Who Rules America?  By G. William Domhoff, University of California at Santa Cruz

Power in America

The Shortcomings of Rival Urban Theories

by G. William Domhoff

The growth-coalition theory developed by Harvey Molotch and his colleagues (Logan & Molotch, 1987; Molotch, 1976; Molotch, 1979) is an exciting and relatively new way of thinking about local power structures and their relations with each other and national-level power. It is an extremely dynamic theory that deals with all the conflict that so dazzles pluralists. At the same time it remains true to the findings that we have on Atlanta, San Francisco, New Haven, and other communities. Although some recent critics claim that the theory is refuted by the rise of anti-growth coalitions, such neighborhood-based coalitions are precisely what the theory predicts.

The theory leaves me with a feeling of closure about the local power structure literature of the past. That literature now makes theoretical as well as empirical sense. The empirical studies also give me a little hope that some members of future generations of historians and social scientists will find these ideas worth trying out on new issues and research sites. This seems especially worthwhile when we consider the unsatisfactory alternatives offered by the pluralists, urban Marxists, and regime theorists.

Pluralism/Public Choice Theory

What do the pluralists have to say? Sadly, many of them are still arguing about methods or trying to count up the number of faces that power wears--is it one, two, or three? However, they do have a book to replace Dahl's, political scientist Paul Peterson's award-winning City Limits(1981), which has held center court for the past 25 years.

Peterson improves on previous pluralist studies by stating that "Urban politics is above all the politics of land use," arguing that cities "compete with one another so as to maximize their economic position" (1981, pp. 25, 28). After some gratuitous comments (1981, p. 136) about Hunter doing research in a "casual manner" and writing in a way that "fluctuated from sociological obscurantism to journalistic sensationalism," thereby ensuring in advance that no one will accuse him of embracing elite theory, Peterson tells his fellow pluralists that there is more to Hunter's work than has been previously realized. Even with all his alleged failings, Hunter uncovered those who are involved in the politics of development.

In one sense, Peterson acknowledges, these people are a relatively insulated elite, but they are not the cause of development politics. Instead, development is due to the competition among cities to hold on to their consumer-voters through the production of "public goods," which is just the opposite of the growth-coalition formulation.

Since development is necessary to produce public goods, and everyone can agree on this fact, it is just good politics to maximize growth. Even more, it is rational. It is simply "public choice" theory, a product of the free-market economists at the University of Chicago. Generally speaking, it is the application of market theory to local government policies, which is also what underpinned traditional pluralism, but not quite as relentlessly. For this school of thought, the government is like the market, with politicians responsive to voters for the same reason that businesses are responsive to consumers. Voters, like consumers, are kings. There is no room for any notion of concentrated power in any model based on free-market economic theory. All you need are the following assumptions:

  • People seek to maximize their individual "utilities" (i.e., their self interest)
  • People are rational
  • People have enough time and information to make informed choices
  • People are able to shop elsewhere--or move elsewhere, in the case of local politics--if they don't like want they find at the local store (or their current residence)
  • Everyone ends up free to choose, and they are dealt with fairly

Hence. there is no need for any growth coalition to work up boosterism and push elected officials to favor growth policies, and of course Peterson has no theory concerning the potential conflict between the growth coalition and neighborhoods. As a more empirically grounded pluralist in political science put it in commenting on this point, Peterson "made the blooper of the decade in claiming that developmental politics were quiet and rational" (Jones, 1989, p. 36).

Blooper or no blooper, the fact that citizens often oppose growth projects, and vote against bonds for convention centers and stadiums, does not seem to phase proponents of Peterson's public-choice theory. When the public's choice goes against public-choice theory, the people's will is blithely ignored rather than make any adjustments in the theory. Perhaps it could be said that the people are irrational or ill-informed, but that would go against the basic assumptions of the theory. As the longtime executive director of a right-wing foundation put it when explaining why his foundation had invested $68 million in law and economics programs at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and the University of Chicago, "Economic analysis tends to have conservatizing effects" (DeParle, 2005, p. 21).

(I, for one, do not believe a single one of the assumptions made by pluralists and public-choice theorists. People are somewhat rational, yes, except when they are irrational and nutty, such as when arguing about politics or religion, and they are reasonably reasonable, except when you get them on their particular pet peeves. Furthermore, we always lack at least some of the necessary information to make public-choice theory work (there is "information asymmetry," to use the phrase adopted by economists who criticize the free-market model). Most of all, we aren't always, or often, self-maximizing. We are far more communal and concerned about others than this overly rationalistic, apsychological, and asociological theory allows. "Bounded rationality" and the other hedges on the pure theory by moderate-minded and pragmatic social scientists don't even begin to describe the complexity of the human mind.)

