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.

Skip Ahead

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?

Full Transcript

Sam DeCanio: Welcome back to The Governance Podcast at the Centre for the Study of Governance and Society at King’s College London. My name is Sam DeCanio. I’m a lecturer here at the Department of Political Economy and I’m also the Associate Director of the Centre for the Study of Governance and Society. Today we are very pleased to host Stephen Skowronek, Pelatiah Perit Professor of Political and Social Science at Yale University. Professors Skowronek’s published widely on American politics in American political history. He was one of the co-founders of the journal Studies in American Political Development and he’s currently the Winant Professor at the Rothermere American Institute at Oxford University. Today we’re going to be discussing The Policy State, professor Skowronek’s most recent book that was co-authored with Karen Orren of UCLA and which was recently published with Harvard University press. Thanks for being here, Steve.

I wanted to start with just a few general questions about your research. So you study American political history which some would call American political development, so this is the study of how American political institutions were created, how they change over time.

Can you tell us just a little bit about how you initially became interested in the historical study of American politics?

Stephen Skowronek: I will. Probably that goes back to graduate school when I studied… My first year of graduate school I took a course called bureaucracy and democracy, basically a historically-oriented development of modern States course. I got caught up in a kind of a group of scholars who were interested in the work of Barrington Moore and Sam Huntington, people thinking broadly about patterns of institutional development in different states and how different states configured authority differently and with what consequences. So it was that graduate school environment that got me thinking about what is the nature of the American case and I happened to be lucky enough to study with Ted Lowi at Cornell whose book The End of Liberalism was in fact a study of institutions… the subtitle of the book The Crisis of Authority in America, so very sympathetic to this way of thinking about American government and American politics.

Sam DeCanio: So your interest was, it sort of occurred once you were a graduate student at Cornell?

Stephen Skowronek: So I went to graduate school to study political philosophy. In fact, I was, my major advisor was isaac Kramnick, political philosopher. But as I moved into, I had

to take comparative politics as a field requirement, I took this course on bureaucracy and democracy and it seemed to me that many of the questions I was interested in, that interested me in political theory we’re being addressed by people who are thinking about institutional development, changing configurations of authority, variations in state structures over time and so it was interesting, it was an easy transition for me. I actually got interested in how America, how closely American political thought is tied to institutional configurations or institutional reform and political thought in America are so closely intertwined that it was a very easy transition for me to make.

Sam DeCanio: So when you initially were planning on going to graduate school as a theorist were there specific theorist that you were interested in studying?

Stephen Skowronek: Well, this is a very long story. I won’t bore you with it. So this was the early 1970s, I was interested in what at that time was a Marxist revival of theories of the state. I was interested in people like Nicos Poulantzas and Ralph Miliband. The institutional turn in sociological theory, social theory, Marxist theory in particular, Kapitalstaat I remember is the name of the journal we all read as undergrads, so yeah I was attuned to these kinds of issues and the transition between political theory and the study of institutional development was a very, seemed to be a very easy one to make at that time. I mean this was also, you know, this was also the time when Theda Skocpol was writing States and Social Revolutions and the whole movement of bringing the state back in, I think my early work was very much a part of that

Sam DeCanio: Fantastic, okay. So on that on that point, do you remember when Theda Skocpol wrote States and Social Revolution she also wrote, she was one of the editors in Bringing the State Back In published in 1985. Do you remember when that volume came out whether there was there was any sort of sense and political science at the time as a discipline. How did people view it?

Stephen Skowronek: I think that was a huge volume and it had that had an enormous impact at the whole movement towards a comparative study of states, varieties of capitalism, comparative state development, American political development, all of that was a very exciting time and a sort of a breaking down of disciplinary divisions between history and political science, sociology and political science, social theory in political science, it was a moment in which we saw a whole new community of scholars take place. That’s when we studied, we started the journal Studies in American Political Development, you know.

