Who Rules America?  By G. William Domhoff, University of California at Santa Cruz

Teaching about Corporate Power: Analyses of a Policy Planning Network

by Bruce London, Cristina Lucier, & Meredith Hare-Drubka

Clark University

Unpublished manuscript, 2013

Introduction/Sociological Context

G. William Domhoff's Who Rules America?, now in its seventh edition (2014), has been widely used in a range of sociology courses since its initial publication in 1967. One of the key features that has made the book an enduring best seller is its use of empirical data to document its controversial assertions about the centralization of power in the hands of a "corporate community" in the United States. Domhoff builds his complex analysis in stages, bringing empirical data to bear at every step. Inevitably, however, his empirical assessments of each specific point in his general analysis are limited by the space constraints of a short text. While enormous amounts of data are available on many of the topics that Domhoff addresses, he is only able to summarize the most basic data on any given topic. This presents sociology teachers with a tremendous opportunity: the ability to incorporate empirical research projects that expand upon Domhoff's analyses in their classes. For example, Tenenbaum and Ross (2007) describe two such projects that they employ in their social stratification classes. First and briefly, building upon Domhoff's indicators of upper and corporate class membership and his assertion that these people govern American elite universities (as a means of preparing the next generation for power), students are asked to gather background/biographical data (from The Social Register, Who's Who, and other data sources in the public domain) on the governing board members of an elite university. In a second project, students are asked to research the backgrounds and networking behavior of board members of major corporations. They first use the same empirical indicators of corporate community membership noted above and, then, identify the number of board members that have membership on more than one Fortune 500 board. Both projects reveal the upper class backgrounds and networking behavior of key decision makers in important institutions in our society.

This paper will describe two versions of a very different classroom research project that is rooted in yet another aspect of Domhoff's analysis of the power of the corporate community. The projects cited above focus on the first "stage" of Domhoff's analysis: a multifaceted documentation, using publicly available data, of the existence of a corporate community. Once the existence of this elite group is demonstrated, Domhoff moves on to a documentation of the many ways that they exercise power. One of these, the focus of the current classroom research projects, is the creation and use of a policy planning network. Domhoff argues that the corporate community exercises and maintains power by influencing political policymaking. This influence involves both the use of cultural/ideological tactics (such as the promotion of an anti-regulatory or "small government" philosophy) as well as the production and manipulation of knowingly biased research and expertise (such as the denial campaign against anthropogenic climate change). The process of influencing policy through the promotion of conservative ideologies and the production of knowledge and expertise that is favorable to corporate interests is accomplished through what Domhoff calls the "policy planning network" (PPN). The PPN is comprised of foundations, think tanks, university research institutes, and policy discussion groups. Essentially, corporations create foundations that, in turn, fund the other actors to produce research that justifies policies that are of general interest to the corporate sector (i.e. limited government, anti-regulation, anti-consumer, anti-environment, anti-union, etc.). Since the CEOs of major corporations are the primary funders for such foundations, this network serves as an indirect way for corporate elites to bankroll the dissemination of ideology and the production of knowledge that maintain their position of power. A major current example of this is the numerous foundations created and funded by the industrialists Charles and David Koch. These foundations have been linked in numerous investigative media reports to the funding of research promoting policies ranging from pro-gun legislation to climate change denial.

Given the diverse range of issues on which corporate actors are able to insert their experts and their ideas in the promotion of their general interests, in-depth research on the PPN could focus on a number of specific case studies. One area that has been the subject of much elite intervention and influence in recent years has been in the area of environmental policy. Here, corporate elites have funded conservative experts to create the perception of scientific uncertainty on a range of environmental issues from tobacco smoking, to acid rain, to climate change (Oreskes and Conway 2010). The manufacturing of uncertainty about the role of human industrial activity in climate change has been the most prominent subject of both academic (e.g., Jacques, Dunlap and McCright 2008; Oreskes and Conway 2010; Dunlap and McCright 2011) and journalistic investigations in recent years. In terms of research projects that foster students' engagement with and understanding of sociological concepts, a focus on environmental issues (particularly, the ultraconservative anti-environmental PPN) is an especially appropriate area of inquiry. Not only are many students already interested in corporate anti-environmentalism, this issue also clearly illustrates Domhoff's definition of power in practice.