Naturally, growth-coalition theorists are not among the many authors that Peterson and his advocates find worth citing, even though he cribbed their main idea and tacked it on to traditional pluralism and public-choice theory. Although he notes the limits of extreme pluralist formations, he writes about the magnificent initiative of Mayor Richard C. Lee in New Haven as if that claim by Dahl (1961) had never been challenged empirically. No need for Peterson to check the full literature (Domhoff, 1978; Domhoff, 1983, pp. 184-196).

No wonder community power structure research more or less disappeared once public-choice theory came along. There is no need for the kind of research Hunter and other sociologists did in the field thanks to the theoretical deductions from free-market economics. These deductions are then confirmed with government statistics and economic data over time, which is downloaded from here and there, smushed together into large databases, and then massaged with regression programs. This tells us what we need to know without having to leave our offices.

Politicians fit into this scheme as the people who respond to the messages sent by the market and the ballot box. They are therefore responsive to the general will, not to growth elites or other well-heeled citizens. This kind of analysis is contradicted by the empirical fact that most politicians in most cities soon became enmeshed in the growth coalitions if they do not emerge directly from them (Molotch, 1988, pp. 35-38). Contrary to the pluralists, even the urban political machines of the past were in fact based in the growth coalitions, not simply in neighborhoods and party politics (Domhoff, 1990, Chapter 9).

Given that there is conflict over growth, and that those who oppose growth often lose in the end, even when they elect a majority of growth-control officials, or defeat pro-growth ballot measures, it follows that the city is not the smoothly functioning harmony that pluralists claim. Once it is accepted that there are opposing sides, then who wins and who loses has to be taken into account, and pluralism fails as a theory because the growth elites usually win.


As for the Marxists, they are so focused in their most abstract categories that when they look at urban areas they can see nothing but "accumulation," "class struggle," and "the reproduction of labor power." Their first major mistake is that they generally collapse the important distinction between capitalists and the place entrepreneurs at the heart of the growth coalitions. Even when they see differences, they do not understand that the landlords have played a local and intermediary role. Instead, they make distinctions between "fractions of capital," and at best they see these "fractions" differing over profits in housing versus lower wages for workers. As Walton (1981, p. 384) remarked in a review of the "new urban sociology," back when it was still new, several leading Marxists "have analyzed the manner in which expenditures on collective consumption (housing being prototypical) tend to divide fractions of capital, with those dependent on land, construction, or rental favoring greater profit in housing while industrial capital opposes such upward pressure on wages." But it is far more than housing, of course. The real money at the local level is in downtown office buildings.

The same error of collapsing categories also takes place on the other side of the dialectical divide, claiming thereby that people are only workers and that all conflicts are class struggles. That is, most Marxists fail to distinguish the defense of neighborhood use values from class struggles over exploitation and surplus value. Thus Tabb and Sawers (1978, p. 5), in the introduction to their edited volume on Marxism and the Metropolis, correctly tell us that in the 1960s "struggles over urban space intensified as community groups fought for their homes against highways and urban renewal." Then they claim that "many came to see these struggles over turf as forms of class struggle." They do not tell us exactly who these "many" are who came to see things this way, but from a reading of the subsequent essays, it is clear that the category encompasses all the Marxists in their volume who speak in general theory. As far as I can tell without reading every last Marxist article, nothing has changed on this score as of 2005.

For urban geographer David Harvey, one of the two major figures among Marxian urbanists since the 1970s, the problems of the city are termed "mere reflections of the underlying tension between capital and labor." The whole reductive quote reads as follows:

Conflicts in the living space are, we can conclude, mere reflections of the underlying tension between capital and labor. Appropriators and the construction faction mediate the forms of conflict--they stand between capital and labor and thereby shield the real source of tension from view. The surface appearance of conflicts around the built environment--the struggles against the landlord or against urban renewal--conceals a hidden essence that is nothing more than the struggle between capital and labor. (Harvey, 1976, p. 289.)

