Governing the American State

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Kimberley S. Johnson Governing the American State: Congress and the New Federalism, 1877-1929. Princeton, NJ. Princeton University Press. 2007. pp. 242. $49.95. Cloth: ISBN 9780691119748.


Political scientist Kimberley S. Johnson believes the conventional wisdom about the New Deal is wrong. Rather than a sudden outburst of cooperative federalism abruptly creating the modern, centralized American state, she argues that much of the framework of the New Deal state was actually created through a long period of improvisation, political negotiation, and trial and error. The period covered by this book encompasses the Gilded Age and the Progressive Age, during which time the political structure was, in her words, "precariously balanced between a continued dual federal system and a centralized modern state." (page 4). She calls this period the "first New Federalism."

Key to her understanding of how federalism worked during this period is the concept of the "intergovernmental policy", which she defines as "laws, policies, or administrative arrangements that alter the relationship between the national government and the states." (page 4) The creation of intergovernmental policy instruments ("IPI") for specific laws and institutions was developed over this period as a way to negotiate politically viable legislation and regulation within a national polity in which political power was diffuse and decentralized, and there was a strong ideological resistance to unilateral, centralized government activity.

The book is thematically split--the first three chapters explore and develop the conceptual basis of her argument. Chapter 1 establishes the political and ideological climate in which this period of innovation occurred. The states were regarded as the proper venues for regulation and state activity, yet the resulting patchwork of conflicting legislation and interests proved unworkable; at the same time the judiciary loomed as an impediment to proactive action by the national government. The next two chapters explore the evolution of intergovernmental policy instruments and use statistical analysis to test how clearly Johnson's theory explains actual legislative action. Changes in the nature of Congress figure heavily in this analysis; for example, the rise of incumbency and the popular election of Senators created an environment in which legislators became less loyal to state parties and more attuned to constituent desires.

In the second half of the book, Johnson considers specific examples, tracing the legislative and institutional development of varying laws and the agencies set up to enforce them. Finally, she briefly continues her story through the New Deal and even up to the Great Society, which is when much of the foundation of the New Federalism was finally replaced by a more truly centralized federal government infrastructure--the Great Society "firmly upended the balancing act between the national government and the states that had been created during the first New Federalism and solidified in the New Deal." (page 163)

Johnson's book is a provocative challenge to the reigning orthodoxy regarding the roots of New Deal liberalism and its relation to American political and ideological tradition.


Kirk Johnson, Spring 2013

Johnson's essential argument is that we should see continuity where standard political accounts of the New Deal have seen abrupt change. She argues that the institutional and regulatory framework of New Deal legislation and agencies were already in place, worked out over a period of over 60 years. The tension between social and economic issues which were increasingly of national scope on the one hand, and the tradition of laissez-faire economics and limited, divided government on the other, forced advocates of greater regulation and state activism to work out pragmatic compromises which relied on public support, legislative alliances, and adept agency personnel.

There is the seed of a compelling historical argument in this book; unfortunately, because this is a work of political science the analytical tools Johnson brings to bear cannot adequately make her case. The title indicates a time frame of over 60 years, and in fact she briefly goes outside of even that broad parameter, but the historic context of any period of time in this period is absent. Despite the fact that she (more or less convincingly) identifies Congress as the theater in which the "first New Federalism" is given shape, politics as anything other than straightforward expression of partisan or sectional identity is nearly absent. She briefly mentions that neither the Civil War nor Reconstruction War were enough to "create a centralized state, yet the key elements necessary for a modern state to form were already in place before the crisis of the Great Depression and the response of the New Deal." (page 5) This statement--which never gets fleshed out or addressed--raises many questions which do not get answered. Two important concepts in history which might go far in explaining this seeming conundrum--agency and contingency--simply do not factor in to her consideration of the historic context.

Ultimately, Johnson wants to create an argument that the political structures of New Deal liberalism were painstakingly crafted over time and under multiple stresses and compromising conditions. She states that she utilizes historical narrative along with quantitative analysis (page 6), but her history of legislative experimentation and interest-group politicking is too removed from a broader context to ring true for a history-minded reader. Her account is intellectually hefty, but somewhat bloodless and static.

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