Sam DeCanio: Great, okay. So, which brings us to your current book. What led you to write The Policy State? Was there any sort of set of arguments that we’re, had been developed in your mind or in discussions with Karen Orren? What led to this book being produced?

Stephen Skowronek: So I think Karen would answer this differently than I am, I do. I mean, I think that the idea of, in her book on belated feudalism which talks about the labor revolution, at the end of that book she discusses the future as a fully legislated policy state, a fully legislative policy state. So I think that was sort of the germ of the idea, what do we do with that idea, right? For me it was very much a response to my first my dissertation. My first book Building a New American State was about the creation of the administrative state. And in this book it was for me a kind of revisiting that, a sense that we’re no longer in the administrative State. There’s a new formation that’s emerging that doesn’t really, has administration but it’s not organised around administrative ideals. The ideals of an administrative state.

So in this book for me it was what lies beyond that administrative state? What is this newly emerging form? And that’s where we came to this idea of the policy state, a much more elemental and much more disaggregated form.

Sam DeCanio: Disaggregated in the sense that you see non-administrative actors as playing a central role in governance?

Stephen Skowronek: Well, the qualities that I associate with an administrative state rule regularity. The authority of professionals and experts. All of that I see is beginning to unravel and that unravelling having taken place over many decades. I would date it back in the United States back to the 1970s and we related in this book to this what we called the abrasive qualities, a policy that is to push against, to abrade against institutional boundaries and rule regularity.

I think about what’s happening in Congress or talk about the collapse of regular order. The collapse of regular order I think is a kind of metaphor for what’s happening in various institutional locations that I think is very different than what you get, certainly out of a very burying conception of legal rational authority. So much more disaggregated, contested world that doesn’t really, rules and regulatory are in short supply.

Sam DeCanio: And what would be a specific example that you could give that you think is emblematic of that transition? So would you see conflicts over ObamaCare…

Stephen Skowronek: Well, so we want to say that policy abrades against rules and regularity. So think about Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to build his wall. What is the policy motive? The policy motive drives contemporary politics. So what it’s driving against are all those things that were supposed to resist policy. What are those things that we are supposed to resist policy? Like structure of government is one. The basic structure of governance. Trump says ‘Well, Congress refuses to pass money for my wall, I’m going to declare a national emergency and we’re going to build the wall’. This is exactly what we mean by policy, the policy motive, policy-driven erosions of structure. And then Congress says ‘Well, you can’t do that, we have constitutional authority to appropriate money. Good luck then, we’ll see how that works.’

Sam DeCanio: So in a certain way you see the form of governance that the policy state is displacing is a stable administrative organisation….

Stephen Skowronek: The administrative state was the most recent incarnation of a kind of, and we want to date that quite specifically to a consolidating movement around right after World War II when all the institutions of government seemed to have come to a, I wouldn’t say an agreement, that’s probably too strong, but an acceptance of administrative authority and administrative decision making. That I think all begins to unravel after the 1970s.

And yes, so one thing is that it’s displacing administration but I think it’s much broader than that. That policy has from the very beginning, I mean American governments always made policy.

We want to say from the very beginning the policy motive has been eroding all the things about government that are not policy. In America, what does that mean? What are the things about American  government that are not supposed to be policy? Rights are not supposed to be policy and structure. And what we see over the course of it as policy expands its reach or policy extends its domain it abrades against the boundaries of rights and structure that’s what we want to say and not only that but rights and structure begin to take on the qualities of policy. They become negotiable. They become a contestant, much more contestable. They become pragmatic. We describe judges making pragmatic, well it says that she has this right but if we granted this right then the whole judicial system would be overrun with these complaints, very pragmatic, we can’t have that.

So rights themselves take on this very pragmatic, programmatic, negotiable quality in the policy state. Structure takes on this negotiable quality. Well it says in the Constitution that Congress has to appropriate the money. Well, Congress doesn’t appropriate the money, the President says ‘We need the policy’. So we’re going to have the policy anyway. Policy driving, abrading against the boundaries of structure.

