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Political Elites

Oxford Handbooks Online


Political Elites
Jean Blondel and Ferdinand MllerRommel 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 largebetween 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 HoffmannLange 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 countriesbasically 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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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. Differences in the nature of the political elite are manifestly large, enormous perhaps, between traditional and developing political systems, between dictatorships and democratic polities, including among the many types of emerging democratic polities, as well as between military and civilian regimes. Yet, one can only provide some insights into the nature of these elites, not give robust evidence of a truly general character. 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. This theory constitutes the background against which empirical studies were subsequently developed. 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. In this respect, the bulk of the findings are drawn mainly from western experience. The third section examines the role of the political elite. Research often suggests that in some countries, despite apparent divisions, the political elite are socially and ideologically united. In the West at least, matters are appreciably more complex. There is a tension, 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. Therefore, it does not seem that the western political elite is fundamentally united; nor is it true either that it is fundamentally disunited. More realistically, its various elements oscillate between efforts at broad compromises and attempts at implementing sharply contested viewpoints.

1 The Theoretical Debates on Political Elites


The classical elite theory is associated with Gaetano Mosca (1939), Vilfredo Pareto (1968), and Robert Michels (1962). 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. Even more importantly, this was the time of increasing socialist ideology. During the period, Mosca, Pareto, and Michels questioned the basis of a democratic development in Europe and offered a realistic elite theory in contrast to radical Marxism. In their view, every society consists of rulers and ruled. Only the former hold the political power and dominate the masses. According to Mosca, the political power of any society must be in the hands of a small ruling elite, because the masses are usually unqualified to exercise power. Pareto refers to different innate personal qualities leading to oligarchic structures. 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. That is, all three classical elite theorists agreed that there was an iron law of oligarchy. Thus, 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 decisionmaking role. Furthermore, they agreed that the political elite select their successors from the privileged classes that basically share the same value system. Thus, according to the classical elite theorists, the ruling elite are recruited largely in a selfperpetuating manner from the upper class of the society. Finally, all three elite theorists shared the view that the political elite should be autonomous in exercising power. These basic ideas of the classical elite theorists are thus often described as conservative or antidemocratic (Nye 1977). In the mid 1950s C. Wright Mills (1956) extended these theories. He portrayed a power elite of the postwar USA that consisted of top position holders in business, in political administration, and in the military. Members of these groups hold overlapping elite positions or have successively held influential positions in various sectors. According to Mills, 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. 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. Inspired by these theoretical ideas, 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. Based on empirical findings deducted from a local elite study in the City of New Haven, Dahl concluded that the political elite are divided into leaders and sub leaders. The latter are highly specialized experts who organize the daily business of politics. Furthermore, their sociodemographic background is closer to the average citizens than that of the leaders. 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. Dahl also argued that the recruitment into the caste of top leaders was not limited to aristocrats, but open to a wider group of citizens. All persons with specific individual resources such as income, prestige, education, and occupation may in principle belong to the political elite. Thus, the political elite in modern democracies consist of distinct groups of individuals with varying sociodemographic backgrounds and occupational positions. Most of these individuals are highly specialized and politically influential in single policy sectors. Perhaps the key finding of Dahl, however, was that his evidence showed that no elite group had a dominant impact on all political issues. 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.

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. Although we will concentrate on findings from western countries, we can at least point out to similarities and differences on the basis of broad distinctions among traditional political systems, authoritarian systems of the more modern and of the more traditional types, and emerging democracies, these categorizations being no more than an indicative nomenclature. The characteristics of the political elite vary markedly from one of these types of political systems to another. On the one hand, there are two elements , which all political elites share. First, the social composition of political elites does not reproduce even in broad terms the social structure of the citizenry. In many cases, that composition bears almost no relationship with the way the nation is structured. Second, 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. These are, first, whether the political elite of a country is
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Political Elites
distinguishable or not from the social and economic elite of that country, second, the extent to which the elite is internally differentiated into lower and uppermost echelons, third, the nature of mechanisms by which individuals are recruited in the political elite and, fourth, the patterns of duration and turnover of members who belong to the political elite. The following sections examine the shared characteristics of elites, and then the characteristics that differentiate elites.

