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

Review from:

Contemporary Sociology: A Journal of Reviews

November 2009 (Vol. 38, No. 6)

Review by Thomas H. Koenig, Northeastern University

The Leftmost City: Power and Progressive Politics in Santa Cruz, by Richard Gendron and G. William Domhoff. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2009.

The 58,000 residents of Santa Cruz, California inhabit America's "leftmost city," a unique municipality in which a coalition of socialist feminists, progressive neighborhood activists, environmental advocates, left-wing academics, and social welfare liberals dominate the local power structure. For decades, the pro-growth interests that play the leading political role in shaping governmental policy in most U.S. cities have been consistently defeated at the polls by a political coalition dedicated to improving local social services, providing a high quality of life for neighborhood residents, and advancing social justice. Even after a severe earthquake in 1989 created a need to cooperate with the business community in developing a plan to rebuild the devastated downtown area, a progressive alliance retained a five-to-two majority in Santa Cruz's city council.

In this book, Professors Richard Gendron (Assumption College) and G. William Domhoff (University of California at Santa Cruz) provide a nuanced case study of Santa Cruz's socio-political history and of its current anomalous power structure in order to evaluate and extend four leading theories of urban power: (1) Growth Coalition Theory, (2) Marxist Urban Theory, (3) Public Choice Theory and (4) Regime Theory. These ideal type models of urban power differ on four major issues: (1) the degree to which power is based on collective efforts of strategic local elites versus struggles for dominance, (2) the degree to which policy preferences are fixed by economic and/or social interests in contrast to fluid alliances, (3) the degree to which local residents can have much influence on significant political decisions, and (4) the degree to which local government has autonomy to set policies as opposed to major political decisions being forced on the local community by outside forces. The authors provide a link to Domhoff's excellent summary of these perspectives in a website devoted to the issues raised in this book, which is located at www.leftmostcity.com.

These authors use their extensive in-depth interviews of community leaders and an examination of hundreds of primary sources to provide guidance for activists attempting to use electoral politics to displace pro-development interests. Gendron and Domhoff argue that populist groups generally fail to build stable governing coalitions because they are too narrowly focused and alienate potential allies. The key lesson of this sociopolitical history of Santa Cruz is that progressives need to create a unifying vision of social change that is framed in terms that have widespread appeal. Santa Cruz's elected officials will do well to read this book as they consider how to respond to the dilemmas created by California's current budget crisis.

The authors firmly reject any simplistic Marxist assumption that local politics are mere reflections of class struggle. Santa Cruz's socio-economic development pattern was far from inevitable. Unique individuals and outside events shaped the town's electoral battles throughout its history. For example, the California Gold Rush of 1849 produced a substantial market for Santa Cruz products and an aggressive group of local leaders maneuvered the state of California into making the growing town a county seat. More than a century later, the University of California at Santa Cruz's strong liberal arts focus and its unique Community Studies program attracted, motivated and trained young activists, who could sometimes obtain class credit for their social justice advocacy. Experienced political organizers, aided by a nationwide leftist policy planning network, were able to displace Santa Cruz's traditional elites by employing state-of-the-art electoral techniques such as targeted direct mailing using computerized voter lists.

Gendron and Domhoff are most supportive of Growth Coalition Theory, which argues that U.S. urban decision-making is ordinarily dominated by a coalition of progrowth interest groups that gain ideological hegemony through the unifying message that regional expansion produces a generalized prosperity. The authors critique this perspective, however, for its failure to be sufficiently sensitive to factional disputes among pro-growth interest groups. Their analysis reveals several latent political fault lines such as the friction after the 1989 earthquake between some self-interested downtown retailers and those business leaders with a broader vision for Santa Cruz's redevelopment.

Advocates of alternative theoretical models might criticize this book's conclusions as being too heavily based on the unique features of this atypical city. A slogan such as "Keep Santa Cruz weird" may be effective in this prosperous bedroom community of Silicon Valley that contains a significant voting bloc of left-wing students, but will have far fewer attractions in other urban areas. A rust belt city, for example, may provide a better fit with Marxist Urban Theory, while an Arizona boom town might be firmly in the hands of a growth coalition. However, all case studies suffer from this limitation. This book succeeds in providing a clearly written, theoretically sophisticated roadmap for left-wing political action.

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