Political class, or political elite is a concept in comparative political science originally developed by Italian political theorist theory of Gaetano Mosca (1858–1941). It refers to the relatively small group of activists that is highly aware and active in politics, and from whom the national leadership is largely drawn. As Max Weber noted, they not only live "for politics"—like the old notables used to—but make their careers "off politics" as policy specialists and experts on specific fields of public administration. Mosca approached the study of the political class by examining the mechanisms of reproduction and renewal of the ruling class; the characteristics of politicians; and the different forms of organisation developed in their wielding of power.
Elected legislatures may become dominated by subject-matter specialists, aided by permanent staffs, who become a political class.
The presence or absence of a political class in a country depends on its history. For example Germany (since 1945) has a very weak political class, with a "striking taboo" against the sort of elitism that dominated Germany before 1945, including Imperial Germany, Weimar and the Nazi regime. In sharp contrast France has a very prestigious political class trained in special elite schools.
Until the 1970s Britain featured a tight-knit political class that emerged from upper-class families whose sons came to know each other at elite "public schools" (like Eton College and Harrow School) and the "old boy" network, based on Oxford and Cambridge, which dominates public life. After 1970, however, the political class became much more open in terms of the social origins of British politicians and top civil servants. Conservative Members of Parliament (MPs) have increasingly been educated at nonelite schools and have been of more modest social backgrounds. Labour MPs, in turn, are increasingly middle class, white-collar and university educated.
A political class emerged in Spain during the reign (1833–68) of Queen Isabella II. A modern political class emerged in Spain, adapted to the needs of a representative state that was under construction. To bring that about, the circles of power were open to intense renewal, coopting families of provincial gentry networks. The result was a political class composed mostly of jurists and attached to the values and interests of landed property. It was a new ruling class. Although originally inspired by revolutionary principles, it soon limited the circle of power, becoming aristocratic and largely closed to new membership.
Lucas (1998) examines despotic versus infrastructural power in terms of relations between the military leaders and the civilian political class in Nigeria from 1985 to 1993. He concludes that weak states experience a conflict between these two types of power. Despotic power, in sociologist Michael Mann's definition, refers to the state's repressive capacities, while infrastructural power refers to its ability to penetrate society and implement its decisions. Whereas leaders cultivate alliances with powerful social groups to realise their infrastructural power, the exercise of despotic power can undermine such patterns of collaboration.
Military leaders relied on a number of despotic strategies to extend their control over the political class as part of a promised transition to democracy: many politicians were banned, two government-created political parties were imposed, and elections that yielded outcomes threatening to military interests were annulled. While the military leadership was successful in repressing the politicians, it was unable to restructure the civilian leadership in ways that would further the institutional power of the state. The military's persistent reliance on despotic strategies led to a long-term decline in the integrity and infrastructural capacity of the state.
In China, the country was prevalently agricultural, dominated by an imperial bureaucracy that was crowned by the Mandarins. This was made up of judges, governors, administrators, all highly qualified in the art of governing. The literary official became the pillar of the political system.
Populist political movements portray themselves as the enemies of the established political class and outsiders from the main political class that no longer represents the people and are morally corrupt. Such movements have included the United Kingdom’s United Kingdom Independence Party, France's National Front, Austria's Freedom Party and Belgium's Vlaams Belang.
The term political class has recently been used as an epithet by conservatives, such as the editors of National Review. The theme is that the political elite is undemocratic and has an agenda of its own—especially the aggrandisement of its own power—that is hostile to the larger national interest, and which ought to be opposed by grassroots of populist movements.
There was a large movement for term limits in the United States in the 1990s to weaken the political class by limiting the number of terms an elected legislator could serve. Even though it succeeded in many states and cities it was rejected as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court when it tried to limit the number of terms that a federal officeholder could serve.
- Weber 1958 p. 84
- Eliassen and Pedersen, (1978)
- Thies and Schneider (1994)
- D. Kavanagh, "Changes in the political class and its culture," Parliamentary Affairs, Jan19 92, Vol. 45 Issue 1, pp 18-32
- Juan Pro Ruiz, "La Formacion De La Clase Politica Liberal En España (1833–1868)," ["The formation of the liberal political class in Spain, 1833-68"] Historia Contemporanea, 2001, Issue 2, pp 445-481
- John Lucas, "The tension between despotic and infrastructural power: The military and the political class in Nigeria, 1985–1993," Studies in Comparative International Development, Autumn 1998, Vol. 33 Issue 3, pp 90-113
- Jonathan D. Spence, The Search for Modern China (1991),
- Ximena Sosa-Buchholz and Michael L. Conniff "Populism" in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Modern World, ed. by Peter N. Stearns. (2008)
- Horowitz (2003)
- Albertoni, Ettore, Mosca and the Theory of Elitism. (1987). ISBN 0-631-15254-7
- Beyme, Klaus von. "The Concept of Political Class: A New Dimension of Research on Elites?" West European Politics, (1996) 19: 68-87.
- Borchert, Jens, and Jurgen Zeiss, eds. The Political Class in Advanced Democracies (2003)
- Codevilla, Angelo M, America's Ruling Class -- And the Perils of Revolution<, (2010).
- Cotta, Maurizio. "The Italian Political Class in the Twentieth Century: Continuities and Discontinuities", in M. Czudnowski, ed., Does Who Governs Matter? (1982) pp. 154–87.
- Eliassen, Kjell A., and Pedersen, Mogens N. "Professionalization of Legislatures," Comparative Studies in Society and History, (1978). 20: 286-318.
- Horowitz, David A. America's Political Class under Fire: The Twentieth Century's Great Culture War (2003)
- Mills, C. Wright. The Power Elite and the State: How Policy is Made in America (1956)
- Mosca, Gaetano. The Ruling Class (1896; English translation 1939)
- Oborne, Peter. The triumph of the political class (2007), on Britain; online review
- Putnam, Robert D. The Comparative Study of Political Elites (1976).
- Thies, Jochen, and Deborah Lucas Schneider. "Observations on the Political Class in Germany," Daedalus Volume: 123. Issue: 1. 1994. pp 263+.
- Weber, Max. "Politics as a Vocation', in H. Gerth and C. W. Mills, eds., From Max Weber (1958); first published 1918