2.1 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. 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. This is true of traditional systems, where members of the political elite are almost exclusively drawn from among the upper classes (Eulau and Czudnowski 1976). This is also true of dictatorships, whether modern or not, where the political elite is composed of those segments of the society from which supporters, indeed strong supporters, of the regime are typically to be found, for instance from the military or from a party created by the regime. This is even true of democracies, including longestablished western democracies. In parliaments, for instance, the working class (even where trade unions are strong) or the peasantry, as well as women, are typically underrepresented, often grossly underrepresented. Putnam (1976, 37) refers in this context to the law of increasing disproportion: as the level of elite status increases, the bias in the social characteristics among the elite also increases. There have been changes, admittedly, in the social composition of western European parliaments in the course of the last two centuries. There has been a marked decline in the number of upperclass parliamentarians, but this has not led to a corresponding increase of the representation of all social groups, as some, especially on the left, wanted to achieve. Instead there developed a preponderance of lawyers, teachers, or civil servants, indeed increasingly professional politicians, and to a lesser extent, businessmen (Best and Cotta 2000, 499501). As a matter of fact, although moves towards a more accurate social representation occurred to an extent with the emergence of socialist parties in the twentieth century, a decline in the workingclass composition of parliaments subsequently took place in western European parties of the left. There was no such move in the United States where the traditional two parties continued to prevail. 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; Norris and Lovenduski 1995; Kittilson 2006).

2.2 Similarities: The Power of the Leaders


The small number of traditional political systems are still dominated by hereditary monarchs, while more modern authoritarian systems are typically ruled by dictators. In both cases, the role of leaders is ostensibly overwhelming. Indeed the whole regime, especially in the case of dictatorships, largely depends on the leaderwith the corollary that the political elite is ultimately dependent on the leader as well, when it has not been wholly created by the leader (Hermassi 1972; Sadri 1997). The power of leaders in dictatorships is based on a combination of characteristics, and the combination changes over time in many cases. One element which generally exists is fear: dictatorships typically begin by rounding up opponents or forcing them into exile, while various freedoms, such as the freedom of the press and the freedom of demonstration, are abolished or severely curtailed. Fear is combined, however, in many cases with a variety of forms of support. This support ranges from admiration for what the leader may have previously achieved, for instance in liberating the country from occupying forces or from its colonial status, 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. Yet democratic leaders are also typically very powerful in many systems, including western systems, whatever may have been originally thought by those who put forward the concept of representative government. Indeed, the pessimistic views of many early twentiethcentury observers, such as Michels, were partly due (or were claimed to be due) to the fact that leadership was regarded as preponderant, including in socialist parties. The nature of the institutions accounts in part for this preponderance. In the case of the presidential systems, 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. The same holds true in the case of postcommunist Russia, where the communist legacy as well as the presidential power led to the rise of a new powerful political elite (Klingemann, Stoess, Weels 1991; Sinyavsky 1997; Steen and Gelman 2003).Yet strong leadership is found in parliamentary systems as well. Those regimes with weak leadership, such as that of France up to 1958, and which were unable to meet the challenges that they faced, have tended to be replaced by authoritarian systems or have introduced stronger forms of leadership. As a result, while the political elite in western countries does not entirely depend on the leaders of these countries, as they do in traditional systems or in more modern dictatorships, democratic leaders can at least shape in many ways the composition of the political elite. These western elites often induce their members to follow policies which these leaders together with perhaps a small entourage have put forward.

