The basis for power elite membership is institutional power, namely an influential position within a prominent private or public organization. One study of power elites in the USA under George W. Bush identified 7,314 institutional positions of power encompassing 5,778 individuals. A later study of US society found that the demographics of this elite group broke down as follows:
Corporate leaders average about 60 years of age. The heads of foundations, law, education, and civic organizations average around 62 years of age. Government-sector members about 56.
Women are barely represented among corporate leadership in the institutional elite and women only contribute roughly 20 percent in the political realm. They do appear more among top positions when it comes to cultural affairs, education, and foundations.
White Anglo-Saxons dominate in the power elite, with Protestants representing about 80 percent of the top business leaders and about 73 percent of members of Congress.
Nearly all the leaders are college-educated with almost half having advanced degrees. About 54 percent of the big-business leaders and 42 percent of the government elite are graduates of just 12 heavily endowed, prestigious universities.
Most holders of top position in the power elite possess exclusive membership in one or more social clubs. About a third belong to a small number of especially prestigious clubs in major cities like New York, Chicago, Boston, and D.C.
In the 1970s an organized set of policies promoted reduced taxes, especially for the wealthy, and a steady corrosion of the welfare safety net. Starting with legislation in the 1980s, the wealthy banking community successfully lobbied for reduced regulation. The wide range of financial and social capital accessible to the power elite gives their members heavy influence in economic and political decision making, allowing them to move toward attaining desired outcomes. Sociologist Christopher Doob gives a hypothetical alternative stating that these elite individuals would consider themselves the overseers of the national economy, appreciating that it is not only a moral but a practical necessity to focus beyond their group interests. Doing so would hopefully alleviate various destructive conditions affecting large numbers of less affluent citizens.
Mills determined that there is an “inner core” of the power elite involving individuals that are able to move from one seat of institutional power to another. They therefore have a wide range of knowledge and interests in many influential organizations, and are, as Mills describes, “professional go-betweens of economic, political, and military affairs.” Relentless expansion of capitalism and the globalizing of economic and military power binds leaders of the power elite into complex relationships with nation states that generate global-scale class divisions. Sociologist, Manuel Castells, writes in The Rise of the Network Society that contemporary globalization does not mean that “everything in the global economy is global.” So, a global economy becomes characterized by fundamental social inequalities with respect to “the level of integration, competitive potential and share of the benefits from economic growth.” Castells cites a kind of “double movement” where on one hand, “valuable segments of territories and people” become “linked in the global networks of value making and wealth appropriation,” while, on the other, “everything and everyone” that is not valued by established networks gets “switched off… and ultimately discarded.” The wide-ranging effects of global capitalism ultimately affect everyone on the planet as economies around the world come to depend on the functioning of global financial markets, technologies, trade and labor.