Political Culture: the Mistoffelees of Economic Development


Political Culture as Mistoffolees

Mr. Mistoffelees

He is quiet and small, he is black from his ears to the tip of his tail;

He can creep through the tiniest crack, he can walk on the narrowest rail.

He can pick any card from the pack, he is equally cunning with dice;

He is always deceiving you into believing that he’s only hunting for mice.

He can play any trick with a cork or a spoon and a bit of fish-paste;

If you look for a knife or a fork and you think it is merely misplaced–

You have seen it one moment, and then it is gawn!

But you’ll find it next week lying out on the lawn.

(Excerpt: T.S. Eliot Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats)

Many economic developers never leave their home stomping grounds. They may not appreciate this article. Not because they disagree with it, but because they have probably not felt the disorientation that follows taking a new job in a brand new geography. Things are the same, but yet they are radically different. Simply put, the practice of economic development varies as you move around the nation. Why the shifting shapes?

There are several reasons but, at least in the Curmudgeon’s mind, something called political culture is the most important factor. If you never leave your native political culture, you may never notice that it exists at all. Your native political culture is like glasses or contacts; you hardly ever realize you’re wearing them. Take off those glasses and things get weird.

The old adage that people think alike and want the same things is wrong. The crazy thing is that even through we don’t all think alike and want the same things, we tend to sort ourselves out so that people who do think alike tend to live together in the same geography. That is what the book, the Big Sort (see our critique) is about. But it get’s even deeper than the Big Sort kind of thinking. If you check out another review, American Nations (see our critique), you can read a credible description that the path of migration by the original colonial immigrants (back in the 1600-1700’s) set in motion political structures and values that persist to this very day. Big Sort and American Nations (as is Patchwork Nations) are current efforts to tie down and capture a mysterious and cagey creature/concept called “political culture”.

Political culture is “out there”; in your heart of hearts you know it is–but you can’t easily see or touch it–only glimpses here and there, now and then. That is why we are using the Mistoffelees’s metaphor; Mistoffelees is a rascal cat that gets involved in lots of stuff, but he never gets caught–and is rarely seen.
Political culture is “out there”; in your heart of hearts you know it is–but you can’t easily see or touch it–only glimpses here and there, now and then. Mistoffelees is a rascal cat that gets involved in lots of stuff, but he never gets caught–and is rarely seen.

Getting your hands around political culture–well, it just isn’t going to happen. As you might expect, political culture drives data-driven economic developers crazy. Political culture defies statistical and mathematical description and measurement. So for hard-wired numbers freaks kinds of economic developers, political culture is best ignored or better still relegate it to the status of the imaginary Easter Bunny (which, it must be said, is very real. Come back to life in a hundred years and the Curmudgeon bets you will find people still trying to find where he hid the eggs).

But every so often, on a cold,  dark and stormy night, the correlation coefficients and modeling equations uncover some unexplainable finding. And at that point these quantitative specialists become consumed with confusion, (but, of course, never uncertainty). With fear of something numbers can’t explain grabbing their little Grinch hearts, they whistle loudly and sarcastically as they dash past the cemetery of dead methodologies.

Political culture is “out there”. Somewhere. Somehow? Like Mistoffelees with the fork and spoon, political culture is responsible for a ton of the mystery and variation in the practice of local and state economic development. In this article we will introduce the reader to political culture–and suggests ways that it can affect local economic development. We shall not attempt to deal with the contemporary ‘clash of cultures’ or ‘culture wars’ dialogues. That would be premature. Our first task in this review is to lay the foundation for reintroducing political culture into economic development. We seek only to catch a glimpse of Mistoffelees. This review, then, has limited objectives. Kind of think of it  as the opening lecture in a Political Culture 101 class. In this opening class we want to retrace the early (1960’s) introduction to the concept and how it linked to economic development. Secondly, we will introduce the reader to several ways the reader might catch a glimpse of our rascally cat–the Civic Culture and Social-Political Classes. That should be enough.

Laura A. Reese and Raymond A. Rosenfeld, The Civic Culture of Local Economic Development (Thousand Oaks, Sage Publications, 2002)

Reese and Rosenfeld make a very serious attempt to wrap their collective arms around our Mistoffelees-like political culture.  We are first very thankful to them because, by virtue of their reputations and strong research credibility (Reese is presently Editor for Economic Development Quarterly), they bring credibility to the reality and potential importance of political culture to economic development. In their book they make a case for their version of political culture (the civic culture) and in so doing they summarize a body of previous literature on political culture. An economic developer new to political culture ought to be exposed to this more than fifty years of literature which has been hidden from economic developers by the mists of data, statistics, equations and math. Be prepared reader, we are entering the land of leprechauns, wisps, glimpses, and ghosts that go noisily about in dark shadows. Don’t expect to see, feel or touch a political culture, however.

