Stephen Skowronek (Yale) and Karen Orren (UCLA) argue that the institutional fabric of American government is crumbling. Why is this happening? Is the American political system facing an unsolvable predicament? Tune in to the latest episode of the Governance Podcast featuring Samuel DeCanio (King’s College London) and Stephen Skowronek.

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The Guest

Stephen Skowronek is the Pelatiah Perit Professor of Political and Social Science at Yale University. He has been a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and has held the Chair in American Civilization at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. His research concerns American national institutions and American political history. His publications include Building a New American State: The Expansion of National Administrative Capacities, 1877-1920 (1982), The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership from John Adams to Bill Clinton, (1997), The Search for American Political Development (2004, with Karen Orren), and Presidential Leadership in Political Time: Reprise and Reappraisal (2008). Among other activities, he was co-founder of the journal Studies in American Political Development, which he edited between 1986 and 2007, and he provided the episode structure and thematic content for the PBS miniseries: The American President (Kunhardt Productions).

About The Book

Policy is government’s ready response to changing times, the key to its successful adaptation. It tackles problems as they arise, from foreign relations and economic affairs to race relations and family affairs. Karen Orren and Stephen Skowronek take a closer look at this well-known reality of modern governance. In The Policy State they point out that policy is not the only way in which America was governed historically, and they describe the transformation that occurred as policy took over more and more of the work of government, emerging as the raison d’être of the state’s operation.

Rather than analyze individual policies to document this change, Orren and Skowronek examine policy’s effect on legal rights and the formal structure of policy-making authority. Rights and structure are the principal elements of government that historically constrained policy and protected other forms of rule. The authors assess the emergence of a new “policy state,” in which rights and structure shed their distinctive characteristics and take on the attributes of policy.

Orren and Skowronek address the political controversies swirling around American government as a consequence of policy’s expanded domain. On the one hand, the policy state has rendered government more flexible, responsive, and inclusive. On the other, it has mangled government’s form, polarized its politics, and sowed deep distrust of its institutions. The policy state frames an American predicament: policy has eroded the foundations of government, even as the policy imperative pushes us ever forward, into an uncertain future.

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0:58: How did you become interested in the historical study of American politics?

3:49: When you initially went to graduate school as a political theorist, were there specific theorists you were interested in studying?

5:18: Do you remember when Theda Skocpol wrote States and Social Revolutions? She was also one of the editors of Bringing the State Back In, published in 1995… Do you remember when that volume came out? How did people view it in political science at the time?

6:40: What led you to write the Policy State?

10:00: Are the conflicts over Obamacare emblematic of the policy state?

11:11: In a certain way you see the form of governance that the policy state is displacing is a stable administrative organization…

13:49: Why do you think this transition to the policy state happened?

18:01: On the one hand, it’s good that rights are expanding, more people have access to them, but do you see any potential downsides to this?

20:05: Why couldn’t a skeptic just respond and say what you’re describing is a responsive, democratic polity?

21:57: Do you see any problems with the expansion of policy, the fact that so many decisions are influenced by so many different actors, do you see that as a problem for democratic legitimacy?

23:40: Do you see any solutions to the policy state? How do we reverse this?

28:54: Given that diagnosis of the contemporary American political scene, do you have any predictions about what’s in course?

31:35: Is deliberative democracy a practical solution to the rise of the policy state?

32:37: Where is your research going next?