City Politics

CITY POLITICS, by Edward C. Banfield and James Q. Wilson, Harvard University Press and The M.I.T. Press, 1963, $6.95.

After debating James Wilson, co-author of City Politics, Carmine DeSapio supposedly said, "The professors have really come down to earth." Applied to Banfield and Wilson, DeSapio's observation is obviously true; these two Harvard professors display a politician's knowledge of their subject.

Academic commentators have traditionally concentrated on the legal governmental structure of cities and have avoided city politics as if it were somehow too sordid to warrant scholarly attention. Recently, a few scholars such as Oscar Handlin, Wallace Sayre, and Herbert Kaufman have tried to demonstrate the importance of politics in urban life, but none has done it on as large a scale or with as much skill as Banfield and Wilson.

From the outset they eschew the political scientist's concern with institutions alone and concentrate instead on "the large forces that determine the content of policy." They realize that policy decisions arise not from technical considerations but from conflict among interests, ideologies, values, and prejudices. This conflict and the management of it constitute the political process.

City Politics examines the structure of urban politics: the electoral system, the distribution of authority, the centralization of influence; and analyzes the forces and groups involved: reform, non-partisanship, businessmen, the Negroes. The authors see a steady trend toward middle-class values in politics--honesty, "good government," concern for the entire community as opposed to specific neighborhoods. As these middle-class values gain acceptance, the old political machines crumble and are superceded by stronger centralized governments. Although administrative authority becomes concentrated, effective political power decreases, because the centralizing influence of the machine has been destroyed.

The most interesting comment in the book appears in the author's answer to the question of whether politics dominated by the middle-class ethos is appreciably better than boss-controlled politics. Administration is more efficient and less corrupt, but there are still problems. "If in the old days specific material inducements were illegally given as bribes to favored individuals, now much bigger ones are legally given to a different class of favored individuals, and, in addition, general inducements are proffered in packages to every group in the electorate and to tiny but intensely moved minorities as well." The style of politics is changed and the amount of class antagonism lessened, but the substance of politics is seldom improved.


Every chapter contains perceptive insights, although some subjects--particularly the city's role in the federal system, reform, and master planning--are not treated in the depth they deserve. This fault reflects the enormity of the authors' subject rather than a lack of understanding on their part.

A few chapters are somewhat out-of-date. The chapter on reform is essentially a synopsis of Wilson's The Amateur Democrat and fails consider what has happened to New York's reform movement in the last eighteen months. The chapter on the Negroes is also slightly dated, but to ask that a book published early this fall contain references to the events of last summer would be unfair.

The book has one stylistic failing. The authors rely too heavily on sociological jargon; words such as ethos, anomie, and typology appear to often. Sometimes these terms clarify concepts that would otherwise be fuzzy and obscure, but frequently they merely make the writing ponderous and unnecessarily abstract.

The major flaw in City Politics results from the size of the authors' task. In order to make general observations about all cities they have discussed exciting figures such as Laguardia, Curley, Moses, Hague, Murphy, and DeSapio only as examples of various aspects of politics, not as individuals. Not only are these men interesting, but they have also assumed essential roles in determining the political processes of their cities. In attempting to deal with all cities, Banfield and Wilson have distilled away an essential ingredient of urban politics: the ability of individual politicians to change the political nature of their own communities.

Despite this one major failing. City Politics remains mature, intelligent and realistic. It is the best book ever written on city problems.