The Political Organization Men

Many working-class Americans voted for Donald Trump believing he would address their needs, not those of rich Republicans. But all pols, it seems, end up conforming to their political group’s priorities, as Lawrence Davidson explains.

By Lawrence Davidson

In 1956, William H. Whyte published a book entitled The Organization Man about America’s societal changes in the post-World War II economy. Basing his findings on a large number of interviews with CEOs of major American corporations, Whyte concluded that, within the context of modern organizational structure, American “rugged individualism” had given way to a “collectivist ethic.” Economic success and individual recognition were now pursued within an institutional structure – that is, by “serving the organization.”

President Trump celebrates the House passage of Obamacare repeal with House Speaker Paul Ryan and other House Republicans at the White House on May 4, 2017, a short-lived victory. (Screen shot from

Whyte’s book was widely read and praised, yet his thesis was not as novel as it seemed. “Rugged individualism,” to the extent that it existed, was (and is) the exception for human behavior and not the rule. We have evolved to be group-oriented animals and not lone wolves. This means that the vast majority of us (and certainly not just Americans) live our lives according to established cultural conventions. These operate on many levels – not just national patriotism or the customs of family life.

What Whyte ran across was the sub-culture of the workplace as followed by those who set themselves upon a “career path” within a specific organization. The stereotypical examples are those, to quote Whyte, “who have left home spiritually as well as physically, to take the vows of organization life. [They adopt an ethic that] rationalizes the organization’s demand for fealty and gives those who offer it wholeheartedly a sense of dedication.”

Today, some private-sector organizations have moved away from the most extreme demands of such conformity, but some other career lines have not, two examples being the military and career party politics.

For insight in this we can turn to the sociologist C. Wright Mills, whose famous book The Power Elite was published the same year as Whyte’s The Organization Man. Mills’s work narrows the world’s ruling bureaucracies to government, military and top economic corporations. Those who make their careers within these entities, especially the military and the government, are ideologically conditioned to identify their well-being with the specific goals of their chosen organizations. That means they must bind themselves not only to the goals, but also to the ethics of their workplace.

Those who balk are eventually punished and cast out of the organizations. Those who guide these organizations, and essentially decide how rules and ethics will be interpreted and applied, are Mills’s “power elite.”

How this works out in the military is pretty obvious. There is a long tradition of dedication to duty. At the core of this dedication is a rigid following of orders given by superiors. This tradition is upheld even if it is suspected that one’s superior is incompetent.

It may come as a surprise to the reader that party politics as practiced by many of the Western democracies is quite similar. The “power elites” who reside at the top of the so-called greasy pole, holding positions as the head of ruling and contesting parties, are likely to demand the same sort of obedience to orders as any military officer.

The Organization Man or Woman in Politics

Running for and holding office in countries like the United States and Canada often requires one to “take the vows of organization life.” Does this support democracy or erode it? Here is one prescient answer: the way we have structured our party politics has given us “an appalling political system which is a step-by-step denial of democracy and a solid foundation for a ‘soft’ dictatorship.”

One of the elegant rooms at President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club. (Photo from

Those are the words of the late Rafe Mair, a Canadian politician, broadcaster, author and a good friend of this writer. Rafe spent years in Canadian politics, particularly in his home province of British Columbia, and his experience led him to the conclusion expressed above. How does this translate into practice?

Rafe explained it this way: “In a parliamentary [or other form of representative] democracy the voter transfers his rights to his member of parliament [congressperson, senator or state legislator] to exercise on his behalf – the trouble is, by running for his political party the [elected person, in turn, is led to] assign your [the voter’s] rights to the [party] leader for his exclusive use!”

There is no law that makes the elected official do this. However, the inducements to do so are very powerful.

Leaders of political parties can control their organizations in dictatorial fashion. They have power to reward or punish their party’s cohorts in a fashion that can make or break careers. For instance, they control the dispersal of party funds from monies for elections right down to one’s office budget; they determine whether a candidate will have to face a primary challenge; they make all committee assignments; they can promote and demote within the party ranks.

As Rafe Mair observed, the possibilities for both reward and punishment are almost endless. In this way elected officials become bound to the diktats of their party’s leaders. They cannot normally vote their conscience or reliably represent their constituency unless doing so coincides with the desires of their party’s leadership.

Democracy in Danger

What is described here is a ubiquitous system problem. To one extent or another, this problem of centralization of power within organizations, particularly those that demand loyalty from their members, is commonplace – whether they are political organizations or not.

