Style Weekly recently published its fifth annual list of the most powerful people in Richmond, sparking the usual debate over who calls the shots in this town. But there's a broader question that Richmond needs to ponder: Exactly what is power, and is the Power List a useful exercise?
To answer that question, we need to get very clear about what we mean when we talk about power.
There are two broad meanings to the term. The first, most common usage refers to what might be termed “power over”: the ability of someone to influence, persuade or compel someone else to do something they might not otherwise have done.
Power of this kind has been closely analyzed by academics, very often using cities as their labs. Scholars have thus identified three “faces of power.” The first involves the ability to get one's way in the event of a public conflict, in the face of opposition. The second involves the ability to shape the public agenda, and to help determine what sorts of issues make it into the public arena and what sorts do not. The third is the ability to influence how other people perceive or form their own interests.
Style's Power List is intended to identify, primarily, people who exercise power in one of these three senses. Particular weight is given to the first and second faces of power — those who have the resources and ability to do something or make something happen even if others oppose it, and those who have the ability to steer the public agenda one way or another.
That emphasis is entirely reasonable. Classic studies of urban political economy, such as John Logan and Harvey Molotch's “Urban Fortunes,” identify the following sectors as the key players in most urban regimes in the United States:
Local business people, especially those tied to real estate and development who have a direct stake in how property values are shaped by public action; politicians; local media; utilities; universities; cultural institutions and sports teams; organized labor; professionals such as lawyers; local retail chains; corporate capitalists; and community organizations.
Most of these groups are well-represented on the Style list, but two groups in particular are not: labor and community organizations. I doubt their absence reflects a grave methodological error by the Style editors.
Rather it reflects the very absence of strong, politically potent civic organizations not tied to the business class in this city. Richmond has a vibrant nonprofit sector, and the neighborhood associations play an important role in addressing localized concerns. But the city does not have strong, politically mobilized organizations capable of addressing citywide issues.
That observation leads us to consider a second definition of power. This definition focuses not on the ability to impose one's will or influence on another agent, but on the capacity to achieve worthwhile goals via cooperation with others. This is “power to,” which is distinct from “power over.”
Looking at power in this sense opens up a whole new angle for thinking about the Power List. Instead of simply asking who has the most influence in this town, we can instead ask: Does this collection of actors have the capacity to move the city toward important goals that advance the public interest? Those goals might include improving public schools, working to eliminate poverty, creating a government that is responsive and responsible to citizens, or improving the livability and attractiveness of the city.
A strong case can be made is that the answer to that question, to date, must be “no,” particularly with respect to public schools and poverty. Many people recognize those issues as critical, but what has been done and what is being done simply are not sufficient to alter the fundamental realities and long-term trends.
Looking at power in this second sense thus leads us to a perhaps startling conclusion: Perhaps all the esteemed powerful people on Style's list aren't so powerful after all. They don't have the capacity to help Richmond address its most fundamental and obvious problems; hence they are powerless.
This isn't a novel conclusion. A critique of this sort is shot through the celebrated Crupi report released in November.
And that is not surprising, for the report was itself riddled by a fundamental contradiction. Consultant Jim Crupi offered a harsh critique of the culture of leadership in Richmond in its shortsightedness, inability to capitalize on existing strengths, insularity, unwillingness to innovate, and so forth. But then he turned around and offered a set of proposals and recommendations predicated on a model of a business-led change. The expectation apparently was that by virtue of reading the report, the business community might suddenly become something it never has been: a model of innovative, progressive, farsighted leadership.
Crupi's report thus reflected the common but flawed assumption that the current top dogs are the people we should turn to address Richmond's deepest problems.
What's missing in Richmond most is what's missing on Style's Power List: the presence of strong civic organizations anchored in the neighborhoods with a strong commitment to advancing the public interest. Especially needed are organizations representing the least-advantaged neighborhoods and residents with sufficient political clout to force the existing leadership class, inside and outside of government, to take notice.
What powerful organizations in this city now advocate for the needs of high-poverty neighborhoods and public schoolchildren? Who stands up to hold City Council and the mayor accountable when the interests of those groups are compromised?
Right now, the answer is no one, leading to predictable results. Until citizen organizations develop and build enough power in this city to begin driving the public agenda and begin challenging the status quo in a serious way, prospects for genuine change and progress on the problems that matter most will continue to be bleak. S
Thad Williamson is an assistant professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond and the author of two books on urban politics and policy: “Making a Place for Community: Local Democracy in a Global Era” and “Sprawl, Justice, and Citizenship: The Civic Costs of the American Way of Life.” He served as a panelist on Style Weekly's “Power in Transition: What's Next for Richmond?” public forum Aug. 6.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.