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The Transformation of American Politics: Activist Government and the Rise of Conservatism / Edition 1

The Transformation of American Politics: Activist Government and the Rise of Conservatism / Edition 1

by Paul Pierson, Theda Skocpol


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The Transformation of American Politics: Activist Government and the Rise of Conservatism / Edition 1

The contemporary American political landscape has been marked by two paradoxical transformations: the emergence after 1960 of an increasingly activist state, and the rise of an assertive and politically powerful conservatism that strongly opposes activist government. Leading young scholars take up these issues in The Transformation of American Politics. Arguing that even conservative administrations have become more deeply involved in managing our economy and social choices, they examine why our political system nevertheless has grown divided as never before over the extent to which government should involve itself in our lives.

The contributors show how these two closely linked trends have influenced the reform and running of political institutions, patterns of civic engagement, and capacities for partisan mobilization—and fueled ever-heightening conflicts over the contours and reach of public policy. These transformations not only redefined who participates in American politics and how they do so, but altered the substance of political conflicts and the capacities of rival interests to succeed. Representing both an important analysis of American politics and an innovative contribution to the study of long-term political change, this pioneering volume reveals how partisan discourse and the relationship between citizens and their government have been redrawn and complicated by increased government programs.

The contributors are Andrea Louise Campbell, Jacob S. Hacker, Nolan McCarty, Suzanne Mettler, Paul Pierson, Theda Skocpol, Mark A. Smith, Steven M. Teles, and Julian E. Zelizer.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691122588
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/30/2007
Series: Princeton Studies in American Politics: Historical, International, and Comparative Perspectives Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 342
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.25(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Paul Pierson holds the Avice Saint Chair of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. Theda Skocpol is the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard University.

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The Transformation of American Politics Activist Government and the Rise of Conservatism

Princeton University Press
Copyright © 2007
Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-12257-1

Chapter One American Politics in the Long Run


OVER THE PAST HALF CENTURY, government and politics in the United States have been transformed-so much so that a Rip van Winkle who fell asleep in 1957 and awoke in 2007 would hardly feel it was the same polity. Even as America has achieved a new if troubled hegemony in international relations, at home the national government has become directly and indirectly active in an unprecedentedly broad array of realms. Matters that were once the exclusive purview of state and local governments and private actors are now shaped in Washington. Political parties and voluntary institutions have also been reorganized, and citizen attachments to politics have shifted in dramatic ways. Amid all of this, partisan and ideological balances have been upended. In the 1960s and early 1970s, liberals and Democrats briefly held sway, prompting federal activism on behalf of citizen rights and economic regulation. Subsequently, conservatives successfully mobilized people and ideas to counter liberal practices and limit-or, more often, refocus and redirect-activist government.

This book aims to probe these profound domestic political changes and their consequences. By taking a long-term perspective, we make visible large-scale transformationsthat too often disappear in narrower short-term studies of American politics. In doing so, we depart from those who believe that everything changed in domestic politics following September 11, 2001. The tragic, unanticipated attacks of that day certainly had important partisan effects-initially strengthening the presidency of George W. Bush and enhancing the sway of conservative Republicans. For a time, these events tipped what had been a closely balanced electorate toward the right. In specific policy areas, such as civil liberties and intelligence gathering, reactions to 9/11 spurred new departures. Nevertheless, in many areas of domestic politics, the main effect of 9/11 was to speed up and reinforce political tendencies long underway. Playing out over several decades, not just in a few months or years, several intertwined transformations have remade politics and governance in our time. Current political realities must be situated in the broader context of these gradual but profound changes.