Barack Obama and George W. Bush at the White House.

This being the case, there should be no surprise that many Western democracies are suffering from this system problem. Nor is it surprising that correcting the problem is very difficult, if for no other reason than those who control the corrupted system must be willing to participate in its reform.

What is surprising is that while many citizens sense a problem, few really understand what is going on and where it can lead. Rafe put it this way: “though the way the system fails is simplicity indeed, I daresay scarcely one in 100 voters understands that the consequences are fatal to anything but a charade of democracy.”

Why is this so? It might be that beyond the classic town hall meeting, the distance between the average citizen and government bureaucracy is too great to hold the former’s interest. In normal times, apathy, and a sense of powerlessness, seems to be the default response to anything that does not impact our daily lives.

Nonetheless, increasing unresponsiveness on the part of government and a growing awareness of official corruption and mismanagement can lead to widespread citizen unease and frustration. At some point the voters may start looking for alternative politicians who claim to know what the problems are and how to fix them.

Usually such claims are themselves no more than campaign hot air. However, in their ignorance, voters may well respond to such hot air, and the result can be a jump from the proverbial frying pan into the fire. U.S. voters seem to have taken just such a leap when they elected Donald Trump president.

Rafe Mair sounded the warning about this system problem and its ability to erode our democracies. He is gone now, but we and the problem he identified remain. Can we deal effectively with it? It is possible, but it will require overcoming mass apathy and ignorance and avoiding the deceptive messages of irrational leaders. I am not sure that history is on our side.

Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author of Foreign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Official Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism. He blogs at

23 comments for “The Political Organization Men

  1. GAry
    October 31, 2017 at 19:04

    For a long time I have understood this on a subconscious level but thank you for defining the issue so clearly and succinctly. I worked hard for Bernie Sanders in 2016 and I now believe that he has become an Organizational Man who is incapable of resolving the issues facing us today. I became so disgusted and angry about the current state of our political system I felt I had to do something to try to bring people together around the issues instead of their political ideologies. That is why I started the United America Facebook page. If you feel the way I do please go to the United America page at: . If you agree with what you see please Like it and Share it with everyone you know.

  2. exiled off mainstreet
    October 31, 2017 at 11:01

    This is an excellent summary of the basis in mentality of what is factually a 21st century version of a fascist regime. Even though two political parties and the shell forms of republican government may exist, the reality is that the parties are factions and the way things operate is via conformity and loyalty to an authoritarian power structure.

  3. john wilson
    October 30, 2017 at 12:55

    Democracy is another word for consensual slavery. In a communist system or a dictatorship etc you are told you are a slave because you have no voice or choice. In a democracy you do have a choice and its between one salve master and another. If you vote Democrat you are just as much a slave to the system as you are if you vote Republican. The possibility of a third choice which might just free you from your chains, is a fantasy and only there as window dressing to give democracy some credibility. The term for this dilemma is called being TOTALLY SCREWED!!

    • mike k
      October 30, 2017 at 15:55

      Amen John. You got it right brother.

  4. Zachary Smith
    October 30, 2017 at 12:48

    The parts of The Organization Man I found most interesting were the chapters about “Testing The Organization Man”. The companies were deliberately selecting for people we currently label Corporate Psychopaths. Whyte suggested memorizing some “attitudes” before taking one of the tests. Among them:

    I loved my father and my mother, but my father a little bit more
    I like things pretty much the way they are
    I never worry much about anything
    I don’t care for books or music much
    I love my wife and children
    I don’t let them get in the way of company work

    You can substitute any number of things that you won’t allow to get in the way of company work.

    Ecology. Laws. Regulations. Integrity. Religion.

    “Screw planet Earth. Exxon comes first!” Or “screw Jesus and the horse he rode in on. We need to cut taxes and balance the budget. People are poor because they’re too lazy to get a job.”

    • mike k
      October 30, 2017 at 15:53

      Good points. Brainwashing in action revealed.

  5. October 30, 2017 at 12:23

    I believe what has happened to all of us is: “The Imposition of a New World Order.” This plan has been helped by puppet politicians. Therefore the question must be asked: “Is There An Open Conspiracy to Control the World’?
    [More info on this at link below]

    • john wilson
      October 30, 2017 at 13:00

      Stephen: why do you ask the question to which you already know the answer? Yes, we’re all screwed and have been for years. The bankers already control the world and the military make sure its stays that way.

