“Who Governs” the city?

Political scientist Robert Dahl authored the influential 1961 book Who Governs? and here is a quick summary of his work upon his recent death:

His career lasted for more than half a century, but he was best known for the 1961 publication “Who Governs?” Cited by the Times Literary Supplement as among the 100 most influential books since World War II, “Who Governs?” probed the political system of Dahl’s own community at the time, New Haven, which he considered an ideal microcosm for the country: two strong parties, a long history and a careful progression from patrician rule to self-made men to party rule, where candidates of varied ethnic and economic backgrounds – a garage owner, an undertaker, a director of publicity – might succeed.

Dahl wanted to know who really ran the city, and, by extension, the country. Sociologist C. Wright Mills, in “The Power Elite,” had written that wealth and power were concentrated within a tiny group of people. Dahl believed no single entity was in charge. Instead, there were competing ones – social, economic and political leaders whose goals often did not overlap. He acknowledged that many citizens did not participate in local issues and that the rich had advantages over the poor, but concluded that New Haven, while a “republic of unequal citizens,” was still a republic.

Dahl’s conclusions were strongly challenged in the 1970s by sociologist G. William Domhoff, who used research provided in part by Dahl himself to find that he had underestimated the power of the business community and overestimated the divisions among New Haven’s leaders. Domhoof alleged that Dahl relied too much on the people he spoke with.

“It may be that the most serious criticism I can make of Dahl is that he never should have done this interview-based study in the first place, for it was doomed from the start to fall victim to the ambitions and plans of the politicians, planners, lawyers and businessmen that he was interviewing,” Domhoff wrote.

Impressive – many social scientists could only dream of having a book that is named among the most influential.

This debate is related to a leading perspective in urban sociology, the political economy paradigm, which argues that urban development is the result of powerful and politically connected actors. In cities and suburbs, development is often the work of politicians and the FIRE industries – finance, insurance, and real estate – working together to make money. These groups, dubbed growth machines, can access a range of resources not available to average citizens including credit, political influence, and public booster efforts often led by leading citizens and local media. Across cities and locales, the particular configuration of growth machines can differ but the key is to know where to first look when understanding development.