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Better late than never, 60-year-old thesis on New York society published
Gabriel Almond's thesis on the politics of New York City was published this month 60 years late. The 87-year-old Stanford professor emeritus of political science says his pride and stubbornness prevented earlier publication. He wouldn't agree to remove his psychoanalyses of several rich New Yorkers, and one of his professors wouldn't recommend the thesis for publication with the material left in.
Psychoanalysis was "all the rage" in 1938, Almond said, and he was determined to include a psychological as well as sociological portrait of the power structure of New York. This included a case study of John D. Rockefeller, a principal benefactor of the University of Chicago. Charles Merriam, chair of the political science department at Chicago, "thought I was a bit too big for my britches and delving into things best left undisturbed," Almond recalls now, with a chuckle.
The thesis, called Plutocracy and Politics in New York City, published by Westview Press, includes an unflattering portrait of "the idle rich" in New York's history, material that Almond collected mostly by spending a year in the New York Public Library but also by having tea with Emily Post in her grand apartment ("I believe she used a silver service," he recalls) and by attending high society balls.
The son and grandson of Jewish rabbis from Illinois, Almond says that he gained access to New York's social register groups through friends and university contacts. "If a family had a couple of marriageable daughters, they would open their doors. It was not that I had to be in active competition. They just wanted to have enough young males around for social events. You had to wear a tuxedo, and I didn't know how to tie the ties, so the doorman at my West Side apartment did it for me."
Re-reading his thesis recently after receiving a request to publish it, Almond thought he had been a little too hard on the idle rich. "I thought then that I had great difficulty not expressing indignation or ridicule, but I see that I did make a number of cracks." He uses phrases like "the triviality of the Gilded Age" and notes that in 1882-83 the biggest charity affair of the season raised only $12,000 for a children's hospital, "a sum only slightly larger than the cost of the favors" at many of the season's non-charitable affairs.
"I'm not sure I should have done that," he says now. "I was trying to be an anthropologist doing a kind of ethnographic study and I should have just said, 'these are their rituals.'"
Before World War II, Almond managed to get a political science journal to publish the portion of his dissertation that had offended Merriam. Then he went off to join the Allied Forces and forgot about the rest of the thesis as he became caught up in the international political scene. A founder of "comparative politics," he currently works from his campus home office on updates of his textbooks on that subject and European politics. The dissertation, he said, stayed in the stacks of the library at the University of Chicago, where it apparently became "somewhat of an underground classic" with certain types of scholars.
Urban Sociology Professor Terry Nichols Clark was among those who discovered the thesis in Chicago's library three decades ago and was impressed. He thought of it again about four years ago when Westview asked him to publish a new series on urban policy challenges. The subject has attracted renewed interest in academic circles as the world sprouts mega-cities and national governments push many challenging problems back to local governments. To check his own judgment, Clark called up younger professors who were experts on New York City and asked them, " 'How does [Almond's study] compare to other recent publications on New York?' They all said it was still unique and distinctive, so it passed the test," he said.
In a flattering foreword, Clarence Stone of the University of Maryland says that Almond's thesis is still relevant. "As we look at Almond's analysis from the perspective of the 1990s and a transition to the 21st century, we gain understanding of the present lack of confidence in the American politician," Stone wrote. "Term limitations and the appeal of personalities who depict themselves as political outsiders are phenomena that bespeak the extraordinarily low standing for politicians. The 1990s represent only a change in degree, not a change in direction from what Almond found in 1938."
In his 1998 preface, Almond downplays the study's relevance. He was writing, he says, in the depth of the Depression, before the New Deal took hold, when many of his friends were going off to fight with the Lincoln Brigade in Spain, and "it was an open question as to whether democracy would survive in the United States." Now, he says, U.S. capitalism and democracy are not only taken for granted but imitated around the world, and no capitalist group can be assured of its position.
"The political system we have today is much more complicated, with an investigative media like a loose cannon, not at all to be reduced to support of the capitalist class," he says.
At the time he wrote it, however, the thesis was one of the first empirical studies to test Marxist and Marxist-like theories on the relationship between wealth and politics. Almond spent nearly a year in the New York library reading old newspaper society pages, social registers and the like to prepare more than 60 tables, data point by data point. By tracking the backgrounds of New York's politicians and wealthiest residents over the city's history, he was able to show that as voting rights were extended to more and more Americans, the wealthy withdrew from politics, in sharp contrast to the British aristocracy's deep involvement.
A class of professional politicians arose to run New York, he found. Through contributions, the wealthy ensured government did not harm their businesses, but took no interest in broader issues except temporarily in times of crisis, such as an embarrassing government corruption scandal, war or the threat of social unrest. Without their involvement most of the time, Almond wrote, the professional politicians were limited in what they could undertake.
The Cold War, Almond says now, altered these dynamics. "The level of threat and tension surrounding the Cold War made people willing to sacrifice, pay taxes and accord a lot of authority to the president and the executive," if not directly to local government. Now that the threat is gone, government is in disrepute and there is virtually no effort to deal with the social problems of American cities.
The politicians of New York and other cities brag about their falling crime rates, he said, "but that is largely attributable to demographics. There just aren't as many boys and young men right now, and you still have an overpopulation in the prison system and an enormous investment of resources in them."
The "tragic irony" of disinterest in local politics by "respectable society," he writes in his preface, is that "it condemns us to cope with the consequences of inner city breakdown rather than with its causes. The inner city holds the public safety and order of American society in hostage, and government can only respond by putting more policemen on the streets and building more prisons."