      • October 30, 2017 at 13:44

        Very true john wilson. Questions beget answers and information.
        cheers Stephen J.

    • mike k
      October 30, 2017 at 15:52

      It’s like the Purloined Letter by Poe – the truth of our enslavement is so obvious, that only the deeply brainwashed can fail to see it.

  6. Zachary Smith
    October 30, 2017 at 12:17

    Usually such claims are themselves no more than campaign hot air. However, in their ignorance, voters may well respond to such hot air, and the result can be a jump from the proverbial frying pan into the fire. U.S. voters seem to have taken just such a leap when they elected Donald Trump president.

    Nowhere in this essay are either of the terms “Hillary” or “Clinton” mentioned. U.S. voters had the choice of a known evil on the “D” side of the ballot, or another person well understood to be a shallow, self-centered, rich *****. They were going to end up with an unqualified person either way the voting went. Quite possibly the nod went to Trump because 1) his promises were surely more believable than those of Clinton and 2) Trump wasn’t yet the known destroyer of entire nations.

    Describing the predicament of the voters as “ignorance” just isn’t fair when looking at the overall picture.

    • mike k
      October 30, 2017 at 15:50

      Yes. Voters were put in a no win situation. That’s why I did not participate in the “show” election.

      • Realist
        October 31, 2017 at 04:33

        What were Obama’s reasons for failing to take a stand, once elected, on all the promises he made during his campaigns? He mostly gave away the store to the other side, and insulted his supporters while doing so. Talk about progressives not getting a “win” even after carrying the elections. Two terms earlier, the media called the contest one of two “moderates” between Bush and Gore. If that was “moderation” practiced by Dubya, I need a new dictionary. Most recent elections have been pointless, especially when the Supreme Court doesn’t allow a complete recount of the votes. In a field of 13(!) primary candidates last year, the GOP could not provide one quality individual. The Dems cheated to make sure the worst possible of theirs would get the nomination. I see nothing but mental and moral midgets again on the horizon for 2020. I don’t expect Trump to seek re-election. He will have had a bellyful should he even survive.

  7. October 30, 2017 at 12:04

    First, let me commend Lawrence Davidson for his selection of two of the most insightful writers of the sixties to use as a springboard for his perceptive essay. A third(John Kenneth Galbraith) would complete a trilogy of the brilliant academic social analysis of that time. Galbraith’s masterpiece(The Affluent Society) examined the influence of the heavy emphasis corporate advertising had on American culture and concluded that the economic/social structure was disproportionately skewed toward GDP(gross domestic product) at the expense of educational investment. This was in direct contrast with the popular novels and essays of Ayn Rand, the goddess of greed whose spurious philosophy had come to epitomize the mindset that continues to plague the globe with the neoliberal ideals that have been reinvented under many names over time; i.e. laissez faire, trickle down,the Laffer curve, free market economics and monetarism.

  8. Bob Van Noy
    October 30, 2017 at 10:37

    Thank you CN and Lawrence Davidson for what I think is a accurate explanation of the failure of our Democracy. I especially like the reference to C. Wright Mills who is a heroic character for me. I think Mr. Mill’s book on the Power Elite was prescient, as was his thinking in general. He published a little known book “Listen, Yankee” (1960) that was very insightful about the then current Cuban Revolution. It seems in retrospect that there was plenty of warning at the time for America to wake up to the goals of Big Government and Big Business but it was either successfully repressed or ignored by those who might have made a difference, like Labor. At any rate, C. Wright Mills died too early, because he seemed uniquely suited to make a difference. His writing remains current, I’ll add a link.

    • mike k
      October 30, 2017 at 15:47

      I am a big CW Mills fan too. We have had many warnings – now we are going to experience the fate of those who ignore wisdom.

    • tina
      October 30, 2017 at 22:31

      Hey, college UWM 1984- 1987 Mass Comm, I did not graduate , but we studied Mills, Lewis Mumford, and my favorite, Marshall McLuhan. Also, first time I was introduced to Todd Gitlin and IF Stone. While I did not pursue a life in journalism, I so appreciate all those who did the hard work. I still have all my college required reading books from these people, it is like a set of encyclopedias, only better. And better than the internet. Keep up the work CN , I am not that talented, but what you do is important.

