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Power of the People?

Updated April 29, 2021
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Power of the People? essay

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Theories of who runs U. S. cities and influences policy creation have been studied and contradicted for decades. Social scientists fall in to several different camps, but three main theories encompass most of the literature. These theories are pluralism, or the theory of fragmented power where no one group has power over others, elitism, in which power structures outside of the elected government control much of the policy created at the local level, and class analysis, emphasized by Karl Marx (Manley 1983, 368).

Even the definition of power is in question; pluralists view those who “win” (as in elections) as a principle indication of who is in power, while elitists focus on who wields power over important institutions and who gains the most in terms of material goods and circumstances (Domhoff 1978, 128-129). Clarence Stone and G. William Domhoff each have their own concepts of who is in power which, although different in some respects, share many commonalities. Stone’s research is a continuation of Floyd Hunter’s studies of the power structure of politics in Atlanta, Georgia in the 1950s, a field of study which began with Hunter’s Community Power Structure (Domhoff 2007).

This involves the methodical mapping of power structures to develop a theory about community power (Domhoff 2005c). Hunter understands organizations have primary power over people and interest groups, but these power structures vary from community to community (Domhoff 2005a). Small networks of the business elite, which overlap one another, control the power in urban communities (Domhoff 1978, 2005a). Hunter considers elected officials as secondary because he concludes that they follow the requests of the dominating business elites (Domhoff 2007).

Hunter is also the creator of the reputational research method, causing great controversy in the social science community when first released (Domhoff 2005a), but considered important today. As a sociologist, Hunter’s ideas caused an uproar among social scientists and many opposed his research, considering someone outside the field of political science unable to successfully determine power by asking influential individuals to identify others who were powerful in the community (Domhoff 2005c).

Stone is a proponent of urban regime theory within local politics, and brought Hunter’s research back to life after years of little consideration (Schumaker 1993, 441). Stone argues that a local government is incapable of ruling without a collaboration among elected politicians and at least one group within the private sector. As these elected governmental officials are part of the coalition, they benefit from the support of these outside influences (Domhoff 2005a). These players outside of the political realm are necessary, as the power of local government is not adequate for the actual act of governing (Orr et al. 2008, 83). Urban regime theory relies on a government elected by the people but economically controlled by the private sector.

The elected governing body, as well as relationships among the regime members and the capitol each brings to the alliance, tailor policies at the local level. Arrangements made within the political circle help mold the economy as those running the economy also mold local politics (Orr et al. 2008, 76-77). Stone’s research indicates that items recommended by the business community in Atlanta received much more formal attention than those introduced by the constituents involved in community action.

Often, neighborhood proposals never made it to the final agenda and when they did, were rejected or weakened. Neither the mayor’s political affiliation nor the pushback from the community lessened the impact the business community had on agendas (Friedland and Palmer 1984, 396). This has been described by other social scientists as the “second face of power,” prohibiting challenges to the norm from reaching the policy agenda in order to keep the existing state of affairs in place (Shumaker 1993, 444).

Robert Dahl, a follower of pluralist theory, considers inequalities among community members or groups as non-cumulative (Dahl 2005, 85), but Stone suggests elements of separation are inter-correlated, causing these inequalities to be cumulative. Stone separates these inequalities into categories, with smaller populations of wealth and poverty outnumbered by those of the middle-class. Stone uses a diamond to help the reader visualize this stratification of power.

Those at the top, although few, possess greater and more useful resources (Orr et al. 2008, 40). Often by simply owning an asset that is politically favorable, material or otherwise, allows greater access to community leaders (Orr et al. 2008, 35; 88). The large center of the diamond represents the majority, consisting of the middle-class. Their power is in their numbers and have some resources available to push for change, but in general must rely on mobilization en masse to affect any transformation of policy. The bottom of the pyramid depicts the lower-class with few opportunities to influence change in the community, not because this group does not have the numbers to organize, but because organization is unstable or nonexistent (Orr et al. 2005, 40-42).

This system of stratification gives accolades to elected officials who focus on the interests of those in the top of the diamond (Orr et al. 2008, 34). Stone labels this ability of the upper-strata to control policy as systemic power. Systemic power allows for certain actors to legally gain access to the government and influence officials to push for these actors’ best interests (Schumaker 1993, 446), allowing for the economics of a city to shape elected officials while economic leaders receive rewards via business opportunities (Friedland and Palmer 1984).

Through these means of control, the economic elite elevate the extent to which an urban regime can successfully control the local government (Judge et al. 1995, 29). Stone recognizes four types of regimes involved in local government. These are maintenance regimes, development regimes, middle class regimes, and lower-class regimes. Maintenance regimes work to maintain the status quo, with little effort to make any significant changes within the community.

This type of regime is not common, as those elected are unable to leave a mark on society. Development regimes desire growth through land use, and look for indications that private investment will bring benefits; urban leaders elected after World War II often associated themselves with development (Orr et al. 2008, 96-97). These development “growth regimes” usually involve the prominent land owners in a community, whose focus is on increasing their property values by expansion of land use (Domhoff 2007). Middle-class progressive regimes focus on needs and wants of the people, rather than the business community. Citizen activism is necessary to keep the public informed on policy needs, as is an observant voter base.