A Definition of Economic Development Political Culture

First, let’s settle on a good definition. Reese and Rosenfeld cite a definition of political culture developed by Jackman and Miller (R.W. Jackman and R.A. Miller, “A renaissance of political culture”, American Political Science Review, Vol. 40, 1996, pp. 632-659). Political culture is:

distinctive clusters of attitudes that are widely held across individuals. These durable clusters form subjective world orientations that are highly resistant to change, and are seen as the fundamental generator of economic and political performance. They are, in this sense , more crucial than objective conditions embodied in institutions, and they endure in the face of institutional change. (P.636)

Jackman & Miller’s definition is ok in the sense the reader now appreciates that the essential element underlying culture, its DNA, so to speak, are clusters of relevant attitudes (beliefs and feelings)–in our case to that nexus of attitudes, values, beliefs and feelings relevant to economic development.  Put all these elements together and all individuals in a given geographic area that roughly share this set of elements is a policy cluster. Needless to say, your version is not universally shared–there are other competing clusters of attitudes usually held by fools, dinosaurs, wrong-headed idiots, and immoral evil-doers. So each geography will have several clusters of attitudes relevant to economic development. The multiple clusters will then do battle in community-jurisdictions economic development policy process–where economic development policy is made. Usually this is the jurisdiction’s legislature.
Common sense dictates that times obviously change (you no longer wear a toga after all), attitudes ought to adjust to these changes. The observable reality, however, is that attitude-value clusters persist not only for decades but generations. Attitudes and beliefs regarding forces and institutions can last for hundreds of years–passed on from generations to generations.
One problem many people have with political culture is that they think it changes more easily than it actually does. Clusters of attitudes are surprisingly durable. And despite common sense that while times obviously change (you no longer wear a toga after all), attitudes ought to adjust to these changes. The observable reality, however,  is that  attitude-value clusters persist  not only for decades but generations. Attitudes and beliefs regarding forces and institutions can last for hundreds of years–passed on from generations to generations. The same core, age-old attitude and belief, like granite, remains intact, it just takes off the toga and puts on pants. What is underneath the toga or  docker pants is essentially constant over time.

If your great grandfather could respond to today’s current issues, you and he would probably be much more similar than you’d expect. For instance, your great grandfather might not have a position on Roe vs. Wade, but he is very likely to  have attitudes on when life begins and who or what creates life. Political culture is composed of the latter type of attitudes and beliefs, such as in god and whether god is loving or angry. These core attitudes and beliefs shape derivative attitudes. This is why they endure for considerable periods of time. In many ways, an equivalent comparison is that of political culture with behavioral economics. Other researchers wonder (nobody has come close to proving it) if some culture and economics behavior are partially “wired” into humans, possibly through body chemicals and DNA. A bit far-fetched? Maybe?

Anyway, this persistence occurs because political culture is based on really core fundamental attitudes about things like “how much you trust government”, “who and what is included in economic development–and who and what is not”, or “who should be the primary beneficiary of economic development”. These basic fundamental attitudes (and others) are easily transmitted over long periods of time, across generations, by families, neighbors, schools and, perhaps surprisingly, churches and the media. Religious-based attitudes, in particular, are an important component of political and economic development political culture.

Anyway, the Curmudgeon thinks the Jackman and Miller (J&M) definition is a bit too academic and a bit jargon-filled. He wants a definition which uses words that he can relate to. So we also offer an older definition by Banfield and Wilson (Edward C. Banfield & James Q. Wilson, City Politics (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1963), p. 58 ) to supplement J&M’s definition. For Banfield and Wilson, local political culture is:

the attachment people have to a city … based on a set of common expectations about how others will behave in civic and political affairs. These common expectations might be called the city’s ‘political culture’ that like culture generally, is ‘learned’ by the members. A participant [think citizen, voter] acquires a more or less stable set of beliefs about who runs things, how to get things done, whom to see, who wants what, and where ‘the bodies are buried’.

That’s more helpful. Essentially the economic development policy process of each jurisdiction is the clash between and among  these multiple clusters which differ in how they value and approach economic development. Economic development policy-strategy is the output from this clash. The clash continues as that economic development policy-strategy is carried out or implemented by an economic developer.This is the everyday stuff that economic developers must face. cope with, and endure. People, institutions (organized labor, for instance), the other political party, certain parts of the city or certain income-social classes of people are constant thorns and allies because their attitude-value clusters agree or disagree with what it is the economic developer is doing. To be sure, some agreement and disagreement is personality/specific event-related, but Hatfield-McCoy type struggles are more likely to be based on differences in how these clusters perceive economic development. They may not like the economic developer, but that is secondary.

and a Founding Father of Political Culture

So now we are done with definitions. At this point, the Curmudgeon thinks it best to start our talk about political culture by introducing the reader to the scholar, who through decades devoted to the concept, has to be thought of as political culture’s “founding father”: Daniel Elazar.

