Mobilising Knowledge for Power, to Obscure Where it Lies and How it Works – It’s What American Universities, Foundations and the State, Do

Nov 30, 2023 | Expert Commentary

Emily Hauptmann, Foundations and American Political Science: The transformation of a discipline, 1945-1970 (University press of Kansas, 2022)

It is almost banal to say that “knowledge is power” and yet, even then, miss the woods for the trees. Most of us tend to think at a personal level, or to see individuals with ‘knowledge’ using it to get what they want. But when we come to thinking about the small number of institutions that more or less monopolise the production of knowledge – corporations, foundations, universities, state agencies, corporate media – the individualist approach becomes obsolete.

Big knowledge is produced by relatively few people linked with or rather employed by and embedded within very rich and powerful institutions wedded to the status quo or to the management of change such that any change is moderate, minimal, functional for elites, and fails to alter the patterns of fundamental power distributions.

There is probably no society quite like the United States in this regard. It is a knowledge superpower. Books, magazines, universities, academic journals, scientific patents, intellectual property, Nobel prizes, Hollywood’s cultural output, the global reach of US news and other media – no other society comes close to matching America’s knowledge production and dissemination machine.

Political science as a university discipline is said to have at the heart of its mission to unravel the mysteries of power, who holds it, who benefits, and how it works. That’s the advertising in attractive brochures and glitzy websites. The plain truth is a world apart. Indeed, one could argue that the purpose of political science in the United States is to obscure the loci and operations of power, a magic trick of smoke and mirrors that casts a veil over what we, the people, instinctively know is a con though few have the tools to surgically wield a scalpel to pierce that veil.

But there are enough political scientists who have such tools and are increasingly using them to devastating effect. Ido Orren’s work stands out, as does Robert Vitalis’s. Orren showed how US political science serves US foreign policy interests.1 For example, in regard to the portrayal of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy in the pages of its flagship journal, American Political Science Review, those states were seen as exemplars of efficient administration and modernisation. In the 1940s, of course and into the post-1945 period, the APSR discovered the dangers of unrestricted state power. Vitalis shows how racist and colonial attitudes saturated the field of International Relations, and led to the formation of the elitist Council on Foreign Relations think tank. Its house organ, Foreign Affairs, was originally called the Journal of Race Development and IR as a field had as its focal point the study and management of race relations on a worldwide basis.2 That is, the maintenance of white supremacy.

Emily Hauptmann’s excellent study, therefore, is welcome and timely. It adds to a growing literature on the subject of the political power of elites, especially philanthropic foundations, and brings in universities as institutions with their own interests in winning research funding from a growing federal budget dedicated to servicing a military-industrial complex driven by Cold War competition. It is well researched in primary materials, well organised, and accessibly written. It should be read by all social science scholars, historians of ideas and political science, historians of the development of the American university, and of the influence of the Ford, Carnegie and Rockefeller foundations.

The study of power is at the core of political science  – but who decides how to get to the core of where power lies in any society, how it works, and who matters in politics and political change, is itself a key power. Who defines political science’s core elements therefore sets research agendas, directs funding, builds institutes and departments, dominates professional societies, major disciplinary journals’ orientations and priorities and peer reviewers, who gets promoted and celebrated – and, equally, who does not.

In American political science, the power of the wealthiest few preoccupies a tiny number and proportion of its political scientists’ research agendas, course themes, and reading lists. The rich and powerful do not like and do not fund independent studies of their class or activities or networks. That in itself is power to operate relatively free of scrutiny. It’s also another form of “oblique power” as Emily Hauptmann describes it – it directs attention to the problems of society and politics usually rooted in alleged irrational mass behaviour, the illusions and frailties of the electorate, the power in the land that needs to be educated and informed away from a ‘mob mentality’ and towards reason and realism. American political science is, or thinks it is, that self-proclaimed “secular priesthood” that Walter Lippman wanted to see to handle the dangerous masses, to manage the “tyranny of the majority” and engineer the “consent of the governed”.

American foundations exercise “oblique” power

The obliquely powerful philanthropic foundations at the heart of Hauptmann’s incisive study even define themselves out of the core of power in the United States and therefore of the attentions of political science. The powerful define themselves as beyond politics, ideology, business, the state – as somewhere else entirely neutral, objective, even scientific – “third sector”. Above and beyond too much scrutiny.

Hauptmann’s study deconstructs and effectively and carefully annihilates this self-image in relation to the ‘big 3’ foundations – Ford, Rockefeller and Carnegie – their remaking of the vision for the technocratic possibilities of social sciences and of the uses of political science. Her focus in this essential and landmark study is those 3 big foundations and 2 public research universities — Michigan, and University of California, Berkeley – between 1945-70. The period was transformative the world over, including for the bright shining light that American power promised the world after the defeat of fascism, and the onset of the deadly ideological and military struggles of the Cold war, otherwise better known by historians as US expansionism.

