substantial number of women should put themselves forward as candidates. regional or state governments and national legislatures. Thus. 2. both in eastern Europe and in the former Soviet Union as well in those Asian countries where communism continues to prevail. These biases may well account in part for the middle‐class composition of members of legislatures. especially in presidential systems. Under the terms of the licence agreement. Where the electoral districts are small. some members of that executive may become ministers. ministers are chosen by the leader of the party or at most by the leaders of the parties belonging to the government coalition (Pennings 2000. Zang 2003).” the members of the legislature (parliament or congress) and the governments. an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a title in Oxford Handbooks Online for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy). has come to be in existence (Borchert and Zeiss 2003). though in a few cases. for instance. Therefore. the members of the government and holders of key positions at regional or local level (Steen 1997. the president is almost entirely free to select the various secretaries and assistant secretaries who will be in the government. Yet this is not universally the case even in these systems. 2. and in particular in Europe. the nomination of party candidates to the legislative elections is appreciably less open. In the case of democratic systems or even in “emerging democracies” the political elite is institutionally divided both “horizontally” and “vertically. All Rights Reserved. even if numerous clashes occur. A democracy cannot be set up unless political institutions. This is not so in most parliamentary systems. a distinction which does not really exist in dictatorships where leadership commands and the others are only there to obey. the pre‐existing social structure is maintained or at most modified only gradually. the legislatures between important committee members and the rank‐and ‐file. many established democracies have recently introduced a system of “quotas” stipulating that there should be at least a given proportion of women candidates (Carroll 2003. Higley and Lengyel 2000. It is rare for one to be able to accede to the top without having gone at least for a period through a number of steps in the “cursus honorum:” such a progression is normal in most walks of life. however. The new elite hopes in this way to transform the society (Oyediran 1979. those who operate the new political institutions have at least to “coexist” with those who are socially or economically powerful. Austria. for instance in Africa and the Middle East.oxfordhandbooks.5 Differences: Patterns of Recruitment to the Political Elite In democratic political systems. including emerging democracies. In presidential systems. However. Party selection committees can be expected to be somewhat biased in their search for the “best” possible candidates to represent the party at the elections. especially in the United States. The parliament or the congress tends to be at the receiving end of these proposals. Tavares. the recruitment of candidates is also dependent on the “supply” of candidates. as this is less the case in many Latin American presidential governments. National party leaders interfere to an extent in these nomination processes. 2003. in democratic systems. and governments. admittedly often not strongly contested. 1999). (c) Oxford University Press. the “supply” is likely to be low. This is also the case in other types of single‐party systems or in “non‐party” military regimes. and Townsley 1998. perhaps substantially below. France. This differentiation occurs even though there are naturally links between parties.” The existence of a pluralistic party system inevitably leads to a “horizontal” development of a number of segments of the political elite. A “vertical” differentiation also occurs between at least three of these segments. the parties. the membership at large is involved in that selection by means of the primaries (Hibbing 1991). In general. for instance.4 Differences: The Internal Differentiation of the Political Elite In political systems where the political elite are created de novo around a single political party.