In Who Rules America, Domhoff (2014:4-8) defines power in terms of three indicators: "who benefits?" (i.e., does some specific group have disproportionate possession of wealth and income?); "who governs?" (i.e., is some group or class overrepresented in important decision-making positions?); and "who wins?" (i.e., in the case of issue conflicts, does some particular group serve its own interests by more successfully initiating, modifying, or vetoing policy alternatives?). In terms of identifying the general locus of power, data-based answers to these questions will provide evidence of either the concentration of power in the hands of an elite, or the pluralistic dispersion of power to the voices of the many. However, when focusing specifically on the analysis of policies (rather than on documenting the existence of a disproportionately powerful group), we modify Domhoff's questions, asking instead "who decides?", "who benefits?", and "who pays?". Does some particular group have disproportionate influence (or power) in "deciding" what policies will be implemented in our society? Does a particular group benefit disproportionately from the policies implemented? And, does some particular group disproportionately pay any costs associated with the policies implemented (i.e., rather than asking "who wins", we ask the inverse: who loses/pays as a result of powerlessness)?

As applied to the analysis of policy-making, student research can be done that sheds light on the answers to all three of these linked or intertwined questions. As explained below, student research using data that are readily available online can be used as a tool not only for the demonstration of the existence of a generalized PPN (who decides), but also to show how particular highly polluting corporate actors control a subset of the PPN in order to shape environmental policies in a way that will pose minimal interference on their objective of profit maximization (who benefits) while also ensuring that most of the negative consequences of their economic activities, such as toxic pollution, will be shouldered by vulnerable communities that are least able to resist (who pays).

In the two sections that follow, we will describe student research projects assigned in two courses that illustrate the core sociological concepts explored in Domhoff's work. The student research projects serve as a conceptual teaching tool by making these abstract concepts more concrete by engaging students in the creation of datasets, findings and analysis that provide evidence of the social reproduction of structural inequality through the PPN. The projects also serve as a methodological teaching tool by engaging students in the process of scholarly research and by adding nuance to existing sociological understandings about the role of corporate power in influencing policymaking through the PPN. The first course, Corporations and Inequality, provides evidence for the existence of a PPN that promotes policies that serve the general interests of corporate elites. The student research in this course conducts a basic network analysis by mapping the flow of money from ultraconservative foundations to think tanks, finding a massive flow of funds that circulates within clusters of actors that constitute a dense network of foundations and think tanks. The second course, Environment and Inequality, focuses more specifically on the PPN that impacts environmental policymaking. The student research in this course not only maps an environmental policy PPN by tracking money flows from foundations to think tanks, it also identifies key corporate actors with vested environmental interests that are linked to central ultraconservative foundations. Further analysis of the pollution histories of these corporations and the demographics of populations living in close proximity to their facilities is also conducted in order to determine "who pays" the consequences of corporate ability to avoid/limit environmental regulations and, as a result, to pollute with impunity.

Assignment #1: Corporations and Inequality

In this course, students conduct original research using readily available data to investigate the existence of a policy planning network (PPN) through which ultraconservative foundations fund think tanks that influence policies in a way that is favorable to corporate interests. Does this network exist, and if so, what can data about financial flows within this network tell us? To answer these questions, students produced a main spreadsheet that maps the flow of money from ultraconservative foundations to think tanks. The source of our data was Media Matters Action (mediamattersaction.org/transparency). Media Matters is an anticorporate/anti-conservative advocacy group. This group examined IRS Form 990s (required annually of all tax exempt organizations to document their tax exempt status) for a large number of conservative foundations and think tanks from 1985-2009. For any given foundation, data are readily available on the think tanks they fund and the amount and frequency of funding. And, for any given think tank, researchers can specify funders, amounts, and number of grants. Note that this utility is no longer supported by Media Matters, but the data have been transferred to The Bridge Project (see below).

Our main spreadsheet specifies the flows of cash between 21 conservative foundations and 24 conservative think tanks. We made no attempt develop either systematic samples or inclusive populations of these actors. We simply developed lists of prominent actors from our readings of scholarly literature (starting with Domhoff) and media coverage.