Elazar observes that political culture shapes government and governmental outputs in three ways: (1) through the expectations citizens and residents have on the appropriate role of government and politics in economic development (and, of course, other public policies); (2) by identifying who (which groups and individuals in the community) has legitimacy to participate in the discussion and making of economic development policy; (3) by shaping not only the making of policy but its subsequent implementation and administration. We shall call this a “public policy” approach to political culture. Elazar is really shaping how clusters of attitudes affect the making/implementation of a public policy like economic development.

Elazar is, arguably, most famous for his identification of three macro-state subcultures on the basis of the attitudes and world views of their inhabitants (attitudes and world views inherited from and imparted through socialization ( by families, schools, religion, and political structures like the state constitution) from the state’s original settlers). Elazar categorized each of the fifty states as Individualistic, Moralistic, and Traditionalist. The reality of these three subcultures is that any one state can exhibit one or all of these subcultures, but usually in contiguous, geographic patterns.

 Individualistic cultures favor limited government and preferring only those activities that are necessary to maintain free market operations. Participation in policy making, to the extent possible, is limited and closed only to those relevant to the public policy . Economic development organizations (EDOs) are acceptable participants but their role is more of an efficient administrator of economic development programs.

Moralistic political cultures “place a greater emphasis” on the community and the public interest–the greater good of economic development in a broad sense of its meaning. Individual political cultures use policy to assist private enterprise and the market, moralistic cultures protect the community and its public welfare. There is a much greater role for citizens and an open political process. EDOs are seen as neutral administrators in a rational policy implementation which fosters economic development but not at the expense of the community.

Traditionalist political cultures “do not trust the marketplace” or open citizen participation in policy-making. Policy-making is restricted to the community’s elites and these elites try to protect their own interests (and the “way of life which exists–avoid change). Social status, sometimes family ties (an insider policy process) are key determinants of policy decisions. EDOs carry out the will of the elites if the elites themselves cannot “cut the deal”.

The weakness of Elazar’s approach, especially if one is quantitatively-oriented, is that classification of geographies into one or another subcultures, without survey research, is judgmental.
The weakness of Elazar’s approach, especially if one is quantitatively-oriented, is that classification of geographies into one or another subcultures, without survey research, is judgmental. “Elazar did not explicitly operationalize his conception of political culture by identifying indicators that could then be measured quantitatively” (p. 21) There is, in short, no objective way to validate or update the map of these three subcultures. [The classification utilized in American Nations is strongly related to Elazar in some respects and American Nations is based on its author’s judgment in the classification of geographies].

But once again Mistoffelees reappears. Despite is considerable imprecision, researchers, as cited by Reese and Rosenfeld (P. 24) continually  have found positive correlations between these subcultures and per capita taxes and spending levels,  interest on debt, and educational spending, partisanship, and political ideology. That is a rather formidable list of important dynamics and policy areas. To be sure, other efforts to link public policy and political variables have yielded mixed results and the Curmudgeon’s attempt to link right to work legislation to Elazar was also a mixed bag. Overall, Elazar’s schemata does not seem to work–BUT, 100% of Traditionalist dominant are right to work states and there is only one state (New Hampshire) that is Moralistic dominant. Until Michigan, there was no right to work state in which the Individualist culture was dominant. Of the fourteen states which approved right to work previous to 1947 all were either Traditionalist dominant or were mixed Traditionalist.

With Elazar, the reader can see the ephemeral “now it’s there, now it isn’t” Mistoffelees-like quality to political culture. Still, his concepts are very much alive. If the reader wants to see how a modern day derivative of Elazar’s approach to political culture can account for post 2000 political behavior, partisan affiliation and elections, see our review of Woodard’s American Nations or better still read his book.

The Civic Culture

At this point, we would ask the reader to consider a more current attempt to understand and apply political culture to economic development. Reese and Rosenfeld (Laura A. Reese and Raymond A. Rosenfeld, The Civic Culture of Local Economic Development (Thousand Oaks, Sage Publications, 2002) offer an approach to political culture which is based on local communities, not states or groupings of states. In essence, they are trying to see if our Mistoffelees can be found (and measured) more easily if we look elsewhere. Let’s see if we can catch a better glimpse.

