The idea of urban regimes that are based on the use of preemptive power has been the dominant theory in urban politics for at least the last decade. This idea tries to explain how coalitions come together to take and hold power in any given city. It argues that various power centers in an urban area engage in a process of bargaining in which they come to an understanding that allows them to share power in a stable way.
Urban regime theory was originated by scholars in the United States, which has a democratic political system and a capitalist economy. Urban regimes can be seen as a way to create stable governance in cities in this type of political economy. In this political economy, there are two main sources of power. One source of power is democratic legitimacy. This type of power can only be held by a system that has the consent of the majority of the people in a city. In a democratic system, no group can hold power for long if the people do not approve of it. Another source of power is economic wealth and the capacity to create jobs. No city can thrive in a capitalist political economy unless private parties create jobs in that city. This means that those with economic wealth and the ability to create jobs are needed in every city. Regime theory holds that those with economic power and those with political power come together and negotiate ways to share power in a city. They have to cooperate with one another, rather than being antagonistic, if the city is to thrive.
Urban regime theorists hold that stable regimes remain stable because they hold preemptive power. This type of power is one that allows them to prevent discord to a great extent in their community. Regimes with preemptive power do not maintain power (for the most part) by winning when conflicts arise. Instead, these regimes maintain their power by preventing conflict from arising at all. They do this by controlling the process by which policy agendas are set. The regimes make it too hard for would-be because challenges to the system rarely prevail over this preemptive power. (For more detail on this, please consult Chapter 1 of Alan Di Gaetano’s Power and City Governance: Comparative Perspectives on Urban Development (1999).)
These theories are extremely relevant to an understanding of urban politics for at least two reasons. First, they can help us to understand why governments in cities can remain so stable for so many years. If urban regime theory is correct, these governments remain in power because they can use their resources (economic and political) to preempt conflict. This can help us understand why, for example, cities with large populations of poor and lower-middle class residents can continue to be run in ways that are more acceptable to the business elites. Second, they can tell us that we should not study urban politics by looking at elections and debates that happen openly in the public arena. The idea of preemptive power tells us that we need to look more at behind-the-scenes dealing and at the way in which governments are set up. We need to explain urban politics by talking about why conflicts do not arise, not by talking about who wins when they do arise.