"Classic" elite theories were formulated at the end of the nineteenth century and in the first decades of the twentieth century by Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923), Gaetano Mosca (1858-1941), and Robert Michels (1876-1936). Subsequent renditions of these theories also carried a strong imprint of Max Weber’s ideas, especially concerning the centrality of political power and charismatic leadership.
The classic theorists focused on the inevitability of a group of powerful "elites" in all large-scale societies, offering a radical critique of two competing theoretical-ideological streams of thought: the democratic theory ("government of the people, by the people, for the people" in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address), and the Marxist vision of class conflict leading to revolution and egalitarian socialism. In contrast with both of these ideologies, the elite theories suggested an inescapable division between dominant minorities (variously called "elites," "ruling classes," "political classes," "oligarchies," "aristocracies," etc.) and the dominated majority, or the "masses" (Bottomore, 1993).
Mosca saw this inevitable polarization of power as reflecting a "material, intellectual, or even moral superiority" (1939, p. 50) of ruling minorities, with their small size and organizational skills helping to maintain this position; Pareto anchored elite domination in the talent and psychological dispositions of such groups, combined with the skilled use of force and persuasion; and Michels saw the domination of "oligarchies" as the necessary outcome of large-scale organization. All three agreed that political power, and not property, forms the foundation of social-political hierarchies, and that these hierarchies can neither be reduced to nor deduced from economic class relations. Most importantly, elite theorists insisted that there could be no escape from elite power: revolutions merely mark elite circulation and, as illustrated by the Russian Revolution, do not narrow the power gap between the elites and the masses. Egalitarian political order and participatory democracy are, therefore, ideological dreams. History, observed Pareto, is a graveyard of successive elites or "aristocracies" ( 1963, p. 1430).
Elite theories can also be seen as an intellectual response to the "modern trends" that strengthened the state and have led to the rapid expansion of government bureaucracies, the emergence of bureaucratized mass parties, the concentration of corporate power, the growth of powerful and centralized mass media, and the rise of fascist and communist movements and regimes—all of which have weakened liberal capitalism and dented the hopes for participatory democratization. Mosca, Pareto, Michels, and Weber all saw these trends as a consequence of bureaucratic industrialism. In their view, the increasing complexity of modern society implied progressive bureaucratic organization of all activities and power concentration in the hands of elites, who can effectively manage democratic institutions, accumulate the privileges that power brings, orchestrate mass support, and protect their positions by controlling access to the top. This view of power stratification, combined with the insistence on the universality of elites and treatment of elite characteristics as key explanatory variables, constitutes the most distinctive tenet of classic elite theory.
The second theoretical tenet concerns the capacity of power holders to organize themselves and form cohesive groups. Strong cohesion does not preclude the possibility of temporary intra-elite conflicts and divisions on specific policy questions. However, when it comes to defending common power interests, members of the elite act in unison, and this makes their power irresistible.
The third tenet concerns the linkages between elites and various "social forces," such as social movements, classes, and ethno-racial groups. The classic elite theorists insist that such linkages are an essential condition of elite power, but they are less than clear on precise meaning of such linkages.
The fourth tenet is about access and succession. Entry to the elite ranks depends on acquiring certain rare attributes (e.g., wealth, prestige, education), and it is carefully controlled—directly and indirectly—by elite incumbents. Elites control recruitment of their successors through institutional "gatekeepers" (e.g., corporate hierarchies, political party machines) as well as through elite "selectorates" operating at each level of hierarchical promotion. One outcome of these selective practices is a biased social composition; another is a persistence of elite outlooks, even at times of rapid social mobility and elite circulation, that is, replacement of elite members.
The final tenet highlights the way in which elites typically exercise their power. All elite theorists converge on a view of "engineered" elite domination through persuasion and manipulation, occasionally backed by force. Democratic elections have a symbolic character and are an important tool for the orderly circulation of elite personnel, but they seldom alter elite structure.
The post-World War II (1939-1945) students of elites played down the cohesion of elites and questioned the classic theorists’ skepticism as to the prospects for democratization. In the seminal formulation of Joseph Schumpeter (1954), elites are an essential ingredient of modern democracy, which implies a regular electoral competition for political leadership. This idea was followed up by Robert Dahl (1971), Giovanni Sartori (1981) and many other "plural," "demo-," and "neo-" elite theorists. It was backed by empirical studies of modern elites (summarized by Robert Putnam in 1976), especially in advanced democracies, that revealed complex networks of competing and collaborating elite groups, rather than cohesive minorities. The key question was whether elites (mainly in the United States) formed a cohesive and unassailable "power elite" or more open, competitive, and responsive "plural" or "strategic" elite groups. The results of these studies, however, were inconclusive, largely because any picture of power distribution depends on the way power is defined and measured. Those who identified power holders by their reputation and incumbency in top organizational positions produced a picture of cohesive "establishments" and "power elites." In contrast, those who defined elites as key decision makers produced a picture of "plural" elites, that is, competing elite groups.
Contemporary elite theorists, especially those studying postcommunist transformations, transcend these debates, incorporate elites into broader power and stratification schemes, acknowledge the complexity of power sources and structures, and analyze elites as important "crafters" and "sustainers" of democratic regimes. Perhaps the best-known theoretical syntheses of the class and elite visions of the power structure were undertaken by Wlodzimierz Wesolowski and Eva Etzioni-Halevi, who both saw elites and classes as being linked. In this view, elites enter into alliances (via "coupling") with major classes and other "social forces." As mentioned above, elites are defined in political terms as the most powerful minorities, while classes are defined in economic terms as owners or workers. The relations between elite and regime types of power (including postcommunist regimes and established liberal democracies) have been explored by John Higley and his collaborators (e.g., Field and Higley 1980; Higley and Pakulski 1995; Higley and Burton 2006), who have focused on two elite characteristics— structural integration and value/normative consensus—as key determinants of political stability and democratic character of regimes. Only consensually united elites— that is, elites characterized by inclusiveness and open access (wide integration), as well as strong and widely shared agreement about the norms of political behavior ("rules of the game")—can sustain stable liberal democracies. Elites united by ideological formulas (e.g., the Chinese) operate stable but undemocratic regimes, while disunited elites accompany—and perpetuate—unstable regimes.