Reese & Rosenfeld adopt a bit less demanding definition of political culture. For them  political culture is a

“disposition that causes individuals and groups to act in certain ways and by acting in conformity to this disposition the policies and programs in geographic areas in which a  particular disposition dominates will reflect these dispositional interactions and be different than a geographic area in which another disposition dominates”.

R&R look to find these dispositions at the community/municipal level and the label the community level manifestation of dispositions as “the civic culture”. The civic culture “denotes patterns or way of life in a local community” (p. 41)

Civic culture includes the structure of the local economic development decision-making enterprise, the process through which decisions are made, the interests that are involved in decision-making, and the decision-making styles evident in the local public arena. The structure of economic development decision-making includes the nature and extent of community resources devoted to economic development, the external competitive environment of the l0cality vis-a-vis other cities, and the structure of the [EDO itself, i.e. a chamber or government department] (p. 41-42–we did inject some wording at the end which we belief faithfully identifies in fewer words what the author described).

In embracing this definition of political culture [which, by the way, we would label as a ‘public policy’-related definition], the authors expect and can explain why two city managers (same form of government) or two identical economic bases can arrive at different policy outputs, i.e. different economic development programs and strategies. That difference can be explained [hopefully] by different civic cultures.

There are a lot of moving parts in R&R’s dynamic civic culture (included as elements are sub-clusters based on structures, the locus of power and decision-making styles–if interested see pp. 44-49). R&R develop entire chapters on how to develop quantitative indicators to measure and model the civic culture.

Using a (Canada-USA) database developed through survey research, R&R identify four “general” civic cultures: (1) mayor-dominated, (2) externally driven, (3) politically inclusive, and (4) elite -dominated. They also find the cultures whose economic base is strong and which have reformed governments (city managers, at large elections) are more likely to use “Type II” economic development strategies (claw backs, and presumably other Progressive economic development practices).


The Civic Culture as Adapted by the Curmudgeon

R&R does offer some conceptual understanding of how political culture operates at the community level.
But its practical utility to an economic developer is limited at best. It is much too complicated and one take away from their book is that not all aspects of economic development can be traced to political culture. Some aspects can; others can’t. How are we supposed to know which is which? To offer some practical utility for having read this review,  the Curmudgeon will offer several ideas/dispositions that might be of use to an “in the field” economic developer. The Curmudgeon hopes that the reader understands that all this is a fool’s enterprise. But the Curmudgeon, who is most definitely a fool, is willing to embrace this fool’s errand and suggest, ON HIS OWN, the following observations.

It is the Curmudgeon’s sense that cluster-dispositions which commonly divides communities-jurisdictions are:

(1) support either government or private sector primacy in economic development leadership and governance

(2) define how economic development can best serve the community by either

  • (A) facilitating the private market through direct assistance to firms and companies thereby improving individual firm productivity and productivity which rebounds to the community in the form of job creation, wages, and tax generation/stabilization–
  • OR–(B) define “good” economic development as enhancing the collective, overall community and its prosperity through the creation of wealth and prosperity generated by higher “living” wages, quality jobs in growing industries, individual skill enhancement and empowerment (workforce training, entrepreneurship, empowerment), and protecting the public interest from distortions arising from the actions of private firms and individuals. market injustices caused by market efficiency and greedy profit-seeking capitalists.

The former cluster of attitudes the Curmudgeon will label “privatist or privatism” and the latter will be called public interest or communitarian. The Curmudgeon realizes that (1) there are other important attitudes, and (2) that if he had the time and interest, the Curmudgeon should defend these two values and better explain why they are important to an economic developer. Suffice it to say, the Curmudgeon believes that the first taps an individual’s trust/support  in government and willingness to use government rather than private markets for economic development. The second attitude cluster taps into the goals desired from economic development efforts

The reader might want to think about how tax abatement or a revolving loan fund can vary in a communities dominated by different combinations of these two cluster/dispositions  Eligibility, level of controversy,  existence of claw backs, who makes the decision– all could easily be different. At the very least, the economic developer can better appreciate how the none too visible political culture can affect economic development programs and goals.

The GhostBusters: How do you find a Ghost?

If political culture resembles a ghost-like cat in a Broadway play, how does one find it so one can observe it and maybe even measure it? Is one more likely to find political culture at the national level, census division level, states, regions, zip code, counties, municipalities or neighborhoods and census blocks?