Nothing more than the struggle between capital and labor? It is hard to beat this quote for pure abstractness, or to miss the implication that all but Marxists are fooled by surface appearances and the deceits of capital. Everything, and hence nothing, is explained by class struggle.

The other leading urban Marxist since the 1970s and 1980s, Manuel Castells, now perhaps something of a post-Marxist, does not make the mistake of reducing urban social conflict to an aspect of the class struggle. Furthermore, he criticizes fellow Marxists because they "have tended to respond (to rival theories) by reducing the city and space to the logic of capital" (Castells, 1983, p. 297). Unfortunately, though, he goes off the deep end in a completely opposite direction, labeling every social movement that happens to occur in an urban area as an "urban social movement."

Despite the fact that most of the case studies Castells presents in his The City and the Grassroots (1983) were in fact battles between landlords and tenants that accomplished very little, or else conflicts over government urban renewal projects, he lumps these common-place struggles with other urban-based movements (gay rights, women's movements, black uprisings). He then says that together they are aspects of a much wider and more profound struggle that has three underlying goals: "collective consumption trade unionism" (that is, urban amenities and housing), the search for cultural identity ("community'), and the "decentralization of state power" to city governments and neighborhoods. These goals in turn relate to the three themes that dominate all of recent world history:

The three goals that are crucial factors in the fulfillment of urban social movements are precisely the three alternative projects to the modes of production and modes of development that dominate our world. The city as a use value contradicts the capitalist form of the city as exchange value. The city as a communication network opposes the one-way information flow characteristic of the informational mode of development. And the city as a political entity of free self-management opposes the reliance on the centralized state as an instrument of authoritarianism and a threat of totalitarianism. Thus the fundamental themes and debates of our history are actually the raw material of the urban movements. (Castells, 1983, p. 326.)

For Castells, the mundane conflicts between the growth coalitions and specific neighborhoods disappear into a Neo-Marxian logic that is as abstract in its own way as David Harvey's orthodox class-struggle logic. Either way, the city and its conflicts between growth coalitions and neighborhoods are lost from sight once again. Castells' effort was a heartfelt one, undertaken with the hope of encouraging the urban movements to coalesce into one big anti-capitalist movement. But as Molotch (1984) wrote in a review of Castells' book, "Romantic Marxism" is not good enough either. It was a devastating review, but it had little impact on Castells' reputation as a far-seeing theorist.

Shortly thereafter, however, most of the "urban" social movements Castells wrote about suddenly disappeared in most cities, which he conveniently blamed on globalization (1996). However, the neighborhood struggles did not disappear in San Francisco, which undercuts Castells according to an excellent analysis by sociologist Karl Beitel (2004). As for the feminist and gay rights movements, they did not disappear, of course, but they are not "urban" in any real sociological sense, except that they happened in cities.

As Molotch (1988, p. 41) clearly states in an analysis of how various theories relate to his growth-coalition theory, "the Neo-Marxists are correct in singling out large-scale economic changes, driven by the accumulation dynamic, as the force over which local elites have the least control." Local growth entrepreneurs have to adapt to the structural economic imperatives created by big capital investors around the world who have no interest one way or another in what their investments do to any given city or region. However, the Marxists continue to miss the point of growth-coalition theory:

But within the local realm, it is the growth elites who are hegemonic. In both ideological and structural terms, their dominance over the development process is felt across a wide array of political, economic, and cultural institutions. (Molotch, 1988, p. 42.)

(For Molotch's full critique of urban Marxists, as well as other rival theories, click here.)

Regime Theory

Regime theory is in good part identified with the work of political scientist Clarence Stone (1989; 2005a) , the author of the two excellent empirical studies of Atlanta that support Hunter and refute Dahl.

Like growth-coalition theory, which is a new synthesis of previous work in urban sociology and community power studies, regime theory is an attempt to assimilate and go beyond what came before it in political science, namely, pluralism and urban Marxism. The fact that growth-coalition theory comes out of sociology and regime theory out of politics may account for one of their biggest differences: growth-coalition theory starts with the private economic sector and shows why and how it corrals government, whereas regime theory starts with government and then looks at how elected officials find coalition partners in the private sector.

Stone takes politics and government seriously, as the pluralists do, but he also emphasizes the power of private property, as do the Marxists. At the same time, he commendably and purposely situates his thinking in the middle range, with no intent to emulate the all-encompassing theories put forth by the market determinists (public-choice and pluralist theories) and the Marxists. But he overdoes it on creating distance from Marxists and growth-coalition theorists by setting up a straw man about "economic determinism", noting that regime theory "recognizes the enormous political importance of privately controlled investment, but does so without going so far as to embrace a position of economic determinism" (Stone, 1993, p. 2). He is keeping faith with his fellow political scientists.

