Carol Nackenoff, Julie Novkov, eds. Statebuilding from the Margins: Between Reconstruction and the New Deal. American Governance: Politics, Policy, and Public Law Series. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. 320 pp. $59.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8122-4571-4.
Reviewed by Matthew C. Sherman (Institute for Political History )
Published on H-SHGAPE (July, 2016)
Commissioned by Julia Irwin
Bringing the "Margins" In: Statebuilding in the Long Progressive Era
Since the emergence of American political development (APD) as a subfield in political science in the 1980s, political scientists, sociologists, and institutionally minded historians have vigorously sought “to bring the state back in” to understand the outcomes of social and political change in the United States. What we have gained from this scholarship over the last thirty years has profoundly changed our conception of the American state as scholars discovered that statebuilding occurred in a variety of institutional, ideological, and cultural settings. Most important, this scholarship has informed our understanding of today’s polity in the United States.
Statebuilding from the Margins: Between Reconstruction and the New Deal, skillfully edited by political scientists Carol Nackenoff and Julie Novkov, advances APD scholarship by examining the margins of American politics and culture where non-state actors expanded state capacity. They selected the long Progressive Era since it “was a particularly fertile moment because of the shifting boundaries between public and private” (p. 1). Rather than view the state from a top-down structuralist perspective and statebuilding as a linear process, the authors see “a muddled mix of local, state, national, public, and private interests in policies, and a range of actors seeking leverage on policy in any ways and through any arenas where they could find it” (p. 7).
By framing the narrative in this way, the nine contributors—one historian and eight political scientists—of this volume set their sights on the structuralist school of APD scholarship most notably articulated by political scientists Stephen Skowronek in Building a New American State, Theda Skocpol in Protecting Soldiers and Mothers, and Paul Pierson in Politics in Time. Instead, the contributors to this volume were clearly influenced by the works of other APD scholars—political scientist Daniel Carpenter’s The Forging of Bureaucratic Autonomy, sociologist Elisabeth Clemens’s essay “Lineages of the Rube Goldberg State,” historian Brian Balogh’s A Government Out of Sight, and historian William Novak’s groundbreaking article, “The Myth of the ‘Weak’ American State.” These scholars consistently characterize state development as “messy,” “tangled,” nonlinear, and composed of actors who exist in and outside several institutional settings. Unlike the aforementioned APD scholars, though, the contributors to this volume capably demonstrate that actors outside the formal structures of the state are equally as important to those who occupy positions within government institutions.
Statebuilding from the Margins is organized chronologically and explores four broad historical themes: race and gender, citizenship, animal welfare rights, and regulatory authority. Novkov, in her exploration of Republican efforts to define citizenship rights for former slaves and “crush polygamy” in Utah, discovered an invigorated state apparatus that blurred the lines of public and private life, which ended up changing the nature of federalism for the twentieth century (p. 33). Marek Steedman explores how anxieties over race in the context of southern progressivism led to Prohibition a decade before the Eighteenth Amendment. Whereas Susan Pearson and Kimberly Smith argue that the messy efforts of local and state governments to regulate animals served as a precursor to the welfare state, Ann-Marie Szymanski contends that the linear process by which the federal government established regulatory authority to prevent the indiscriminate killing of birds through the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (1918) involved a broad geographical coalition and relied on burgeoning legal thought in this policy arena. Essays by Kathleen Sullivan and Patricia Strach (regulation of trash) and James Greer (Better Homes in America) capably demonstrate the power that individuals and associations deployed independently and alongside the state’s apparatus to help build state capacity.
Collectively, the real contribution of this volume is that the authors clearly show the significance of agency and bureaucratic entrepreneurship in the development of the American state. Indeed, APD scholars, such as Carpenter and Balogh, have long established the role of bureaucrats and agencies in either forming state capacity or dispensing authority to organizations or individuals who exist outside formal institutions. But the complexities of agency presented in this volume are remarkable. In some cases, the results unearthed by these scholars are unexpected and offer a new way to look at the development of state authority. Novkov illustrates how the efforts of the military and Freedmen’s Bureau agents eventually led to national prosecutorial authority and a new vision of federalism. Steedman keenly demonstrates how newspaper editors directly shaped policy outcomes, specifically prohibition in Georgia, through a variety of settings, including political parties, electoral campaigns, and public opinion. In one of the more surprising revelations, Sullivan and Strach show that political corruption actually allowed cities to overcome certain municipal problems. Often viewed by contemporaries and scholars as an obstacle to good government, Sullivan and Strach capably show that political machines should be considered “agents of change” (p. 117). Pearson and Smith and Greer demonstrate that such organizations as the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Better Homes in America played integral roles in shaping public policy. Nackenoff and Sullivan, using the example of Illinois reformer Julia Lathrop, ably illustrate that state authority can emerge from individuals and their agendas, rather than state governments assigning authority to individuals and organizations.