Each cell in the spreadsheet documents the amount of money that a given foundation gave to a given think tank over the entire time period. The spreadsheet reveals many connections between foundations and think tanks, as well as high volumes of cash flows. Specifically, entries were found in 223 of the 504 cells in the spreadsheet (i.e., 44.2%), while the money given by foundations totaled over $321 million. Therefore, the spreadsheet demonstrates that (a) the network exists, (b) it is quite "dense," and (c) the flow of funds is massive.

Using these data, students were able to identify the "core actors" (i.e. most influential or powerful actors) in the PPN. This can be determined for both think tanks and foundations. For the think tanks, students used the spreadsheet to determine the total number of connections (i.e., the number of foundations that gave them money) that each think tank had to conservative foundations. When total money received by each think tank is plotted against their total number of connections , three distinct clusters of think tanks emerge: those with a high number of both connections and total funding received; those with a moderate number of connections and funding; and, those with few connections and relatively less funding. The well-known Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute emerge in the distinct cluster of high fundinghigh connections. AEI received over $47 million from 15 foundations, while Heritage received over $79 million from19 foundations. Findings of this sort connect what students hear and read in the media about the activities of high profile political groups with sociological theories about corporate control in American policymaking. Similarly, for foundations, a graph is also produced that plots the total money given by each foundation against each foundation's number of connections (i.e., think tanks they have funded). Foundations linked to the Koch family (David H. Koch, Charles G. Koch, and Clause R. Lambe) and the Scaife family (Sarah Scaife, Carthage, and Allegheny) gave over $53 million and $67 million, respectively, to a broad range of think tanks.

After collaboratively gathering and analyzing the data, students write individual research papers that discuss the findings. First, students engage with texts such as Domhoff and other related academic works. They also draw from sources in the print and online news media (as recommended to the class by both the professor and the students) such as investigative articles in the Nation, Mother Jones, and Think Progress that produce critical stories on corporations. Stories about the various tactics used by corporate elites such as the Koch brothers in influencing current policy debates provide a context for analyzing the results. Students must also explain their methodology and findings in the form of a traditional research paper. These aspects give students valuable experience in becoming critical consumers and producers of sociological knowledge.

Assignment #2: Environment and Inequality

In this course, students explore very similar themes to those in the Corporations and Inequality course (above). However, instead of examining the existence and contours of a general policy planning network (PPN) in the U.S., the research project assigned in this course focuses on the existence, contours and consequences of a PPN specifically concerned with affecting environmental policies. Hence, while the original spreadsheet produced by the students is very similar to the spreadsheet described in the section above, there are also some important differences.

In this course, students are first charged with collaboratively identifying an appropriate population of ultraconservative foundations and think tanks, all of which have a clear interest in shaping environmental policy. Required course readings are used to help in identifying this population (e.g., Oreskes and Conway 2010; Dunlap and McCright 2011; Jacques, Dunlap and Freeman 2008; Rich 2005). Students are instructed to read these works, paying special attention to the "actors" (i.e. foundations and think tanks) discussed and their approaches to environmental policy. First, students compiled a list of key foundations based on the literature. Once a justifiable list of actors had been identified (in this case, 23 foundations and 33 think tanks), students documented the yearly donations from the selected foundations to the selected think tanks in the years 2000-2010 using the Bridge Project database (www.bridgeproject.org). In some cases, relevant actors are not listed by The Bridge Project. When that happens, students do online searches for the actors' IRS990 forms. These are readily available at the websites of The National Center for Charitable Statistics and Guidestar. Using these data, they build a network spreadsheet and conduct a basic "network analysis" like the one produced for the general PPN (above). As was the case with the analysis of the general PPN, the network analysis identifies those powerful actors who have exerted a disproportionate influence on environmental decision making and policy making . As before, foundations funded by the Koch and Scaife famililies, whose corporations are linked to highly polluting oil, gas, and mining activities, emerge as major funders. Of the total $282.9 million in funding flows identified in the spreadsheet, over $43 million were linked to Koch and over $48 million were linked to Scaife.