The picture is different in post‐communist central eastern Europe: in these countries the duration of ministers in office is only two years on average (Blondel. In most cases. even in democratic societies. Or. Here. whether parliaments or congresses. we need to see to what extent one can delineate the role of the political elite in shaping the characteristics of democratic societies. 2013. both for these reasons and because access is typically difficult to obtain. This may be regarded as a positive characteristic from the point of view of the “circulation of elites. it is difficult to determine precisely how and to what extent the elite does affect the society. Meanwhile. Their ideological standpoints are far from being as close to each other as the supporters of the “radical” theories suggest. it is not surprising that only few members of the political elite should support these policies. Yet this tenure is long when compared to the tenure of members of governments of democratic systems. remain in their seats. the distinction between the political elite and the social and economic elite is impossible to draw. one is rarely a member of the political elite for life in democratic systems. especially in the United States. the turnover of elites tends to be low at what might be regarded as the “periphery” of the political elite. If the people in western democracies do not support “truly” radical policies. Such inquiries do not exist. the old elite are eliminated. Customs are very strong in these regimes and this strength renders change almost impossible to achieve. On average. too. on the military. we concentrate on democratic political systems and particularly western systems in order to answer to the question of the role of the political elite. an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a title in Oxford Handbooks Online for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy). Their attitudes to specific policies are also frequently profoundly different and these disagreements are also expressed in very strong terms. on average. realistic conclusions are difficult to draw. Hans Dietrich Genscher. For instance. Colton and Tucker 1995). 3 The Role of the Political Elite The role of the political elite is particularly difficult to assess outside the West. In contrast. that the institutions are profoundly reshaped and the way politics is conducted becomes consequently different.1 The Political Elite: United and Dominant? Classical theories assert the dominant character of the political elite is that the divisions within democratic political elite are illusory because. Meanwhile. as the absence of genuine empirical studies makes it very difficult to distinguish between claims and reality. Under the terms of the licence agreement. unrealistic. In contrast. however. only very long and very thorough inquiries could make it possible to conclude whether the elite has a truly significant part to play in the way a particular regime is developing. as seems to be shown by way in which.6 Difference: Patterns of Duration and Turnover Perhaps the most striking features of democratic political elites are the rapidity of the turnover and the shortness of the career. Therefore. Elites exit from office not just because they are not re‐elected. even if they do not constitute a mirror image of the population in terms of their social composition. Admittedly. generalizations have too often been made on the basis of theories only. when it comes to “fundamental” problems. PRINTED FROM OXFORD HANDBOOKS ONLINE (www. they are not re‐selected as candidates. Only a few “stars” can be regarded as having made their whole career in politics. the political elite cannot be truly separated from the rest of the elite in traditional regimes. as was the case in European communist states. 3. The same conclusion has to be drawn with respect to “modern” dictatorships. Yet. even if the divisions which exist are “merely” between conservatism and reform. for about a decade and a half. In contrast. It is therefore simply not true that the political elite is “fundamentally” united in western democracies: what is in question is how “disunited” that elite happens to be and how far it is more disunited in some countries than in others or at some points in time than at others. Müller‐Rommel. whether these are based on a single party. Second. date: 06 April 2014 . many of these government members will have been junior ministers or assistant secretaries for periods of about the same length. Subscriber: null. and Malova 2006). the social and ideological unity of that elite re‐emerges and frustrates efforts to radically change the character of the society. This may suggest.” and of the “establishment. is. sometimes candidates withdraw because the excitement or rewards that the job provides do not match the expectations that the members may have originally had. on average. for instance. We first need to examine the empirical validity of the claims made by those theories that assert that the role of the political elite is dominant. It is true. The members of the elite usually do not want to introduce change on a substantial scale. for instance in some of the party positions (as Michels had noted with respect to socialist parties in their early development). such as traditional monarchies. given that the members of the new elite are anxious to change society and that they use the political instruments at their disposal to attempt to do so. or on both. a short career at the top implies that many members of democratic governments do not have the time to play a truly significant part in the development and implementation of policies. partly because empirical studies devoted to this matter are still rather rare and partly because. members of legislatures. even if both these periods are added and indeed even if the average duration of tenure in the legislature (in parliamentary systems) is taken into account. twice in each generation. the members of that elite are divided in many ways. How far these changes are achieved. that a rapid turnover of the political elite entails that governments count rather little in comparison with permanent bureaucracies (Dogan 1989). a case in point.” of the “power elite. many of which are in the Middle East.oxfordhandbooks.” The view that the political elite in western democracies are “fully” united is. All Rights Reserved. with a substantial minority being in office for shorter periods (Blondel and Thiebault 1991). The former foreign minister of Germany. but also because. is more problematic. this stand was taken in a variety of different ways and especially under the labels of the “ruling class. even in the context of these societies.” Thus. once the regime has collapsed. however.com). In democratic systems. Thus the parliamentary or congressional elites are renewed entirely. Yet. Whether a change of mentalities is obtained as a result is markedly less clear. As was pointed out above.Political Elites 2. As a result. (c) Oxford University Press. as has often been claimed. political life takes once more a more “normal” turn (Rose and Mishler 1994. This makes it meaningless to assess the role of the political elite. But. there is a much slower turnover of political personnel in traditional regimes and in many dictatorships. even if we consider the role of the elite in general in these political systems. ministers and secretaries in western Europe are in office for three to four years. this feature of democracies can be regarded as providing further evidence of the superiority of democratic systems over all others. whether in parliament or elsewhere. as Putnam stated.