Emily Hauptmann has spent years studying the original records of each of the three foundations, numerous personal papers’ collections, official university records, and oral histories. Those papers have been researched in depth, compared with one another and synthesised and cross referenced. The resulting book is, therefore, the definitive word on the history and development of US political science, and the forces that conceived of the discipline’s principal preoccupations and methodologies, funded it, shaped its contours, kept it connected with what President Eisenhower called the ‘military-industrial-complex’. This was a discipline re-made for war and cold war, the gathering of intelligence on the US electorate, and developing knowledge for use in the titanic struggle between capitalism and communism. It was, therefore, part of the ‘whole-of-society’ elite mobilisation behind US expansionism, against the domestic and global Left, but particularly nationalist anti-colonial struggles in what became known as the ‘Third World’.

Haputmann places her work in that context – World War II service by leading foundation and academic figures and institutions, that bled liberally into the Cold War, connected symbiotically to the broader US political economy, the power of a growing military industrial complex and its core in the federal government. The book explores networks of power that span the state and private sectors that implicate both rather than exonerate them for the real world of US power – as dominated not only by great corporate wealth, an increasingly powerful federal government executive and its plethora of national security agencies, and a growing powerful military and even more what C Wright Mills called the “military definition of reality” in the nuclear age.

Political science, area studies, and international relations (IR) form a nexus here that served to place at the centre of US knowledge-power disciplines that focused on and were rooted in both the imaginary of American exceptionalism at home, to furnish a mission of improvement and reform, and a war machine with personnel from the best universities, the advanced guard of freedom.

Book details resistance to elites too

Emily Hauptmann has performed a great service to social and political science and understanding- explaining by showing via primary evidence of how power really works in liberal democratic America. By so doing she has also exposed that liberal democracy’s shortcomings, failings, exclusions, and marginalisations – a necessary by-product of what and whom that society prioritises. In its starkest result, implicitly on the whole, Hauptmann shows how unstable the whole structure really is – because the excluded and marginal are never silent, never consistently weak – the “iron law of oligarchy” of Robert Michels has its counterpart, as Alvin Gouldner said, in an “iron law of democracy”.

Hauptmann’s book documents the faculty and student resistances that broke out in the 1960s over an array of issues including opposition to the Vietnam war, rejection of the role of many political scientist consultants in the State department and other agencies, the out of touch character of the curriculum. As Professor Sheldon Wolin argued, a significant number of faculty and students wanted a university that enriched human life, and to “end our University’s complicity with… [the Vietnam] war.” Student strikers also argued that universities ought not to “train students to… support, justify, and implement the American world system…” Mainstream political science faculty, however, rejected such calls as “politicizing” political science while acknowledging the role so many of their number played in war-oriented agencies of the federal government.

As Hauptmann shows, those in power define what is politics and what is not.

Building and defending the canon

What Emily Hauptmann’s study shows is in effect how the major and oldest US foundations, the US federal government/state, and the postwar research universities built the canon in political science, area studies and IR etc – the core studies in graduate and PhD programmes that defined what the social sciences were supposed to be – questions, issues, theories, methods, cases – and what they weren’t – especially, and starkly, marginalising the likes of C Wright Mills The Power Elite (1956).3 It is therefore possible to write a deeply researched critical book, based on years of study and toil, and have it either largely ignored or criticised for failing to conform to the dominant methodology.

The wrong kind of knowledge! Thinking the unthinkable. The free market of ideas, denied.

The core argument of Hauptmann’s study is that the so-called behavioural revolution in American political science represented a move by several key actors – foundations, universities, and political scientists, each for their specific reasons and interests – was neither inevitable nor necessarily beneficial in studying and understanding how power actually works in the real world of US politics. It was a concerted intervention to produce specific kinds of political scientific legitimate knowledge, with its academic apparatus of journal articles, canonical texts, field-leaders, departments, doctoral programmes, and research linked with political institutions, especially the main political parties, the expanding federal government, and the military-industrial complex.

Behaviouralism seeks to uncover and address the behaviours of individuals and groups – voting behaviour for example – in order to generate statistical knowledge for use by the powers that be. Its main focus then is on the electorate and range of interest groups in a competitive system where no class or race monopolises power. Behaviouralism is fundamentally predicated on a pluralistic, mid-twentieth century version of US democracy, a society of groups engaged in perfect competition with one another. It is also fundamentally positivistic – that is ‘scientific’ and value-free – because, it is claimed, it is based on objective, quantifiable approaches to explain and predict political behaviour. Structures of racial, colonial, elite and class power, gendered patriarchal power relations and institutions, the sinews of social, economic and political life, qualitative studies of documents, texts, of the rich textures of human life, are beyond the canon. They are not ‘real’ political science, according to this view. Of course, there are nuances involved, but most behaviouralists would accept some or all of the above as essential to the postwar revolution in American political science.

