Although the idea probably always has been present in some form, elitism emerged as a recognizable and clearly defined part of Western political thought in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The leading contributors to the theory were Gaetano Mosca, Vilfredo Pareto, and Robert Michels. These writers attacked classical democratic thought and also Aristotle and Karl Marx. Majority rule, they insisted, is impossible. Every society is divided into those who rule and those who are ruled; and the rulers constitute only a small minority of any society. Aristotle's classification, which divided political systems into three types (rule by one, rule by a few, and rule by the many), does not fit reality either, for no man is capable of ruling by himself, and the many, too, lack the ability to govern. It is the few, under any political system, who exercise effective control. And Marx, with his emphasis on a class struggle that in the end (following the victory of the working class) leads to social harmony in a classless society, was also wrong. History features a continuing struggle among elites. That struggle will never end, and a classless society cannot be created. Moreover, to the pioneers in the development of elitist theory, Marx placed too much emphasis on economics and not enough on politics, which could be autonomous.
Classical elitist theory did not maintain merely that the active, socially recognizable people in a country made its important decisions—whether from within offices of government, from somewhere behind the scenes, or from completely outside the state apparatus. It emphatically asserted that the common man, however numerous within a society in absolute or relative terms, did not. Analysts of elites, who generally focus on the distribution of power rather than on the allocation of values, or on property and other wealth forms, differ somewhat over the degree of participation in government or, more generally, the political process that is necessary for a member of the elite accurately to be judged a member of what Mosca characterizes as "the ruling class." A society's elite is usually thought to be a stable entity, self-sustaining and constant over time. Yet the actual group that is in office can change markedly and very quickly. The concept of an elite therefore may need to be understood as encompassing all those who might govern as well as those who in fact do govern.
However "elite" is precisely understood, elitist theory is clear in the basic point that a minority, rather than the masses, controls things. The general population of a country—the common man—is ineffective. Even in societies with elections and other democratic mechanisms, it is posited, the ruling elite functions in a way that is largely independent of control by a popular majority. However, it made need a justifying doctrine. That the elite ordinarily functions according to a "political formula," in Mosca's term, is what makes its rule effective and acceptable to the masses. Thus, in theory, there can be a democratic elitism, however paradoxical that may seem.
A "new elite paradigm," building on the work of Mosca and other classical theorists, emerged in the 1980s and 1990s among comparative political sociologists. It drew attention to the occurrence, and the important effects, of divisions that may arise within the elite of a society. Its central proposition, as stated by John Higley and Michael Burton (1989), is as follows: "A disunified national elite, which is the most common type, produces a series of unstable regimes that tend to oscillate between authoritarian and democratic forms over varying intervals. A consensually unified national elite, which is historically much rarer, produces a stable regime that may evolve into a modern democracy, as in Sweden, or Britain, or the United States, if economic and other facilitative conditions permit."
In the United States, normally, internal and external conditions have favored consensual unity within the nation's elite. Of course, the American Revolution and, later, the Civil War, are the major exceptions to this generalization. During those periods, divisions ran so deep as to produce counter-elites. As the political sociologist Barrington Moore, Jr., and the political historian C. Vann Woodward have shown, the reconciliation between North and South that occurred following post–Civil War Reconstruction was in significant part a result of a complex bargain between the elites in formerly opposed geographical sections. After the late nineteenth century, issues of foreign policy have on occasion divided the American elite as well. A by-product of this has been a widening of participation in the national debate over foreign policy. That this amounts to a "democratization" of American foreign policymaking, however, is highly disputable.