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date: 23 February 2020

(p. 289) American Politics: Introduction

Historical institutionalism has long informed, and been informed by, the study of the United States. Particularly within the field of American political development, historical institutionalism has helped scholars shed light on the elusive character of the American state and the legacy of struggles over race and citizenship that continue to animate much of American politics. At the same time, core concepts like path dependence and feedback effects figure prominently in historical-institutionalist explanations of American politics, such as the distinctive character of US social policy and the heavy reliance on private, arms-length instruments for the provision of health care and other government benefits. The study of American politics has also been central to the development and elaboration of theories of gradual institutional change such as layering, conversion, and drift. Finally, attention to the intercurrent character of institutional arrangements is also a common feature of work in American politics, perhaps because of the fragmentation of the American political system. Partial, overlapping patterns of authority illuminate the contradictory tendencies and impulses in American politics, such as the coexistence of surprisingly robust anti-discrimination policies alongside a sprawling criminal justice system that disproportionately incarcerates racial minorities.

The chapters in this section illustrate the ongoing vibrancy of research on historical institutionalism and American political development. Desmond King sets the stage by exploring the enduring connections between American state-building and the politics (p. 290) of race. King shows that to fully appreciate the origin and evolution of the American state one must account for the racially-inflected struggles over the construction of national political authority. This struggle shaped the design of American political institutions and established an enduring dynamic in which states and localities often frustrated national efforts to guarantee political rights for African Americans. However, this frustration also fueled state-building achievements. This is a subject taken up by Paul Frymer, who also sees racial conflict as central to American political development. However, Frymer also points out that contrary to perceptions of a weak American state, the growth of federal power in the twentieth century came about as a result of nationally enforced social and political rights. Frymer shows how legal institutions and actors played a central role in this state-building process. The important role of legal institutions is addressed further in the chapter by Sarah Staszak. One of the distinctive, and sometimes misunderstood, features of the American state is the role of the judiciary in the process of American political development. Recently, however, scholars have moved away from a near-exclusive focus on the Supreme Court in order to examine the broader institutional development of the federal judiciary as well as the key role private litigation has played in the extension and enforcement of national political authority.

Each of the chapters in this section explores how historical institutionalism offers a particular set of tools and concepts with which to approach the study of American politics. As noted in the introduction to the volume, historical institutionalism is much more than simply the truism that “history matters.” In the study of American politics, scholars working within the tradition of historical institutionalism provide distinct explanations for political phenomena that differ in important ways from other approaches. For example, Daniel Galvin contrasts historical instituitonalist approaches to the study of American political parties with functionalist explanations that begin from the assumption that political organizations are designed with the electoral interests of politicians in mind. In this view, party structures change when they no longer address political needs. As Galvin points out, this yields a rather thin conception of institutions and an incomplete account of the changes in the character of American political parties that have taken place over the last fifty years. Rather than assume form follows function, Galvin describes how the evolution of the Democratic and Republican parties traced distinct paths. These differences reflected the way leaders in the respective parties acquired new resources and adapted existing ones in order to enhance their role in national elections. Organizational capacity, in other words, is an outcome to be explained rather than an institutional feature to be assumed.

Providing explanations for political phenomena other approaches take as fixed or given is also a characteristic feature of historical institutionalist scholarship on the distinctive character of US social policy. Unsatisfied with accounts that contrasted the minimal American welfare state with more generous forms of social provision in Europe, historical institutionalist scholars uncovered a precocious social spending (p. 291) regime in the nineteenth century as well as a robust if “hidden” welfare state in the twentieth century that delivered health and pension benefits through private insurance linked to the employment contract. As Alan Jacobs explores in his chapter, these considerable insights into the distinctive character of US social policy included important theoretical advances into the nature of institutional development and the dynamics of policy change. Scholars developed concepts such as path dependence, feedback effects, and gradual institutional change (e.g., conversion, layering, and drift) as a way to explain the origins and evolution of the American welfare state. As Jacobs concludes, however, these concepts do not provide clear propositions about when policy change is likely to occur. Going forward, Jacobs argues, historical institutionalism is well placed to address such questions by paying particular attention to the power resources of key stakeholders, the shifting coalitions that support specific policies, and the tendency for stable policies to sow the seeds for their own, gradual demise.

Ultimately, historical institutionalism is particularly well-suited to study the contingent nature of political authority in the United States. Lacking a tradition of a centralized bureaucracy, the exercise of public power has varied considerably across time and place. As a result, the American state can sometimes display an elusive quality that belies an extensive apparatus of coercive capacity. This is illustrated vividly, and tragically, in the expansive reach of the US criminal justice system. As Marie Gottschalk explores in the concluding chapter of the section, the extraordinary growth of the prison population and its disproportionate effect on African American men has deep historical and institutional roots. To understand the retributive turn in penal policy and its effects, as Gottschalk does, one must grapple with multiple and complex causes that defy parsimonious explanation. As Gottschalk warns, historical institutionalism risks losing more than just its distinctive character by succumbing to disciplinary pressures; it will also lose its comparative advantage addressing important questions about pressing issues in American politics that mainstream approaches are sometimes ill equipped to handle. (p. 292)