The Zoh Show
Thomas R. Dye 10/24/96
Since 1976 Thomas R. Dye, Professor of Political Science at Florida State University, has published a series of books examining who and what institutions actually control and run America. As Thomas R. Dye points out, to understand who is making the decisions that affect our lives, we also have to understand how societies structure themselves in general. Why the few always tend to share more power than the many and what this means in terms of both a society's evolution and our daily lives. On The Zoh Show and 21st Century Radio, we often focus of the role of the media in shaping our lives, but when Zoh interviewed Professor Dye on October 24, 1996, they examined the other 11 institutions that exert just as powerful a shaping influence, although somewhat more subtle: The Industrial, Corporations, Utilities and Communications, Banking, Insurance Investment, Mass Media, Law, Education Foundation, Civic and Cultural Organizations, Government, and the Military. In her introduction to their interview, Zoh described Thomas R. Dye as "one of America's most provocative educators I have yet to encounter," and his book, Who's Running America? The Clinton Years, published by Prentis Hall Press in 1995, as "absolutely the best I've ever read on the issue of power, control and authority."

In his book, Professor Dye addresses the nature of societies in general and how they organize themselves. As he pointed out on The Zoh Show, "the argument is not that America is any different than any other society, it's not that we're any more elitist than other societies... basically all societies have to be organized. All societies have leadership and whether it comes in a capitalist society from essentially a business/financial/legal world or whether in a socialist society, [or] from government bureaucrats and parties, chieftains... all societies have elites, and the argument is that the best way to understand society is really to understand who these people are."

In America this inherent elitism precludes the Lincolnesque vision of a government "of the people, by the people and for the people." Instead Professor Dye lists some 7,314 who are supposedly representing all 250 million Americans and determining the dimensions that "America of the Elite" will take on. He explains that they arrived at that figure by looking at the 100 largest industrial corporations and 50 largest banks and finding these industrial corporations controlled over two-thirds of the total industrial assets of the nation, and the banks controlled approximately 75% of the banking assets of the nation. Then they examined the top Wall Street investment firms, the big Wall Street in Washington law firms, communications, utilities, the foundations and the most prestigious private universities, and compared the people who are members of their boards of directors, their presidents, their CEOs and so on. All these names together totaled 7,314 names. "You could reasonably say," says Professor Dye, "that these people control two-thirds of the industrial assets, three-quarters of banking assets, half the assets of communications and utilities and three-quarters of the assets in insurance and so on. 7,314: scholars have argued for some time about the size of the nation's elite. We think that's a pretty good beginning estimate of what it is. It turned out that there were only 6,000 names in the 7,300 positions which means that there is considerable overlap. That is to say some people had more than one position, so we really came up with what we thought were about 6,000 people who were in a position to govern virtually every sector of American society."

The concentration of economic power is a key factor in any civilization and when one looks at the growth of the Top 100 Corporations, not just in the sense of the economic market, but more importantly, in the policy making arena, one can learn a lot about who's running America. Says Dye, "with an increasing concentration of industrial assets in the top 100 corporations, we've also had a much greater differential in salaries between workers and CEOs. In other words, there's greater inequality in the country today than there has been in the past... The pie is expanding, that's true, but in terms of shares of that pie, the folks at the top are getting more, and the folks at the bottom are getting less."

Personal wealth is almost insignificant compared to corporate wealth, according to Professor Dye, a fact of great significance when one considers only a small number or corporations control about 75% of our nation's wealth. "Power is really concentrated in the giant institutions," he said. He referred to Ross Perot's 1992 presidential campaign in which he spent 60 or 70 million dollars, making everyone aware and in awe of his close to a billion dollars in assets. But the real power lies with the assets of Exxon or AT&T or General Motors or any of the large corporations that have assets of tens and twenties and thirties and fifties and some of the top banks that have hundreds of billions of dollars of assets. In other words, the assets that are concentrated in the largest banks and in the largest corporations really are far greater than the assets of any particular individual, and those who want to exercise power "are far better doing so... by leadership positions in top institutions. We only pay the president of the United States $200,000 a year and yet basically the President supervises a budget of 1.6 trillion. So individual wealth really doesn't compare with institutional wealth."