Political Elites 3. London: Sage. On the other hand. an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a title in Oxford Handbooks Online for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy). This only means that in western democracies the relationships within the political elite and between the political elite and the population are more complex and more subtle than the theorists had suggested (Strom. 1973. and Z EISS . “consensual politics” has characterized a number of western European countries with respect to social or economic policies.oxfordhandbooks. Opladen: Leske & Budrich. Comparative Legislatures . All Rights Reserved. Governing New European Democracies . but as a flexible tool which takes into account the immense complexities of the power relationships between human beings. The concept of the political elite has a twofold advantage. to attempt to summarize the nature of the link between the rulers and the ruled.. 1999). date: 06 April 2014 . and BEC K ER . —— —— and MALOVA. and national executives seem to provide better mechanisms for lower social strata participation than confrontational systems in which only a part of the population supports governmental policies. F. J. This is probably why theories about the character and role of the elite have been more numerous up to the middle of the twentieth century than afterwards. but they are also regarded by some scholars. —— and THIEB AULT. This does not mean that the relationship between the political elite and the mass of the population is always easy or that the people play always or even often a significant part in the policy directions taken by the political elite (see the section on mass–elite representation below). Women in American Politics . 1993. but on condition that it be treated. members of the political elite tend to come to agree about adopting a common stance over key policies. London: Macmillan/Palgrave. Subscriber: null. NJ: Prentice Hall. other countries typically practiced “confrontational politics. eds.” Yet not only are these developments supported by the populations concerned. it induces scholars to reflect upon the links between the members of the different political institutions which play a part in shaping the nature of political decision making. S. 2000. On the one hand. Such developments may provide a strong argument in favor of the view that the political elites are “fundamentally united. 1991. Oxford: Oxford University Press. D. Müller. J. The most powerful criticism that can be levelled against the “consensual system” is that it enables the members of the elite to enjoy a more “cosy” life. —— and COTTA. Thus the political elite may or may not be ideologically united in western democracies. 4 Conclusion The concept of the political elite developed gradually out of the broader concept of the elite which sociologists came to use. The concept of elite was perhaps easily applicable to those countries in which the social structure was relatively stable or where changes brought about by a revolution tended to be imposed from above. and especially western democracies.. 2003.” Moreover. and in particular by Lijphart. London: Macmillan. the idea often prevails that the parties representing these pillars should either govern together or at least be permanently associated in some of the key social policies affecting the country (Lijphart 1968. Parliamentary Representatives in Europe 1848–2000. This also means that there is a great need for more empirical studies which would make it possible to determine with precision what are the realistic limits of the divisions within the political elite and to what extent and in what circumstances a united political elite is at unison with the broad mass of the people. the concept also forces scholars to consider the relationships between the political elite and the social and economic elite. London: Macmillan. in societies with strongly identifiable “pillars. —— and Müller‐Rommel. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Thus. The key parties may act together in ways that are regarded by some as being of the nature of a “cartel” (Katz and Mair 1995).2 Patterns of Conflict and Consensus within the Political Elite In some countries or at some occasions. not as a rigid notion which is uniformly applicable. The use of the concept of political elite can therefore help markedly our understanding of political life. More commonly. ed. M. eds. The Profession of Government Minister in Western Europe. Yet it does remain the case that the concept of elite is necessarily relatively imprecise and that it minimizes to a substantial extent the levels which exist among those who belong to it and indeed the clashes that occur among elites. But the unity or disunity of the political elite reflects the extent to which that elite develops policies that are at least acceptable to the mass of the population. 2007. BLON D EL. (c) Oxford University Press. U. 1997. 2013. especially in the later nineteenth century.com). References BEST. as a higher form of democracy than the forms practiced by the countries in which the political elite is sharply divided between government and opposition. Government Ministers in the Contemporary World. Elites in Transition: Elite Research in Central Eastern Europe. L. the kinds of arrangements at the levels of “peak” interest groups. 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