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City Limits and the Study of Urban Politics
Too often cities are treated as if they were nation-states. What is known about the politics of nations, it is said, can be applied to the politics of cities within them. And what is known about politics within cities can be applied to the politics of nations. Cities are little political systems, or miniature republics, or national politics writ small enough to be studied with ease. For the quantitatively inclined, nation-states have the disadvantage that they are few in number and difficult to study. Cities, on the other hand, are numerous enough that one can identify systematic patterns of variation, through the application of statistical controls, to data collected on a large number of cases. And the more qualitatively oriented of empirical political scientists have, if anything, been more enthusiastic about the city. Every political scientist lives in a city, in a town, or at least in a village; by studying the politics around him, he can—with only modest research resources—gather the rich contextual information necessary for high-quality interpretive analysis, which he then generalizes to the nation as a whole.
In the hands of most analysts, the factors shaping urban public policy are internal to the city. The rivalry among groups, the patterns of coalition formation, the presence or absence of competitive political parties, the power of local elites, or the vagaries of political campaigns are what influence policy outcomes. Moreover, parties, groups, the news media, bureaucracies, and other political institutions function similarly in local and national contexts. Generalizations about the behavior of these political entities at the local level, it is maintained, are applicable to the national level, and vice versa.
It is the burden of my argument that local politics is not like national politics. On the contrary, by comparison with national politics local politics is most limited. There are crucial kinds of public policies that local governments simply cannot execute. They cannot make war or peace; they cannot issue passports or forbid outsiders from entering their territory; they cannot issue currency; and they cannot control imports or erect tariff walls. There are other things cities cannot do, but these are some of the most crucial limits on their powers.
Because cities are limited in what they can do, the powers remaining to them are exercised within very noticeable constraints. Moreover, even their political processes take a shape very different from that taken by national political processes. City politics is limited politics.
Because cities have limits, one explains urban public policy by looking at the place of the city in the larger socioeconomic and political context. The place of the city within the larger political economy of the nation fundamentally affects the policy choices that cities make. In making these decisions, cities select those policies which are in the interests of the city, taken as a whole. It is these city interests, not the internal struggles for power within cities, that limit city policies and condition what local governments do.
This approach differs from four literatures that have shaped the study of urban politics and intergovernmental relations: the debate over community power; the analysis of the conflict between political machines and reform movements; the literature on comparative urban policy; and studies of federalism. In their own way, each of these studies has taken the city as a more or less autonomous decision-making unit with all of the characteristics of the nation-state. In most cases political forces within the city are treated as the fundamental elements explaining what cities do. As a result, scholars have engaged in needless controversy, misinterpreted their findings, and failed to appreciate the full significance of their material. There nonetheless remains in these literatures much that is of considerable value, and I shall not hesitate to invoke their findings when pertinent to this analysis. What is offered in subsequent chapters must be understood as supplementary to the rich literature on the internal politics of American cities. To ignore internal factors altogether would be as misleading as to treat urban politics and policymaking solely in terms of them. It is only because the studies reviewed here have elucidated one aspect of urban politics so clearly that they are worth critical review.
The Community Power Controversy
The postwar study of urban politics owes much to the prolonged and still fascinating dispute over the distribution of power in local communities. The dispute became central because it focused on a question of enduring significance but about which it was impossible to reach a satisfactory conclusion. The dispute was significant because its resolution had important implications for the country's claim to a democratic form of government. Yet the issue could not be resolved, because to know the distribution of power was to understand the causal forces determining government policy. To have a complete theory of political causation is to have an empirical theory of politics, a remarkable achievement likely to escape the wit of social scientists for some time to come.