To start with the greatest change of the contemporary era-notwithstanding Bill Clinton's famous assertion to the contrary-a persistent "era of big government" commenced in the 1960s. This transformation involved significant expansions in the scope and scale of federal government activity, comparable in importance to earlier expansions in the era of the New Deal and World War II. Social spending grew significantly. In many realms, standards of social provision were nationalized. The scope of the regulatory state increased dramatically in areas such as consumer, environmental, and worker protection. A "rights revolution" pursued by Congress, the federal bureaucracy, and the courts led to a greatly broadened set of entitlements for particular categories of citizens, such as minorities, women, and the disabled (Skrentny 2002). Here again, authority shifted to Washington, as matters that had once been resolved in diverse ways (for good or ill) at the local or state level became subject to more uniform national practice. Finally, a "hidden welfare state" of subsidies provided through the tax code became an increasingly important if still largely subterranean instrument of government activism (Howard 1997).

After the early 1980s, federal government expansion was slowed, even rolled back in some areas. Yet the activist state remains a central new fact of modern American politics (cf. McKinnon 2005). It is central in two respects. First, much contemporary political conflict focuses precisely on the role of the activist state. Second, the rise of government activism has created a fundamentally new landscape for political action in the United States, spurring changes in the media, Congress, electoral politics, and interest groups.

A second major transformation in our time has been the emergence of a powerful-and, in some ways, radical-conservative movement. Conservative elites mobilized in large part to counter new forms of federal activism. They confronted liberal policies that had become embedded not just in government but also in a range of surrounding institutions, from the media to the educational system. Even when spearheaded by liberals, institutional reforms and reorganizations in Congress and the rest of the polity ended up opening new opportunities for groups inside and beyond government aiming to advance conservative agendas. Over several decades, social and economic conservatives in and around the Republican Party have made steady headway. Conservatives have channeled popular participation for social causes, linking newly energized associations and networks to partisan politics. They have dominated agendas of public debate over the economy. Despite important limits on what they have so far achieved in public policy, conservatives have been able to trim and shift taxes and federal regulations, preclude major new social policy initiatives, and limit increases in direct, highly visible social expenditures for working-age Americans.

Our investigations of these ongoing political conflicts have convinced us that these two profound changes in American politics-the rise of the activist state and the resurgence of conservatism-cannot be fully understood absent consideration of a third: the redefinition of modes of citizen participation. As the scope of government expanded and new technologies of communication emerged, shifts occurred in the structure of key organizations that linked citizens and the state. Party competition spread to the South. In an era of money-driven campaigns and partisan discord, political parties restructured themselves and differentially targeted various subgroups of citizens (Schier 2000). Disparities of electoral participation have grown, as the old participate more than the young, and the economically privileged and highly educated have increased their advantage over the middle strata and the poor (Campbell 2003; Freeman 2004). The character of voluntary organizations changed as well. Activist federal courts, bureaucrats, and congressional staffers offered new access to lawyers and experts, spurring the professionalization of associations and a turn away from attempts to mobilize active memberships. This shift occurred sooner and more thoroughly on the liberal side of the spectrum, while conservatives perceived different political challenges and opportunities from the 1960s to the 1980s and engaged in more citizen mobilization, at least for a time. Meanwhile, federal subsidies encouraged state and local governments to contract with nonprofit agencies to deliver social services-and this, in turn, spurred the proliferation of professionally managed nonprofits, which have displaced membership entities in many local communities (Berry and Arons 2003, chap. 1; Crenson and Ginsberg 2002).

In many ways, contemporary American politics reflects the ongoing collision, carried out through these new forms of participation, between the rise of the activist state and the emergence of an invigorated conservatism. Conservatives have certainly not destroyed or fundamentally rolled back big, activist government. They have, however, circumscribed and redirected it, upending many of the assumptions made by liberals, who were briefly hegemonic back in the 1960s. Conservatives, moreover, have regularly proved more adept than liberals at using the new institutional and organizational levers available to politically active groups. As we learn throughout this book about changes in civic organizations, political parties, congressional rules, and electoral processes, we will see that these changes have often advantaged conservatives. Partisans have shaped transformations in the organizations and institutions of American politics, but the effects have not always been as the originally influential intended. Repeatedly over the past half century, liberals and Democrats spearheaded organizational, institutional, and policy changes that have ended up helping conservatives and Republicans in surprising ways.