2.3 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. In nondemocratic systems, the political elite are indeed undistinguishable from the rest of the elite, but in one of two entirely different ways. First, 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. This is the case in some of the traditional monarchies which remain in the contemporary world, for instance Saudi Arabia or emirates in the Arabian peninsula (Perthes 2004). In these nations, there are no political institutions as such, merely a monarch who rules. Second, where traditional systems become unable to meet demands for change arising in some quarters of the society, these systems tend to be replaced. This often occurs through brutal revolutions, 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 many examples of such a development in the contemporary world, Libya being one of the most clearcut cases. Especially where a single party is created, a new elite attempts to impose, as in the case of communist or of some other progressive regimes, not just a different form of politics but a different social and economic structure. The political elite become so preponderant that it seems to encompass the whole of the elite. Thus, in this case, too, political and social and economic elites remain undistinguishable (Taras 1989).
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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; Eyal, Szelenyi, and Townsley 1998; Higley and Lengyel 2000; Shlapentokh et al. 1999). A democracy cannot be set up unless political institutions, such as a parliament and a pluralistic system of parties, are set up. Meanwhile, the preexisting social structure is maintained or at most modified only gradually. Therefore, those who operate the new political institutions have at least to coexist with those who are socially or economically powerful, even if numerous clashes occur. Gradually, the political institutions acquire greater strength if the democratic system is successfully maintained: a kind of modus vivendi emerges. A political elite, distinct from the social and economic elites, has come to be in existence (Borchert and Zeiss 2003).

2.4 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 political elite are usually united. In communist systems, for instance, both in eastern Europe and in the former Soviet Union as well in those Asian countries where communism continues to prevail, China and Vietnam, for instance, the party is in control and the leadership of that party effectively appoints the members of the parliament, the members of the government and holders of key positions at regional or local level (Steen 1997, 2003; Zang 2003). This is also the case in other types of singleparty systems or in nonparty military regimes, for instance in Africa and the Middle East. The new elite hopes in this way to transform the society (Oyediran 1979; Daloz 2002; Kerstiens 1966). In the case of democratic systems or even in emerging democracies the political elite is institutionally divided both horizontally and vertically. The existence of a pluralistic party system inevitably leads to a horizontal development of a number of segments of the political elite, which are autonomous from each other. A vertical differentiation also occurs between at least three of these segments, the parties, and especially the party elites, the members of the legislature (parliament or congress) and the governments. This differentiation occurs even though there are naturally links between parties, legislature, and governments. As a matter of fact, there are subdivisions of these three sets of institutions: the parties between the centre and the regional and local bodies, the legislatures between important committee members and the rankand file, and governments between top ministers or secretaries and junior ministers or assistant secretaries (Blondel and MllerRommel 1993). The differentiation in the career background of members of legislatures and members of governments can be particularly sharp, especially in presidential systems. This is not so in most parliamentary systems, and in particular in Europe, as members of the government tend to be drawn from among members of parliament. Yet this is not universally the case even in these systems. In some western European countries, France, Austria, the Netherlands, for instance, about a quarter of members of governments are drawn directly from the civil service or from business (Blondel and Thiebault 1991). The strong distinction between legislature and executive results in the fact that most important public decisions are initiated by that executive. The parliament or the congress tends to be at the receiving end of these proposals, even if the views of members of parliaments or congresses have to be discussed and taken into account. Thus, in institutional terms, a vertical division exists between the lower and upper echelons of the political elite in democratic systems, a distinction which does not really exist in dictatorships where leadership commands and the others are only there to obey.

