The Associational State: American Governance in the Twentieth Century (Politics and Culture in Modern America)

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9780812247213: The Associational State: American Governance in the Twentieth Century (Politics and Culture in Modern America)

In the wake of the New Deal, U.S. politics has been popularly imagined as an ongoing conflict between small-government conservatives and big-government liberals. In practice, narratives of left versus right or government versus the people do not begin to capture the dynamic ways Americans pursue civic goals while protecting individual freedoms. Brian Balogh proposes a new view of U.S. politics that illuminates how public and private actors collaborate to achieve collective goals. This "associational synthesis" treats the relationship between state and civil society as fluid and challenges interpretations that map the trajectory of American politics solely along ideological lines. Rather, both liberals and conservatives have extended the authority of the state but have done so most successfully when state action is mediated through nongovernmental institutions, such as universities, corporations, interest groups, and other voluntary organizations.

The Associational State provides a fresh perspective on the crucial role that the private sector, trade associations, and professional organizations have played in implementing public policies from the late nineteenth through the twenty-first century. Balogh examines key historical periods through the lens of political development, paying particular attention to the ways government, social movements, and intermediary institutions have organized support and resources to achieve public ends. Exposing the gap between the ideological rhetoric that both parties deploy today and their far less ideologically driven behavior over the past century and a half, The Associational State offers one solution to the partisan gridlock that currently grips the nation.

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About the Author :

Brian Balogh is Compton Professor at the Miller Center and Professor of History at the University of Virginia. He is author of A Government Out of Sight: The Mystery of National Authority in Nineteenth-Century America and cohosts the public radio show Backstory with the American History Guys.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved. :

Introduction

Toward an Associational Synthesis

Americans are frustrated with government. Partisan gridlock has driven public opinion of Congress to historic lows. Budget deficits loom and the wealth gap expands. The price of homeland security requires citizens to share their homes, or at least their cell phones, with Big Brother. And a host of foreign economic competitors threaten to eclipse the American Century. Even those idealistic souls inclined to give Washington the benefit of the doubt wondered during the Obama administration if their faith had been misplaced after enduring the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act (ACA)—the most important government domestic-policy initiative since the Great Society.

Historiography does not rank high on the list of causal factors fueling this frustration. Indeed, Google's top listings for "historiography" link to Princeton, not Politico, CUNY rather than CNN. Yet aligning the fundamental framework that informs the interpretation of political events in the mass media with a perspective forged by cutting-edge scholarship might begin to redefine the kinds of questions that citizens ask, influencing both expectations and demands.

There was a time when scholarship did align with the network news and the New York Times. For the middle third of the twentieth century a powerful perspective on the historical evolution of politics in the United States engaged leading scholars in New Haven and the journalists writing for the New York Times, academics in Cambridge and anchormen at CBS. It was called the "Progressive synthesis," and it was forged by pioneers like Charles Beard and popularized by professors like Arthur Schlesinger Jr. at Harvard, John Morton Blum at Yale, and William Chafe at Duke. The Progressive synthesis featured the march of powerful liberal presidents who represented the people against self-interested groups that hid behind conservative ideology to maintain the status quo or roll back any hint of reform. Many political historians have moved on from the Progressive synthesis, but some opinion makers in the United States (most importantly, elected officials) have not. They continue to demarcate political time and the polity's future through the ideological clash of liberalism and conservatism. They measure progress toward either ideal through the discourse of big or limited government, individual initiative or collective will. The failure to infuse the nation's narrative with post-Progressive scholarly interpretations contributes to some of the frustration with politics today because the analytical lens through which politics is understood does not fit the underlying structural challenges that face the nation. Nor does the old Progressive synthesis capitalize on the hybrid solutions that Americans have crafted to satisfy their insatiable demands for collective action while assuaging their enduring fears of big government.