Describing and exploring the intertwined transformations that have remade the face of American governance and politics in our time necessitated that our contributors depart from the styles of analysis prevalent in much academic research. Scholars have produced thousands of books and articles on this or that aspect of contemporary politics. Much of this scholarship, however, is biased toward the short term, examines circumscribed arenas of politics in isolation from one another, and tends to abstract away from the substance of political battles and trends. By focusing instead on long-term, large-scale changes in the U.S. polity-and by considering the relations among goal-directed movements, changing institutions, and substantively redirected policymaking-we endeavor to overcome such biases.

Beyond Short-Term Slices

Consider, to start, what is lost through a preoccupation with short-term processes. All too often, studies of American politics examine only immediate cause-and-effect relationships-such as the impact of quarterly shifts in economic growth percentages on presidential approval ratings, or the effect of a specific election on partisan margins in Congress. Important as such immediate links may be, to focus on them may distract us from structural tendencies and emerging processes (Pierson 2004; Pierson and Skocpol 2002). Some important political developments happen only gradually, yet are profoundly important for shaping and reshaping the terrain on which immediate shifts occur. Tracing institutional, ideological, and organizational patterns over long stretches of time allows us to avoid being mesmerized by event-driven zigs and zags.

Contributors to this volume illustrate the value of tracing long-term transformations and teasing out the (often unexpected) consequences of sustained trends or earlier institutional changes. Nolan McCarty, for example, demonstrates why, over the long run, heightened partisan polarization in U.S. politics has led via legislative stasis to de facto conservative results in a number of important areas of domestic social policy. Andrea Campbell traces sea changes in political parties, electoral mobilization, and voter blocs, not just from one election to the next, but over the course of decades. Her analysis brings structural and strategic changes into view, sharpening our sense of how Democrats and Republicans have shifted their operations and their alignments since the middle of the twentieth century. And Julian Zelizer shows how institutional reforms in Congress, originally spearheaded by liberals in the 1970s, eventually created levers that could be more effectively used by aggressive conservatives-first to undermine moderate Republican and liberal Democratic leadership in Congress and then to consolidate partisan discipline under the leadership of conservative Republicans.

Equally important, long-term analysis allows scholars to trace the efforts of goal-driven political actors engaged in learning, adaptation, and organization building. To take seriously the rise of a new ideological tendency or social movement, for example, is to examine interconnected sets of actors pursuing meaningful goals over time. Inevitably, these are stories of the long haul; they are not stories well captured by "snapshots" of each moment or round of politics in isolation. In this volume, Steven Teles argues that the strategic attempts of conservatives to undo or modify entrenched liberal policies and institutional projects must be understood as deliberate, long-term efforts playing out across a range of institutional domains. Forward-looking actors-organizationally situated and interconnected groups with the willingness and capacity to take a very long view-proceeded through practices of trial-and-error. In both Teles' and Hacker and Pierson's analyses, the rise of conservatism emerges as a set of important but largely subterranean processes moving through several decades of what might otherwise seem disconnected activities.

Of course, that actors sometimes take the long view does not mean they always get things right. On the contrary, in a complex, interdependent, and rapidly shifting world they will often get things wrong. To look at long-term transformations is to take seriously the possibility that important elements of political life will be unintended or unanticipated by powerful actors-and to treat this obvious truth as an integral element of social inquiry rather than just an inconvenient complication. Time and again, we find that political interventions have unexpected results-what was thought to be trivial turns out to be important, and what was expected to produce one effect turns out to do something altogether different.

A final advantage of long-term analyses is that they allow scholars to highlight not just how politics makes policies but also how policies, once enacted, can change further political struggles. As contemporary theorizing and research about "policy feedbacks" shows, policies can influence elite and mass understandings of political issues and possibilities; policies can change governmental capacities to propose and implement subsequent policy changes; and policies can influence the identity and goals of organized groups that get involved in subsequent rounds of policymaking (Mettler and Soss 2004; Pierson 1993; Skocpol 1992). Ideas about policy feedbacks are deployed by contributors to this volume to help make sense of contemporary political transformations. The advantages of tracing policy feedbacks over the long term are especially visible in the chapters by Suzanne Mettler, Theda Skocpol, and Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson.