2.5 Differences: Patterns of Recruitment to the Political Elite


In democratic political systems, there is always some leeway and in some cases even full autonomy in the recruitment of the political elite (Eulau and Czudnowski 1976). 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. In addition, in democratic systems, including emerging democracies, the power to decide on the selection of members of the political elite may be devolved at levels below, perhaps substantially below, the centre of power, while this is typically not the case in authoritarian systems (Laurentiu 2004). The first step in the recruitment process in democracies is at the party level. Parties select their elites typically by means of elections, admittedly often not strongly contested; parties also select candidates for local governments, regional or state governments and national legislatures, though in a few cases, and above all in the United States, the membership at large is involved in that selection by means of the primaries (Hibbing 1991). Elsewhere, the nomination of party candidates to the legislative elections is appreciably less open. Where the electoral districts are small, the nomination process at least takes place in the local committees of the parties. National party leaders interfere to an extent in these nomination processes. This is, however, sometimes done to stop the nomination of candidates whose views do not coincide with those put forward by the party nationally. There are other reasons for such interference. Yet, from the end of the twentieth century in particular, many western European parties have made efforts to nominate a substantial proportion of women among the candidates (Vianello and Moore 2000; Kittilson 2006). Since there were difficulties in ensuring that a substantial number of women should put themselves forward as candidates, 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; Norris 1997). 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. These biases may well account in part for the middleclass composition of members of legislatures. However, the recruitment of candidates is also dependent on the supply of candidates. Where the chances of success at the election are low, generally or in a particular district, the supply is likely to be low. Recruitment to the government is appreciably less open. In some parliamentary systems, an indirect influence of the rankand file members of parliament can find its way to the top if, the executive of the opposition parliamentary party is elected by the parliamentarians. When the party subsequently comes to power, some members of that executive may become ministers. In general, however, 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; Tavares, Costa Pinto, and Bermeo 2003). In presidential systems, especially in the United States, as this is less the case in many Latin American presidential governments, the president is almost entirely free to select the various secretaries and assistant secretaries who will be in the government. Patterns of recruitment to the political elite become more elitist as one moves up towards the national leadership (Blondel 1985).
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Political Elites
2.6 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. In contrast, there is a much slower turnover of political personnel in traditional regimes and in many dictatorships. In democratic systems, the turnover of elites tends to be low at what might be regarded as the periphery of the political elite, for instance in some of the party positions (as Michels had noted with respect to socialist parties in their early development). Meanwhile, members of legislatures, whether parliaments or congresses, remain in their seats, on average, for about a decade and a half. Elites exit from office not just because they are not reelected, but also because, especially in the United States, they are not reselected as candidates. Or, sometimes candidates withdraw because the excitement or rewards that the job provides do not match the expectations that the members may have originally had. Thus the parliamentary or congressional elites are renewed entirely, on average, twice in each generation. Yet this tenure is long when compared to the tenure of members of governments of democratic systems. On average, ministers and secretaries in western Europe are in office for three to four years, with a substantial minority being in office for shorter periods (Blondel and Thiebault 1991). The picture is different in postcommunist central eastern Europe: in these countries the duration of ministers in office is only two years on average (Blondel, MllerRommel, and Malova 2006). Admittedly, many of these government members will have been junior ministers or assistant secretaries for periods of about the same length. Yet, 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, one is rarely a member of the political elite for life in democratic systems. Only a few stars can be regarded as having made their whole career in politics. The former foreign minister of Germany, Hans Dietrich Genscher, is, for instance, a case in point. This may be regarded as a positive characteristic from the point of view of the circulation of elites. Thus, this feature of democracies can be regarded as providing further evidence of the superiority of democratic systems over all others. In contrast, 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. This may suggest, as has often been claimed, that a rapid turnover of the political elite entails that governments count rather little in comparison with permanent bureaucracies (Dogan 1989).