Some of Stone's aversion to alleged economic determinism crops up in his discussion of "preferences." He stresses that the preferences of power rivals at the urban level are not fixed beforehand, but arise and evolve as the rivals interact. But this would mean that rents and profits are optional for developers and capitalists, and that people's attachment to their homes and neighborhoods aren't very deep after all. He has opted out on the conflict between exchange values and use values that is at the heart of Molotch's growth coalition theory. True enough, developers and landowners sometimes have to settle for lower profits and rents, or agree to set-asides and linkages, and people in neighborhoods can adjust to some changes, or move to new neighborhoods, but Stone's over-reaction to structural theories is untenable. Some preferences are relatively fixed. In Molotch's (1988, p. 29 ) terms, the growth elites have some discretion in terms of what they do, but they also operate within a set of constraints.

Stone begins his argument with the notion that local governments do not have the capacity to govern without entering into a coalition with one or more private groups or classes, which provide strategic support to elected officials. He calls this coalition a "regime" and distinguishes it from pluralism because it concerns long-term relationships that involve a sharing and exchange of resources. He stresses that a regime is not a hierarchy, but a collaboration, and it involves much back and forth, and the potential for misunderstanding and breakdown. A regime has an "agenda," that is, a set of purposes it wants to accomplish, and those purposes play an important role in bringing cohesion to the regime. At the same time, there is often struggle and conflict between the partners in the coalition, especially before they settle into a long-term relationship. In fact, the partners in the coalition often have to "educate one another about the nature of their interdependence" (Stone, 1993, p. 14).

Stone criticizes pluralism because "bringing together governing arrangements poses challenges that are much greater than the 'retail' politics of pressuring government officials regarding particular decisions" (Stone, 2005a, p. 309). He therefore stresses that it is superficial to look at governmental policies issue by issue, as pluralists tend to do. Instead, the real problems, he says, are such matters as agenda setting, resource mobilization, and coalition building. In addition, Stone emphasizes that an electoral coalition is not necessarily or usually a sound basis for a governing coalition because an electoral coalition may well be temporary and have very few resources to offer elected officials. He sees the prime importance given to elections by pluralists as one of the key distinctions between regime theory and pluralism (Stone, 1993; Stone, 2005a).

In short, Stone's emphasis is on building the capacity to govern, which is not easy when government is weak and dependent on private resources. A regime is an arrangement to get things done. It provides "power to," the capacity to do something. It is not only about "power over," or domination, as he claims it is for pluralists and Marxists.

In the first instance, then, Stone's theory focuses on "an institutional form rather than making a substantive statement of who holds power and what they do with it" (Molotch, 1999, p. 249). He is thus part of the general social science trend to focus on "institutional analysis" as a way to understand stability and stasis. He talks about "bounded rationality," "selective incentives," "compliance costs," and achievable goals.

Stone's emphasis on general points like institutional arrangements, coalitions, and resources immediately differentiates his theory from growth-coalition theory, which does make a very specific substantive argument about who holds power in urban America and why they want it. Its starting point is the private purpose of increasing the value of land on the part of landowners. At the same time, it agrees that government officials are part of the coalition, which is why it stresses that most urban politicians receive their major support from growth elites and those private interests dependent on growth elites (Molotch, 1988, pp. 36-38). Stone's work can be seen as a useful addition to growth-coalition theory for the detail it adds on how government is involved in the coalition, but his theory does not have any real dynamism because it does not start with the relatively "fixed preference" that the growth coalition has for exchange values. Nor can his theory grasp the inherent tensions in the system because it is not grounded in the relatively fixed preferences that neighborhoods have for "use values." The result is a typical institutionalist theory: it has no real cutting edge.