The Stuff of Politics

Beyond the preoccupation with the short term, another unfortunate bias that pervades much current research on U.S. politics-including studies that do attempt to track changes over considerable periods of time-is excessive abstraction from the substance of political conflicts. For example, analysts may study trends in legislative "productivity" by counting the number of major laws Congress passed each year, treating each of them as analytically equivalent (cf. Howell et al. 2000; Mayhew 1991). Or analysts may count broad types of issues that appear in the media or congressional hearings in different periods (cf. Baumgartner and Jones 1993; Talbert and Potoski 2002) without considering the partisan or ideological content of the various topics tallied. Hoping to achieve generalizations about the American political system by assembling large data sets susceptible to quantitative description or statistical analysis, scholars look for repeated instances countable as "the same thing."

Although the search for generalization and efforts to build large data sets are admirable, proceeding at such a high level of abstraction comes at a price. Much of the meaning of politics is lost when the actual content and partisan valence of political struggles is squeezed out of the analysis. Politicians, interest groups, and social movements are, after all, contending about the direction of policies. They typically care intensely about the precise content of government activity (or inactivity). The accumulation of successes and failures in such substantive struggles can add up to fundamental shifts in what government undertakes, and the capacities of political coalitions to shape agendas and command public support. Studies that rest content with counting sheer volumes of legislation or mentions of a broad type of issue in the media may illuminate some issues, yet miss other equally or more important aspects of political change.


Excerpted from The Transformation of American Politics
Copyright © 2007 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

List of Figures vii
List of Tables ix
List of Contributors xi
CHAPTER ONE: American Politics in the Long Run by Paul Pierson and Theda Skocpol 3

PART ONE: The Shifting Political Landscape 17
CHAPTER TWO The Rise and Reconfiguration of Activist Government by Paul Pierson 19
CHAPTER THREE: Government Activism and the Reorganization of American Civic Democracy by Theda Skocpol 39
CHAPTER FOUR: Parties, Electoral Participation, and Shifting Voting Blocs by Andrea Louise Campbell 68

PART TWO: Conservatives on the Rise 103
CHAPTER FIVE: Seizing Power: Conservatives and Congress since the 1970s by Julian E. Zelizer 105
CHAPTER SIX: Economic Insecurity, Party Reputations, and the Republican Ascendance by Mark A. Smith 135
CHAPTER SEVEN: Conservative Mobilization against Entrenched Liberalism by Steven M. Teles 160

PART THREE: Policy and Politics in the New American Polity 189
CHAPTER EIGHT: The Transformed Welfare State and the Redistribution of Political Voice by Suzanne Mettler 191
CHAPTER NINE: The Policy Effects of Political Polarization by Nolan McCarty 223
CHAPTER TEN: Tax Politics and the Struggle over Activist Government by Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson 256
CHAPTER ELEVEN: Political Development and Contemporary American Politics by Paul Pierson and Theda Skocpol 283
References 295
Index 321

What People are Saying About This


This book offers a remarkably wide-ranging analysis of the politics of conservatism from some of the best and brightest. This book stands out for charting the impact of political conservatism on voting and elections and its reshaping of voluntary associations, pressure groups, and government institutions and policy.
Lawrence R. Jacobs, University of Minnesota

Christopher Howard

The Transformation of American Politics has so much going for it. The contributors to this volume are well-known experts in their fields. There are obvious and important connections among the chapters, adding to the coherence of the whole. The volume effectively shows how historical perspectives can shed light not just on eras long ago but on contemporary debates. It's a winner.
Christopher Howard, author of "The Welfare State Nobody Knows"

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