The three sides to the debate are too well known to require lengthy introduction. Those who saw a local "power structure" said that communities were controlled by a small group of leading businessmen and financiers, who together with mayors and trade union leaders beholden to them determined the community's future. Those who saw pluralist decision-making processes treated urban policies as the outcome of events in which diverse groups competed. A third view accepted the complexity of local political processes but then argued that overt political events in the community were only one manifestation of the distribution of political power, and not the most important one at that. To understand power required an appreciation of the forces that kept issues off local agendas; once this was achieved, the hands of an almost invisible elite would be detectable once again. In my view, all three positions are correct as far as they go. More exactly, all three positions have captured one aspect of local politics, and when put together (in chapters 7, 8, and 9) the three interpretations give a quite convincing portrait of the local political landscape. But before such a synthesis can be realized one critical error common to all three approaches must be appreciated: each of the three sides believed that the politics of communities could be understood roughly in the same terms as the politics of nation-states. All assumed that cities had few, if any, limits. When "power-elite" theorists identified a small group of power holders, they regarded the decisions this group made as the primary factors determining local policy. In fact these leaders were largely responding to factors external to the community that were quite beyond the control of the "power elite." When pluralists saw widespread and diverse participation in local politics, they believed that the choices being debated were the issues local residents regarded as most significant. They assumed that any question which divided community residents soon became a matter of controversy. But we shall see that many problems important to the well-being of most people seldom became issues for public discussion at the local level. And when they are raised, supporters are too scattered and ineffectual to have more than transitory impact.
Does this not then imply that the most important issues are kept off the local agenda by a ruling elite that contrives a local consensus? At the very least, are there not rules and procedures that "bias" the issues that become the stuff of local politics? The answer can only be, "Yes, but ..." Yes, in the sense that structures always limit the choices available to political systems. However, the qualifying "but" is exceptionally significant. The issues screened out of local politics are not eliminated by local electoral devices, bureaucratic manipulations, or a one-sided press. Nor are the issues removed from local agendas necessarily eliminated from the country's politics altogether. The demands that do not arrive on the agenda of local politics are those that fall outside the limited sphere of local politics. Only if local politics is treated as equivalent to national politics can one claim that one has discovered something significant about power in American society simply because one has found an issue that does not appear on a local agenda.
Consider the most obvious example, national defense. No American city has seriously considered taking strong defensive measures against the possibility of attack from the Soviet Union. From that, one might conclude that a Communist elite keeps certain issues off local agendas. Yet one might also conclude that national defense is the responsibility of the central rather than local government. We shall see in chapter 4 that not just defense and foreign policy questions but many domestic issues have qualities that make them more appropriate for national than local resolution. Yet the "other face of power" school treats their absence from the local agenda as a telling fact about power. In doing so, they make unwarranted inferences about power relations in American society.
Political Machines and Urban Reformers
The prototypical conflict in urban politics has for decades pitted partisan political organizations against nonpartisan, good-government groups calling for the reform of City Hall. Political machines consolidated their political power through patronage, attention to the demands of competing ethnic groups, and the provision of government services through partisan channels. Reformers uncovered misappropriations of public funds, promoted civil service recruitment by merit criteria, and sought to standardize the distribution of services to all parts of the city.
The standard interpretation of machine-reform conflict has been in terms of a class model of local politics. It has been stated most persuasively in terms of the conflicts between the "ethos" of the machine, as representative of working-class immigrants, and the "ethos" of the reformers, who represented upper-class, silk-stockinged, Anglo-Saxon businessmen and professionals. The issues that divided machine from reform were rooted in two political cultures competing for dominance in the urban North. On the one side, the Catholic immigrant, whose culture emphasized family, neighborhood, and friendship ties, treated politics as another marketplace in which particularistic self-interests could be pursued. On the other side, the middle-class Protestant, reared in a milieu that delineated man's individuality, separateness, and equality before God, understood politics to be the pursuit of "justice," the ground upon which one created a "city on the hill" that would radiate its worth to the surrounding countryside.
The opposing institutional networks created by political machines and their reform opponents reflected these value differences. Machines favored ward elections, long ballots, decentralized governing arrangements, and the close connection between government, party, neighborhood, and ethnic association. Reformers preferred citywide elections, short ballots, centralized governing institutions, and the application of universalistic norms in the provision of government services. Governmental efficiency was to be preferred over responsiveness to neighborhood, party, and ethnic particularities.