If political culture resembles a ghost-like cat in a Broadway play, how does one find it so one can observe it and maybe even measure it? R&R alert us to the rather basic question of where can we best find that mischievous Mistoffelees? They look a municipal level communities for their civic culture. Is one more likely to find political culture at the national level, census division level, states, regions, zip code, counties, municipalities or neighborhoods and census blocks? Good Question–don’t know the answer? Are there other questions about how and if political culture can affect policy-making and economic development. You bet. The rest of this section is full of salient questions.

Do you find Mistoffelees more easily by using demographic variables like race and income than by measuring which economic development strategies the EDO pursues?  Or do different government structures, like city manager versus mayor or county commission (form of government reflects dominant attitudes on governmental decision-making) make different decisions because their underlying political cultures are different? Also, can elections, partisan affiliation and voting behavior reveal fruitful insights on political culture? Why are some communities very willing to give out tax abatement or and why does states have distinctive business climates which vary from other states? The sad reality is that culture may be an important aspect of each of these questions, but that doesn’t mean a researcher can prove it through statistics.

A pretty large body of academic literature looks at national political culture and compares the different attitudes and beliefs associated with each nation-state.  Why does gun control work in Great Britain and not in USA? Why do the English drink warm beer? (we both after all love Downton Abbey)? Mali, it turns out, does not have the same attitude clusters as Sweden. Who would have guessed? And anyone watching Italy and Germany (Berlusconi is his own political culture) can see that nation’s that share a common civilization and heritage can embrace different public policies–sort of like Canada and the USA. Why is it that Windsor Canada is different from Detroit? Is Paris different from Quebec?  Political culture seems to differentiate among nations. Does it differentiate among cities and counties within the same country?

A related question about political culture is what is it we expect political culture to do? Does it make us Republican or Democrat? Liberal or conservative? More or less willing to regionalize our government? More innovative and creative? Does political culture affect whether we designate the chamber as economic development lead agency versus a government department? Why do some communities hire a local person as an economic developer versus others that do a national search? Logically culture may affect some of these questions, but not others. But how are we supposed to know which questions culture can answer and which it can’t? We need a good theory, but we ain’t got one yet.

Because there is such a thing as political culture does not mean that political culture affects every decision that is made.  Maybe culture affects economic development but not crime? The Curmudgeon sees evidence that political culture by wondering why each of our fifty state EDOs all seem to have the same economic development programs, yet they also have different business climates? Why? Why are some states  right to work and why do others raise their minimum wage while others do not?

And how does political culture affect decisions and programs? Through voting different different people or political parties into power? By allowing different types of political actors (say labor unions, or school systems) to participate in decisions about tax abatement? By defining what kinds of jobs its wants (i.e. “quality jobs”, jobs paying prevailing union wage, “living wage jobs”, or just jobs created? By choosing different bureaucratic structures, like a regional EDO? By the county executive appointing private sector board members to make the decisions for the county EDO or filling the board with her department heads? By, a la Richard Florida, creating a supportive lifestyle environment in which creative types can flourish and prosper? These are all possibilities for the intrusion of political culture.

Below are some questions that an economic developer may wonder if political culture plays a role?

Why are most city-county consolidations in the southeast or Midwest? Why are towns and townships found in some states and not others (I know the  answer)–does this matter for economic development? By having a department of economic development versus an office within the planning department?  Why does Tidewater culture Virginia offer more incentives than next door Tidewater culture Maryland? The reader might sit back with a bourbon and think of others,

Finally, just how long does it take for a political culture to affect the direction of economic development? A week? Ten years? Does the affects of political culture play out over decades, watering down an economic development program copied from elsewhere (say clusters) and then watch it dissolve over time to nothingness?  By allocating $100,000 in 2010 for economic development versus $1 million in 1990? By having lots of approved economic development programs but no one hired to administer them? In all these instances the initial decision may not have been determined by political culture, but like water over a rock, over time it wears it down. It is not likely that political culture is similar to a light bulb switch.

Interestingly, during the Reagan years two thirds of American states adopted economic development zones within a two year span of time. Now almost all states have EDZ, but they are almost all different in structure, eligibility, types of benefits, who makes the final decision, reporting requirements, etc. Twenty years later why is the same identical program now fifty different programs? Conversely, industrial development bonds started out in 1936 Mississippi. No one else adopted them for nearly twenty years.  Now every state offers them. But the propensity to use IDBs has varied widely across states. For what purposes can an IDB be used? Some states use them principally for attraction, others for business retention, still others hardly use them at all.

These are all interesting questions. All potentially can involve political culture as an explanatory variable? But the Curmudgeon misplaced his crib sheet and can’t find the political culture instruction manual. Reasonable people can agree that something differentiates the decision-making for each of these questions, we just can’t say for sure that it is political culture. And we can’t just choose one or two of these questions, research, arrive at a answer, and then extend the answer from one question automatically to other questions.  This is a frustrating concept!

