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Turn on cable news, tune into talk radio, or sign up for your chosen candidate’s listserv, and you will undoubtedly encounter the reflexive interpretation of American political history that liberals favor “big” government and conservatives favor “small” government. Supporting this configuration are similar dichotomies about individuals and collectives, free enterprise and welfare, “people” and “interests.” According to Brian Balogh, these perceived polarities generate much of the frustration in contemporary politics because they reveal very little about how government actually functions. Balogh argues that from the Progressive era to the present an “associational” blend of public power and private intermediary institutions, and not rigid separation, has defined the interaction between state and society, effectively “administer[ing] policies that achieved collective ends” without offending the antistatist sensibility of American political culture (p. 139).
Readers of Balogh’s earlier work, particularly A Government Out of Sight (2007), will find The Associational State’s historiographical intent familiar. As before, he is concerned with uncovering patterns and practices of governance that citizens, scholars, and even elected officials have long struggled to discern. In so doing, he draws heavily upon the insights of other historians and political scientists, particularly his colleagues within the American Political Development community. Although Balogh has incorporated some primary research into his essays, these are primarily synthetic works and Balogh regularly acknowledges his debts to scholars such as Ellis Hawley, Theda Skocpol, Elisabeth Clemens, and many, many others.
Balogh divides his work into six essays that chart political development throughout the twentieth century, from the rise of administrative governance in the Progressive era to a reconsideration of the Great Society’s legacies in contemporary public policy. This broad [End Page 442] temporal range allows Balogh to scrutinize an array of governing methods within their historical context. Indeed, Balogh suggests a lack of contextual specificity has long plagued political history, as scholars have defined regimes less by what they actually did than “the degree to which they advance liberalism” (pp. 87–88). His essay on Gifford Pinchot’s Forest Service, for example, eschews clichés about Pinchot’s centralizing tendencies, emphasizing instead the associational nature of early Forest Service programs. It was through private intermediaries, such as Yale University or logging businesses, that Pinchot sold his conservation ethos to a suspicious public. Other essays build on these insights to consider the relationship between interest groups, electoral politics, and policy, or the associational nature of major legislative epochs such as the New Deal and Great Society. It is this consideration of the often-delicate relationship between policymakers and the public that allows Balogh to disrupt frameworks, such as the organizational synthesis, which have dominated political history for decades. In the book’s most ambitious essay, Balogh argues that the “proministrative state,” which wedded professional expertise with federal administration, was not an inevitability set in motion by Progressives so much as a process contingent on historical developments from industrialization to the Cold War. As with each of his essays, Balogh’s proministrative framework injects contingency, agency, and politics into a story too long lacking in each.
The Associational State provides a welcome overhaul of political history’s most common, and least helpful, assumptions. The essays work as discrete texts and in conjunction with one another, an arrangement that makes the book valuable for a broad range of graduate and upper-division undergraduate courses. It can be a difficult read, in part because of Balogh’s susceptibility to redundancy, but patient readers will be rewarded with insights that transcend the ideological shibboleths of modern American history. It may be some time before these insights reframe the thinking of pundits and elected officials, but it is certainly not to soon for historians to begin taking the associational synthesis seriously. [End Page 443]
PATRICK MULFORD O’CONNOR Is a doctoral candidate at the University of Montana. He is currently researching a dissertation on the relationship between public policy and the tobacco industry from the Civil War to the New Deal...