At this point, a number of key actors identified in the network analysis are selected by the class for further analysis. While the network analyses are most closely tied to the "who decides" and "who benefits" aspects of Domhoff's definition of power, this phase of the project allows students to determine "who pays" the consequences of corporate efforts to dismantle and weaken environmental regulations. This second phase of the student research focuses on the corporations that were (a) most closely tied to those foundations that were deemed to be "most influential" in terms of their total funding of, and number of connections to, the selected think tanks, and (b) engaged primarily in economic activities likely to produce extensive environmental degradation (e.g., oil, gas, and mining rather than retail). Based on these criteria, the class developed a list of four corporations meriting closer examination: ExxonMobil, Koch Industries, Alcoa Incorporated (linked to Scaife), and Chevron Corporation (linked to Scaife). Using data available on the website of the Political Economy Research Institute (see www.peri.umass.edu/toxic100/), students then compiled a list of the top 20 worst polluting U.S. facilities for each of these corporations in terms of both volume and toxicity of air pollution. (The top 15 facilities in terms of both volume of air pollution as well as toxicity scores were used. The next five most toxic facilities, based on toxicity score, were also included). Using the locations of these facilities (latitude/longitude coordinates), students then analyzed the demographics of the populations living in close proximity to these facilities. Population data can be obtained readily on the internet through the Missouri Census Data Center's Circular Area Profiles tool (mcdc2.missouri.edu/websas/caps10c.html). Here, students were asked to record the percent of poor and minority residents in the communities within a 1 and 2 mile radius of each facility. There is substantial evidence illustrating that toxic polluting facilities are disproportionately located in minority and/or poor communities (e.g., UCC 1987; Mohai and Bryant 1992; Ash and Fetter 2004; Downey 2006; Bullard et al 2007), so students are asked to determine whether these powerful corporate polluters (who have already been shown to spend enormous sums of money in the PPN) show a pattern of being located in communities that are inhabited by a disproportionate number of minorities and the poor. Here we were seeking to determine if some particular group(s) disproportionately pays the costs associated with corporations' attempts to pollute with impunity. To determine this, students calculated a ratio of the percent of minority and poor residents in the state overall to the percent of minorities and poor residents within the circular areas around the facility. In this case, a higher value in the ratio indicates a higher percentage of minority and poor residents within the circular area relative to the state average, which is indicative of environmental inequality. Any ratio with a value exceeding 1 indicates a disproportionate number of minorities and/or poor residents living in the circular area around the facility. Students also compared the average ratios across the four corporations. For instance, the average ratio for Koch Industries in terms of poverty rates is 2.44, which means that, on average, the poverty rate in the circular areas near Koch's dirtiest facilities is more than double that of the average poverty rate for those states. Overall, the students found that ExxonMobil facilities have the highest average disproportionality ratio in terms of siting near minorities, while Koch Industries has the highest average disproportionality ratio in terms of siting near poor communities.

Using all of these data and the background literature, students were then asked to write a detailed report on the findings. Similar to the term paper described for the Corporations and Inequality course above, this comprehensive paper is written in the traditional research paper format, including a statement of the problem, a literature review, a discussion of data and methods, and sections on findings and conclusions.


To assess whether or not we had met the goals of the two courses, Corporations and Inequality and Environment and Inequality, we analyzed the student responses as reported on our university teaching evaluations for each of the two classes mentioned above. By analyzing the student reflections on the two courses, we were able to establish whether the course(s) goals — to (a) teach a sociological perspective on the current power structure (i.e., establishing who decides, who benefits, and who pays as evidenced by corporate power) and the role this power has on shaping public policy and the consequences of these policies, and, (b) involve students in firsthand research that extends Domhoff's work on the PPN — were met. At the end of the respective semesters in which these two courses were taught, evaluations were completed that asked for feedback on the class as a whole, and areas, if any, that required improvement. Five undergraduates completed course evaluations about the Corporations and Inequality course and 10 assessed the Environment and Inequality course. Of the total course evaluations reviewed, all of the class members made reference to their enjoyment in working on a collaborative research project that not only reinforced and legitimized previously learned sociological tenets, but that also succeeded to produce new knowledge. Many college undergraduates go their entire college careers without producing knowledge of their own, rather only acting as consumers of knowledge. The ability to actively participate in a research project of current value was considered to be highly rewarding and instructive by the students who participated in each of these classes. Not only did students learn how to do research on the corporate community, synthesizing their findings into a comprehensive network spreadsheet illustrative of the policy-planning network (PPN), but they also learned how to analyze and apply these findings, ultimately determining for current society Domhoff's three indicators of power: "who decides?", "who benefits?", and "who pays?".

