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Great story on the “San Diego 20” today. The idea of identifying a “power elite” in cities gained a lot of currency in academia during the 1950s — at that time, enumerating the people who “really” ran cities was all the rage.

However, political scientists soon realized the limitations of this approach, most notably that one could find little hard evidence that they could always get what they wanted or forced the government to capitulate. Since then political scientists have moved on and developed a new theory—called “regime theory”—that tries to answer the question “who has power in cities.”

The basic gist is that cities are governed by a “ruling coalition” consisting of both elected officials and individuals and organizations in the private and nonprofit sectors. The assumption is that in order to actually govern, one needs to draw from resources both within government and outside of government; government officials by themselves don’t have enough resources to implement a policy agenda. So they form coalitions with those outside of government.

They tend to gravitate towards coalition partners that control valuable resources, such as control over investment capital, status and money that can be spent on campaigns. This explains why the most common regimes are those between elected officials and downtown business leaders: the latter have a lot of resources that can be used to accomplish items on a political agenda.

But it’s important to note that this is a voluntary coalition: Elected officials choose to form coalitions with business leaders because it’s in their political advantage to do so. Thus, it is not correct to say that business leaders “control” government officials or are the “real” power behind the throne. As coalition partners, they frequently get what they want, but this is the result of choices made by elected officials themselves. And there are limits to their power — elected officials can always dump them and find new coalition partners.

Applying all of this to San Diego, past mayors have always formed coalitions that included downtown business leaders because they were seen as a group that could help them accomplish their goals. Filner clearly isn’t taking this approach (yet). But in order for him to govern effectively he’s going to have to form his own coalition to bring together resources from within and outside of government. Labor is obviously going to be part of that coalition, but labor by itself doesn’t have enough resources to create an effective governing coalition.

We’ll see if he can bring others into the fold that can complement labor’s resources. I’m skeptical; it seems like he can form a coalition that has a lot of political resources but few economic resources, which will make it difficult for him to accomplish substantive items on his agenda.

Brian Adams is a political science professor at San Diego State University. You can email him here. Who do you think runs San Diego? Submit your view here.

Scott Lewis

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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