How do the elite impact public opinion?

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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.

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3 Comments

Patrick I think you bring up a good point about the actual power that the elites have. In my Post I bring up the Citizens United Ruling that allows corporations the ability to spend unlimited amounts of money on issues or campaigns. I think it is interesting because we say in the 2012 election a ton of spending in all the races up and down the ticket but it is still unclear if it was effective spending. One issue might arise from the disconnection from a certain campaign and these 'super-pacs' which could cause a messaging problem. Although there is not a lot of discussion in the reading about specific power I think it is a very interesting and important debate.

Patrick, I think you are absolutely right about the elites being able to set parameters for the debate in the first place. Our nation has had elites since its inception and it will always have elites because capitalism does create inequalities, that much is unquestioned. Mike raises a good point that Citizens United gives individuals the ability to throw all kinds of cash at these campaigns. The scary thing is that you might not even be doing that because you believe they are the best person for the job, just that you know they are the most favorable to your situation or your business and its profits. You look at Minnesota and our DFL party for instance. DFLers running under that banner will never even discuss cutting farm subsidies or anything that could be detrimental to farmers at all, why? Because they get too much money from these people, it's not as though farmers make up such a massive amount of the electorate that the DFL needs to hold on to their votes. I wish policy debates could be devoid of special interests and elites getting in the ears of our lawmakers but it is a tall task to suggest ending that.

Yes, I think in general, it may be those with the money, or elites that are able to shape public opinion. While elites are not able to sway issues their way entirely or all the time, they are going to throw money into research to prove their point. Like your example of tax cuts -- though research is not favorable to their position, they are still going to try to find some hope of evidence that may convince public opinion. This is where I think the connection between public opinion and the elite group can be made. Public opinion may be shaped by public research, so it makes sense that elites would put energy and resources into this. So essentially, I think you are completely accurate in that the elites can set the parameters of public decisions.

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