“The point of politics is policy,” Ezra Klein explained in the happier days of spring 2014. The statement could be a credo for the Beltway’s wonk class—the congressional staffers, anonymous bureaucrats, and think-tank fellows whose careers rest on the belief that all the histrionics of campaigning and the hyperventilating of cable news are just a freak show that distracts from the real work of governing. Spin might sustain a political movement for an election, but eventually voters will want to see results, and the technocrats will have their day.
Underpinning this argument is the conviction that, as Barack Obama put it, the government has a responsibility to “get stuff done.” From that simple premise follow the many issues that consume political debate today: foreign policy, economic policy, immigration, health care, education, environmental policy, and on and on. However disparate the subjects under consideration, once they have been elevated to the realm of policy, a set of assumptions clicks into place. A policy is a commitment to use government power to achieve a specific goal. Policy needs policymakers, trusted experts with the discretion to carry out the tasks they have been assigned. The policymaker’s work is never done: foreign affairs, the economy, and all the rest are issues to be managed, not problems that can be resolved once and for all. Think of Janet Yellen at the Federal Reserve, constantly monitoring the economy’s performance to ensure that it is growing at a sustainable rate.
At its best, the arrangement Obama described promises to bring democratic accountability to the rule of experts. Politicians set the goals, technocrats figure out how to achieve them, and on Election Day voters decide whether the two have delivered on their promises. This way of thinking is so entrenched that it’s all but impossible to imagine an alternative. Of course the point of politics is policy. What else could it be?
Except it hasn’t always been this way. The notion that a government’s chief obligation is getting stuff done is a fairly recent arrival on the historical scene. Not until the twentieth century did it attain the commonsensical status it enjoys today. As Antonin Scalia observed with characteristic snark, the Constitution “contains no whatever-it-takes-to-solve-a-national-problem power.” Policy arose in fits and starts over centuries, and the legacy of that jagged evolution is still with us. Today, policymaking has taken over a government that is nonetheless bound by the Constitution; politicians promise to swoop in and fix whatever has gone wrong, while working in a system that is designed to curb the impulse to intervene. That tension has helped bring us to our current impasse, where Americans ask more than ever from a government they increasingly distrust.
Understanding how we arrived at this juncture is the task that political scientists Karen Orren and Stephen Skowronek have set for themselves in The Policy State. Completed at the onset of the Trump administration, it is a slender volume that draws upon their decades of research on the making and remaking of American political institutions. The book is also a sterling example of political science at its best: analytically rigorous, historically informed, and targeted at questions of undeniable contemporary significance. In the measured tones of senior academics, Orren and Skowronek uncover a transformation that revolutionized American politics and now threatens to tear it apart.
When James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and other delegates gathered in Philadelphia to draft the Constitution in 1787, they aimed to balance two conflicting imperatives. They wanted a state powerful enough to take decisive action in a few key areas but not so strong that it would give way to tyranny. They also wanted a government accountable to the will of the people but equally able to resist demagogues, who might sway voters with what Madison called a “wicked project” like the “equal division of property.”
The framers thought a carefully designed system could be the solution to both of these problems. Students of what Hamilton termed the “science of politics,” they believed a set of checks and balances would lead to a natural equilibrium. Theirs was a clockwork Constitution suited to the age of Newton. It should tick along with metronomic regularity, if they could get the engineering just right.
This was a politics more concerned with rights than with policy. Policymakers look to the future and insist on flexibility to respond to changing circumstances. Guardians of rights are more concerned with the past. They enforce rules laid down ahead of time, providing the security of fixed principles that cannot be tampered with to satisfy the wishes of legislators or bureaucrats. The framers enshrined their faith in rights in the Constitution, which, with a few crucial exceptions—protecting the nation from foreign threats, maintaining domestic order, and overseeing vital matters of commerce—kept federal oversight out of Americans’ lives. As Hamilton put it, the framers “merely intended to regulate the general political interests of the nation,” leaving “the regulation of every species of personal and private concerns” up to state and local governments, or safe from public supervision altogether.
Attempts to expand those boundaries are almost as old as the Constitution itself. The temptation is built into a government tasked with representing the will of the people. The emergence of stable political parties early in the nineteenth century—a shock to the founders—created organizations with a vested interest in making policy. Parties turn isolated groups into members of an electoral coalition, and in a two-party system, one of those coalitions will inevitably end up with a majority. A party with control of government has both the means to implement policies that benefit its base and, if it wants to stay in the majority, an exceedingly powerful motive for doing so.
