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By Xavier de Souza Briggs

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But as Altshuler and Luberoff (2003) note, any history of these ideas must acknowledge the fact that Dahl wrote in response to claims about Democracy and Public Problems 29 elite control of politics. Most famously, sociologist C. Wright Mills’s The Power Elite (1956) argued that a small group of elites held sway in local civic life, whether through direct pressure on decision makers or because those who command a disproportionate share of wealth, social status, and political power in society share a worldview and thus easily act in concert to advance elite interests and “reproduce” their power.

Without closer analysis of these possibilities, carried out on a wider range of cases, we risk, in civic capacity, the community cure-all expectation that quickly attached itself to social capital in the 1990s, as well as a circular, you-know-it-when-you-see-it logic: where there is civic cooperation on a contentious problem, there must be durable civic capacity at work. But several important process questions about civic capacity must be answered if we are to better judge the claims outlined above.

The latter emphasizes structural conflicts dominated by economic elites, such as a city’s major investors, employers, and real estate developers (Fainstein and Fainstein 1979; Gaventa 1980; Harding 1995). In their classic text on how physical growth is advanced politically in cities, sociologists John Logan and Harvey Molotch (1987) conclude that groups whose interests are defined by the use value of urban space (consumption value, such as in renting a housing unit) are invariably in conflict with those whose politics reflects the exchange value of that same space (its value at resale—that is, ownership rather than consumption interest).

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