Micromanaged from "Cradle to Grave"

Professor Dye has made these lists of who's in power for every administration since 1976, and the quality of the data he supplies makes it easy to see the continuation of these powerful forces from 1940 through today. "My argument," says Professor Dye, "that industrial wealth and banks and other centers of financial power are influencing government comes essentially from a system in which foundations [receive] large grants from wealthy corporations and in turn fund various policy planning groups." Groups such as the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, the Bookings Institution in Washington, the Heritage Foundation in Washington, the American Enterprise Institute and other policy planning groups, according to Professor Dye, really set the agenda for the congress and the president and other governmental agencies. "In other words," says Dye, "these are the folks that operate sort of behind the governmental reporting that we get. We get reports on bills introduced in congress and what congress does in committee and on the floor and so on. But we don't get an awful lot of reports in the news media on what the Council on Foreign Relations is planning for us in terms of our international role. What are we doing in terms of NATO expansion and so on, and that's all really been pretty well planned out ahead by the Council on Foreign Relations before it gets to the news media and before it gets in the President's speech."

Zoh reads Foreign Affairs, the publication of the CFR as a regular sort of punishment to get a sense of where the administrations will be in four or five years, believing as she does that they set the agenda years before it is manifested.

To compare the administrations of Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Dye quotes a source who referred to President Clinton as "A political robot whose been running for office his whole life." Says Dye, "I would say the Clinton Administration is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people in that the people all become lawyers and lobbyists. The Clinton Administration was more filled with lawyers and lobbyists than Reagan and Bush. By lawyers and lobbyists I mean people that basically made their living from relations with the government," i.e., lawyers who are government officials or actually heads of lobbying organizations. "Reagan and Bush had far more people from the corporate world, far more people from business and finance, that's noticeably absent in the Clinton Administration. Clinton's people really are not drawn from the corporate world. Another thing about Clinton is it's probably the first administration that we really have virtually no military experience represented in the cabinet. That's what's different about them.

"What's the same about them is basically, of course, they're drawn from the most prestigious people, the most prestigious educational institutions in country. People that have had the best kinds of educations, the best careers. There was a book some time ago called The Best and The Brightest which... talked about recruitment of top people appointed to top cabinet offices that each administration really has to dip into the top elite to fill its cabinet positions.

"Ronald Reagan himself, for example, had really started out pretty close to the bottom in terms of being the son of a failed alcoholic shoe salesman who traveled around the mid-west and Illinois, and he went to a tiny little unknown school called Eureka College and so on. But his whole life was one of upward mobility. George Bush in contrast was born in great wealth. His father, Prescott Bush, was a senior partner in Brown, Harriman, a leading Wall Street investment firm. He was a United States Senator from Connecticut, he chaired the Yale Corporation which governed Yale University. Bill Clinton, on the other hand came from the middle. If Ronald Reagan came from the bottom, and if Bush came from the top, Clinton was in the middle. He likes to talk about the fact that he was born to a single parent family. But his mother pretty soon married an automobile dealer and he had a pretty middle class upbringing and he was able to have his education at private, prestigious Georgetown University as undergraduate and of course to go on to Yale Law School. He's come up in the world but he didn't start at the bottom, the way he sometimes implies."

How does the assumed role of the media function in terms of the control by "the few over the many"?

"My argument is that the media sets the agenda for what people will be talking about. It sets the agenda for what will be decided. There is an argument that he who sets the agenda is even more powerful than he who makes the decision... Particularly television -- because we have enough polling and opinion information to know that most people get their news from television and most people actually trust television more than they trust newspapers, magazines, radio and other media. So, with that being the major source of news and the most trusted news, the people that decide what is going to be seen on the evening news, what is going to be seen by 10-15 million people on ABC News, NBC News and CBS News, what 10-15 million people are going to hear from Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, and Tom Brokaw -- and maybe five or six million look at CNN -- that decision on what to put on as the news becomes very vital. If they want to talk about the economy or how well it's doing and so on, that kind of sets the agenda. And then people start saying well, things are pretty good, maybe we'll vote for the incumbent Bill Clinton... The crime rate has gone down a little bit in the last couple of years; they could report that as progress and that would help Bill Clinton, or they could report the fact that there are more drug seizures now than ever before, more drugs coming into the country, the price of drugs is lower. If they wanted to make that the issue then it would probably help Bob Dole. So, in other words, they can choose what people will be talking about. They set the agenda for decision-making and it's in relatively few hands.... It's a relatively small number of people who make the decisions about what we will be thinking and talking about."

