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City and Regime in the American Republic

City and Regime in the American Republic

by Stephen L. Elkin

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Stephen L. Elkin deftly combines the empirical and normative strands of political science to make a powerfully original statement about what cities are, can, and should be. Rejecting the idea that two goals of city politics—equality and efficiency—are opposed to one another, Elkin argues that a commercial republic could achieve both. He then takes the


Stephen L. Elkin deftly combines the empirical and normative strands of political science to make a powerfully original statement about what cities are, can, and should be. Rejecting the idea that two goals of city politics—equality and efficiency—are opposed to one another, Elkin argues that a commercial republic could achieve both. He then takes the unusual step of addressing how the political institutions of the city can help to form the kind of citizenry such a republic needs.

The present workings of American urban political institutions are, Elkin maintains, characterized by a close relationship between politicians and businessmen, a relationship that promotes neither political equality nor effective social problem-solving. Elkin pays particular attention to the issue of land-use in his analysis of these failures of popular control in traditional city politics. Urban political institutions, however, are not just instruments for the dispensing of valued outcomes or devices for social problem-solving—they help to form the citizenry. Our present institutions largely define citizens as interest group adversaries and do little to encourage them to focus on the commercial public interest of the city. Elkin concludes by proposing new institutional arrangements that would be better able to harness the self-interested behavior of individuals for the common good of a commercial republic.

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City and Regime in the American Republic

By Stephen L. Elkin

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1987 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-30163-1



Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill approached the study of politics in cities and towns as part of a more general inquiry into the possibility of popular government. In this they distinguished themselves from most of their successors. For these later theorists, the study of city politics has become a specialization based on abstracting city politics from the larger political order and any assessment of its promise. Tocqueville, in a widely quoted comment, said that "municipal institutions constitute the strength of free nations. Town meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science.... A nation may establish a free government, but without municipal institutions it cannot have the spirit of liberty." Mill shared these sentiments and himself commented that "free and popular local and municipal institutions" are part of "the peculiar training of a citizen, the practical part of the political education of a free people."

In their various discussions of these matters, Tocqueville and Mill emphasized three themes: (1) that the study of local politics should be normative, (2) that it should be normative not just in an evaluative sense but in a way that pointed to political practice, and (3) that this normative focus should chiefly concern the contribution that local political institutions could make to a desirable political way of life. Echoes of these themes can be found in the major works that started the resurgence of urban political studies in the 1950s, but, for the most part, such concerns have faded as this subdiscipline has developed. In its place grew up a resolute empiricism that at various stages concerned itself with such matters as ethnic voting behavior in city elections and the effects of political structure on policy outcomes. Much effort was devoted to tying these studies to general theoretical arguments about the workings of city politics. But there was limited success, and, not surprisingly, such studies faded—and, with them, some of the interest in cities. This empiricism coexisted with the more normative community-power studies, as if the two efforts had little to contribute to one another. The community-power studies were animated primarily by the question of how to describe the distribution of power in American localities—and secondarily by the significance of such a distribution for American democracy. In the most sophisticated hands they thus came closer to the themes set down by Tocqueville and Mill. But again a great deal of success could not be claimed, for the effort, for the most part, dissolved into a dispute about methodology. Even now, there are some who are fighting rearguard actions in the methodological wars, trying to salvage positions argued twenty-five years ago and neglecting the significance of any research findings for a well-developed conception of a valued political way of life.

More recently, a normative focus in the study of city politics has had something of a resurgence in the work of such urban theorists as Peterson and Katznelson. Peterson's work is the most wide-ranging, advancing a general theory of how city politics works and of its limitations for pursuing various kinds of egalitarian goals. Katznelson's work is essentially a theoretical case study that is particularly concerned with the prospects of leftist political movements for remaking the face of city politics. While these two authors have different substantive concerns, they do share the sense that the principal normative focus of urban political study should be a concern for the way in which city politics advances or retards equality and/or promotes some conception of efficiency.

The studies by Peterson and Katznelson (especially that of the former), as well as those by their less-sophisticated counterparts, are part of a widespread current interest in the relation between equality and efficiency in political life. Perhaps the most widely cited contemporary statement of this interest is the work of Arthur Okun. These studies reflect the generally held view that the promise of liberal democratic politics is (1) for the establishment of some kind of political and economic equality and (2) for an increased ability to use resources efficiently both to advance material well-being and to cope with policy dilemmas.