The beneficiaries of fellowships and grants from behavioural studies programmes of funding such as Robert Dahl openly challenged Mills’s ruling elite thesis and Floyd Hunter’s community power structures research from an overtly methodological approach – why did they not conduct behavioural decisionmaking case studies – rather than the foundational premises of their analyses of power. Those challenged the pluralistic framing in fundamental ways. Dahl et al therefore in their reactions showed that the knowledge networks around behavioural political science both build a specific kind of discipline as well as defending its turf against resistance and alternatives. In this, their connection with and benefits from what Hauptmann refers to as the “university knowledge economy”, the “postwar federal research economy” and the “organised war research economy” – provide a material explanation. This is no ivory tower – it’s the academic combat at the heart of the canon. Knowledge and power, and power and knowledge, Siamese twins joined at the hip, heart and head.

Harold Laski was surely right – it takes a mere announcement by a rich foundation of a funded research programme for numerous scholars to declare that they had always been interested in the matter!

As G. William Domhoff, notes: “The agenda underlying Dahl’s 1957 article on the concept of power, which consists of Max Weber souped up with probability equations that never proved useful, became even more obvious in his follow-up paper on power, “A Critique of the Ruling Elite Model,” in which he summarily dismissed both Hunter and Mills with the resounding conclusion that it was “a remarkable and indeed astounding fact that neither Professor Mills nor Professor Hunter has seriously attempted to examine an array of specific cases to test his major hypothesis”. Dahl thereby took the substantive issues off the table and turned the argument into a seemingly methodological one, although it was actually an argument about philosophies of science that he was invoking…”.4

Academia is no ivory tower

Hauptmann makes very clear that her work stands more in the tradition of Ido Orren, Nicholas Guilhot, and Robert Vitalis – to show how external factors, and not internal ones alone – have powerfully shaped the political science and IR disciplines that are at the heart of legitimising US power – in its geopolitical rivalries, its ideological wars, its construction and defence of racialised-class hierarchies, and defences of colonialism.

By focusing in depth on two of the most significant public universities in the United States, whose political science departments rank among the world’s strongest, Michigan and University of California, Berkeley, Hauptmann’s analysis and conclusions may be considered generalisable to the rest of the American system of higher education.

Indeed, the power of money, and of business interests, in American universities is hardly unknown. Thorsten Veblen pointed this out in great detail in his book of 1916 – The Higher Learning in America, the subtitle of which was something like “a memorandum on the conduct of the universities by businessmen”. But because this is precisely the sort of knowledge that dare not speak its name, the message that gets perpetually buried needs repetition, new studies, constant reminders of how and for whom universities actually work. As well as where the resistances emerge from and influence developments.

Emily Hauptmann has done this with great skill and scholarship, through a book that is a must-read, take-note, and act-upon-and-develop with more research. And drive the message home.

It is always impressive to me how much collective effort “individual” freedom takes to produce it – in the ways shown in this remarkable and enduring work – that the system of individual freedom and free enterprise is in fact a vastly orchestrated web of networks and flows of copious amounts of taxpayers’ money over decades and decades; corporate-welfare money that is tax-exempt under cover of its non-political deployments.

It is a vast, complex and dense system of knowledge for combat that builds “empires of the mind” on the material foundations of a state-corporate system of political economy at the centre of a liberal international system whose very foundations appear to be cracked and even crumbling, which finds itself today in its very heartlands being written about by CIA-linked students of civil wars as edging closer and closer to a repeat of 1861-1865

About the Author

Inderjeet Parmar is professor of international politics and associate dean of research in the School of Policy and Global Affairs at City, University of London, a fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, and a columnist at The Wire. He is an International Fellow at the ROADS Initiative think tank, Islamabad, and author of several books including Foundations of the American Century. He is currently writing a book on the history, politics, and powers of the US Foreign Policy Establishment.

1 Ido Oren, Our Enemies and US : America’s Rivalries and the Making of Political Science (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003).
2 Robert Vitalis, White World Order, Black Power Politics, White World Order, Black Power Politics (Cornell University Press, 2018).
3 C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (Oxford University Press, 1956),
4 William G. Domhoff, “Who Rules America: C. Wright Mills, Power Structure Research, and the Failures of Mainstream Political Science,” New Political Science, 2007,
5 Barbara F Walter, How Civil Wars Start (2022); for a review, see