Cases in Plutarchy? The U.S. Senate by Graduating Institution

The global font of user-generated wisdom provides the following definition of plutarchy:
Plutocracy is rule by the wealthy, or power provided by wealth. The combination of both plutocracy and oligarchy is called plutarchy.

In a plutocracy, the degree of economic inequality is high while the level of social mobility is low. This can apply to a multitude of government systems, as the key elements of plutocracy transcend and often occur concurrently with the features of those systems.

A high level of economic disparity and low level of economic mobility. Any citizen concerned that America is stalked by the phantom of plutarchy must concern himself with these portents of democratic decay. Of the two evils, I find social immobility to be the more disquieting. Traditionally, Americans have had a high tolerance for economic disparity. Why fault the filthy rich when your children had a winner’s chance of joining their ranks? Indeed, the firm belief that ours is a land that rewards those who live here on the basis of brains, industry, guts, and luck, not birthright or social connections, forms the bedrock of the national ethos. It is the American Dream.
Therefore, those concerned with health of the Republic have a vested interest in understanding and explaining the source of this erosion. A meme to this effect has been bouncing around the blogosphere of late. The meme, which I have endorsed, can be summarized as follows: in America the most direct avenue to power and influence is an education from one of the nation’s elite schools. Beyond the generally superior education these institutions offer, an education of this type allows students access to the social networks that link America’s ‘biggest’ journalists, analysts, bankers, business executives, politicians, and thought-leaders. In terms of social mobility, the colleges churning out “the best and brightest” have the potential to serve as bridges between the classes, opening doors of success to smart and hard working students from the poorer sections of American society. Meritocracy in action.
The problem is that this has not happened. As most readers are probably aware, the last decade has seen college tuition rates soar to heights previously unknown. If they were not before, the best private institutions in the country are now beyond the price range of the all but a tiny minority of Americans. The upper middle class has been particularly hard hit; unable to qualify for financial aid offered to students from low-income families, students unwilling to rack up dangerous levels of debt have found themselves blocked from social advancement. When the reasons behind these tuition increases are considered, it is difficult not to see this as an inadvertent move to solidify the existing social structure. Plutarchy in action.
That is the narrative. As it turns out, it is a narrative with some holes.
LFC, a frequent commentator here at the Stage and other related sites, has objected to this argument (in several different forums). The problem with this meme, says he, is its premise: no one has produced any evidence that links Ivy League attendance to positions of power and influence. Absent hard data, we are working with perceptions, not reality, and there is no particular reason to believe that these perceptions are accurate.
It is a fair point. This author has been eager to make claims about these institutions absent data necessary to back these claims up. This post is an attempt to provide such data. Below is a breakdown of the educational background of a group of people who are unambiguously members of the elite: the 100 men and women who currently compose the U.S. Senate.
Unless otherwise noted, all information recorded below comes from Scientists and Engineer’s for America‘s  list of Congress members by degree.
A total of 73 institutions have granted graduate or undergraduate degrees to the Senators of 111th Congress. Of these institutions, 53 granted degrees to only one member of the Senate. The 20 institutions that granted degrees to more than one Senator are listed below:


  Yale 6
  U. of Virginia 4
  George Washington 3
  U. of Tennessee 3
  Columbia 2
  Ohio State
  Ohio State
  Saint Mary’s
  Stanford 2
  U. of Chicago 2
  U. of Denver 2
  U. of Georgia 2
  U. of Hawaii 2
  U. of Louisville
  U. of Maryland
  U. of Mississippi 2
 U. of Pennsylvania 2
  U. of Wisconsin 2

Only six universities awarded degrees to more than two Senators; no university has awarded degrees to more than seven.
When double degrees are accounted for, 18 Senators (18% – or approx. 1 in 5) graduated from an Ivy League school. 20 Senators (20% – or 1 in 5) graduated from the 12 universities ranked highest by U.S. News and World Report.
While it cannot be seen in these figures, there was a clear relationship between institutions granting more than one degree and the type of degree being awarded. By and large, graduates from universities with more than one Senator alumni graduated in the fields of law, political science, history, or other social sciences. Senators who graduated from engineering, business, medicine, or natural science programs were dispersed amongst a much larger number of institutions.