Another important factor Professor Dye points out is that 70% of all television news stories are pre-planned, so there is intention, there is forethought, there is a great deal of consideration about - not necessarily what's good for our republic, but what will sell and what supports the advertisers who pay their salaries. It's a wide-spread misconception that the news is just what happened today. Says Dye "The news has to be well thought out ahead of time. You can't just an hour or two before television time, put together a program as slick as you get on the nightly news whether it's Brokaw, or Rather, or Jennings. They are handling many, many stories and they have stories all lined up ahead of time. True, if something breaks, then they'll have to pull one story and stick in the most recent breaking news, but basically they've been working on the line-up of news for weeks ahead of time and developing stories and getting good visuals and deciding what it is that they want to designate as the problems of America." Sometimes they even designate the crises they want to point out, and they become what people talk about, especially after the media then turns around and puts a microphone in front of the president, or senate, or house members and ask them to comment. Even if it wasn't on the agenda before, it gets on the agenda then, because politicians have to respond to what the major news reporters ask them.

The Fourth Estate, of course, is intrinsically linked to the other movers and shakers outlined in Professor Dye's books, the university structure and the foundations, etc., most obviously by the spokespersons invited time and again to share opinions on the news. But these large institutions, like the Ford Foundation, or the Carnegie Foundation, are multi-billion dollar institutions and sit quietly behind the scenes shaping policy, education, and global events beyond the scope or even awareness of the common people. In Thomas Dye's work, he has tried to understand not only how these networks function and their interrelationships, but how they work in tandem with the major universities, particularly ones that do policy research. He watches closely the Council on Foreign Relations and their major publication, Foreign Affairs, and who they invite as speakers at their New York meetings and what is being said there. He believes in this way, much can be learned about the future of foreign policy, international trade and international economic development.

He then goes on to compare names on these various boards of directors, and for example on page 143 under Civic Establishment, from the Brookings Institute membership at the board level, you have a guy like Lewis Cavat and then you look to see what else did he do? He's a trustee of the Carnegie Corporation, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, he's a trustee of MIT, he was chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. Another example, Vernon Jordan, former President of The National Urban League, Director of American Express, Banker Trust, Union Carbide, Xerox, and Corning Glass. Then there's Donald McHenry, former U.N. Ambassador, director of AT&T, and so on in a sort of infrastructure establishment cross-fertilization.

Interlocking - a Major Source of Influence

"It's not just money," says Professor Dye, "it's not just people giving money to foundations, but as you reminded me, it's interlocking the fact that these folks will have key positions in the corporate world and the financial world and also key positions in university trusteeships and foundation trusteeships and so on... We know that, for example, over half of the Clinton Administration has degrees at either Yale, Harvard, or Stanford... and they also tend to be members of the same clubs." Though most people may not call it an establishment, these art foundations actually are part of a national force outside government.

The big "C" word -- Conspiracy

As Zoh knows all too well, the media's way of marginalizing anyone who suggests that there is some sort of elitist team that runs the show, is to label them as a paranoid conspiratorialist. "I kind of dodge that question," says Dye when asked how he deals with it, "and I dodge the question in a sense because the word "conspiracy" is such a pejorative, it's such a negative, and also it involves the notion that some people in small groups sit around planning evil. In my view it's probably a larger group than any one that could sit around at one table. We're really talking about five or six thousand people with maybe an inner core of interlockers of several hundred people that occupy multiple positions. My view is that they probably don't meet on late nights in small smoke-filled rooms and plan evil, but rather that they DO know each other, they DO join the same clubs, they DO sit on the same corporate boards, the same banking boards. They sit on the university's private prestigious university trusteeships and they DO communicate. I'm hesitant to use the word "conspiracy" for these reasons."

Homogeneous groupings and the lack of access to decision making are the keys to controlling power in this country, although Professor Dye is quick to point out that "we do have social mobility in this country; this is not a closed elite. It's not an elite that necessarily doesn't take in new members from time to time. Indeed if it didn't, that would probably lead to its ostracism and its eventual overthrow. In other words, wise, enlightened elites have the means of bringing in young new people.

"...All governments are by the few," rather than by the people, continues Dye. "There is no way to have government by the people. All governments are by the few. We are fortunate that in a democracy we can select which few we want to have governance, in a sense.... You're probably going to get the same kinds of people -- they'll be different people, but they'll have the same backgrounds and the same schools and the same universities and the same social backgrounds, regardless of whether Bob Dole or Bill Clinton is elected."

If you can't find Who's Running America? in your local bookstore, ask them to order it from Prentice Hall in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.