Sam DeCanio: So why do why do you think this transition happened?

Stephen Skowronek: Well, in the book we describe, I should say the book is not taking issue with the impetus behind these developments and the reason is that we recognise that this policy state is far more inclusive than what it replaced. And it’s actually far more responsive than what it replaced.

Sam DeCanio: In the sense that it’s…

Stephen Skowronek: The world in which rights and structure had more purchase was a world that was very exclusive. A lot of people were left to out, a lot of people were left out: women, slaves, labour. They didn’t have rights. The masters had rights, the husbands had rights, the employers had rights. Those rights were enforceable. As more and more, as those old prior rights are overturned and more people are included, more people have rights, rights have to be balanced against one another, rights themselves become less categorical

It’s like, we refer in the book to Oliver Wendell Holmes who says we can’t, you know, what criticises a categorical approach to rights and says you have to adjudicate rights in terms of the neighborhood of principles in which they operate. Well, you know that is, adjust rights to your principle to understand is what a good polity should be. It becomes much more contestable, much more negotiable and this is, I think, why contest over the appointment of justices have become so explosive because now it’s, your rights are wholly dependent on the principles of the judges that you’re from, that you’re appointing, that neighborhood of principles is everything, right. The right is completely contingent.

Sam DeCanio: So on the one hand I can see how that’s that is more inclusive there are that the number of groups that can influence policy is clearly expanded.

Stephen Skowronek: And the number of people who have rights, right. But for us what’s happened is the rights, Dworkin said rights are trumps. I think that was a normative position. Rights should be trumps. But in fact in a democratic polity rights are not trumps. What we argue in the book is that in the policy state rights are chips. That is their tokens of access to a choice setting where their actual determination is very much dependent on who the judge is, what the principles of the judge are, who the decision-makers are, their preferences and their principles. So rights for us or not nothing.

It makes a difference that all these people have access but that’s what they have. They have access to a choice setting in which the actual balance among these rights is contingent on the decision-makers themselves as opposed to… an employer could go to a court and get an injunction against those employees because they didn’t have a right, right. The husband could take the kids and the wife didn’t have a right, right. Those were trumps. Those rights were trumps.These rights when everybody is included, everybody’s in, rights become less trump like and much more chip like tokens of access.

Sam DeCanio: So on the one hand I could see why this feature of the policy state would be considered a good thing, in a sense that rights are expanding, more people have access access to them. Do you see any potential downsides to this?

Stephen Skowronek: Well, yes. The book is called An American Predicament. The predicament is that we make this more inclusive polity. A more democratic polity. But the things that you depend on for rule regularity, rule dependability, the stability of institutions. All of these things begin to erode. So what the book is about are the consequences for governance of inclusion. You have this 18th century constitution that’s riddled with these conflicts which were largely ways of keeping, ways of keeping people who were out. Now that everybody is in the institutional system itself no longer has legitimating rules to make its commitment credible. So Trump may get his wall but half of the country’s going to think this is an illegitimate act.

You could pass a healthcare programme in 2010 and in 2014 it begins to unravel, nothing is secure or stable in the policy state. So the downside is the collapse of secure authority. The collapse, the crisis of authority, the shakedown of institutional authority is the consequence of this policy state.

Sam DeCanio: But if that processes is breaking down because the society is being made more inclusive and more democratic, why couldn’t a skeptic just respond by saying what you’re describing is a responsive democratic polity?

Stephen Skowronek: One response to this would be: let it rip, just let it rip, right. But I think that you would also say that democracies, the programmes that democracies, modern democracies demand require a kind of credible commitment, right. And this state is unable to secure any of its commitments. That is everything remains contestable all the time, everybody is in, all issues are national, everything is contested and everything is reversible. So policy itself becomes, let me put it this way: policy to be secure requires rights and structure, it requires a secured decision-making, a dependable decision-making structure and secure rights.