The growing importance of the presidency further accelerated the turn toward policy. Powerful presidents such as Andrew Jackson in the nineteenth century brought a unity of purpose to governing that legislatures divided among hundreds of members could not hope to match. Jackson’s successors in the twentieth century completed this shift, as they pushed for agendas they claimed would recast American government, from Theodore Roosevelt’s New Nationalism to Bill Clinton’s New Covenant. In their efforts, these presidents were aided by experts and administrators, who found a natural home in the executive branch. Presidents gained important new powers, and technocrats won the democratic legitimacy that came from being able to say they were acting at the behest of a leader chosen to represent the nation as a whole.
Americans had in effect rewritten the Constitution. The handcuffs Madison thought would shackle the state turned out to be made of paper, and savvy policymakers snapped out of them on their way to getting stuff done. Which proved to be for the best. Congressmen and presidents alike have confronted problems the framers could never have foreseen—from regulating corporations with annual revenues larger than the GDP of most countries to winning a global war against fascism. The making of a policy state was not an accident, Orren and Skowronek maintain. It was a pragmatic response to the challenges the country faced, and an effective one—even, they write, “an essential part of the American success story.”
But the break from the past was never as clean as the boldest reformers wished. Over time, the costs of that partial victory have become apparent. “The structure of American government has stretched every which way,” Orren and Skowronek write, “but it has not been replaced.” When we complain about gridlock, we’re complaining about what was supposed to be one of the Constitution’s signal virtues.
Despite policy’s steady advance, the federal government in 1900 still resembled in its broad outlines the system Madison and Hamilton’s generation had envisioned. At the time, total government spending came to just 7 percent of GDP. Of that sum, more than half came from state and local governments. Budget figures by themselves are too simplistic a data point to illustrate the evolution of political power. But they do reveal how much the federal government would have to change before attaining its current size and scope, where a budget of more than $3.5 trillion funds a state that can reach across the world, or into your email.
In Orren and Skowronek’s telling, it was the Progressives who delivered the decisive intellectual blow against the framers’ vision of politics. Reformers at the turn of the twentieth century did not conceal their objectives. Herbert Croly, founder of this magazine, called for a government of “representative men exercising discretionary power” and denounced “principles of right which subordinated all officials to definite and binding restriction.” These were not just the demands of scribblers in magazines. Future President Woodrow Wilson argued in 1885 that the framers had made a “grievous mistake”; that the system of checks and balances they instituted had set the government at war with itself, rather than focusing it on addressing the issues of the day.
Progressives wanted a state that would be simultaneously more technocratic and more democratic. Their targets in both cases were the party machines that dominated Gilded Age politics. They supported measures intended to hold politicians directly accountable to voters—ballot referendums and recalls, the institution of primaries, the direct election of senators—while attempting to establish an elite class of policymakers, who would act in the public interest, guided by the best scientific evidence. Education provided the link between these seemingly antithetical impulses. An enlightened electorate, they believed, could be trusted to take more responsibility for choosing the right managers to handle the complex administrative tasks of modern government.
They were wrong about how this state would come about—in the end, it wasn’t public education but the Great Depression and World War II that did most to spur its creation. But by the middle of the twentieth century, Americans had a government that bore a striking similarity to the Progressive ideal. Experts staffed new agencies charged with overseeing everything from the conduct of Wall Street traders to the production of nuclear bombs. This was the policy state of Orren and Skowronek’s title: a regime where policy has “infiltrated every aspect of American life” and “spews out of every corner of the state apparatus.”
The policy state did not just concern itself with the affairs of a managerial elite. It was a weapon that marginalized groups could summon on their behalf—African Americans during Reconstruction, workers in the Great Depression, feminists in the 1960s. Activists followed a strategy laid out by Progressive intellectual Mary Parker Follett in 1918. “Our only concern with ‘rights,’” she proposed, “is not to protect them but to create them. Our efforts are to be bent not upon guarding the rights which Heaven has showered upon us, but in creating all the rights we shall ever have.”
Sometimes those rights were validated by the courts, as when the verdict in Brown v. Board of Education insisted on the right to equal educational opportunities. Other times they were decreed by politicians, as when Franklin Roosevelt listed the rights to employment, housing, and medical care as part of his “second Bill of Rights.” Either way, these rights were creatures of the policy state. Without its support, they were merely ideals. And every attempt to enforce them invited backlash from groups who believed they were losing ground in the new order, whether businessmen in the New Deal or Southern whites in the Great Society.
