President Trump brought in 72 percent of his Cabinet members from the corporate world. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Timothy M. Gill is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. His research focuses on U.S. foreign policy towards Venezuela.

The GOP is regularly cast as the party that most readily embraces corporate interests. Reduction of the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 21 percent seemed to prove this point. But examination of presidential Cabinets over the past 50 years reveals that both parties maintain similar levels of connections with elite corporate actors.

Yet the Trump administration has taken this relationship to new heights. Indeed, despite Trump’s populist claims, his Cabinet has more corporate elites than any other Cabinet over the past half-century. This composition clearly reflects Trump’s upper-class background and leaves open the possibility that his administration will prioritize corporate interests over all else in unprecedented ways.

The relationship between corporate elites and political life has deep roots. In the early to mid-20th century, corporate leaders dominated presidential Cabinets. For instance, in a 1975 study, Peter Freitag found that between 1897 and 1973, 76 percent of all presidential Cabinet members possessed corporate affiliations. What is more, Freitag found that little difference existed between Republican (78 percent) and Democratic Cabinet members (73 percent) when it came to corporate affiliations.

Despite corporate domination of this powerful perch, a pluralist perspective on politics generally prevailed. Political scientists and sociologists argued that no one social group dominated U.S. politics, and interest groups — notably labor, higher education and business — balanced one another in shaping government.

But others saw problems in the elite nature of U.S. politics. Political sociologist C. Wright Mills worried about the revolving door between the government and large corporations, as political and corporate elites cycled through government and corporate spheres with much ease and with much regularity. This “power elite” made all the “big decisions” of the day under which Americans had to live. This included going to war and building a military-industrial complex. In those decisions, perverse incentives existed, making the decision to go to war a very profitable one for Cabinet officials such as, in recent years, George W. Bush’s Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, who possessed ties to Alcoa, an aluminum corporation that heavily relies upon defense contracts.

Although many of his peers shunned Mills for making such a politically charged critique of U.S. politics amid the celebratory — and anti-communist — atmosphere that followed World War II, his research program exhilarated a younger cohort of social scientists coming of age amid the tumult of the 1960s. They, too, saw the problem of corporate-political connections, and wondered whether corporate actors were disproportionately influencing U.S. policy and, in effect, limiting democratic possibilities.

This new cohort of social scientists reshaped the conversation concerning the intersection between corporate and political power, bringing in a much more critical perspective on U.S. politics. While Marxism, for instance, was largely banished from universities during the 1950s, it enjoyed a resurgence throughout the 1960s and 1970s that persists to the present, particularly within disciplines such as political sociology.

But while these ambitious scholars reshaped the conversation, they did not change the reality of political decision-making. The power elite has continued to shape American politics. Indeed, the plethora of corporate and upper-class wins in the decades since publication of “The Power Elite” makes it all the more significant today. Corporate taxation levels and taxation levels on the highest brackets of individuals have greatly diminished; unionization rates have plummeted amid court decisions striking at their organizational strategies; and the minimum wage has generally remained stagnant. All the while, corporate elites have earned record-breaking compensation levels, as they have off-shored and outsourced production to low-income countries throughout, for example, Central America and Southeast Asia.

Which raises the question: Has this skewed policy stemmed from people with corporate ties continuing to dominate decision-making spheres such as the Cabinet?

My research reveals that presidential Cabinets have remained heavily stocked with members of the elite corporate sphere. Since the Nixon administration, more than 70 percent of both Republican and Democratic Cabinets have been filled by either corporate veterans or by people who decamped to corporate America after serving in the Cabinet. George W. Bush (100 percent), Nixon (90 percent), and Ford (82 percent) possessed the highest percentage of these elite appointments, while the Carter (71 percent) and George H.W. Bush (71 percent) administrations had the lowest. Even Barack Obama followed this pattern: 81 percent of his Cabinet either came from or headed to corporate America, and that number may climb as more of his Cabinet members seek corporate perches.

And yet, Trump has taken this tradition to a new level. His administration has featured more individuals coming from the corporate sphere than any recent administration (72 percent). This included individuals such as former secretary of state Rex Tillerson, who was the CEO of ExxonMobil. This beat George W. Bush, the next-highest president, who pulled 64 percent of his Cabinet from the corporate world.

What impact does this have? The mere presence of corporate elites in an administration, of course, does not mean that Cabinets necessarily represent elite corporate interests.

But it does deeply influence what issues get discussed and what perspectives get considered as administrators grapple with policy questions. Stocking the Cabinet with corporate veterans enables elite corporate interests to communicate their preferences easily to both Democratic and Republican administrations. Average Americans don’t have the same advantage, and given the power that Cabinet members wield over government bureaucracies, this should alarm Americans. Whose voices get heard may be distorting our policies at the expense of all but the wealthiest Americans.