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

Review from:

Teaching Sociology

2010 (Vol. 38, No. 2)

Review by Joseph De Angelis, Ohio University

The Leftmost City: Power and Progressive Politics in Santa Cruz. Boulder, CO: Westview. 2009. 256 pp. $27.00 paperback.

The question of who wins in local development struggles has been an important and extensively studied topic within urban and political sociology. Within this literature, it has been common for researchers to focus on how corporations, real estate interests, and business owners often form coalitions and use their pooled material/political resources to defeat progressive community activists in struggles over urban development initiatives. Yet, Gendron and Domhoff (2009) in their book, The Leftmost City, provide an interesting and important case study of one city (Santa Cruz, California) where progressives (i.e., feminists, environmentalists, labor unions) were able to form a robust coalition that took control of local government and defeated a number of development initiatives favored by the pro-growth coalition. From Gendron and Domhoff's perspective, the focus on this type of deviant case provides a number of opportunities for researchers who are interested in studying urban power and development politics. First, it allows them to explore the extent to which four competing theories of urban power -- growth coalition theory, Marxist urban theory, public choice theory, and regime theory -- can be used to explain this unexpected pattern of political outcomes. Second, it allows them to identify some of the conditions under which progressive activists can organize effectively to influence local government and counteract the pro-growth ambitions of business and real estate interests.

In the first chapter, Gendron and Domhoff introduce the idiosyncratic history of Santa Cruz and outline the competing theoretical perspectives. They devote extensive attention to growth coalition theory (their preferred theoretical position), but also lay out the basic elements of Marxist urban theory, public choice theory, and regime theory. In the second and third chapters, they detail the early twentieth-century rise of a traditional growth coalition in Santa Cruz. They demonstrate that the pattern of political power in Santa Cruz was similar to other cities from the mid-nineteenth century to the late 1960s, with both national and local real estate and other private businesses working together to influence Santa Cruz's development and policy environment. So, for example, they explore the manner in which business interests worked together to change the structure of the local government in 1911 to make it more difficult for pro-union and socialist candidates to be elected to city council. They also focus on how the growth coalition was successful in having a new campus of the University of California system placed in the area in the 1960s.

In the third through the fifth chapters, Gendron and Domhoff begin to explore the features of Santa Cruz's development politics that distinguish it from most other American cities. Thus, in chapter three they examine how the placement of the university created a new voting bloc that helped to undermine the power of the growth coalition. The influx of university faculty and students supported the emergence of a viable local progressive political coalition that was able to displace the previous ruling growth coalition and seize control of the city council. In chapter four, they explore the electoral strategies that the progressive coalition used to maintain its grip on the city council throughout the 1980s, even in the face of significant agitation by the real estate and business groups. In the fifth and sixth chapters, they explore the effect that a large earthquake had on the development politics of the area. Even though the earthquake devastated much of the downtown and provided an initial opportunity for the growth coalition to regain some traction on development issues, they demonstrate that the progressive coalition was still able to retain control over the city council and the local development agenda. In the final chapter, Gendron and Domhoff revisit each of the four theories and conclude that growth coalition theory is the only theory of urban power that can provide an adequate account of how and why progressives were able to seize and retain power in Santa Cruz.

I think there are a number of features of this book that make it a potentially useful text for undergraduate- and master's-level courses in urban and political sociology. Probably the most important feature of the book is that it systematically compares the ability of different theories of urban power to explain the unexpected pattern of political outcomes in Santa Cruz. Of course, Gendron and Domhoff are clearly supporters of growth coalition theory, so their theoretical analysis is generally geared toward explaining why Marxist urban theory, regime theory, and public choice theory are inadequate when it comes to explaining power and politics in Santa Cruz. However, they do not shy away from pointing out the shortcomings of their own theoretical orientation. For example, they devote a significant amount of space in the final substantive chapter to working through the problems with growth coalition theory and offer a number of suggestions as to howthe case of Santa Cruz can be used to strengthen the perspective.

In addition, the book has a useful companion Web site that explores in more detail the basic theoretical and substantive issues raised in the book. While I rarely like companion resources to textbooks, I found this Web site to have a substantial amount of material that could be useful to instructors. For example, it has more than a dozen essays by Domhoff on various topics, some of which are drawn from his previous work on how power operates in America. Yet, there are other sections that cover relatively new ground, including more detailed historical information on Santa Cruz and well-written essays on key issues (i.e., the nature of power and how social science can be used to study social change). Taken together, this book's theoretical discussion and its related Web site could be effectively used by instructors to introduce students to the basic analytical contours of urban political theory.

Another strength of the book can be found in the quality and accessibility of its writing. With some exceptions, sociologists who have written about urban power have often relied on abstruse language that undergraduate students typically find challenging. Overall, Gendron and Domhoff break with this tradition and provide a well-written and jargon-free book that is pitched at an appropriate level for advanced undergraduates and master'slevel students.

Finally, one of the other important strengths of the book is that the authors use their case study of Santa Cruz to assess the viability of progressive movements nationwide. Since they are able to show that relatively resource-poor progressives were able to achieve and hold power in Santa Cruz, the book provides an interesting antidote to the assumption that the well-capitalized always win in municipal political struggles. More importantly, in the last chapter of the book Gendron and Domhoff reflect on how the lessons drawn from Santa Cruz can be used to help progressive movements gain political power in other more typical environments.

Even though this is an important book, there are a number of issues that instructors may want to keep in mind when considering whether to adopt this text. Most strikingly, the idiosyncratic nature of their case is both a strength and a weakness of the book. As Gendron and Domhoff note, deviant cases can be useful for evaluating the adequacy of different theories of urban power, and if a theory cannot adequately account for an outlying case, then there may be a problem with that theory. Yet, the fact that Santa Cruz is such a unique city makes it hard to draw inferences. It is not entirely clear what this case tells us about the operation of power in cities that do not have the density of political progressives found in Santa Cruz. Consequently, if instructors choose to have their students read this book, they may have to spend a significant amount of time lecturing on how power routinely operates in more conventional cities.

Even given that minor issue, I think that this book represents an important new addition to the arsenal of books that can be used to teach courses in urban or political sociology. It is theoretically informed, well organized, has an interesting case, and is written in a way that most undergraduates and new graduate students will find approachable.

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