Reprint: The "system" vs. "Anybody But Fenty" | and the relevance to DC's next mayoralty
This entry is from January 7th, 2010, ten months before the general election, which made Vincent Gray mayor after he had vanquished Adrian Fenty in the primary election.
It's relevant in all the talk about Muriel Bowser as the incoming mayor and what that will mean to the city's management and vision, which is something that charlie and I have been discussing in the comment thread of "Global cities don't just take, they give."
It's worth reprinting this section from an old blog entry too:
I am a fervent proponent of the Growth Machine thesis, first laid out by sociologist Harvey Molotch, in the seminal article, City as a Growth Machine: Toward a Political Economy of Place. From the abstract:
A city and, more generally, any locality, is conceived as the areal expression of the interests of some land-based elite. Such an elite is seen to profit through the increasing intensification of the land use of the area in which its members hold a common interest. An elite competes with other land-based elites in an effort to have growth-inducing resources invested within its own area as opposed to that of another. Governmental authority, at the local and nonlocal levels, is utilized to assist in achieving this growth at the expense of competing localities. Conditions of community life are largely a consequence of the social, economic, and political forces embodied in this growth machine.Political scientist Clarence Stone is the "dean" of the school of the competing thesis, that of the "urban regime." I don't think these theories are competing so much as different sides of the same coin. "Growth Machine" theory explains the motivation of "the land-based elite," and "urban regime" theory explains in detail how the land-based elite operates and functions. ("Growth Machine" proponents are sociologists, while "Urban Regime" proponents are political scientists.)
Professor Stone was kind enough to send me his paper, "Now What? The continuing evolution of Urban Regime analysis," from 2005. He writes:
An urban regime can be preliminarily defined as the informal arrangements through which a locality is governed (Stone 1989). Because governance is about sustained efforts, it is important to think in agenda terms rather than about stand-alone issues. By agenda I mean the set of challenges which policy makers accord priority. A concern with agendas takes us away from focusing on short-term controversies and instead directs attention to continuing efforts and the level of weight they carry in the political life of a community. Rather than treating issues as if they are disconnected, a governance perspective calls for considering how any given issue fits into a flow of decisions and actions. This approach enlarges the scope of what is being analyzed, looking at the forest not a particular tree here or there. (emphasis added, in this paragraph and below)
In discussing Atlanta, Stone writes: "Land use, transportation, and housing formed an interrelated agenda that the city's major economic interests were keen to advance;" and
By looking closely at the policy role of business leaders and how their position in the civic structure of a community enabled that role, he identified connections between Atlanta's governing coalition and the resources it brought to bear, and on to the scheme of cooperation that made this informal system work. In his own way, Hunter had identified the key elements in an urban regime – governing coalition, agenda, resources, and mode of cooperation. These elements could be brought into the next debate about analyzing local politics, a debate about structural determinism.
Relatedly, I liked how in yesterday's Post Mike DeBonis, in "Sea change not likely for D.C. under the Muriel Bowser's Administration," referred to the changes coming as a change in political tribes. In the thread with charlie, I called them crews. From the article:
Even since the election, Bowser has indicated by word and deed that the transfer of power Jan. 2 could be marked more by an exchange of political tribes than any appreciable change in policy, pace or tenor.------Reprinted blog entry-------------------------
It's sad when the most trenchant "political" coverage in the Washington Post is in the Sports section, in columns ("Change?," "Control key," and "Optimism, realism ") about the hiring of Mike Shanahan to be the new coach of the Washington Redskins and the columnists asking will anything really change, that the culture of the organization and how it is managed is what needs to change, that changing out coaches doesn't necessarily make much difference, especially now that this is the sixth such change over 17 years.
I have been thinking of this for awhile, not about professional football (I don't really care about it very much except for the political and economic aspects, but also about what it communicates about management, behavior, and priorities), but about local politics, the ideas, best expressed in songs by the Who such as in "Won't Get Fooled Again" -- "meet the new boss, same as the old boss" ... and the line "The [old] King is dead. Long live the [new] King!"
It's about the system, the network, that generates politicians and the people around them. Yes, it's about the "Growth Machine" and the "Urban Regime" -- how the local political and economic elites are united, for the most part, around the same agenda, even if there are bits and pieces of competition for spoils within the "governing coalition."
This is something I wrote on a local e-list, spurred by some lamenting about how Don Peebles, a real estate developer who started his climb during self-dealing connected to the Barry Administration in the early 1990s, has decided to not run for Mayor of Washington. (See "Millionaire says he won't challenge Fenty : Peebles cites family illness in deciding not to run for D.C. mayor this year," from the Washington Post.
The mistake in the "Anybody But Fenty" type argument is expecting that different people who are products of and participants in the same system are somehow different.
The problem isn't Fenty per se, but the system that produces him and other people just like him (M. Brown, K. Brown, R.D. Peebles, V. Gray, etc.).
On occasion there are outliers (i.e., Paul Wellstone), but it doesn't happen very often.
The problem is of the "system" and the "network" -- how and why it doesn't generate the outcomes we want and prefer -- and our role in maintaining it. (This is abetted by weak neighborhood and civic organizations and the lack of any substantive "good government" advocacy organization in the city. But you can't blame people necessarily for the lack of civic capacity and capability. We haven't built solid institutions to assist people in developing their own efficacy.)
I try to fight the power through analysis. But most people tend to ignore it and search somehow for a savior as well as maintain a militant refusal to look within to see whether and how they contribute to the dysfunction.
As long as we do that, we guarantee that things won't change. (E.g., just because you change a burned out light bulb doesn't mean that the light fixture is somehow significantly different.)
In the early 1990s, the director of the advocacy organization Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting gave a speech where he talked about the media's "bias of the middle," in favor of a middle of the road position, one that excuses negative U.S. actions abroad as the result of some kind of aberration around particular individuals, so that when these faulty individuals are replaced, the outcomes will end up being better.
The reality is that those individuals were part of a system that functioned the way that it was intended.
And in response to a response...
There are two elements to the ABF ideal:
1. Has to do with people who think that Mayor Fenty isn't representing the interests of people, mostly long time residents. (This position is in response to that discussed by Colbert King in a column, "D.C.'s changing face," in the Post over the weekend.) They don't care, I think, much about good government.
2. A smaller group concerned about good govt. generally, imperialism and agism in ideas and policy (e.g., someone like me, pushing 50, is seen as over the hill and incapable by the "go-getters" of the mostly under 40 years of age top administration).
Philosophically, I am what the radicals call nothing but a neoliberal, okay with a lot of traditional govt. decisionmaking oriented to efficiency, monetizing assets, etc.
So people concerned mostly about (1) would likely be happy with someone just like Fenty, if the person seemingly represents their interests better. For those of us in the second camp, we want efficiency and excellence. For me, it means robust high quality municipal institutions in every way -- parks, schools, safety, etc.
I don't see any of the current crop of candidates as anything special, unique, or really understanding of the need to focus on achieving greatness for the city, not themselves.