That’s what gives policy legitimacy. If policy itself is undermining or abrading the security of rights and the security of structure then policy is undermining its own legitimating anchors. That’s what we want to say. And in that situation that’s a predicament, that’s a predicament. You know,  conservatives were saying ‘Right, were making too much policy’ or ‘Too many people are in, we’ve got to get these people out. We’ve got to restrict access.’ We’re not saying that. What we’re saying however is that this policy state has serious, or problems are largely related to the shakedown of institutional authority that accompanies its own development.

Sam DeCanio: Do you see any problems associated with the expansion of policy, the fact that we have so many decisions that are being made and influenced by so many different actors. Do you see that as being a problem or posing a problem for democratic legitimacy? of Steve Teles at Johns Hopkins has made this argument that one of the problems that contemporary American government faces is just this bewildering complexity that’s associated with the expansion of government in the contemporary period. That seems as though it might be creating a problem for voters that are trying to monitor and direct and control what all of these different political decisions are actually involving. That it might be separate and distinct from issues associated with enforcement of rights.

Stephen Skowronek: Well I mean that makes sense to me, it’s not exactly what we’re saying. I guess what we want to say is that there is no set institutional… institutional division of labour has completely broken down. Presidents make… Congress was supposed to make policy, or congress makes some policy, presidents make policy, judges make policy, bureaucrats make policy. There is no longer any set institutional… the institutional division of labor has completely broken down and that makes authority less dependable, less… no intelligible, more contestable, less stable. That’s what we’re trying to say.

Sam DeCanio: Do you see any solutions to this problem? It seems like a fairy dour vision of contemporary governance and I think it’s an accurate description of what has happened but do you see any way of changing this or addressing this?

Stephen Skowronek: As I said, I’m better at diagnosis than I am at prescription. I don’t have a solution. There is an argument that’s circulating in legal circles about, on left legal circles now constitutional rot, constitutional rot. And I think that there’s something…

Sam DeCanio: And so what are those arguments?

Stephen Skowronek: Those are that the constitutional crisis of our day is not, it’s not a crisis in the sense of some extraordinary external event is causing: are we in a constitutional crisis because some event has happened? Trump may be impeached. That’s a crisis, right. Constitutional rot is a long-term process of erosion that are breaking down the institutional fabric of American government. Now what’s the solution to that? I know some people would say we need a different Constitution. I’m not sure that I want to go there, that’s a pretty dangerous thing but I mean I can see that we no longer have a constitution that corresponds in its organisation to the scope of policy-making… that is policy… this constitution was made to make policy about commerce and security, it wasn’t made to make policy about the things that were all excluded from policy space, social relations and labor relations and family relations. So we might want to think about what kinds of Institutions are more suitable to the scope of discretionary decision-making.

Sam DeCanio: What kind of Institutions would those be?

Stephen Skowronek: I don’t know, now you’re asking me beyond my paygrade. That’s normative theory. We’re really describing a set of institutional develops and describing them, describe this in a very empirical way that is the labour revolution of the 1930s, what was the constitutional implications of that? Well, the constitutional implications of that is the commerce clause of the constitution just basically breaks out, the bottom falls out of it, there is a limit on policy-making. Government now… everything becomes commerce, right. The Civil Rights Revolution, these are the great democratic revolutions.

What were the Constitutional implications of the Civil Rights Revolution? It is about federalism. Federalism breaks down as a kind of structural barrier on policy-making. Federalism doesn’t go away, the commerce clause doesn’t go away. So now we just, we’re just always contesting the boundaries of federalism and the boundaries of the commerce clause and we have, there’s no social founding, there’s no social foundation to what were once real meaningful institutional barriers to the commerce clause, to federalism. Most have gone away and now we just contest, contest what are the boundaries of federalism? Well, 5 to 4. The Supreme Court will say this. 5 justices will say this and 4 justices will say that. What are the boundaries of the commerce clause? 5 t 4, you know, there’s no agreement.