Several conclusions can be drawn from this data set. To begin with, it is clear that these institutions do matter. One fourth of all Senators attended schools that can be uncontroversially described as “elite.”  Harvard is the big winner here; if these numbers are anything to go by, a student attending Harvard University is seven times as likely to become a Senator than a student attending any of the 53 universities not found on the table above. If you wish to become a member of the U.S. Senate, Harvard Law would not be a bad place to start.
Yet the fact that there are 53 universities to compare to Harvard cannot be ignored. An Ivy education may help the ascendence of the young Senator-to-be, but it is hardly the only path to Capitol Hill. Elite as they may be, Princeton, Brown, and Cornell sent no more graduates to the Senate chambers than did Louisiana State or Huntington College. As far as the Senate is concerned, graduation from the nation’s top universities is no ticket to political power.
Caution is advised in applying the results of this study (if it can be called such) to the wider problem of American social mobility. The Senate was examined not because it is an accurate cross-section of America’s “ruling” class, but because the information concerning Senate members was easily accessible. While this made crunching the data rather easy, it poses several problems for the broader application of these results.
The first such problem is the age of the population being considered. The Congressional Research Service reports that the average age for Senators in 111th Congress is 63.1 years old. This means that most of these men and women would have graduated in the 1970s. The quality and prestige of  various universities has fluctuated since then. What was a prestigious pathway to the upper class in 1973 might not be so now; conversely, institutions not ranked highly on this list might be ranked very high on a list composed when today’s newly-minted graduates are themselves venerable members of the Senate.   
The Senate’s method of selection also poses problems for further extrapolation. Members of the Senate are chosen by democratic procedure. They get their jobs by campaigning. If Senators are not sanctioned by their non-upper class constituencies, they will lose this job. And the electorate has done a fair job of ensuring that the Senate is not composed of one giant ol’ boys club. This is a testament to the enduring power of our democratic institutions, even when weakened by citizen apathy and plutocratic manipulations.
But what of those whose power was not bestowed by the people, those whose careers are untouched by the pressures of populism? One of the more striking trends of the last 40 years has been the steady diffusion of power away from elected officials towards administrators, aides, and bureaucrats whose job security is not threatened by the ill graces of their fellow citizens. In most cases, it is with these men that true policy making power lies; regulators, congressional aides, and second tier officials at the White House and Pentagon are the men who transform the rhetoric of their superiors into working laws, regulations, procedures, and policy postures. I believe that an examination of these men and women would provide a more telling window into the workings of America’s ruling class than this breakdown of the Senate. Unfortunately, information on these men and women is difficult to acquire; not being subject to election, no one has bothered to collect the demographic data of the American bureaucratic class. Given this dearth of empirical research on the matter, this author advises to caution to all who would make definitive claims concerning the composition of America’s “ruling” class.

Leave a Comment


T. Greer,
Thank you for this. Interesting. I largely agree, at least at first glance, with what you have written under the heading "Conclusions"; I also agree that one obviously cannot go straight from this one dataset to broader conclusions about social mobility, influence of institutional prestige on careers, etc.

I'd like to say two other things. First, I want to make clear, for the benefit of people who have not been following this discussion, that I favor both more economic equality and more social mobility in the U.S. (Indeed, I have little doubt that I am more of an egalitarian when it comes to distribution than the author of The Scholar's Stage; this is a side issue in this context, of course, but I wanted to make it clear just so there's no misunderstanding.)

Secondly, political scientists and sociologists, going back at least to C. Wright Mills in the '50s (The Power Elite) and Christopher Jencks et al's landmark study from the '70s, Inequality, have studied the issues of class structure and mobility quite extensively. Unfortunately this is not my field and I'm not conversant with the current literature, which I have no doubt is, as I say, fairly extensive. So I wouldn't be at all surprised if there were in fact studies of the social and demographic composition of the U.S. bureaucratic class (though perhaps not on the specific issue of the influence of particular institutions on career path). Such studies, assuming they exist, are probably buried in a variety of scholarly journals. But in any case I appreciate your having taken the time to do this little study and the fair way you have stated the conclusions.
p.s. I don't entirely agree with what you write at the very beginning of the post about middle-class access to expensive institutions, but that would be a whole other discussion for another time.


Glad that you found the post useful.

I am of two minds on the topic of egalitarianism. Abject inequality is healthy for no polity, and it is a malady particularly dangerous for polities of the democratic variety. Divisions of wealth are just that – divisions. Any serious divisions between the people have the potential to become viscous and viperous partitions that paralyze the polity and degrade the quality of life for all. Class warfare is not possible in a classless society.

On the other hand, I am not confident that a truly classless society can ever exist. The existence of elites seems to be the price of civilization. The existence of stratified social relations strikes me as an inherent feature of all complex societies, and I can't help but conclude that attempts to completely eradicate such distinctions are exercises in futility – and if utopian projects of the past are anything to judge by, extremely dangerous exercises at that.

Rather than trying to fight against a fact a nature, I think we are better off ensuring that this fact of nature works to the benefit, not detriment, of our society. In this sense, I wish to ensure that ours is meritocratic elite. So too is it in our interest to ensure that the success of the elite is not the success of one inclusive portion of society, but "the rising tide that lifts all boats." My fear is that the current regime does not do this.

Finally – thanks for the book recommendations. I understand that anthropologist Janine Wedel wrote a good book on this topic a few years ago, but I have not yet had the chance to read it. (The story of my life, it seems.) I shall have to give Mills and Jencks works a look as well.

Jencks is still an active scholar and has written a lot since Inequality, so you might want to check out his more recent work as well. (I think he may have changed his views on some things over the years, but I'm not positive.)

And thanks for the Wedel reference.