Social Class, Political Culture and Economic Development

Let’s approach political culture from another angle–social class. The linkage of political culture, social class, economic development and many other urban phenomena was actually an accepted, almost paradigmatic approach previous to the 1980’s. In those days economic development actually involved meeting with people (ugh!) rather than analyzing data, reviewing computer printouts, or tweeting and liking. When economic developers actually dealt directly with firms and displaced workers, it was very apparent that people were different in very systematic ways. Public hearings exhibited a different style and dynamic in one neighborhood or municipality than in another neighborhood. Different people looked at things differently, defined success and failure differently and wanted different things out of life. And then came economics and data and suddenly everybody was the same and wanted the same things.

In the days when economic development actually involved meeting with people (ugh!) rather than analyzing data, reviewing computer printouts, or tweeting and liking, an economic developer could touch and feel political culture directly. When economic developers actually dealt directly with firms and displaced workers, it was very apparent that people were different in very systematic ways. Public hearings exhibited a different style and dynamic in one neighborhood or municipality than in another. Different people looked at things differently, defined success and failure differently and wanted different things out of economic development. Political culture was more obvious then.

Back in those days of yesteryear, it was painfully apparent to those involved in urban renewal, aka redevelopment, that those being relocated looked at things differently than those making the relocation decisions. Obviously, in that world there was a literature which tried to understand the linkage between political culture, public policy, decision-making, and the folk affected by these shenanigans–and that literature employed an intermediate construct labeled “social class”. Political culture of any geography/municipality/region was composed of different combinations of social classes each of which lived distinctive lifestyles and shared its own characteristic cluster of attitudes, behaviors, expectations and beliefs. Policy was drawn from these distinctions and differences and policy effectiveness was affected by the reactions and behaviors of these different social classes. In this bygone land, in this mysterious era, political culture-social class was a mighty, magical dragon.

The Curmudgeon’s Image of Puff

And so we had a literature in which commentators such as Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Michael Harrington, Saul Alinsky, James Q. Wilson, Kenneth Clarke, Herbert Gans and others we shall soon mention (including Daniel Elazar) also lived in this “land of honalee”. What happened? Why did the Magic Dragon go “puff” and simply disappear?

For an explanation of Puff’s disappearance, the answer is very clear and obvious. Puff offended people. He was politically incorrect. His puffs of fire insulted people and they stopped believing in him. Worse, they attacked him. Anyone that talked about social class (except the rich who could be attacked at will) was viciously attacked and in many instances unfair allegations were made. Political culture and social class became identified with (OMG!) neo-conservatives–and even worse, Republicans. And so, when Puff disappeared, we all fled from the land of honalee. It was too controversial in an era of “politically correct”.

And to be fair, there were other reasons than partisan/ideological for the disappearance of social class and political culture. We list some below:

  • The field of urban politics within the discipline of political science is alleged by many (including the Curmudgeon) to have been dominated for many decades by a small set of conceptual approaches and a resistance to approaches and perspectives from the “mainstream” political science discipline and other disciplines as well.
  • There has been a shift since the 1980’s away from political science, public policy and sociology. Economics, planning and geography are now economic development’s preferred disciplines. Accompanying these disciplines has been adoption of a new methodologies and a distinct move toward statistical based/quantitative research. For reasons cited earlier, political culture is hard to capture using such techniques.
  • Political culture and social class is hopelessly normative. It rests of values, attitudes, beliefs and the like which are not only elusive to quantitative research but is joined at the hip to ideologies, partisanship, and good and bad labels. There has been published a steady, constant literature over the last thirty years, but it has not “caught on” and has labored in obscurity.

  • Social class was the most helpful approach in understanding how political culture entered into policy-making. But it could not overcome its inherent problems of being linked to values and negative as well as positive attributes. Linking individuals and groups to one or another social class implies both positive and negative connotations. For instance, if included in the “underclass” it would certainly take a bit of “spin” to construe such membership as positive. Lower or working class is not much better. And these days of the “1%”, it doesn’t even pay to be in the upper social class. The bottom line is that social class is out of step with an overall American culture in which everyone thinks of themselves as middle class and any class other than middle is bad news.  Our differences are boiled away into a homogenous brew. We are after all, “the American People”.
  • Finally, social class, in an age of extreme individualism, if not narcissism, seems rather confining.  Many individuals instinctively resist being identified with any social class–even the middle class. They belong to no category or classification; they are “special”.

The bottom line is that social class is out of step with an overall American culture in which everyone thinks of themselves as middle class and any class other than middle is bad news. Our differences are boiled away into a homogenous brew. We are after all, “the American People”.


