Who has the “power”? Why working the bureaucracy is power

People Near The Latino City Hall

Managing the local bureaucracy is a “power” to slow things down against any unjust law and bring a political equilibrium to federal laws that threaten the harmony of the local community.

by Alex Gonzalez

The same day that Trump administration announced its new guidelines on immigration via an Executive Order , Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez announced  Harrys County  was ending its controversial 287(g) agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).  The “executive order” was supposed to “encourage” the expansion of the 287(g) program, but the “order” is having the opposite effect in the 4th largest city in the nation with neighborhoods entirely made of Hispanic immigrant communities and well-established older generation of Mexican-Americans that work within the city bureaucracy, like the Sheriff Department.  And having control or leverage over local bureaucracies is an equalizer tool for “who has power.”

I always encourage friends and family members to become members of the bureaucracy. Become a police officer, work for the federal government or state agencies in charge of enforcing policies, I tell them, work for the county or “City,” even as a County clerk. And there are many economic and political benefits in managing the local or state bureaucracy.

Though managing the government bureaucracy  may seem as tedious work, working for, or within the bureaucracy it is a form of measurable “power” for working-class Americans when the “Elites” and politicians failed to attend the needs of the members of the community. Moreover, working for a state or county agencies serve as a conduct to “middle-class” salaries and  status for many offspring of immigrants, as it was the case for Irish, Italians, and Jews in the East Coast. So there is real “power” in working for the local bureaucracy.

Managing the local bureaucracy is also a tool,  a “power,” to slow things down, an unjust law, and bring a political equilibrium to the federal laws that threaten the harmony of the local community.

In his book, Who Governs?: Democracy and Power in an American City, political scientist Robert Dahl argues that political power, its distribution, and representation in New Haven, Connecticut was a matter of who ran the city bureaucracy. The book is widely considered one of the great works of empirical political science to measure community power in the cities. Dahl argued that New Haven worked under, according to Dahl’s, a theory of “pluralism: elite political groups exist, but they aren’t very powerful.  Instead, they balance each other out by leaving politicians (and thus their voters) firmly in control of the bureaucracy.”  He studied the overlap between local social and economic elites in New Haven, WASPs, and the ascendency of new groups like the Irish, Italians and Jews who became the main controllers of the bureaucratic by 1959; and thus, forcing the WASPpish Establishment to negotiate with other non-protestant groups who took controlled over the city bureaucracy.

In Dahl’s argument, in New Haven the decision making power was divided among different groups. One set was involved in urban development, another group in education, another in policies within the city, and another set of groups with respect to political nominations and elections. Thus, according to Robert Dahl division of power, no single elite dominated across these issues. Hence, power was divided: Pluralism—competition for power.  And this power comes from a structure based on groupings of power bases (ethnic, regional, intellectual, and industry) and strategically selected political “representatives” of those distinct groups selected by the elected official.  Especially his section on the levels of integration of immigrant minority groups into the political process.

According to Dahl, the Waspish society slowly began to open up their social clubs to successful business people they had previously considered their ethnic inferiors. In 1920, the bureaucracy of New Haven was held by a WASP society. Patricians had all the political resources they needed: wealth, social position, education, and a monopoly of public office: New Haven, and for that matter the colony and the state of Connecticut, had been ruled for a century and a half by an elite, consisting of Congregational ministers, lawyers, and men of business, of whom the ministers had historically furnished most of the leadership. They were of one common stock and one religion, cohesive in their uniformly conservative with control over social institutions and the educational and even business enterprise in 1920.

The arrival of Irish immigrants changed that. The Irish immigrants in New Haven moved quickly from working-class to middle-class status, surprisingly quickly considering the meager jobs skills and discrimination they encountered and begun working for the city. Consequently, by 1959, second generations if Irish Catholics had the highest number of city workers second only to Jews. Therefore, according to Dahl, public sector economic resources–jobs–served as major conduit of social mobility for Catholic Irish and Italians.  By controlling the bureaucracy, “Celtic” mobilization, especially electoral mobilization, was crucial to secure share of the public resources, and thereby, accelerating this group social mobility. Moreover, Irish immigrant groups-unions–already had experiences with bureaucracies, so they knew–as groups–the importance of becoming part of it.

The U.S. Census soon will release its finding of the 2020 Census and Mexican-Americans and other Latino groups  surely surpass the 60 million threshold. But number alone alone is not “power.” In Dalh’s analysis, the main way by which Latinos can acquire political power is by working within  the state, county, and city bureaucracy (county agencies workers such as police officers, county clerks. etc…). By controlling the bureaucracy, a Latino mobilization, especially electoral mobilization, can be a powerful tool because they can share the public resources, and thereby, accelerating this Latino social political mobility with economic and social values.  

Admittedly, the term bureaucracies connotes big government for conservatives or institutional racism for some groups. However, the reality is  that in conservative states Texas and liberals states like California, states and county bureaucracies have great “power’ and discretion to favor policies that directly affects their communities.


Alex Gonzalez is a political Analyst, Founder of Latino Public Policy Foundation (LPPF), and Political Director for Latinos Ready To Vote. Comments to vote@latinosreadytovote.com or @AlexGonzTXCA