The extreme dispersion of authority and power in the American political system fosters a politics of bargaining, negotiation, and compromise. Nevertheless, technical-rational analysis plays a major role in the identification of public problems and in the legitimation of official responses. We explore this apparent paradox through an examination of the interaction between politics, ideology and analysis in the current crisis of the American public retirement system. Two analytical approaches are employed: an interpretation of the historical evolution of the programme through three relatively distinct phases; and an evaluation of the reports of three recent national commissions which have studied the social security crisis. We argue that in the American system policy must be made through either subsystem or consensual politics. Social security has benefited from the unusual conjunction of these two conditions through most of its history. Policy has been made by a small subsystem dominated by the social security bureaucracy itself and the programme has received widespread bipartisan support. Analysis has been central to this process, but its impact has differed over time. Analysis exerted a decisive influence on the initial shape of the programme even in the absence of an ideological consensus because it enjoyed a quasi-monopoly position in the President's Committee on Economic Security. During the long expansionary phase of the programme, subsystem autonomy and bipartisan consensus together fostered the emergence of a technocratic policy style, but the independent effects of analysis were more apparent than real. The contemporary commissions fail to provide an adequate response to the crisis because their technically competent proposals no longer rest on an underlying consensus and because the institutional autonomy of the old social security policymaking subsystem has broken down.