So a series of factors and cultural changes disenfranchised both political culture and social class. Instead, today we talk about economic base, innovation, clusters, small business and a ton of wonderful one-size-fits-all economic development strategies–each of which will inevitably lead to economic revitalization, prosperity, empowerment and wealth. Except it ain’t so. Magic bullets prove to be duds when they leave the books, printouts and blogs. There’s a reason for this. We are not all the same. There is more than one goal included within economic development and people and institutions get the strange idea that their goal is at least just as good as yours. Strategies work some places, but not others. Not everybody in our communities think these beltway-derived magic bullets make sense and they resist our Truth–wrong-headed fools. That is why we should reconsider and restart discussion and research about political culture and social class.

Political Culture As Social Culture

Ok. How are political culture and social class linked? To assist in answering this question, we will introduce the reader to a prominent scholar, who lived in the land of honalee, Edward Banfield.

First, how does Banfield define social class. Social class can be defined in different ways: “by objective criteria (income, schooling, occupation), subjective criteria (attitudes, tastes, values), and position in a deference hierarchy (who looks up to whom). Whatever criteria are used, it turns out that essentially the same pattern of traits is found to be characteristic of [a particular] class” [as a whole, not each and every individual in that class]. (Edward C. Banfield, the Unheavenly City Revisited (Boston, Little, Brown, 1974), p. 53).  Social class (generally class is segmented into upper class, middle class, working class, and sometimes underclass.

For Banfield, “Each class[segment] exhibits a characteristic patterning [he calls it “patterning”, earlier we called it “socialization”] that extends to all aspects of life: manners, consumption [patterns], child-rearing, sex, politics, or whatever” (Banfield, p. 53). Any reader who has lived through an election knows that polling/survey is able to discern patterns, clusters of attitudes, shared demographics exhibited by various sub-groups. The spam in your email is largely a google-inspired application of the same concept. Social class-political culture essentially divides society and a political culture into these social class sub-groups.

Each social class has its distinctive clusters of attitudes, levels of income, beliefs, values, level of education, and works in occupations appropriate to these. Exceptions always exist, but as a whole, each class segment exhibits an internal consistency around its core beliefs and attitudes. Banfield isolated present versus future-oriented individuals and postulated that upper class is most future oriented and in a continuum works toward present-oriented in the working class. [Present-oriented means decisions are made to achieve immediate consequences; future-oriented [delayed gratification] make decisions which have consequences in a later period of time–propensity to acquire an education is an example of future-oriented decision]. Banfield got in some politically-correct style trouble with this present-future orientation because some alleged, we think unfairly, racial implications. Yet, other authors have since recognized this is a legitimate variable which does differentiate among social classes. Be that as it may, present-future orientation is only one of a great number of potential variables which differentiate among classes.

To make social class more understandable to an economic developer, let’s see how social class-political culture can apply to workforce/skill enhancement programs.

We suggest other orientations can by hypothesized which could affect our economic development workforce-skills enhancement (dislocated worker, etc) program. Let’s set up some context for this workforce program. One way to look at our changing economy is to recognize that sectors (NAICs code categories) have exhibited definite supply-demand trends over time. Due to innovation, globalism, deindustrialization. productivity sectors and occupations grow, stagnate and decline from one time period to another. Training programs, e.g. entrepreneurship, WIA-based, STEM etc are devised to provide occupationally mobile individuals the skills needed to move across occupations. Job demand is estimated, jobs (content) are assessed, curriculum structured, and courses organized, students recruited–and off we go.

Without realizing it, however, we could be making an assumption that is at variance with social class attitudes and culture. For instance, since sectors tend to agglomerate, i.e. form into geographic clusters, the rise and decline of sectors, and the occupations associated with these growing jobs, has geographic implications [that is what Morelli in his New Geography of Jobs is saying–see review]. Successful linking of individuals with jobs can easily, and commonly, be more than just skills enhancement; it can also mean geographic relocation. If the propensity/ability to move is related to social class, say working class or under class does not view moving away from home and family, support system favorably then program effectiveness faces serious headwinds. Much has been made, lately, about underwater mortgages and its effect, on job mobility, but otherwise everyone just assumes that workers will, almost automatically, move to available jobs. Should they?

Therein lies part, a big part, of the problem that political culture creates. A very good way to see political culture in operation is to use social class, BUT, if one uses social class the chance of being politically incorrect is very, very high.