  9. Drew Hunkins
    October 30, 2017 at 10:34

    Trump did nix out the TPP and did desire a rapprochement of sorts with Moscow. He also regularly asserted that he wanted to re-build American manufacturing in the heartland and wanted to rein in Washington’s footprint across the globe. Of course Trump ultimately capitulated to the militarist Russophobes. One can only put so much stock in campaign pronouncements, but he did come off as less bellicose than Killary, that was clear to any fair minded observer.

    Trump’s also been a nightmare as it comes to workers’ rights in general, consumer and environmental protections and fair taxation as it relates to regressive vs progressive rates. He was also an Islamophobe when it comes to Iran and fell right in line with Adelson and the other ZIonist psychopaths.

    The most welcoming aspect of Trump was his desire to make peace with Russia, this has been completely sabotaged by the deep state militarists. This is the reason the Corkers, Flakes and much of the establishment mass media browbeat and attack him relentlessly. Most of them ignore what he actually should be admonished for opting for nuclear brinkmanship instead.

    • exiled off mainstreet
      October 30, 2017 at 11:25

      This is the best description I have seen about Trump’s role.

  10. October 30, 2017 at 09:19

    I believe we are prisoners of a corrupted “democracy.”
    July 13, 2017
    The Prisoners of “Democracy”

    Screwing the masses was the forte of the political establishment. It did not really matter which political party was in power, or what name it went under, they all had one ruling instinct, tax, tax, and more taxes. These rapacious politicians had an endless appetite for taxes, and also an appetite for giving themselves huge raises, pension plans, expenses, and all kinds of entitlements. In fact one of them famously said, “He was entitled to his entitlements.” Public office was a path to more, and more largesse all paid for by the compulsory taxes of the masses that were the prisoners of “democracy.”…
    [more info on this at link below]

    • Sam F
      October 30, 2017 at 11:42

      Yes, our ertswhile democracy has been completely corrupted. Thanks to Lawrence Davidson, William Whyte, C. Wright Mills, and Rafe Mair for this consideration of the systemic corruption of political parties. The diseases of conformity within party organizations are a nearly inherent problem of democracy.

      The improper influence which determines the policies conformed to by parties is the central problem, and stems largely from influence of the economic Power Elite, directing the policies to which the Organization Man must be obedient to be chosen. This distortion can be eliminated by Amendments to the Constitution to restrict funding of mass media and elections to limited individual contributions.

      Our problem is that we cannot make such reforms because those tools of democracy are already controlled by oligarchy, which never yields power but to superior force. Talk of justice and peace is not in their language of might makes right, and has no effect whatsoever. They yielded to the 1964 Civil Rights Act only because their fear of riots in the streets led them to pretend that MLK et al had been persuasive.

      The foreign wars may be stopped by the defeat, isolation, and embargo of the US by foreign powers. But within the US, the full price of democracy must again be paid the People of the US. The oligarchy must be defeated by superior force: only those who deny enforcement to oligarchy and terrify the rich will bring them to yield any power. That is likely to await more severe recessions and inequities caused by the selfish and irresponsible rich.

      • mike k
        October 30, 2017 at 15:42

        You are exactly right Sam F. Unfortunately time is quickly running out for our corrupt “civilization.” The time to cultivate and practice wisdom has passed. The sad truth is that our goose is cooked; there will be no cavalry showing up to save us. We are now “eating our karma” and will reap our just deserts. Not because I or anyone say so, but because implacable laws of nature will now play out. Dominant intellectual species occupy a precarious position in planetary evolution, and we are on the verge of a great fall – and all the King’s horses and all the King’s men will not be able to put our extincting species together again…..

        • Sam F
          October 30, 2017 at 16:11

          Your reply touches a responsive chord, in that humanity seems to have made so little permanent progress in its million years or so, mostly in its last few hundred years, an insignificant fraction of planetary history. But the history and literature of temporary progress lost is significant as the repository of ideas for future democracies, at those rare moments when they are designed.

          Our diseased society is but one tree in the forest of democracies. The US is or will be like the apparently healthy tree that took down my power lines last night, a pretty red oak with brilliant autumn leaves, but sideways now and blocking the road. But like the leaves on that tree, we can see the problem and still hope to be as happy as this year’s leaves on healthier trees.

          As in what I like to call the universal mind of humanity, individuals may have foresight and thoughts beyond their apparent functions, which survive in that greater mind of their thoughts recorded or just passed along, and in that way their learning is not in vain.

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