Women play a significant role in several of the chapters in Statebuilding from the Margins. The authors add another layer to historian Paula Baker’s seminal article, “The Domestication of Politics.” Whereas Baker found that late nineteenth-century women conceded their charitable work to the state, the authors of this volume maintain that in some circumstances women and the state worked together hand in hand even after the state absorbed the charitable work performed by women’s organizations. Whether through developing policy, maintaining institutional sites of authority, or assisting in the deployment of the state’s police power, women were at the heart of statebuilding in the Progressive Era. According to Pearson and Smith, women ran animal shelters, educated the public about animal welfare, facilitated youth meetings, and most important, worked with state and local governments to build new facilities to care for animals. Syzmanski shows that women played just as much a part as men in developing federal wildlife protection. And Nackenoff and Sullivan highlight the important contributions such women as Lathrop made to the creation of new laws and institutions to protect children.
However, for historians, the story about women’s organizations and voluntary groups is not new. A whole generation of women’s historians—Nancy Cott, Joanne Goodwin, Melanie Gustafson, Robyn Muncy, Elisabeth Perry, Rosalind Rosenberg, and Kathryn Kish Sklar—have illuminated the important part women played not only in fomenting reform but also in actively shaping social policy during the long Progressive Era. Since the editors and contributors claim that “organized women are often involved in our narratives,” historians may find themselves befuddled by the noticeable absence of this voluminous literature on Progressive Era women (p. 10). Instead, the only scholars who the editors and contributors engage with any regularity are Baker and Skocpol. Other women’s historians, such as historian Diane Beers, sporadically appear in the volume.
From a historian’s point of view, this criticism touches on a larger problem occurring within APD scholarship. If APD is to survive as a viable field of inquiry, then practitioners of APD—myself included—need to move beyond narrow source bases, perform rigorous archival research, energetically engage with literature outside of APD, attend interdisciplinary conferences, and frame the development of the American state within the larger context of the social and political history of the United States. These concerns about APD are not original. Political scientists Karen Orren and Stephen Skowronek apprehensively raised this issue in The Search for American Political Development in 2004 when they noted, “The outstanding question is just how long this subfield can sustain itself as an open-ended, freewheeling interrogation of historical dynamics and the causes of past political episodes.” Orren and Skowronek followed their observation with a brilliant playbook for future APD scholars, but twelve years later, it is evident that APD is in danger of being eclipsed as political scientists are starting to favor quantitative statistics and political historians are returning to an examination of parties and elections rather than institutions. Simply put, it is time for a reevaluation of APD’s larger place within the academy.
Concerns about the future of APD aside, historians and APD scholars will find much to admire about Statebuilding from the Margins. It is an exceptional example of an edited volume, and it is evident that Nackenoff and Novkov selected each contributor with care and foresight, resulting in a thoughtful presentation of each chapter and a polished project. They nimbly stitched each chapter together by subtly reminding the reader about previous arguments contained in other chapters. Such a practice is a welcome sight. Undoubtedly, this volume will inspire further research into statebuilding efforts during the long Progressive Era, and it will demonstrate to historians the value of APD’s research agenda. Most important, it moves the conversation beyond the traditional fields of APD inquiry. But there is more to be done if APD is to persevere, and the field’s future existence will hinge on serious collaboration between political historians and political scientists.
. Stephen Skowronek, Building a New American State: The Expansion of National Administrative Capacities, 1877-1920 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982); Theda Skocpol, Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in United States (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1992); and Paul Pierson, Politics in Time: History, Institutions, and Social Analysis (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004).
. Daniel Carpenter, The Forging of Bureaucratic Autonomy: Reputations, Networks, and Policy Innovation in Executive Agencies, 1862-1928 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001); Elisabeth Clemens, “Lineages of the Rube Goldberg State: Building and Blurring Public Programs, 1900-1940,” in Rethinking Political Institutions: The Art of the State, eds. Ian Shapiro, Stephen Skowronek, and Daniel Galvin (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 187-215; Brian Balogh, A Government Out of Sight: The Mystery of National Authority in Nineteenth-Century America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); and William Novak, “The Myth of the ‘Weak’ American State,” American Historical Review 113, no. 3 (2008): 752-772.
. Paula Baker, “The Domestication of Politics: Women and American Political Society, 1780-1920,” American Historical Review 89, no. 3 (1984): 620-647.
. Karen Orren and Stephen Skowronek, The Search for American Political Development (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 3.
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Matthew C. Sherman. Review of Nackenoff, Carol; Novkov, Julie, eds., Statebuilding from the Margins: Between Reconstruction and the New Deal.
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