A friend emails:
My own idea about elites runs something like this:
[1. Social evolution is largely unintentional.
[2. Social subsystems (politics, economics, demographics, cultural, etc) evolve rather independently of one another. This from Niklas Luhmann.
[3. Nevertheless, there are overlaps among *people* at the apex of these elites, as seen in boards of directors, cocktail parties, etc. To join this overlapping consensus of respectability, you can't criticize other subsystems to vigorously, e.g., you can't denounce modern art as a fraud.
[4. Power very largely consists of being able to define what criticisms are off the wall, over the top, and out to lunch. Racial differences in intelligence and certain aspects of U.S. foreign policy (past and present) are two examples that come to mind. This is a negative or Calhounian veto power. Those who wield it do not "run the world." Rather they can block significant changes that reduce their power.
[5. Nevertheless, what is regarded as respectable over time evolves, again, largely outside the intentions of the gatekeepers. Thus, Tom Wolfe can lambast modern art and still get invited to the right cocktail parties. And libertarians now have a seat at the table, though not a full seat. This depends on the seat: libertarians have no place at a table made up of the Education administrative blob.
[6. Organizations evolve with a logic of their own and getting into an organization elite requires displays of loyalty above anything else.
[7. There once was a "power elite," chiefly made up of business, government, and military, but such a consensus has been replaced since the 1950s if not before by what Luhmann calls functional subsystems in a plural elite model.
[8. The respectability elite continues, and Bill Gates has managed to become a full-fledged member by mouthing the right opinions. But Gates, while his company has changed the world, has no power to change the respectability consensus about the goodness of public education or any other respectability shibboleth. His alleged power, outside of Microsoft, is really gaining applause for himself. In fact, the respectability elite is more of an inner circle of pretense than a group that can significantly change things.
[9. There can be a wide divergence between mass and elite opinion. Examples are the Lone Nut Hypothesis of who shot JFK (all the elite, 20% of the public), continuing to ban school prayer (ditto), and allowing unlimited immigration (not quite all of the elite, but again 20% of the public). There are less drastic divides over strange phenomena and evolution (few of the elite against, but smaller portions of the masses) and over unorthodox medicine (more of the elite but not as great as of the masses). The reasons for this divide vary quite a bit and are well worth inquiring into.
[My model, in short, is that intentions matter little, that a plurality of elites represent functional subsystems, and that there is a respectability consensus that rewards those who refrain from making off the wall, out to lunch, and over the top pronouncements.]