Josep Maria Ruiz Simon, 28 March 2022
Catalonia is not New Haven. But reading Who governs? Democracy and power in an American city (1961) offers a window through which to look at its politics. Robert A. Dahl wrote this book to refute the thesis that public policies respond to the interests of certain economic and social elites, who are the ones who really rule. His colleague Lloyd Hunter had just published another (Community power structure), in which he argued that the Atlanta case confirmed this thesis. And he wrote his own to show that in New Haven such things did not happen because, as was usual in the US, power was very well distributed.
In Who governs? Dahl proposed to rethink the question of power by looking at it from a different angle: not by looking for the elite who would supposedly exercise exclusive power by putting politics at the service of their interests, but by analysing how decisions are made. To do this, he examined the decisions that the New Haven City Council had taken during those years in three areas: the appointment of officials, urban renewal and public education, to see how the capacity to influence had been distributed among the individuals and groups that had promoted proposals or wanted to veto those of others. The results were intended to show that in each area it was not always the same people who had the upper hand, nor was it the same people who had the most influence in each area.
Dahl refutes the thesis that public policies respond to the interests of certain elites.
Dahl drew on interviews with actors involved in the debates, negotiations, protests or decision-making that sought to swing policy one way or the other. There was no trace in the book of the involvement in the promotion of the initiatives of the banks or companies interested in bringing them to fruition, which was already known at the time and has since been extensively documented. This absence, regrettable for other reasons, allowed Dahl to showcase his peculiar talent as a storyteller. His stories portray with humour the ambiguity of the interrelationships between political leaders and citizens and the servitudes inherent in the relationship between the former and those whom the author calls sub-leaders, who work in the service of the leaders’ strategies. The denouement of one of these narratives is the unexpected defeat of a school reform bill deemed unacceptable by the teachers, which Dahl presents as an example of how things do not always turn out as might be expected if power were exercised fluidly from the top down.
Dahl’s New Haven was only part of the real New Haven of the 1950s. But the political comedy he stages has an air of familiarity with today’s Catalonia, where influences and leaderships go as they go and where any decision seems possible not because, as in the polyarchy described by Dahl, the distribution of power among groups with the capacity to influence balances the scales, but because the balance of powerlessness reigns.