The battle over the ACA epitomizes this dilemma. Pundits raged over the government's power grab (Fox News) or the failure to procure a unitary payer system (MSNBC). Yet the ACA illustrated America's historical commitment to combining federal financing with voluntary and private-sector mechanisms to deliver health care. Lost in the liberal versus conservative framework was the history of conservative business interests acknowledging that the private sector could not profitably finance care for America's elderly, for instance, and the history of liberal administrations turning to the voluntary and the market sectors to administer the resulting Medicare program. Such public/private partnerships have been the norm for much of American history, and a long line of historians has documented this genealogy. Yet the manner in which these associations were forged and the ways that they evolved have not been expressed in the popular lexicon. Oblivious to this history, elected officials do battle with straw men rather than focusing on the hard work of ensuring the proper balance between government oversight of institutions on the one hand, and autonomy for the intermediaries that citizens historically have preferred over the state, on the other hand—from private physicians to Blue Cross and Blue Shield, to for-profit insurance companies and hospitals. Nor have citizens fully appreciated who wins and who loses as long as the nation's political history is framed along ideological rather than more materially based perspectives—from class and occupation to demographics and region to technological disruption.

I hope that the essays in this book will provide a historical interpretation that speaks to opinion makers as the Progressive synthesis once did, a perspective that explains political phenomena that shape citizens' lives today. Scholars have dismantled virtually every component of the Progressive synthesis, but they have failed to do the one thing that might displace that easy story as the nation's guide to its own history. They have failed to aggregate our case studies and theoretical insights into a perspective that is designed to travel from the ivory tower to Main Street. We must strive to align the exciting interpretations of political history that have displaced Beard and Schlesinger with the mass media's headlines that remain frozen in time and that explain less and less each decade.

Alignment does not mean capitulation. By the turn of the twenty-first century, as liberalism explained less and less, some scholars turned to what looked like a new framing device, conservatism, in order to treat much of the political action that had been neglected, from tax revolts to the rediscovery of religious motivation in politics. At a time of increasing partisan rancor and the proliferation of media outlets arrayed along ideological lines, historicizing the ideological debate and linking it to critical elections comported with headlines and tweets. But did focusing on conservatism instead of liberalism constitute a new approach to understanding our history?

As a framework for capturing the sweep of twentieth-century political history, scholars had not progressed far beyond the Progressive synthesis's muscular partition of the American political universe into ideological camps pitting liberals against conservatives. The Progressive synthesis endured and was tweaked to illuminate the conservative alternative to liberalism, some of the key conservative protagonists that had been overlooked, and a new litany of key elections, beginning with Ronald Reagan's election in 1980. The Progressive synthesis morphed into the Progressive/conservative synthesis.

Rather than positing political history as the clash of liberalism and conservatism, the essays here direct our attention to the ways in which Americans have braided public and private actions, state and voluntary-sector institutions, to achieve collective goals without undermining citizens' essential belief in individual freedom. This is a perspective capable of capturing moments when "liberals" employed the market to achieve key objectives, and illuminating instances in which "conservatives" financed their ends through the public purse. It is a framework that weighs the manner in which interests are organized, including those interests organized around identity, as heavily as the interests' rhetorical embrace of liberalism or conservatism. It is hospitable to the powerful influence of spatial factors that scholars have deployed recently. And it takes seriously the changing material conditions that influence public policy as well as the social relationships and processes that often determine those conditions, from communications to scientific and technological advances. It is an approach that values the history that occurs between purportedly key elections as highly as the history that unwinds in the immediate wake of November 1932, 1964, or 1980. It is a framework that captures the crucial political development that occurs between the so-called cycles of reform.

I have labeled this approach to political history the "associational synthesis." It displaces discourse with behavior as the formal currency of the political realm and decenters critical elections, replacing them with the dynamic ways in which public officials—both elected and appointed—engaged their constituents. It considers, for instance, the ways in which political conflict was shoehorned into the narrow channels of interest-group politics in the first half of the twentieth century, and the implications for public policies that could be targeted at more narrowly drawn groups of citizens as a result. It acknowledges the ever-changing authority of professional knowledge and the organizational resources and political autonomy that the professions brought to politics. And it weighs heavily the evolving technology of mass communications, from the impact of the first wire service on party structure to the ways in which ubiquitous public opinion polling displaced interest groups and political parties as the sole sources of information about voters. This associational framework evaluates "the rhetoric of 'anti-government' and 'free enterprise' conservatism as a political and cultural construct, a discursive fiction," to quote the historian Matthew D. Lassiter, rather than as a blueprint for the programs actually carried out by those conservatives. It compares the anti-big business language of Progressive Era icons like Gifford Pinchot to his corporate-friendly actions.