When the course evaluations were reviewed on an individual basis, the comments were found to highlight the benefits gained from the course, with many of the reviews recommending the continuation of the course and more like it. Here are some sample statements that are representative of the students' positive assessments:

SOC253 (Corporations and Inequality)

I really felt like I had a say in my own education, which allowed me to really invest in it.

I liked how the class was like, "we'll start with some research and see where it takes us."

The group research project was awesome.

SOC276 (Environment and Inequality)

Very engaging course, the production of new knowledge is very exciting

Loved the teamwork...there was such comradery.

It was nice to really be engaged and involved with real research in class.

The skills and content I have learned from this course are things I will use for the rest of my life.

Even those students who provided critical comments still provided positive feedback with regards to being able to participate in an original research project and produce legitimate findings that are applicable to the world in which we live. The main complaints that surfaced in evaluations of the Corporations and Inequality course revolved around the lack of a syllabus and a greater need for organization. Although these complaints are understandable, the success of the course was in part due to the ability of the course to naturally evolve as the research was performed. With regard to issues highlighted in the evaluations for the Environment and Inequality course, organization and time management were brought up by a number of students. These issues, however, likely stem from the majority of students' unfamiliarity with completing a project of this nature.


Domhoff's work on social stratification in America has inspired a range of interactive, original, student research projects and links to additional resources (Tenenbaum and Ross 2006; www.whorulesamerica.net). The first assignment on establishing the existence of a policy-planning network (PPN) that promotes policies that serve the general interests of the corporate elite may serve as the foundation upon which further and more focused investigation may be done. An example of a more focused approach may be seen in the second course, which utilizes the already established general PPN from the previous class to elucidate a subset within the more general PPN that is focused on environmental policymaking. The second course further applies Domhoff's theory by not only aiming to determine "who decides?" and "who benefits?", but also determining "who pays" the consequences of elite corporate influence in environmental policy. Developing answers to these three questions through original research and analysis allows for undergraduates to participate in the kind of work about which they read in class.

The research produced in the first course, Corporations and Inequality, corroborated Domhoff's assertion of the existence of a PPN, and identified the core actors within this network. The findings from the research conducted within this course revealed the most powerful foundations to be the Scaife and Koch Foundations, as well as Olin, Bradley, and Smith Richardson. The most influential think tanks that disseminate and uphold the interests of these (and other) foundations include the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. Building upon these findings, the second course confirmed the existence of the general PPN and worked to refine this network via an environmental lens. The core actors identified in both the general PPN and the environmental PPN are very similar. However, the second course took the research a step further by identifying "who pays?". Using minority and poverty statistics of areas around facilities owned by four corporations closely tied to the foundations with vested environmental interests, the students illustrated the disproportionate burden of pollution exposure placed upon poor and minority groups. As found by both courses, not only are the answers to "who decides?" and "who benefits?" often one and the same (the corporate elite), but the answer to "who pays?" is as well (minority/impoverished groups).

Both of these courses supported Domhoff's assertion that a PPN exists via original research, specifically the creation and analysis of a network spreadsheet. The PPN is extensive, and may be broken down into sub-networks as defined by special interests such as the environment. This provides many avenues for continuing and expanding upon the research done here. Moreover, with some modifications, the research assignments described in this paper could be suitable as short projects or term paper assignments in any course on social stratification. Producing research is not usually a mandatory aspect of undergraduate coursework, but the success of its integration into social stratification courses such as these illustrates the importance this type of work can have in shaping critical thinkers. The production of knowledge has the ability to facilitate a deeper and comprehensive understanding of not only the area within which the research was based, but also helps students to become informed citizens and active participants in the world in which they live. Courses such as Corporations and Inequality and Environment and Inequality make research accessible, and in doing so dispel the esoteric quality that so many students tend to associate with the research process.

About the authors

Bruce London is a Professor of Sociology at Clark University. Cristina Lucier and Meredith Hare-Drubka are graduates of Clark University who took Dr. London's undergraduate courses on stratification and environment, so the article is written from the perspectives of both the instructor and students.


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