3 The Role of the Political Elite


The role of the political elite is particularly difficult to assess outside the West, as the absence of genuine empirical studies makes it very difficult to distinguish between claims and reality. For instance, the political elite cannot be truly separated from the rest of the elite in traditional regimes, such as traditional monarchies, many of which are in the Middle East. This makes it meaningless to assess the role of the political elite. But, even if we consider the role of the elite in general in these political systems, it is difficult to determine precisely how and to what extent the elite does affect the society. Customs are very strong in these regimes and this strength renders change almost impossible to achieve. The members of the elite usually do not want to introduce change on a substantial scale. As a result, 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. Such inquiries do not exist, both for these reasons and because access is typically difficult to obtain. The same conclusion has to be drawn with respect to modern dictatorships, whether these are based on a single party, on the military, or on both. Here, too, the distinction between the political elite and the social and economic elite is impossible to draw, 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. How far these changes are achieved, however, is more problematic. In most cases, the old elite are eliminated. It is true, as was the case in European communist states, that the institutions are profoundly reshaped and the way politics is conducted becomes consequently different. Whether a change of mentalities is obtained as a result is markedly less clear. In contrast, as seems to be shown by way in which, once the regime has collapsed, political life takes once more a more normal turn (Rose and Mishler 1994; Colton and Tucker 1995). Therefore, we concentrate on democratic political systems and particularly western systems in order to answer to the question of the role of the political elite. Yet, even in the context of these societies, realistic conclusions are difficult to draw, partly because empirical studies devoted to this matter are still rather rare and partly because, as Putnam stated, generalizations have too often been made on the basis of theories only. 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, even in democratic societies. Second, we need to see to what extent one can delineate the role of the political elite in shaping the characteristics of democratic societies.

3.1 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, when it comes to fundamental problems, the social and ideological unity of that elite reemerges and frustrates efforts to radically change the character of the society. As was pointed out above, this stand was taken in a variety of different ways and especially under the labels of the ruling class, of the power elite, and of the establishment. The view that the political elite in western democracies are fully united is, however, unrealistic. If the people in western democracies do not support truly radical policies, it is not surprising that only few members of the political elite should support these policies. Meanwhile, the members of that elite are divided in many ways, even if they do not constitute a mirror image of the population in terms of their social composition. Their ideological standpoints are far from being as close to each other as the supporters of the radical theories suggest, even if the divisions which exist are merely between conservatism and reform. Their attitudes to specific policies are also frequently profoundly different and these disagreements are also expressed in very strong terms, whether in parliament or elsewhere. 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.
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Political Elites
3.2 Patterns of Conflict and Consensus within the Political Elite
In some countries or at some occasions, members of the political elite tend to come to agree about adopting a common stance over key policies. More commonly, consensual politics has characterized a number of western European countries with respect to social or economic policies; other countries typically practiced confrontational politics. Moreover, in societies with strongly identifiable pillars, such as the Netherlands or Belgium, 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, 1999). Such developments may provide a strong argument in favor of the view that the political elites are fundamentally united. Yet not only are these developments supported by the populations concerned, but they are also regarded by some scholars, and in particular by Lijphart, 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. Democracy is regarded by many as meaning above all broadly based participation rather than perpetual conflict. Thus, the kinds of arrangements at the levels of peak interest groups, parties, 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. 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, somewhat sheltered from electoral fluctuations. 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). Thus the political elite may or may not be ideologically united in western democracies. 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. 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 masselite representation below). 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, Mller, and Bergman 2003). 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.

4 Conclusion
The concept of the political elite developed gradually out of the broader concept of the elite which sociologists came to use, especially in the later nineteenth century, to attempt to summarize the nature of the link between the rulers and the ruled. 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. Its validity came to be markedly more dubious in the context of the politically complex societies which democracies, and especially western democracies, have become. 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. It does not follow that the concept of the political elite should be discarded, for instance in favour of purely institutional definitions. The concept of the political elite has a twofold advantage. On the one hand, 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. On the other hand, the concept also forces scholars to consider the relationships between the political elite and the social and economic elite. 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. The use of the concept of political elite can therefore help markedly our understanding of political life, but on condition that it be treated, not as a rigid notion which is uniformly applicable, but as a flexible tool which takes into account the immense complexities of the power relationships between human beings.

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Jean Blondel
Jean Blondel is Professorial Fellow at the European University Institute, Florence, and Visiting Professor, University of Siena.

Ferdinand Mller Rommel


Ferdinand MllerRommel is Professor of Comparative Politics at the University of Lneburg.

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