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  • Governance and Democracy:Public Policy in Modern America
  • Morton Keller (bio)

Each stage of our national development has had a distinctive form of public policy. And each has faced a core tension between the dictates of governance and the constraints of democracy. Economic or social interests, and advantage-seeking politicians, forge policies. Countervailing interests, or changing times, or the limits of state capacity see to it that those policies rarely if ever live up to the expectations of their progenitors. But then no one ever said that the American polity, to say nothing of its democratic ideal, is a neat or orderly thing.

Theodore Lowi's classic distributionist-regulatory-redistributionist trinity has been the most useful way of categorizing American public policy. It works best when applied to the long period of national development that stretched from the creation of the Republic to the Great Depression and the New Deal. Lowi himself observed in 1969 that a deep and permanent change in the American Constitution was under way. And a decade later he concluded that the First Republic, during which his policy trinity grew and flourished, was gone. In its place a Second Republic had risen, in which a strong national state was regarded not as a necessary evil but a positive good, raising serious issues of democratic accountability.1

In a recent book, I divide the history of American public life into three regimes, each extending over a substantial period of time, and in each of which American politics, government, and law have a distinctive character. I label these regimes the deferential-republican (running through the colonial period and the early Republic), the party-democratic (from the 1820s to the 1930s), and the populist-bureaucratic (from the 1930s to the present).2 [End Page 177]

It was in the party-democratic regime that distributionist, then regulatory, and (less so) redistributionist policies flourished. But do these categories work as well for the current populist-bureaucratic regime, Lowi's Second Republic? The new regime's politics are more populist-than party-defined: that is, more driven by ideology, advocacy groups, the media, and autonomous politicians than by the dictates of organized parties and professional politicians. And its government and legal system are driven by the values of a bureaucratic-administrative mindset rather than by the more traditional constraints that in the past made for a weak state and a formalistic constitutional law.

A new world of public policy emerged from the New Deal and the Great Society, World War II, the Cold War, Korea, and Vietnam. The bureaucracy grew from the tight little world of the Federal Triangle to the expansive world of The Beltway. An assertive, policy-minded judiciary and media, a dense network of advocacy groups, think tanks, universities, and foundations, pumping high-octane expertise into the engine of government, joined (and to a degree displaced) the major political parties as public policymakers. The result is a new American state, whose character and dimensions we are only beginning to apprehend.

The depth and diversity of modern public policy is notable. So too is the degree of discontent with the new American state. From the 1970s on, the view that it is "ungovernable" has been widespread. One source of the problem, according to political scientist James Q. Wilson, was that in the 1960s there emerged "a true national state within the confines of a constitutional system designed to ensure that no such state would be created."3

I propose to examine briefly several major categories of public policy in this new regime. Although distributionist, regulatory, and redistributionist qualities may be seen in each of them, none is adequately defined by the Lowi typology. Each of these policy areas has raised problems of democratic accountability that were present in previous periods of American history, but they have a more pronounced character in a polity whose politics are populist and governance is bureaucratic. Notable too is the phenomenon that sociologist Robert Merton called "the unanticipated consequences of purposeful social action."

Internal Improvements

Large public-works projects are among the oldest of American public policies. The Interstate and NASA's space programs are in a direct line of [End Page 178] descent from...


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pp. 177-189
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