Wonk Republic


Timothy Shenk in TNR:

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.”

More here.