Strong community organization is necessary for regimes devoted to the poor, as projects to help them often do not benefit the business community. These regimes rarely exist due to the difficulty of mobilizing constituents who will reap the benefits (Orr et al. 2008, 97-99). To stay in power, elected officials do have to find a way to satisfy both a regime and the general-public, and must rely on these powerful outside influences to achieve their policy aims Decisions made by the government shape the economics of a city, just as regimes gain power through the resources they possess (Orr et al. 2008, 122; 278).

Regimes are, however, sometimes at the mercy of trends and traditions as well as politics at the state and national levels (Orr et al. 2008, 127). Furthermore, regimes with fewer resources must pick and choose wisely as to what they will argue or protest, limiting their influence (Friedland and Palmer 1984). Domhoff further emphasizes that upper-class coalitions rule local governments, and uses Richard Dahl’s research on New Haven, Connecticut to attempt to prove wrong his theory of pluralism.

Dahl maintains that “the people” rule New Haven, not those in good social standing or in the business community. Dahl breaks down the social notables from the economic notables, claiming very little crossover between the two groups; this is the basis of his theory of rule by the people with weak economic notables too busy running businesses to be involved in public affairs and a high society not interested in politics (Dahl and Rae 2005, 64; 71). He explains that politicians see their reelections happening at the ballot box, and their focus is on the public’s interests and desires for the community.

Free elections and competition among political parties prohibits the possibility of a ruling elite (Domhoff 2007). Issues pursued by politicians are those which will increase support by the general-public and likewise will avoid those which will not (Dahl and Rae 2005. 92-93). Domhoff disagrees with Dahl, using Dahl’s own research, or in some instances lack of, to suggest that there is an elite group of non-elected individuals who control what happens at the local level of government. This theory of elitism stresses control of government by a small group who own and run banks and businesses or are people held in high esteem within the community (Schumaker 1993, 448).

Dahl uses the guest list at the Annual Assemblies of the New Haven Lawn club as the only indicator of upper-class standing, while Domhoff uses an indicator of status from larger cities in the United States, the membership in social clubs, to determine social ranking (Domhoff 1978, 14; 18). A considerable portion of Who Really Rules? exposes the flaws of Dahl’s method of separating the social notables from the economic notables, showing a high overlap between the two groups. Additionally, the book presents interviews, written correspondence, and meeting minutes which clearly point to control of policy issues outside of the local government.

Domhoff insists on three methods for conducting power structure research, reputational, decisional, and positional. He believes the use of all three pertinent when possible to produce adequate results, as each method has its own strengths (Domhoff 1978, 137). Dahl considers the decisional method as the only sufficient method for the study of power structure (Domoff 1978, 122). The reputational, used by Hunter, focuses on asking people in positions of power to identify the most influential leaders within a community (Domhoff 1978, 123), which Domhoff suggests assists in detecting actors working behind the scenes (Domhoff 1978, 136).

Researchers utilizing the positional method focus on overrepresentation by a class or group within the community. The decisional method focuses primarily on those with control over policy as well as veto power and whether these people monopolize certain areas of decision-making (Domhoff 1978, 121-122). This information presented by Domhoff indicates great influence by the Chamber of Commerce and Yale University, much of it prior to the election of Mayor Lee.

This goes against Dahl’s theory that Lee was the driving force behind the urban renewal; records indicate the business community launched renewal plans under the leadership of the previous mayor, William Celentano, who, along with the Board of Aldermen, showed little attention to or involvement in the process (Domhoff 1978, 90-95). Domhoff also moves to disprove Dahl’s ideas concerning the Citizen Action Committee as a tool of Mayor Lee, playing a passive role and having little or no opinion on proposals brought forth. In fact, the opposite is true. According to Domhoff, the mayor made known to the chamber leaders he agreed with the program and believed a Citizen’s Action Committee would serve the purpose of public relations.

The committee was never created to propose changes to the redevelopment plan; the business elite had already made agreements and these were accepted by the incoming mayor (Domhoff 1978, 47; 101-102). In addition to arguing that power structures do exist in New Haven and beyond, he also believes the structure of power at the local level is related to those in control at the national level (Domhoff 1978, 174). Domhoff dedicates an entire section of Who Really Rules? to his research into a nationwide economic network. His research connects the economically powerful in other major U.S. cities through business transactions, social clubs, schools, and vacation resorts, (Domhoff 1978, 153-155) pointing to a vast network beyond city limits.

Additionally, Friedland and Palmer (1984) point to a connection between community growth and the national standing of its industries at both the corporate and class levels, strengthening this idea of a national power connection. The research provided by social scientists such as Stone, Hunter, and Domhoff certainly point to underlying and indirect power sources outside of government authority at the local level, and present a valid and arguable case against Dahl’s pluralism. To presume no special interest groups, be it community activists, financial experts, or developers, have enough money and backing to wield considerable control over policy seems naïve, especially in the 21st century.

Not only do groups such as a city’s Chamber of Commerce push government toward pro-growth policies favoring businesses and land developers, in many cases a city’s citizens are not involved enough to even realize the people are not in power. Considering the breadth of cronyism and amassed wealth among those currently running the national government, it is difficult to accept the idea that fragmented power and free elections curb underlying economic control in urban politics.

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