Sam DeCanio: And it’s not clear what’s to be done about this?

Stephen Skowronek: I think that we have the right diagnosis and it’s not that… I think it’s very different than what you see coming out of the left and on the right. So on the right I think that the argument is we have to go back to first principles, the way the constitution was, originalism. Well, we want to say that the original constitution worked when most people were excluded, when most people didn’t have access to that decision-making structure in those institutional principals and the more people who were brought in, the more those principles and structures broke down.

Sam DeCanio: So it’s just fundamentally incompatible?

Stephen Skowronek: And on the left we want to say that we disagree with the left that the problems of modern governments today are just policy problems and any necessary rearrangement of the furniture of the government that’ll just take care of itself. We want to say ‘Look, these problems of government are really front and centre, so much so that if you don’t solve them, policy itself is going to lose its purchase.’ And I think that’s what we see now: policy itself loses its legitimating anchor, loses its staying power.

Sam DeCanio: So, given that that’s the diagnosis of the contemporary American political scene, do you have any, do you want to venture any predictions about what’s in course? Do you see this just being sort of the lasting trend that’s been put in place, that’s going to continue?

Stephen Skowronek: Well, I mean it’s kind of a dire, right. It is kind of a dire of, I don’t think that’s sustainable I think that somehow we have to reconfigure, somehow we have to reconfigure institutional authority so that rules have some, not only stability and regularity  but reliability, reliable permanence. We’re not the only people who are grappling with this. Conservatives have originalism. I think originalism was a response to the collapse of authority in the policy state. Deliberative democracy, I think the whole deliberative democracy movement is a response to the collapse of authority in the policy. So people, normative theory is rich and alive with responses to this predicament. We’re just trying to… how did we get from there to here. How do we get from there where we started to this moment.

Sam DeCanio: I’m just curious, do you see deliberative democracy is somehow addressing this in a way that you think might be fruitful?

Stephen Skowronek: Do I think it’s a practical solution? I don’t see it as a practical solution right now but I do see it as a response to the problem. John Dewey said you can’t have a modern democracy unless there’s some modicum of like-mindedness among the people. And deliberative democracy is a kind of one on one. You have to build citizenship, right, kind of a common parlance so that people are engaged in, find some way to engage in all of this is. So I see that deliberative democracy is a response to the kinds of issues Dewey was talking about that is you just can’t have these bureaucrats making these decisions. It’s going to create a crisis of authority and it has. But do I think that deliberative democracy is a practical solution? Right now I don’t.

Sam DeCanio: Why not?

Stephen Skowronek: I just think it’s too localised for the magnitude and the pace. I think that originalism and deliberative… These solutions are reflections of the problem that is

original juridical democracy. Well, right because we don’t have a rule of law. I agree with that. Deliberative democracy because we don’t have citizens able to engage in the scope of governmental decisions. I agree with that. These are reflections of the problem but I’m not sure they’re practical solutions.

Sam DeCanio: And you can’t think of any practical solution that might exist?

Stephen Skowronek: I have a hard enough time just trying to work out, think about how are institutions, got into the state that they’re in. That’s enough of a project for me.

Sam DeCanio: And it’s a large enough, I suppose. So where do you see yourself going with research after this book? It’s come to this sort of dour conclusion. In a certain way it’s dealing with themes that you were dealing with in your dissertation and then your first book. What are you going to work on next?

Stephen Skowronek: I don’t know. Right now I’m working on some papers that are sort of spin-offs of this, some other implications of this. I don’t know if I’ll continue working on this, I may just do something completely different.

Sam DeCanio: Well, we look forward to reading it, regardless of what it, whatever you choose to work on next, looking forward to seeing what it is. Well, thank you so much for joining us, Steve. It’s been a really interesting discussion and I hope you enjoyed it.

Stephen Skowronek: Thanks, Sam.