There is much to be said for this analysis. Many conflicts in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis, San Francisco, and other big cities divided sharply along just these lines. The ethnic compositions of machine and reform leaders stood markedly in contrast with one another. Over time, public institutions have become more centralized partly in response to reform pressures. But these cultural conflicts and structural innovations provide only weak evidence for a high level of class conflict in local politics. First, the leadership of political machines was hardly less well connected with local commerce and industry than were the reformers. Although the middle-and upper-class origins of the reformers cannot be disputed, there is no less evidence that leading machine politicians were—or at least became—prosperous businessmen, lawyers, and real estate developers. Second, the incidence of reform structures in American cities has been unrelated to the class composition of cities, once regional differences are taken into account. Whatever the class bias of the reformers, they must not have differed from machine politicians so decidedly that working-class supporters rushed to the defense of machine institutions wherever their numbers permitted it. Third, the public policies of machine cities have not differed from those of reform cities in ways that conform to a class model of politics. Few studies have shown any clear-cut differences; those that do are unable to show that either the working class as a whole or the unemployed and needy in particular are better treated in the machine cities. Finally, and fundamentally, the political machine was an institution marvelously suited to the needs of businessmen in a rapidly industrializing society. American workers, no less than their European counterparts, experienced long hours, low wages, harsh working conditions, and great fluctuations in employment opportunities. Strikes, unionizing efforts, socialist agitation, violent confrontations between workers and police, and systematic suppression of union leaders by corporate detectives and federal judges were regular features of late-nineteenth-century politics. But these factory disputes seldom had a decisive influence in local politics. Although local political parties sometimes cooperated with union leaders, they were never beholden to them. Political machines seldom put their weight behind the most vigorous expressions of working-class protest; by and large, they stood on the side of "law and order" in the local community.
Scott's comparative analysis of the functions of political corruption in emergent, industrializing societies is a most useful corrective to those applying a class model to the politics of machine and reform. He shows the regularity with which corruption occurs whenever formal political equality coincides with great disparities in private wealth and social position. Where the masses are politically active, the privileged support political leaders who can manage voter discontent without challenging the socioeconomic status quo. Patronage and corruption lubricate the friction between the world of equality and the world of privilege. Nowhere did this process operate more smoothly than in industrializing nineteenth-century America. The political machine in the United States was at once at home with the ethnic immigrants and with the business entrepreneur, who was always willing to make a deal. From the capitalists' perspective, machines hardly needed replacement by silk-stockinged reformers. In many cities, Chicago being only the best known example, businessmen regularly rejected reform appeals for help.
Inasmuch as conflicts between machine and reform are only poorly understood when phrased in class categories, the persistence with which social scientists and historians have resorted to this interpretation requires explanation. One factor, it seems, is the easy but mistaken equation that is made between national and local politics. For example, municipal reformers are often unfavorably compared with the New Deal reformers. In Hofstadter's terms, the former were a reactionary group protesting the disappearance of a bygone rural past, while the latter were liberals seeking to moderate the worst abuses of a capitalist system. In other comparisons the municipal reformers were structural or procedural innovators who provide only for new political arrangements, while the New Deal reformers focused on substantive changes in the social and economic order. In these comparisons it is assumed that substantive social innovation can be introduced as easily at the local as at the national level. There are no limits to what cities can do. As we shall see, these assumptions have little warrant. Once the limits on cities are appreciated, the conflict between machine and reform appears in another light. The cultural conflict remains, but it assumes a different social and political significance.
Comparative Analysis of Urban Public Policy
In recent years the traditional studies of community power and of machine-reform conflict have been superseded by a growing interest in urban public policy. These studies are noted for their large data banks, technical sophistication, and focus on policy outcomes as well as political processes. Yet the most influential of these studies owe much to the earlier literature, for they, too, treat local public policy largely in terms of the conflict and bargaining among disparate groups, agencies, and factions internal to the local political system. For example, students of taxation and expenditure policies have interpreted their findings largely in terms of local political relationships. In one widely cited study, the authors argue that the lower correlations between demographic variables and expenditures in reform, as compared with nonreform, cities are due to the lesser "responsiveness" of reform systems. When Clark found higher expenditure levels in more decentralized political systems, he concluded that decentralization allowed easier access to officials by a wider number of pluralist claimants for public benefits. And even economists now include numerous "taste" variables (percent non-white, percent foreign stock) in regression analyses of variations in state and local expenditure patterns. Without apology, these economists make the crude assumption that every resident (of whatever age) has equal influence in shaping the collective "taste" function of the local community.
Excerpted from City Limits by Paul E. Peterson. Copyright © 1981 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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