The Associational State: American Governance in the Twentieth Century

The Associational State: American Governance in the Twentieth Century

The Associational State: American Governance in the Twentieth Century

The Associational State: American Governance in the Twentieth Century


In the wake of the New Deal, U.S. politics has been popularly imagined as an ongoing conflict between small government conservatives and big government liberals. In practice, narratives of left versus right or government versus the people do not begin to capture the dynamic ways Americans pursue civic goals while protecting individual freedoms. Brian Balogh proposes a new view of U.S. politics that illuminates how public and private actors collaborate to achieve collective goals. This "associational synthesis" treats the relationship between state and civil society as fluid and challenges interpretations that map the trajectory of American politics solely along ideological lines. Rather, both liberals and conservatives have extended the authority of the state, but have done so most successfully when state action is mediated through nongovernmental institutions, such as universities, corporations, interest groups, and other voluntary organizations.

The Associational State provides a fresh perspective on the crucial role that the private sector, trade associations, and professional organizations have played in implementing public policies from the late nineteenth through the twenty-first century. Balogh examines key historical periods through the lens of political development, paying particular attention to the ways government, social movements, and intermediary institutions have organized support and resources to achieve public ends. Exposing the gap between the ideological rhetoric that both parties deploy today and their far less ideologically driven behavior over the past century and a half, The Associational State offers one solution to the partisan gridlock that currently grips the nation.


Americans are frustrated with government. Partisan gridlock has driven public opinion of Congress to historic lows. Budget deficits loom and the wealth gap expands. The price of homeland security requires citizens to share their homes, or at least their cell phones, with Big Brother. And a host of foreign economic competitors threaten to eclipse the American Century. Even those idealistic souls inclined to give Washington the benefit of the doubt wondered during the Obama administration if their faith had been misplaced after enduring the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act (ACA)—the most important government domestic-policy initiative since the Great Society.

Historiography does not rank high on the list of causal factors fueling this frustration. Indeed, Google’s top listings for “historiography” link to Princeton, not Politico, CUNY rather than CNN. Yet aligning the fundamental framework that informs the interpretation of political events in the mass media with a perspective forged by cutting-edge scholarship might begin to redefine the kinds of questions that citizens ask, influencing both expectations and demands.

There was a time when scholarship did align with the network news and the New York Times. For the middle third of the twentieth century a powerful perspective on the historical evolution of politics in the United States engaged leading scholars in New Haven and the journalists writing for the New York Times, academics in Cambridge and anchormen at CBS. It was called the “Progressive synthesis,” and it was forged by pioneers like Charles Beard and popularized by professors like Arthur Schlesinger Jr. at Harvard, John Morton Blum at Yale, and William Chafe at Duke. The Progressive synthesis featured the march of powerful liberal presidents who represented the people against self-interested groups that hid behind conservative ideology to maintain the status quo or roll back any hint of . . .

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