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Faith in the resilience of the US Constitution prompts many observers to discount evidence of a deepening crisis of governance in our day. A long history of success in navigating tough times and adapting to new circumstances instills confidence that the fundamentals of the system are sound and the institutions self-correcting. The aim of this article is to push assessments of this sort beyond the usual nod to great crises surmounted in the past and to identify institutional adaptation as a developmental problem worthy of study in its own right. To that end, we call attention to dynamics of adjustment that have played out over the long haul. Our historical-structural approach points to the “bounded resilience” of previous adaptations and to dynamics of reordering conditioned on the operation of other governance outside the Constitution’s formal written arrangements. We look to the successive overthrow of these other incongruous elements and to the serial incorporation of previously excluded groups to posit increasing stress on constitutional forms and greater reliance on principles for support of new institutional arrangements. Following these developments into the present, we find principles losing traction, now seemingly unable to foster new rules in support of agreeable governing arrangements. Our analysis generates a set of propositions about why the difficulties of our day might be different from those of the past in ways that bear directly on resilience and adaptability going forward.
As “Lincoln and the Politics of Union” is the only thing that Michael Holt has ever written with which Mark Neely entirely disagrees, I can understand his impatience with the arguments of The Politics Presidents Make. Each of us has a fish of this sort waiting to be fried, and the opportunity afforded by my reference to Holt's essay must have been hard to resist. At least Neely took enough care in seizing this opportunity to acknowledge his “reductionist rendering” of my thesis.
Defining terms is a serious undertaking and one bound to stir controversy. When we decided to devote a book to this task, we were under no illusion that everyone would readily sign on to our proposal. We thought, however, that it was worth calling attention to certain conceptual problems that currently beset the study of American political development (APD). We wanted to underscore the value of tractability in claims about change over time and to demonstrate the benefits of specificity in moving this venerable research tradition forward. We regret that Professor Thomas finds our proposal objectionable, but we are even more concerned that his alternative seems to do little to address the issues that prompted our effort.
The American presidency reflects nothing so clearly as the idiosyncrasies of personality and circumstance. The discrete dynamics of the men and their times are naturally pronounced; the general dynamics that define the institution in time, correspondingly obscured. This makes thematic analysis of the presidency peculiarly dependent on uncovering broad-ranging patterns in institutional history. By isolating different historical regularities we can locate different dimensions of the problem and significance of presidential action.
The political foundations of the modern presidency were laid during the New Deal years. Franklin Roosevelt was the New Deal president. The relationship between these two facts is a matter of some consequence. On it hinges our understanding of presidential leadership and modern American government generally, not to mention the political significance of Roosevelt himself.
Racist and liberal ideals are said to anchor competing political traditions in America, but a juxtaposition of ideals obscures key processes of change in the cultural lexicon and misses much about how a political tradition comes to bear on the development of a polity. Attention to the reassociation of ideas and purposes over time points to a more intimate relationship between racism and liberalism in American political culture, to the conceptual interpenetration of these antithetical ends. Cuing off issues that have long surrounded the reassociation of John C. Calhoun's rule of the concurrent majority with pluralist democracy, this article examines another southerner, Woodrow Wilson, who, in the course of defending racial hierarchy, developed ideas that became formative of modern American liberalism. Analysis of the movement of ideas across purposes shifts the discussion of political traditions from set categories of thought to revealed qualities of thought, bringing to the fore aspects of this polity that are essentially and irreducibly “American.”
George W. Bush elevated the value of definition in presidential
leadership and made it central to his political stance. This was as much a
strategic calculation of political advantage in the moment at hand as it
was a reflection of the man's innate character. Accounting for
Bush's leadership posture in this way helps to situate it on a larger
historical canvas as a particular rendition of a familiar type; reference
to general characteristics of the type facilitates, in turn, an assessment
of the strengths and weaknesses of Bush's performance over the course
of his first term. Conclusions consider deviations from the patterned
political effects of leadership of this sort and weigh their possible
significance.Stephen Skowronek is the
Pelatiah Perit Professor of Political and Social Science at Yale
University (email@example.com). He is author of The Politics
Presidents Make: Leadership from John Adams to Bill Clinton and more
recently with Karen Orren, The Search for American Political
Development. Earlier versions of this paper were presented at CIDE in
Mexico City, at the University of Texas, and the University of Tulsa. It
was also featured as the Abbott Memorial Lecture at the Sondermann
Symposium on the Presidency at Colorado College, Colorado Springs
(December 2004). The version printed here was completed on May 10,
If we could first know where we are and whither we are tending, we might better judge what to do and how to do it.
If our definition of political development seems as comfortable as we hope, it will be because APD researchers discover they have been studying shifts in authority all along. Inclined as we are to quit while we are ahead, we feel an obligation to pick up again at the point where we bracketed larger issues of meaning and value in order to pursue a neutral definition of political development, one that could stand up empirically against the diverse historical materials engaged by scholarship in the field. The plan was not to leave these larger issues behind permanently; they were, and to many APD scholars still are, what makes political development worth thinking about. A clearer-cut definition anticipated a return, and now we are better equipped to look for answers. There is no expectation that profound matters of political philosophy will be settled by the idea of historical construction or our temporal matrix of intercurrent controls. But insofar as these profound matters contemplate, for instance, the prospects of different arrangements of authority being established and successfully sustained over time, we believe APD will have something of its own to contribute.
