One of the most lauded achievements of the Constitution of the United States is that it creates an elaborate system of checks and balances among authority wielding groups in order to diffuse power and keep it from getting too concentrated in one place. Proponents of the power elite theory of society assert that our political and economic systems are undemocratically run by a group of corporate executives and political leaders. While there certainly is an elite class in this country that wields a large amount of power, as power elitists say, there is another power that they largely discount. As a whole, the power elite theory doesn't recognize the most influential check of all: people power.
Businesses from massive corporations all the way down to corner groceries in a capitalist system rely on the consumer to purchase the products that the business produces, from a half-gallon of milk to life insurance. When that consumer is taken out of the equation the business makes no profit, regardless of whatever mass stores of resources they may possess. Such a threat was made towards Bank of America when, in September 2011, it announced that it would start charging debit card users a $5 per month fee in order to make up profits lost by a reduction in the allowable transaction fee charged to retailers who accept the cards (abc.go.com, 2011). The decision sparked outrage that created a 300,000 signature petition denouncing the fee and ultimately led to 650,000 account transfers from Bank of America and other large banks to credit unions by the time Bank of America capitulated in early November 2011 (time.com, 2011).
Another case in which a large corporation enraged the public and paid the price was when, in April 2010, British Petroleum's Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. As a result of the explosion, for which BP was found to be mostly at fault, crude oil gushed from the ocean floor for 3 months unabated until the well was capped in mid-July (boston.com, 2010). The oil spill devastated the coastal ecosystem and hurt the economic prospects of cities like New Orleans which had only 6 years prior been decimated by Hurricane Katrina. As a result of the spill and subsequent outrage of the American people, BP was hit hard economically. BP's stock, which was trading at 59.88 in the New York Stock Exchange the week of April 19, 2010, fell almost 55 percent in 2 months, reaching a low point of 27.02 during the week of June 21. Also, in the 27 months since BP's stock hit its nadir it has regained only 46 percent of its lost value, closing at 42.22 on October 1, 2012, despite a vigorous public relations ad campaign (finance.yahoo.com, 2012).
While the power of the people to influence economics as they have before is immense, it takes a large amount of effort and organization on the part of the populace to have a big effect. However, while we don't have a perfect democracy, we still have the right to vote. Power elites are correct in their assertion that most of the meaningful business in the country is conducted on the elite level, but they don't acknowledge that the citizenry of the country has control over who survives in the political realm. Regardless of how powerful a congressman or senator is they can still be voted out of power.
This threat to their power compels elected officials to respond to public outrage. In the fall of 2011 when Occupy Wall Street gained traction, it simultaneously came to the fore of the political discourse in the country. Both the President and the then front runner for the GOP nomination acknowledged the validity of the movement's statement ( chicagonow.com, 2011) because they understood the power of the people to either vote them out of power, or prevent them from gaining it in the first place.
That same fear of losing power compelled elected officials to react to the public's mood when, in response to the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989, Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. The spill on March 24, 1989 dumped 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound off the Alaska coast prompting a large amount of public outrage at Exxon and its role in the causation of the spill (iml.jou.ufl.edu, 2012).
Because of the public outcry, the 101st U.S. Congress passed the OPA expanding the federal government's ability to respond to oil spills. The bill also included provisions that "increased penalties for regulatory noncompliance, broadened the response and enforcement authorities of the federal government, and preserved state authority to establish law governing oil spill prevention and response." It also provided new requirements for contingency plans by both the government and industry (epa.gov, 2012).
In the debate between pluralists and power elitists neither absolute is right. While pure power elitism seems paranoid, pure pluralism seems naïve. Our democratic system functions in a much more middling way, giving and taking realities from both sides, though perhaps one more than the other. The question of who runs our system is no different than any other facet in that the truth is somewhere in between the two poles.
It accepts the power elitist view that there is a ruling class, and mitigates that with the idea that the people ultimately control the ruling class, though they have to try much harder. The entire scenario can be thought of as forest where the trees represent the political and economic institutions in our society and each air particle represents a person. One particle is harmless but if enough gather together it can create a hurricane force wind that can uproot any tree.
Sam Gartenstein is a senior at Brattleboro Union High School.