Political Elites

… a core concept in Socioeconomic and Political Context and Atlas105

Concept description

John Higley in Encyclopaedia Britannica (reference below) defines political elites as small groups of persons whose locations in powerful institutions, organizations, and movements enable them to shape or influence political outcomes, often decisively.

Higley distinguishes political elites from cultural elites who enjoy a high status and influence in nonpolitical spheres such as arts and letters, philanthropy, professions, and civic associations. He writes:

“At the national level, political elites number only a few thousand persons in all but the largest countries, whereas the makeup of cultural elites is more indeterminate and turns on the nonpolitical spheres regarded as consequential in a society. …

“To carry out major initiatives and to perpetuate their hold on power, elites need nonelite support. To win it, elites may appeal to nonelite interests and to shared political orientations. Failure to win nonelite support frequently shortens elite tenures or undermines their power. …

“In his seminal book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1942), the American economist Joseph Schumpeter argued that democracy is simply a method by which voters select governing leaders and elites, who should then be left alone to get on with the business of governing. For Schumpeter, in other words, democracy combines autonomous governance by leaders and elites with time-limited mandates to govern given by the voting public in periodic elections. However, many critics of democratic elitism claim that this too blithely assumes that leaders and elites are creative and responsible actors who can safely be entrusted with autonomy.

“Three of the most-influential figures in elite theory—the jurist and philosopher Gaetano Mosca, the economist and sociologist Vilfredo Pareto, and the political sociologist and economist Robert Michels – also stressed the persistence of elites. The formation of elite groups, they argued, is inescapable in modern societies and imposes limits on what is possible in politics. They maintained, for example, that genuine democratic systems are impossible because there will always be self-interested elites who will outorganize and outwit the people. The most that can be hoped for, in their view, is a relatively liberal but still quite unequal order led by elites who are capable and enlightened. But, they noted, elites in most societies, both historically and in the present, fall well short of those attributes, so politics is likely to continue to involve fierce power struggles between ambitious elites.”

See also Elite Theory.

Atlas topic, subject, and course

The Study of the Socioeconomic Context for Politics and Policy (core topic) in Socioeconomic and Political Context and Atlas105.


John Higley, Elites, Encyclopaedia Britannica, at https://www.britannica.com/topic/elite-sociology, accessed 28 December 2018.

Page created by: Alec Wreford and Ian Clark, last modified on 28 December 2018.

Image: WNYC Studios, Communist Party Elites Converge in Beijing, 19 October 2017, at https://www.wnycstudios.org/story/communist-party-elites-converge-beijing, accessed 28 December 2018.