As part of our series, The Power Elite Revisited, NLP today posts an extract from a never before published essay by C Wright Mills entitled ‘If I Were President’. The full essay is available in the latest issue of The Baffler magazine.
What would it mean for the outlook and policies of the USA were its elite to wake up tomorrow morning altogether rid of the military metaphysics, miraculously cured of crackpot realism? What would I do were I President of the United States? I am tired of dodging this old question: I am going to answer it. Ten years later a very friendly and knowledgeable historian would write of my two terms in some such way as the following:
The new President, like all Presidents before him, began his office by throwing out men unlike himself and by gathering around him men of similar views. But Mills also got two other types into his official and unofficial family of advisors. Some men of very different but still intelligent views he felt might by their opposition sharpen his own views and make his administration aware of a fuller range of fact and possibility. And then, just for laughs and to remind himself of the need to remain sane, he induced a few of the old types—he seemed especially to favor generals and admirals—to sit in on the virtually continuous round table (sometimes private, sometimes public) which he instituted at the heart of the government. When these crackpots became unbearably boring or too shrill in their paranoic hysteria; or when they talked too much or refused to talk at all—merely glowering and grumping—he changed them. It may be that the behavior of these men in the presence of ideas did more than any other thing to discredit all that they stood for; they were laughed out of American power. It was of course predicted that since Mills had been a professor he would probably recruit a lot of professors. He did try, but it turned out that there were two kinds of college professors: smart ones and dumb ones. The smart ones were smart in the same way that anyone is smart, although they usually knew more, having spent more time at it. The dumb ones likewise, although perhaps a little more lazy than most and certainly more pretentious.
Every Sunday afternoon, for three hours or so, the round table became altogether public. It went on the air. Each week its personnel changed somewhat depending on the topic, but generally about half of its dozen or so members were in the government and half were not. Entirely unrehearsed and extremely animated, this round table came to serve at least five domestic purposes: by means of their conduct on it, new men were recruited for government work, etc. Many of the key policies of the new administration first came to life in a phrase, an idea, an argument. The general idea of the permanent peace economy, for example, was first outlined by a young economist from California who literally talked continuously for the full three hours. And of course the round table was the prime official means of public information. The transcript was edited into a tighter form and most Monday papers carried it in full. Once a month it became a pamphlet.
But something else began after some six months to come about. Because of the intellectual quality of these discussions—and because of the results of decisions which they saw first take form here, many people came to realize that decisions affecting the way they live are after all made by some changing bunch of men, not by ‘governments’ or some other sort of abstract forces, and so they began to want to get in on the act; they began to take these discussions very seriously, and in this they were encouraged. Before, there had been so-called public opinion polls—a crude and mechanical technique by which the statistics of superficial ‘opinions’ were taken for the opinion of the public. These now became obsolete, as genuine publics of discussion began to form in various towns and sections of larger cities.
This article is part of NLP’s series, The Power Elite Revisited.