The structure of the government provided yet another obstacle to policymakers. Despite reformers’ hopes, they never succeeded in overriding the Constitution’s separation of powers among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches. “Rather than carve out an administrative realm secure in its own jurisdiction,” Orren and Skowronek write, “three-branch thinking carved it up in various ways and left discretion to the large and muddy residual.” The ordeal of Obamacare is a textbook example: The Affordable Care Act was over 900 pages long when it was passed in 2010 and thousands more pages would be added by regulators in the years to come. Meanwhile, it took two rulings from the Supreme Court to verify the constitutionality of the original legislation, which even now remains a matter of debate on the right. An impeccably technocratic piece of legislation mauled by partisanship and endangered by the Constitution: This is what twenty-first-century Progressivism looks like.
Meanwhile, this ungainly system also plays to the strengths of well-funded interests that have the resources to navigate its complexities. The harder a piece of legislation is to understand, the easier it is for lobbyists to insert provisions that favor their clients, as a glance at the corporate tax code reveals.
Of course, technocrats can provide vital assistance to popular movements intent on checking these abuses, and they have in the past. In the 1930s, New Dealers joined their advocacy of policy to their support for labor; it was a technocratic means to a political end. But this relationship frayed in the decades that followed, exposing liberal wonks to charges that they had been co-opted by the donor class. It did not help that by the 1990s, elites in both parties had reached a consensus on the virtues of keeping taxes on the rich low, embracing free trade, and cutting government regulations. Although policymakers framed these measures as post-ideological efforts to boost long-run productivity rates and aggregate economic growth, they were, of course, deeply political: The policy state gave neoliberalism a technocratic face.
Today that consensus has been shattered, along with the older, Progressive dream of disinterested experts speaking on behalf of enlightened citizens, all sharing a notion of the public interest. No single branch of the government can claim full ownership of the bureaucracy. The number of guidelines that are supposed to bring order to the relationship among the branches multiplies, but enforcement of those guidelines weakens, producing still more confusion. At the root of the problem is the persistent tension between the policy state and the Constitution. “More rules with less regularity,” Orren and Skowronek write, is “a consequence of jerry-rigging a structure to accommodate more of precisely what it was designed to restrain.”
To make matters worse, experts have been sucked into the partisan warfare the Progressives hoped technocracy would bring to an end. Republicans, stoked by Steve Bannon and Paul Ryan alike, pledge to demolish the administrative state; defense of bureaucracy has become an exclusive property of the Democratic Party. Such polarization means that policymaking in the United States becomes exceptionally difficult—Orren and Skowronek call it “an existential threat” to the policy state—because the Constitution imposes such high barriers to legislation that bipartisan support is a virtual necessity for instituting durable reforms.
Orren and Skowronek follow up this grim diagnosis with a suitably bleak assessment of where we can go from here. “After having labored to uncover and report on this state of our union,” they write, “we offer no proposal to fix it.” They’re tempted by sweeping proposals but skeptical of their efficacy. Taking responsibility for policymaking away from a technocratic elite and entrusting it to a broader community of engaged citizens would only lead to more partisan conflict, assuming that such a program were even workable. Relying on the judiciary to reassert the primacy of a Constitution that is now merely “a disembodied set of principles with scant binding effect” would launch the country on a doomed effort to impose an eighteenth-century government on a society that long ago left Madison and Hamilton behind.
Despite this, politicians and movement leaders are likely to rage against the dying of the light. Absent a coherent alternative, populists will find receptive audiences when they promise easy solutions to puzzles that have stumped the wonks. Orren and Skowronek are realistic enough to acknowledge this tendency—and to insist that down this road, too, lies disappointment. Outsiders have the luxury of crusading against the status quo. As Donald Trump has discovered, that luxury disappears once you’re in office. But as is the case with so much of what Trump has done, he has only displayed in more acute form pathologies that existed long before he decided to make a run for the White House. With their familiar realism, Orren and Skowronek identify the problem. “Political breakthroughs seldom align with workable policies,” they sigh, “and workable policies almost always jeopardize movement enthusiasm.”
But conditions aren’t quite that dire, at least not yet. To understand why, it helps to recall that the United States is not alone in its discontents. A populist wave has swept much of the globe, including countries that don’t have to reconcile a contemporary policy state with a constitution inherited from the eighteenth century. Frustrating as government inefficiency can be, most people care more about their everyday quality of life—incomes that have stagnated, health-care bills that have piled up, job prospects that have faded. Using the power of the policy state to address those concerns wouldn’t on its own restore faith in the process, but it would be a start.
Does that mean the solution is just better policy, after all? Not exactly. Like efficiency and expertise, policy is a means to an end. That distinction has become clearer amid the wreckage of the technocratic order. And that has opened the way for a rediscovery of what gives policy meaning in the first place: politics.