A principal difficulty in these studies, even in the sophisticated ones, has been to develop a view of the relation between equality and efficiency that gives due regard to each. In the case of a study such as Peterson's, an insensitivity to how urban politics may institutionalize the advantage of some interests over others exists alongside a complex understanding of the efficiency dimensions of urban politics. Katznelson succumbs to the opposite difficulty, treating city politics as if it were essentially a contest for power between class and racial groupings and neglecting its problem-solving or efficiency dimensions.

A second difficulty is the more subtle one of not fully sharing Tocqueville's and Mill's interest in the larger political whole. Again, the examples of Peterson and Katznelson are instructive, since both, unlike many other students, make the effort. In the case of Peterson's work, one is left with the impression that the larger political order is much like a factory that has two principal tasks—distributing goods and services and efficiently allocating resources for a variety of policy purposes. There is little effort to see what else may be at stake and, in particular, what role city politics might play in any more complex understanding of the national political order. There is presumably some reason why we have both a polity and an economy. Politics may be deeply involved in economics, but there is good reason to doubt whether the former is or ought to be merely an extension of the latter by other means—and presumably a less appealing one at that. Katznelson's sophisticated treatment of why class and racial conflict look as they do in American cities leaves the impression that a good political order would be one in which the tables were turned, and those who currently lose out for systematic reasons would be systematically advantaged. To be sure, there is a kind of rough justice in this view, compensation often being appealing where there are those who have been illegitimately shortchanged. But compensation and turning the tables are not the same things as institutions and rules that are at the core of any political order in which conflict is expected to occur.

A third difficulty is in the development of normative arguments that will be helpful in guiding political practice. Once again the examples of Peterson and Katznelson are suggestive. Being accomplished theorists, they concern themselves with the question of good practice. However, their efforts are not very self-conscious, tending toward conclusions and advice rather than analysis of the kinds of arguments that underlie their advice. In their different ways, they illustrate the most common versions of commentary on political practice: (1) using causal analyses of how some political domain currently works to argue that efforts to make it work in any other fashion ought not to be made and (2) focusing on disadvantaged actors and attempting to discover what steps might be taken to improve their lot. Both types of commentary are necessary parts of any broad version of political practice, but any useful conception must surely include some view, however tentative, of the principal features of the desirable political order toward which such practices are directed.

Studies such as those of Peterson and Katznelson point the way to a recovery of a normative conception of city politics, in the manner of Tocqueville and Mill. But they also suggest that, for such an effort to be successful, it must not only treat the equality and efficiency dimensions of political life in a balanced fashion but must rest on a more complex conception of the larger political whole, a conception that is not confined only to these two dimensions.


The themes of equality and, to a lesser degree, efficiency, also guide the following pages, particularly the four chapters that follow. I pursue the equality theme by asking whether popular control in cities is characterized by systematic bias such that some interests are systematically favored over others. The absence of such systematic bias I shall call political equality. If the agenda of what gets discussed in the city regularly reflects the preferences of some political actors more than those of others, and if the results of policy decisions reflect the shape of the agenda, we can safely infer that there is systematic bias at work; in other words, popular control in cities would be flawed, a shortcoming that might be characterized as a serious departure from political equality.

I pursue the efficiency theme by asking whether city political institutions are organized to promote social intelligence. The premise of this discussion is that these institutions affect not only the distribution of benefits and burdens but also how well problems that city residents face collectively are dealt with. This is a matter of social problem solving—and a key to it is, again, the shape of the public agenda. If the content of the agenda is substantially restricted to the proposals of only some political actors in the city, then so is social intelligence restricted. In this sense, the roots of political equality and social intelligence are the same.

My general conclusion concerning political equality and social intelligence is that on both counts there are significant failures of popular control. In particular, popular control is unduly hospitable to the preferences of businessmen concerned with land use (or to what public officials consider to be their preferences). The result is systematic bias and shortcomings in social problem solving. Moreover, precisely because the roots of political equality and social intelligence are the same, the widespread effort to consider the trade-offs between equality and efficiency is misplaced. There is good reason to believe that systematic bias leads to poor social intelligence: there is no tradeoff, only cumulative loss.

My concern in these beginning chapters is not to present new data on city politics but to offer an interpretation of how the workings of city political institutions affect systematic bias and social problem solving. Also, as I shall say below, these chapters present evidence on how city political institutions contribute to the character of the urban citizenry, evidence pertinent to the Tocquevillean theme of the type of citizenry necessary for a liberal political order to flourish.