In this chapter we can provide only the briefest of previews of how the study of political development we describe might deliver on this promise, but we will try to do that much.
… although laws may be changed according to circumstances and events, yet it is seldom or never that the constitution itself is changed; and for this reason the new laws do not suffice, for they are not in harmony with the constitution that has remained intact.
Together, the cultural critique of developmental thinking, recounted in Chapter Two, and the institutional turn in historical research, recounted in Chapter Three, leave APD spinning around a wobbly center. Neither provides a ready response to a disarmingly simple question: What is political development? With the concept purged of teleology, the leading formulation so far is the inconclusive metaphor of “path.” In this chapter, we set these literatures aside for the purpose of offering a definition that identifies political development as a distinguishable event, one that can be established empirically and is a phenomenon worth study in its own right.
That a definition of this sort is desirable may not be self-evident. No one has complained that the topics addressed so far by APD scholars are misguided or that the substantive payoff on particular historical questions of broad interest has been inadequate. In fact, the flip side to APD's current lack of focus is the growing attachment of historical researchers to other areas of political science with well-established protocols of their own – political economy, for instance, or public law, or comparative government. Under these circumstances, why look for trouble?
This book is the product of a long, sometimes exasperating, sometimes exhilarating collaboration. Certain values helped us through, chief among these the value of friendship. We began more than twenty years ago when casual conversations about politics and history led us to create a journal outlet for scholars with similar interests, Studies in American Political Development. Among the benefits of editorship has been regular contact with a wide range of perspectives and participation, however vicariously, in each. In this way, our collaboration has included the unwitting persons whose names are found on Studies' tables of contents.
That said, we are inclined to add something more than a routine statement absolving others of responsibility for what we have written here. While in editing the journal we seek to present historical research by political scientists in all its variety, in writing this book we set out to craft a statement of our own. The title of the book is meant to capture the dual nature of “the search” for American political development as we see it today: in part, it is an effort to bring a story – the story of America's political development – into sharper relief; in part, it is an effort to bring into sharper relief an academic subfield, “APD,” within the discipline of political science. How this subfield defines itself will have a lot to do with how it tells the story, and the time seems ripe for a considered treatment.
We Americans are the peculiar, chosen people – the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world … The rest of the nations must soon be in our rear. We are the pioneers … the advanced guard, sent on through the wilderness of untried things to break a new path in the New World that is ours … Long enough have we been skeptics with regard to ourselves and doubted whether, indeed, the political Messiah has come. But he has come in us, if we would but give utterance to his promptings.
Herman Melville, White Jacket
Examining political development in the united states is tantamount to interrogating the national premise. Faith in development, with this nation in the vanguard of development, are relentless themes of the culture, inscribed in stories about the origins, common struggles, and higher purposes of the American people. The master narrative of American politics tells of a land set apart by Providence to “bear the ark of the liberties of the world,” of a nation released from power relationships accumulated by the “Old World” to “break a new path,” of “pioneers” who cleared the way for humankind's advance.
The scholars of the late nineteenth century who first turned American political development into a topic for critical inquiry knew exactly what they were doing. They were the embodiment of Melville's “skeptics with regard to ourselves,” avowed in their determination to subject the cornerstones of American national identity to empirical scrutiny.
… institutions must advance and keep pace with the times. We may as well require a man to wear still the coat that fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.
The claim of conservative idealists like burgess, that political institutions express the aspirations of the civilization they serve, gave us one view of political development; the claim of progressive scholars that political institutions reflect economic interests and the balance of power among them offered another; the claim in some recent studies in APD that institutions subvert culturally generated alternatives calls into question the notion of political development itself. What scholars say about political development turns in good measure on how they think about political institutions, and the question of how institutions affect political outcomes currently supports a multifaceted intellectual movement of its own. The claim of the “new institutionalists” is that institutions do not merely express or reflect or deflect elements in their political surroundings. Institutions participate actively in politics: they shape interests and motives, configure social and economic relationships, promote as well as inhibit political change.
For APD scholarship, a “new institutionalism” has several attractions. The more proactive role attributed to institutions in processes of political change is of obvious interest, but an institutional turn has a strong instrumental appeal as well.
The circumstances which accompany the birth of nations and contribute to their development affect the whole term of their being.
Alexis de Tocqueville
The study of american political development is a substantive inquiry guided by a theoretical precept. The substantive inquiry covers the full range of politics in the United States: past politics and present politics, political action and political behavior, political thought and political culture, movement politics and institutional politics. The theoretical precept is this: because a polity in all its different parts is constructed historically, over time, the nature and prospects of any single part will be best understood within the long course of political formation. Studying politics through history is nothing new; adherents to a developmental approach spurred the formation of political science as an academic discipline at the end of the nineteenth century. However, after several decades during which history was relegated to a decidedly minor role in the study of American politics, interest in historical approaches is resurgent. Recent years have seen the rise of a veritable cottage industry of political scientists engaged in historical investigations of one kind or another, and for the first time, we hear American political development referred to as “APD,” a subfield with its own name and acronym.
Why this new attraction to Clio? One explanation is that political scientists stepped into a void left when younger academic historians who specialized in the United States turned away from the study of government and leadership to concentrate on other things.