Intense conflicts have characterized twentieth-century politics in the United States. For instance, Americans have battled over the balance between individual and collective action or the proper mix of individual, market, voluntary-sector, and state responsibility. The associational synthesis encourages scholars and informed citizens alike to understand these struggles by considering a more capacious range of motivating factors than ideology and to dig beneath rhetorical representations in order to assess their outcomes. It takes seriously interests, the material factors that shape worldviews—from occupation to suburban homeownership—along with ideology. And it contends that the outcome of these struggles is best understood through a perspective that analyzes the capacity of each advocate's ability to adapt public policy prescriptions to prevailing conceptions of the proper balance between collective ends and individual opportunity. One of the keys to getting that balance right is connecting citizens and the state through a politically palatable mix of intermediary institutions—be they church, university, voluntary agency, corporation, or local or national government. Examining the history of these associational relationships lies at the core of the approach to historical understanding developed in these essays.

External threats to the nation's security often changed the rules of engagement, as did economic crises at times. Yet even at the height of the Great Depression and World War II, the associational synthesis explains a great deal—from the use of interest groups rather than the state to administer the nation's key response to the crisis in agriculture, to the ways in which private public relations firms were tapped to mobilize Americans during wartime.

I am hardly the first historian to call attention to associational patterns of political development. As the historian Ellis Hawley put it almost fifty years agothe 1940s:

America's associational sector had continued in the twentieth century to assume or be assigned governmental duties. In a land that had retained strong constraints on the growth of administrative statism, the desire for economic and social management had produced an expanded system of extra-governmental governance operating through business corporations and associations, labor, farm, and professional organizations, philanthropic orders and foundations, private-sector think tanks, and other agencies justifying their exercise of private power as essential to the maintenance of public order and progress.

Yet Hawley's prescient work on the first three decades of the twentieth century was pigeonholed between a historiographical view of the nineteenth century that positioned associations as the antidote to an energetic state and Herbert Hoover's embrace of associational techniques culminating in the spectacular failure of the National Industrial Recovery Administration during the early New Deal.

Understanding how and why the relationships among citizens, intermediary institutions in the private and voluntary sectors of society, and the variegated branches of the state are associated is essential to understanding the nation's political history. Using that knowledge to assess how these partners performed can also provide insight into politics today and offer some clues about the nation's future.

The associational balance is constantly changing. The continuum of possibilities ranges from government capture by private interests to state overreach. However frustrating the condition of today's associational landscape may be to advocates of liberty on the one hand or collective action on the other, understanding the contours of politics through a historical perspective that connects citizens to the state through a range of intermediary institutions and is sensitive to the material factors that constantly rearrange that balance illuminates America's centuries-old tension between liberty and the commonweal. Scholars are poised to decode the history of the institutional arrangements that have mediated between citizen and state. The rest of this introduction outlines how they arrived at this point.

Bringing the State Back In and Leaving Associations Out

Thirty years ago, political scientists and sociologists joined forces with several historians who had forged the organizational synthesis. This disparate group crafted a historical framework that was relatively free of ideological markers and that privileged the institutional capacity of the American state. This is not to say that these scholars were any less ideologically driven in their personal views than the historians working in the Progressive tradition. They were, however, focused on the ways in which the state—usually the central state—carved out autonomy from a society that, at best, distrusted centralized government authority and, at worst, left the state underdeveloped (in their assessment) compared to other industrialized nations. These scholars "brought the state back in." Regardless of professional discipline, most identified their field as American Political Development (APD), which was represented by the new journal Studies in American Political Development. They coined phrases like "state capacity" and "bureaucratic autonomy." They cared deeply about administrative agencies' discretion and the power that came with the executive branch's authority to implement programs. They were soon joined by policy historians, who founded the Journal of Policy History.

APD scholars underscored the importance of professional competence and reputation in crafting politically viable public policy. They tended to downplay the electoral connection and focus on policy outcomes. They paid special attention to the institutional and constitutional constraints that stacked the odds in favor of past patterns of governance through mechanisms like "intercurrence" and "path dependence." Change was possible, but only during "critical junctures" that offered rare opportunities to revise the rules of the game. And the catalysts for change reached far beyond the older political science co...

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