Analyzing Urban Politics: A Mobilization-Governance Framework

By Stephen J. McGovern (Haverford College)

Regime theory has dominated the analysis of urban politics since the publication in 1989 of Clarence Stone’s seminal book, Regime Politics: Governing Atlanta, 1946-1988. As with any influential theory, there have been trenchant criticisms, but for years no alternative approach has emerged to challenge its leading position within the field.


Recently, however, some scholars began to question the primacy of an analytical framework based on political economy, contending that doing so relegated race to a secondary role. They asserted that putting race front and center would illuminate how structural racism shapes urban power relations in fundamental ways. That move gained considerable momentum with a wave of scholarship documenting the widespread social, economic, and political impacts of the carceral state on individuals and neighborhoods of color. Even the most prominent advocates of a political-economy approach, including Clarence Stone, have recognized that such research has critically altered how we should think about who exercises power in cities.
This article reaffirms the valuable contributions of the carceral state scholarship but cautions against any significant retreat from a political-economy perspective. Although some have demonstrated that organized business advocacy in urban contexts has declined, market forces continue to exert far-reaching influence over urban policymaking. Regime theory, in particular, still provides valuable insights into how city leaders negotiate tensions between the market and the state by forming coalitions based on group access to material resources, organizational capacity, and routine modes of collaboration.


My article in UAR proposes a new framework for examining urban politics that views race and the market as paramount forces that structure political behavior in American cities. And yet, the proposed analytical framework accords considerable space – more so than regime theory claims to do – to human agency in overcoming these structural forces. It does so by giving far more scrutiny to what happens before political elites within the public and private sectors assemble governing coalitions to advance a common agenda. Prior to the governance stage that regime theory dwells upon, there is a mobilization stage (or, alternatively, a demobilization stage, as carceral state scholars have shown) that accounts for why certain groups emerge as potent players in the first place and why at least some of those groups go on to occupy significant roles within electoral coalitions and then governing coalitions. The mobilization stage, which has been chronically understudied by regime theorists, calls attention to the societal trends that sometimes trigger group ascendance through resource accumulation and the cultivation of an engaged political consciousness. It also examines how diverse groups across the urban landscape manage to overcome divisions based on race, ethnicity, class, and culture to cooperate in pursuing common goals within the electoral and policy-making processes. In short, what occurs at the group mobilization stage lays a crucial foundation for what takes place at the subsequent governance stage.


A case study of contemporary politics in Philadelphia illustrates how the mobilization-governance framework can be applied. During the latter half of the twentieth century, coalitions led by downtown business elites exercised disproportionate influence over city politics, much as regime theory would have predicted. Racial barriers further impeded African Americans from making substantial political inroads even though they constituted a strong plurality of the city’s population.


By the start of the twenty-first century, however, important social and political changes were spurring shifts in city politics: (1) globalization had eroded the presence of local corporations, contributing to diminished business advocacy; (2) an influx of college-educated, young people fueled grassroots activism around various progressive causes; and (3) years of punitive law enforcement provoked many Black and Latino residents, who felt that their communities had been unfairly targeted by an overzealous police department. Such changes led many urban groups, including traditionally marginalized ones, to press their interests in city politics in more effective ways, notwithstanding the weighty structural forces that had so deeply constrained bottom-up organizing in the past.


At the same time, politically-astute politicians in Philadelphia perceived new opportunities to tap into the expanding political clout of certain interest groups and assemble broad-based, electoral coalitions. No one proved to be more adept at this than Jim Kenney, a long-time, at-large member of city council who ran for mayor in 2015. In recent years, he had built upon his natural base of Irish- and Italian-American residents from his South Philadelphia neighborhood and the city’s building trades unions by promoting the interests of LGBTQ communities, defending undocumented immigrants from enhanced deportation threats, and attacking the carceral state by introducing legislation to decriminalize the small possession of marijuana and advocating for strong prisoner reentry programs. Kenney’s unusually broad and diverse electoral coalition enabled him to cruise to a surprisingly easy victory.


The mobilization phase of the mobilization-governance framework can be used to explain the Kenney victory by examining how various groups organized effectively in the years leading up to the 2015 election by accumulating sufficient resources, organizational capacity, and oppositional consciousness. It also reveals how sufficient collaboration was achieved, both from the bottom-up through the diligent efforts of activist leaders and from the top-down through the artful deployment of impressive skills by a notable politician like Jim Kenney.


The governance phase of the mobilization-governance framework can be utilized to analyze the conversion of an electoral coalition into a governing coalition that strives to advance a common agenda. As regime theorists would anticipate, Mayor Kenney reached out to the downtown business community within weeks of his inauguration, giving a major speech to the chamber of commerce and praising some of its policy positions. But Kenney proceeded to craft a governing agenda that sought to fulfill key campaign promises to LGBTQ groups, immigrant rights organizations, and Black and Latino residents disgruntled about the carceral state. The centerpiece of his agenda was a proposed stiff tax on sugary drinks to fund three ambitious programs to reduce poverty: (1) a major expansion of pre-k education; (2) equitable civic space development centering on the reconstruction of parks, playgrounds, recreation centers, and libraries in underserved neighborhoods; and (3) the establishment of “community schools” that would offer an array of social services in addition to traditional classroom learning.


Not everyone was satisfied with Kenney’s agenda. Affordable housing advocates felt slighted when the mayor declined to take a stand on their support for a mandatory inclusionary housing bill and a development impact fee to bolster the meager reserves of the city’s housing trust fund. In addition, civil rights organizations grumbled about Kenney’s ambivalence about their push for greater workforce diversity. Kenney sympathized with affordable housing activists and civil rights groups, but another core member of his governing coalition, the building trades unions, viewed their proposals as a threat to the city’s economic vitality, the same position taken by the still-potent downtown business community.


Despite intense pressure from unions and business groups, affordable housing and workforce diversity advocates continued to push their interests, and with some success. City council’s passage of a development impact fee prompted Kenney to agree to a sizeable hike in affordable housing funding. Meanwhile, the mayor is leaning hard on the building trades unions to make unprecedented commitments regarding minority hiring.


In sum, the mobilization-governance framework illustrates how a governing coalition works through these competing tensions. Following regime theory, it respects structural forces like the marketplace in giving certain groups a decided advantage. Contemporary urban politics is (still) not an even playing field. But unlike regime theory, it demonstrates how mobilized groups, especially if they are able to collaborate effectively, can ultimately shape the agenda and sway policy making despite substantial pressure from business groups and the beneficiaries of White privilege.

Read the UAR article here.

Photo by Ethan Hoover on Unsplash

Author Biography

Stephen J. McGovern is an associate professor of political science at Haverford College. His research interests include urban politics and public policy, grassroots politics, and social movements. His most recent book is an edited volume entitled, Urban Politics: A Reader, which was published by Sage in 2017.

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