The study of American city politics has matured to the point that it is possible to present a comprehensive understanding on the basis of what is already known. A list of the major features of city politics for which there is substantial supporting evidence would include the following:

1. Electoral contests in city politics typically do not involve extensive discussion of public issues, especially when contrasted with national elections. Electoral competition is principally between those committed to the defense of existing administrative and electoral arrangements and those committed to "reform." This competition is not manifested in each election, since city politics is characterized by long periods of dominance by one coalition or another. When ethnicity is important in city politics, its principal manifestations are electorally based. Ethnic groups differentially distribute themselves between reformers and those committed to existing arrangements.

2. Interest groups operate in city politics, and the actions of city bureaucracies in particular are shaped by their activities. In general, conflict over the behavior of public agencies can be observed in which interest groups play a major part. On occasion, such conflict involves many participants and generates intense emotions.

3. Businessmen are the most extensively organized of the various interests in the city. A variety of businessmen's organizations operate in city politics, often with substantial resources of expertise, money, and access to public officials. The views of such organized businessmen are widely disseminated and receive a respectful hearing both in the media and from public officials. Among organized businessmen, those concerned with the central business district of the city are particularly well organized.

4. City governments are interested in the economic performance of the industries that operate within their borders and in attracting new investment. The management of their external economic relations is a central concern of city officials, and, as a consequence, there is extensive contact between public officials and local businessmen on the subject of the state of the local economy and how to keep or make it healthy.

5. Bureaucracies are central actors in city politics. Such agencies have a good deal of autonomy in the day-to-day running of the city and can have significant influence on major policy and budgetary decisions. Mayors are either content to live with such autonomy or find it politically costly to redirect agency activity.

6. Federal and state governments have had a powerful—and, in the case of the former, an increasingly powerful—impact on city politics. Political activity in the city is significantly influenced by legislation and grants that originate in these other levels of government. Especially in the case of the federal government, these ties of authority and money have become increasingly complex and important to both public officials and citizens of the city.

7. Racial division is a pervasive and endemic feature of city politics. It has manifested itself in violence between the races, rioting, and conflict over participation in and receipt of the benefits of city politics.

The one new body of data presented here is a case study of politics in Dallas. This case study is included for two reasons. The first of these is a need to guard against the possibility that the interpretation of the workings of city political institutions that I offer here—and the conclusions that I draw from it—will be biased toward older, northern and midwestern cities. These cities have been the subject of most of the empirical studies to date, and I wish to establish that the interpretation and conclusions of the present work hold across all regions. The second reason is that it will be helpful to have an illustration of those crucial features of the analysis that appear in chapters 2 and 3. Since the present work is a general interpretation, some of the formulations will inevitably tend toward the overly abstract and can therefore benefit from being fleshed out in a case example.

The conceptual foundation on which my comprehensive interpretation rests is the division of labor between state and market as it has become manifest in cities. The interpretation attempts to move beyond the now sterile debate between elitists and pluralists that has characterized community-power studies—and takes seriously what common sense tells us, namely, that city politics is a profoundly economically oriented enterprise. It is bound up with economic matters in direct and powerful ways, so that there can be no study of city politics without the study of city economy. Moreover, the nature of the city's concern with its economic destiny, the extent of its public powers and their internal organization—in short, the principal features of the state-market division—are all historically shaped. Not only must there be a political economy interpretation of city politics, but any such interpretation must be historically informed.

The political economy impulse displayed here is one that is common to both public-choice and Marxist analyses. I seek, however, to avoid the reductionist trap of much of the work in the former vein. In such work, political action is explained largely by reference to the incentives generated by political rules in light of given preferences, and the economic and political context drops from sight. I also try not to fall into the corresponding error of much Marxist work, which sees politics as a deduction from economic structure. As is the case with Marxist analysis, the explanations that I offer are structural in the sense that the choices open to political leaders are understood to be constrained by the economic arrangements in which the city is situated. But, not only do I argue that political leaders have choices in how to respond to this economic context; I contend that they also have other considerations in mind, most notably how to pursue their political ambitions and how to get and continue to be elected. The structuralist analyses offered are not presented as being economically deterministic. The result of these various factors, I argue, is that there is a strong tendency for political leaders and businessmen, particularly those concerned with land-use matters, to find themselves in tacit or open alliance. The results of this, in turn, are the foreshortened public agenda alluded to above, the corresponding problems of systematic bias and ineffective problem solving, and a citizenry ill suited to the running of the sort of republic that we wish to be.


Excerpted from City and Regime in the American Republic by Stephen L. Elkin. Copyright © 1987 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Meet the Author

Stephen L. Elkin teaches political science at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is the author of Politics and Land Use Planning and the coeditor of The Democratic State.

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