To provide content to his theory, Stone says that government officials try to enter into coalitions that have feasible goals and the resources to achieve them: "in order for a governing coalition to be viable, it must be able to mobilize resources commensurate with its main policy agenda" (Stone, 1993, p. 21). Given this constraint, there are four types of urban regimes that are possible in the United States:

  • Development regimes
  • Middle-class progressive regimes
  • Lower-class opportunity expansion regimes
  • Maintenance regimes

Development regimes try to expand and develop the city. They need large amounts of resources and therefore usually involve the local business community, which has what Stone calls "systemic power" and what I have called "structural economic power," meaning simply that in the United States it is corporations, land owners, and developers that own the wealth and have the legal right to invest. This is the kind of regime that flourished in the years between 1945 and 1980 in most cities, including Atlanta, where city officials and the local growth coalition entered into an alliance based on their separate needs and strengths (Stone, 1989; Stone, 1976). Viewed from a governmental perspective, the elected officials in Atlanta looked at their possible options and realized that there were no good alternatives to a coalition with the landed elites and their close allies at Coca Cola. Moreover, Stone makes clear that he thinks the growth elites are the dominant force within the Atlanta regime. So, in cities such as Atlanta, there is little difference between regime theory and growth-coalition theory as to who governs and why.

Stone's middle-class progressive regimes are what others call simply "progressive regimes" or "slow-growth" administrations (Dreier, Mollenkopf, & Swanstrom, 2004). They seek neighborhood and environmental protections, and they want more of the city budget to go to affordable housing and urban amenities, which is exactly what growth-coalition theory would predict because it sees the basic tension in cities as one between growth coalitions seeking "exchange values" and neighborhoods seeking "use values." Most progressive regimes try to do a delicate balancing act between exchange values and use values through various kinds of regulations and linkages.

But middle-class progressive regimes are relatively infrequent because they are usually reliant on a handful of ideologically motivated left activists and/or environmentalists who try to develop electoral coalitions among many neighborhoods. They often have the aid of wealthy liberals via foundations and campaign donations. They are most successful in small or middle-size cities with up-scale neighborhoods or in university towns that are willing to mobilize to oppose one or another noxious encroachment. The most important exception to these qualifications is San Francisco, a large city where activists and neighborhoods had a major impact.

Lower class opportunity expansion regimes require considerable mass mobilization, which is not easy. They turn out to be "largely hypothetical," as Stone (1993, p. 20) puts it, because of a lack of resources in the lower classes and the large problems of coordination they would face. He sees "hints" of such regimes in community-based organizations, but he does not seem to realize they are almost completely dependent on funding from corporations, foundations (especially the Ford Foundation), and federal and state governments. From the perspective of most analysts, community-based organizations now are as much demobilizers as mobilizers; they draw would-be activists into helping individuals with their day-to-day problems and writing grants to raise money, which leaves little time for organizing and protesting (Shaw, 1999, Chapter 5). Stone also mentions "school compacts," in which those who graduate from high school are guaranteed a job, or are assured financial support for college, as the kind of program that might be part of such a regime (Stone, 1993, p.21). But such programs are few and far between, and just as likely to come from corporations and their affiliated foundations as from the community or government.

Finally, there are maintenance regimes, which Stone sees as frequent occurrences in the past, but as the least dynamic and interesting. They simply carry out the routine functions of city government. They therefore need less resources from the private sector. Contrary to Stone, however, growth-coalition theorists doubt that such regimes exist for very long, if they exist at all. Perhaps there are some local governance coalitions that could be classified as caretaker regimes in built-out or stalled cities, but that seems very unlikely.

This skepticism is supported by the fact that seemingly dead cities spring into action when they see what they think might be an opportunity, such as a prison or a waste disposal facility. City leaders express little concern as to the actual benefits or the fiscal or ecological consequences of such projects. Even a prostrate city like Flint, Michigan, deserted by General Motors, continued to run large deficits for far longer than made any sense in the vain hope that its auto museum eventually would attract tourists. Such cities are slated for the status of ghost towns, which appeared often 75 or 100 years ago in the competition over local development in the Western states, and are now appearing again in the Great Plains.

I turn now to an overall assessment of Stone's idea that there are four possible types of urban regimes. Although it is reasonable in the abstract that a range of public-private coalitions are possible, in practice there rarely are any other options for public officials than the landed elites as coalition partners, who have the kind of systemic power that Stone spells out in great detail in his studies of Atlanta. True, there are a few progressive regimes, but there are no lower-class opportunity regimes or maintenance regimes. If the idea of systemic power is given its full due, then types of regimes other than developmental ones are the exceptions rather than the rule. They are atypical, and can be explained in terms of unusual variables, such as the creation of a coalition of neighborhoods in up-scale cities, or the injection of left activists and/or environmentalists into a city due to the upheavals caused by the Civil Rights and environmental movements.

