This week's readings present conflicting perspectives on Elite Theory. Domhoff argues that there is a powerful, upper class, economic elite in the United States characterized by its wealth, elite education, tendency of its members to marry and socialize within the group, and its ownership and control of major corporations. In contrast, Burnstein argues that evidence shows that public opinion often has a major impact on public policy, especially for issues in which the public has considerable interest. Finally, Friedman believes that there is an important place for a policy elite in homeland security policy. He argues that the resources spent on anti-terrorism measures are hugely disproportionate to the threat, and that the policy elite should conduct more thorough cost-benefit analysis and communicate more honestly with the public about terrorism.
Each of the readings suggests a very different political system, as conceptualized by Easton (1965). In an elite dominated system like that described by Domhoff, demands and support would come primarily from the elite, and consequently policies will favor them. Public opinion is an inconsequential part of the environment, and erosion of popularity does not threaten the supports that maintain the system. In contrast, public opinion is the critical source of demands in the world described by Burnstein, and decisions must be responsive to it in order to maintain support. The system cannot excessively favor elite interests. Finally, Friedman imagines an environment in which the political elite plays an important role in structuring the environment.
A major unanswered question from the readings is: to what extent can the elite shape public opinion? Burnstein's evidence suggests that Domhoff may have overextended his argument, but there are many examples of elite groups influencing public opinion. For instance, the business community has successfully convinced many members of the public that tax cuts lead to significant economic growth despite strong evidence to the contrary, while partisan news media such as Fox News and MSNBC play a major role in shaping the contours of political debate. The elite may simply be seizing issues where it knows the public is already leaning in its favor, as Burnstein would argue, but it could also be steering public policy to its favor in directions it would not have gone without its push. Perhaps the elite is not as powerful as Domhoff would suggest, but it may be able to set the parameters of public policy debates.