More to the point, job retraining assumes resiliency.  Psychologists associate resiliency with optimistic outlook, positive attitude, ability to regulate emotions (overlap with present-future orientation) and the ability to learn from past failures. Does resilience vary with social class? When an individual and his/her occupation becomes obsolete, why do we assume that each social class possess the preconditions for resilience and  is equally able to able to overcome negative forces and rise to the challenge, make a future-oriented decision to forgo immediate income and incur immediate obligation, and develop motivation to work in an entirely new occupation, with a fairly different skills set (the Curmudgeon is familiar with the Work Keys Program)–and then potentially relocate. Some will, others won’t. It is still politically incorrect to even wonder if resilience is equally distributed throughout all social classes. It is also politically incorrect and electorally problematic to assume that it isn’t. That don’t make it so, however!

Therein lies part, a big part, of the problem that political culture creates. A very good way to see political culture in operation is to use social class, BUT, if one uses social class the chance of being politically incorrect is very, very high .

What the Heck is the Value Added that comes with all this Political Culture Dribble?

We wouldn’t have wasted an article and risked readership if the Curmudgeon didn’t think culture important and worth the risk. Political culture reaches into the reality that the practice of economic development is not a pure science. Economic development, like law, is also an “art”. Political culture allows us the opportunity to inject values and differences into the theory and practice of professional economic development.

The written literature of economic development is consumed with the pursuit of one strategy or another. “Follow this!” “Do That” stuff. At least one problem with a literature that is dominated by that kind of prescriptive commands is that it never comes with an instruction manual written in the language your community understands. It often includes ideas and programs with which significant elements of your community don’t agree. As any non-academic economic developer knows, programs and strategies are approved and administered through structures, processes and people. Structure, processes and people are what we are paid to do every day.  That’s where political culture enters the picture.

The thing is that structures, processes and people are different. They are not supposed to be–but they are. Because something allegedly worked in one place is no guarantee that it will work someplace else because structures, processes and people are different. How and why things are different needs to be understood if one is to effectively manage and lead. We all know this. We do not need the Curmudgeon to tell us what we already know–except we sometimes need to be reminded of it. Too much of the economic development literature is of the one-size-fits-all tone. The literature on strategies and economic development tools does not account for what separates us and distinguishes us from each other. Sorry, Dayton Ohio (my wife’s home) is not New York City. Birmingham Alabama is not Dayton. Yes, again we know all that–but how are they different and how does it affect the approval, implementation and management of economic development strategies and programs? Silence!

Political culture offers us a systematic and thoughtful way to begin that search for understanding how we are different. The policy-based economic development literature, constructed usually in think tanks, consultants and academia, does not need to know why we are different–it usually treats the issue by ignoring it or pooh-poohing that it exists. But for the economic developer working in a jurisdiction, differences exist and they don’t go away. They have to be understood and managed if the economic developer hopes to have a paycheck next month.

The problem with political culture, however, is that it needs a lot more work and research before it can offer comprehensive solutions. At present it is a frustrating conceptual approach. Political culture can reasonably demonstrate that people in different geographies hold different attitudes and beliefs but we have to identify and better understand those basic attitudes and values that affect economic development.

The problem with political culture, however, is that it needs a lot more work and research before it can offer comprehensive solutions. At present it is a frustrating conceptual approach. Political culture can reasonably demonstrate that people in different geographies hold different attitudes and beliefs and we can begin to measure how and what beliefs and attitudes, they differ upon. We have to identify those basic attitudes and values that affect economic development and better understand how they affect economic development.

Some people don’t trust government as much as others. Others want government, not the individual to assume responsibility for some activities, but not others. Some want to work through and with private business–others don’t trust the profit motive and believe it leads to abuses and distortions.  Some want to work in larger, more impersonal, regions; others want to keep things close at hand to make sure it does what they want done. Some want to make decisions consensually, others prefer someone to lead and take the risks. These are all examples of fundamental attitudes and orientations which underlie different political cultures which affect the programs and strategies of economic development. Developing a sensitivity to them (and others) permits understanding, compromise and maybe a rough consensus to support economic development program/strategy approval and processes.

Good Luck and hope you can catch an occasional glimpse of that mischievous cat!


“Political Culture: the Mistoffelees of Economic Development” – proved to be an excellent article, or “short course” – on the merits of considering the “civic culture” when attempting to execute economic development strategies. The reader gains insight and application as to why it is so important to have a dialogue about development with the entire community, especially if the intent of the development is to have your community survive and grow through the process as opposed to being displaced or paved over. The author shares some careful consideration for why the economic development strategy must consider the community and why no one strategy can be dropped over another and expected to retain that community identity. I would highly recommend the read.

Comment by Paige R Bethke on March 27, 2013 at 8:28 pm

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