The same point is made in another recent comparison of competing urban theories. The authors note that Stone's study of Atlanta shows that "the business partners are clearly dominant" despite his "disclaimer of interest in whether some groups have more power than others" (Altschuler & Luberoff, 2003. pp. 68-69). In other words, Stone's emphasis on "power to," even though he says it retains a "power over" dimension within it, does not seem to have a way to recognize dominance on the many occasions when it does occur. He agrees at the empirical level that dominance by growth elites often exists, and clearly states that is the case for Atlanta, but his theory does not account for the fact that this is the usual state of affairs.

In response to such a criticism, Stone (2005b) has written a paper that is in large part an attempt to clarify the difference between "power to" and "power over." In my view, it does not succeed very well, and it gives more than a few hostages to his opponents. In this paper he begins by saying that political reality is "more complicated" than mere battles between powerful actors, and that we have to think about power in "complex terms," meaning his critics are a little simple-minded, a standard academic ploy (Stone, 2005b, pp. 1-2). Furthermore, he goes on to say that "power over" is "only the most visible aspect of governance," and that it has the problem of assuming there are "fixed preferences," a critique I found off the mark earlier in these comments on his theory.

To frame his distinction between power to and power over, Stone begins by saying that regime theory is needed in order to understand the "less visible aspects" of power:

Regimes are a way of understanding how we act as political communities, and why some ways of acting tend to crowd out others. A regime thus does not represent a form of domination, "power over", as ordinarily understood, so much as one form of empowerment, "power to," crowding out others. (Stone, 2005b, p. 6.)

Stone thinks his emphasis on "power to" also is useful for thinking about political change:

"Power to" also has implications for strategies of political change. An understanding of power as "power over" points to a strategy of change by means of opposition, of raising the cost to a dominant actor for gaining compliance. Seen from a perspective of "power to," a strategy of non-cooperation or opposition fits into the picture in a different way. It entails the risk of political isolation. In turn, political isolation means that engagement in the formation of a new regime becomes less likely. Simple resistance may be counter-productive; as a form of withdrawal, it may mean that the central operations of an established regime are left unhampered. (Stone, 2005b, p. 9.)

However, given the fact that low-income groups have no resources, this claim does not seem to fit well with Stone's earlier point that a group has to have some resources of interest to city officials if it is to have a chance of becoming part of a regime. Low-income groups and neighborhoods are thus likely to be ignored and to have no choice but to protest in some way. In fact, the whole history of the power struggles in San Francisco stand as a refutation of Stone's claims about the prime importance of "power to." It also shows that it is not a mistake for those with few resources to respond by trying to raise the "costs of compliance." Those who opposed the growth coalition's incursions into neighborhoods via freeways and highrises were faced with a "power over" that wanted the land they lived on and that had to be fought with litigation, demonstrations, and ballot initiatives. The growth elites did not give an inch until the activists raised the costs of compliance and won mitigations, set-asides, and linkages, like affordable housing.

Even electing liberal officials usually was not enough in San Francisco given the "power over" aspects of systemic economic power. People who don't own property are readily dominated in the economic and political spheres. People without income-producing property are in real trouble if they lose jobs or lose economic support from the government. They are also hurt badly if they lose their neighborhood networks, which are vital for job information, moral support, and even material support in tough times.

This is precisely the situation that was faced by the people who Stone says were not "dominated" in Atlanta and San Francisco. They usually did not own their homes, let alone income-producing property. They often were in danger of losing their jobs, or had no jobs, and they were being deprived of their neighborhoods. Furthermore, the same property-owning people who wanted to kick them out of their houses were supporting politicians in Washington who resisted any increase in the minimum wage and were out to cut welfare benefits, including any supplements to rent for poor people. The growth coalition was quite literally creating the sickening spectacle of homelessness for poor people through the combination of its policies at the urban and national levels. In a country that has seen at least hundreds of thousands of people forced from their homes in the inner cities since the 1950s, and massive increases in homelessness since the Reagan Republicans took over in 1980, the issue of "power over" is far more fundamental than "power to."

