As a graduate student, I spent days and weeks in the Duke University library reading books. Very few of those books can I remember by name 50 years later. Only a couple did I read a second time. One is Robert Dahl’s “Who Governs?”
Dahl, a Yale University political science professor, answered this question in the late 1950s and early 1960s — the end of the Eisenhower administration and the beginning of the Kennedy years. This was a stable period in American history, at least on the surface, unlike today. Dahl’s assumptions, findings and conclusions reflect the country in which he lived. Politics in New Haven, Connecticut, the medium-sized city he chose to illustrate the American way, was competitive but not cutthroat.
Dahl (1915-2014) celebrated pluralism and the two-party system. Democrats and Republicans had differing beliefs — hence, pluralism. They were rivals but not enemies. Both parties accepted what seemed like eternal wisdom: You win some, you lose some, and if you lose, you return to fight another day.
Both parties were composed of interest groups with limited amounts of campaign money. In a pattern common all across the United States, the Democrats were basically the party of workers, a few minorities and liberals, the Republicans the party of businessmen — men, not women, ran business — and economic conservatives. Women had roles in both parties — rarely as leaders.
Church influence in both parties was minimal. Abortion was unknown as a political issue.
In the twenty-first century, Dahl’s New Haven seems almost idyllic — if you can accept the premise of the idyll, a country that embraced elements of change within the framework of political stability.
For Dahl, governing — running the city — was who gets what, when, where and how. This is an idea almost as old as the country itself — and one that now seems as yesterday as Dahl’s portrait of America in “Who Governs?’
Today, governing is imposing your will on your political enemies through a continuation of the divisive tactics of the political campaign. And if you cannot impose your will, rage into the night knowing your loyal partisan followers love the hostile show.
Right here in Anchorage, Mayor Dave Bronson exemplifies this contemporary approach to “Who Governs?” Bronson doesn’t govern, he campaigns. He campaigns against the municipal Assembly. He campaigns against liberals. He campaigns against unelected bureaucrats. He campaigns against President Joe Biden.
Actually, governing, whether in Dahl’s New Haven or today’s Anchorage, is about sitting down with people you have little in common with — and sometimes make you want to scream when they open their mouth — and either making the best deal you can if you don’t have the votes or getting a much better deal if you do have the votes.
And speaking of votes, it’s about accepting the election returns, which Bronson is now investigating — at least the returns of the April municipal election. Bronson says he wants to further validate the returns — but it is obvious he is following in former President Donald Trump’s footsteps questioning the integrity of the electoral system.
Robert Dahl’s America has disappeared. What comes next? Some days, this former graduate student wonders if who gets what, when, where and how will at some point be decided by gunfire.
Michael Carey is an occasional columnist and the former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News.
The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to email@example.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.