In a joint appearance on WBOK-AM radio today, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Police Superintendent Warren Riley alluded once again to a conspiratorial “shadow government” that has aligned to tarnish their reputations. A caller asked them to name names.

Nagin and Riley demurred, saying it would be “un-P.C.” —  never mind that they’d just alleged a wide-ranging conspiracy to undermine them. One might think that leveling such a serious charge without naming names would be the “un-P.C.” thing to do, rather than to confront your enemies like men. But I digress.

Without judging the extent to which the mayor and his police chief themselves reflect or refract the values of a “shadow government,” the term is bandied about often in New Orleans politics.

There is no denying that many New Orleanians, especially in the African-American community, believe that to some degree the levers of government are not pulled by elected officials out in the open, but behind the scenes by a vaguely defined coterie of powerful interests in the white community.

Those New Orleanians are basically correct.

The political system in New Orleans over-represents the views of wealthy citizens and the city’s bigger industries. The city’s universities, the Port of New Orleans, chain hotels, local banks, construction companies, and law firms generate most of the wealth in the city and employ many of its wealthiest residents. The city also has historically provided conditions conducive to shelter what the French call rentier class, referring to those who earn income from property or through family holdings.  Those conditions include not just low property taxes, but low property tax assessments and the off-the-books tradition of never adjusting assessments for properties that stay in one family.

These big institutions and wealthy individuals do not simply press a button to make a politician talk the way they want them to talk or to keep a certain policy idea from gaining traction. There isn’t even necessarily an explicit agenda.

There are, however, well-defined social networks and business associations where shared ideology is formed and shared. That’s not different from how anybody else operates. As a civically engaged liberal, I get together with friends and discuss politics. I ask my friends to help me in the things that I care about, such as calling my council member about a certain issue. The difference is that when groups of elite business associates and wealthy families get together and do similar political favors for one another, it has a much greater impact.

If a City Council member hears from me and three of my service-industry friends about one side of an issue but then hears from the president of a university, the brother-in-law of another elected official, and a wealthy heir to the Coca-Cola fortune about the other side of an issue, who would you suppose generally wins? More than some might think, the esteem with which people with “important” titles and familiar relationships are generally held can be enough by itself to sway an important policy debate.

That politicians so often act on their electoral self-preservation instincts only compounds the matter. If one wants to get elected to office in the city of New Orleans, one must have money. Even a well-managed insurgent campaign that emphasizes community organizing rather than expensive television and radio advertising requires significant cash. To be even mildly competitive in a City Council district race, one must strive to approach $100,000 in campaign contributions. To run citywide, it’s far more than that.

The entry barrier requires candidates to either be independently wealthy themselves or willing to go to wealthy people for contributions. Few people in New Orleans can donate significant capital toward a local political campaign. Those who do have that financial wherewithal generally participate to some degree in this larger group of social, familial, and professional networks that comprise what many would classify as the shadow government. Thus, even candidates claiming to represent the viewpoints of low-income African Americans and others must still fight for campaign contributions from wealthy industrial and business leaders, their families and friends.

Make no mistake: The political interests of the different networks that comprise what I’m defining as the “shadow government” do not always align. In fact, they often diverge. There are many cleavages and divisions to sew among wealthy elites, just as there are within the African-American community or the Jewish community, or any other network that brings together different people. That is why you might find some wealthy real estate interests supporting John Georges while other wealthy real estate interests support Mitch Landrieu and others still once supported Ed Murray. That is why you might find one historically wealthy family supporting Claude Mauberret for tax assessor while another supports Janis Lemle. (Full disclosure: I briefly was a consultant for the Lemle campaign on some technical matters).

If you don’t have the financial wherewithal to support politicians or the familial and social connections to get their ear, an ordinary citizen will struggle to make their individual voice mean as much. Inherently, citizens know this. That is why there is so much mistrust of politicians and the processes of governance. This is especially true when it comes to matters of planning and development, as evidenced by the popular revolt against the post-Katrina proposals to shrink the footprint in the Bring New Orleans Back Plan, which was primarily composed by “civic leaders” from this wide social and business community. It has even manifested itself in the more recent push to create a clearer and more utilitarian process to guide development through the adoption of a master plan.

One of the more public examples of the “shadow government” in action occurred when former District Attorney Eddie Jordan resigned from his post in 2007 amid widespread dissatisfaction with the performance of his office. Rather than using a clear process to remove a clearly ineffective public servant, Jordan’s resignation was contingent on a salaried position at the Police and Justice Foundation. It was negotiated in secret meetings between elected officials and individuals in the business community.

“It is part of the package that was developed,” said Robert Stellingworth, executive director of the New Orleans Police and Justice Foundation, a nonprofit group. The business community will pay for Jordan’s consultancy, Stellingworth said.

Jordan’s resignation was not contingent on his job performance, his popularity, or the machinations of the City Council. It occurred when unidentified business leaders decided to negotiate it.

Nagin and Riley find “the shadow government” to be aligned against them but are afraid to name names. Perhaps their private sector futures are similarly dependent on unidentified business leaders.

Perhaps it is only politically helpful to simply claim that the shadow government exists without describing what it is, how it works, and how to dismantle it.