However, once the San Francisco growth coalition was hassled to a near standstill on several issues, it did enter into a coalition of sorts with the left activists on some issues. In that sense, it had been "educated" by the successes of the activists. It then agreed to allow the activists to build affordable housing through non-profit Community Development Corporations, and it met with the activists before projects got underway in order to bargain over mitigations (Beitel, 2004). But to create this quasi-coalition, the activists had to stop the growth coalition's "power to" intensify land use. Thus, there is more conflict and domination going on in relation to neighborhoods, especially low-income neighborhoods, than is allowed for in Stone's theory.

There is also another major problem in Stone's theory that follows from his failure to give enough emphasis to systemic power and its sociological and social-psychological implications. The theory does not explain what he takes as a given, namely, the relative weakness of American urban governments. It does not incorporate the fact that local governments are weak in good part because growth coalitions want them to be weak. As shown in my article on power at the local level, the growth coalitions developed a sophisticated program between 1890 and 1920 that led to structural changes in city governments, which made it easier for growth coalitions to weaken and control city governments in the face of the working-class and socialist voters who were gaining more local power. In fact, some of this program was adopted in Atlanta in the 1930s: "Ward-based politics that depended on the distribution of city jobs and favors lost ground to good-government practices and centralized political leadership" (Stone, 1989, p. 14).

Nor it is just control of city government that is relevant to this issue. The point can be taken one step further, to state governments, which provide the charters for cities. On some of the occasions when landed elites have been stymied at the local level, they have gone to the state level to obtain the change or resources they need. For example, historian Samuel Hays (1964) shows how the elites of Pittsburgh went to the state government during the Progressive Era when they lost at the local level on city charter reform. Stone himself (2005a) provides more recent examples of the importance of state governments to local growth coalitions.

Stone's studies of Atlanta have made a strong empirical contribution, perhaps the very best by a mainstream urban political scientist, and his theory is a very large improvement over pluralism. It is very close in spirit and focus to growth-coalition theory. However, his theory lacks precisely what growth-coalition theory provides, a substantive grounding in the commodified nature of land in the United States and a larger historical context about why local governments are weak.

In addition, his idea of a "regime" as a coalition between local government and private business interests is in fact very close to what is meant by Molotch's (1976) concept of the city as a "growth machine," meaning that the private growth coalition and the city government work together first and above all to promote growth, however much they may disagree or divide on other issues. To repeat, growth is not the only concern in urban politics, but it is the primary one.

It also bears repeating that the growth coalition theory does not ignore the important role of public investment, via taxes and bonds, in the financing of the urban infrastructure necessary to make private land even more valuable. It takes seriously that such public fiscal support must be approved by voters in most states, with the important exceptions of New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, which gives growth elites and city officials in those three states a little bit more room to maneuver. The theory agrees that businesses can fight among themselves about which projects to put before the voters, and that they can divide among themselves about increasing their own taxes. Most of all, the theory understands, and indeed expects, that voters may well oppose many of these projects as not in their own interests. Many voters realize they are subsidizing the growth coalitions in their expansionist efforts, and they often do not like that fact. Thus, gaining public acceptance is not easy, and that is where experienced and savvy politicians come into the picture, along with the standard rhetoric about creating more jobs and improving the image of the city.

In short, contrary to any implication by some political scientists, growth coalition theory does not underestimate the role of government or of gaining citizen approval for tax increases and bond issues. It takes those long-held understandings as a given. However, it provides a new starting point by emphasizing that landowners have the wherewithal and desire to shape and dominate weak governments, making them the necessary coalition partners for any political leaders who want to win local elections, have money and support for their pet projects, and perhaps win election to higher-level offices. The theory also understands, and explains, that the growth coalition faces political opposition from neighborhoods on the basis of use values.


Pluralism and Marxism are both based on abstract models of the good society, but they have very different attitudes toward markets. A complete market system is the ideal for pluralists, with a minimal role for government, whereas a planned non-market economy is the ideal for Marxists because they believe that private capitalists will inevitably dominate a market system and exploit workers. Given these strong ideological roots, the two theories are very hard to dislodge despite the many empirical studies of urban power structures that contradict their assumptions and conclusions.

Regime theory comes closer to the mark because it draws on insights from both of these traditions. However, it does not take the systemic power held by landowners and developers seriously enough. It remains at the institutional level as a theory even while recognizing that local growth coalitions are usually the dominant partners in city regimes, except under the unusual circumstances when neighborhoods and activists can forge a progressive coalition that lasts beyond one or two issues and a few elections. The commodified nature of land in the United States, and the conflict between use values and exchange values, is therefore the best starting point for understanding urban power structures.


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