The Dynamics of American Politics: Approaches and Interpretations

By Lawrence C. Dodd; Calvin Jillson | Go to book overview

7 Macroeconomic Change and
Political Transformation in the United States

EDWARD S. GREENBERG

I argue in this chapter that economic change, broadly understood, is the basic generator of political change in American politics. To understand the historical transformation of government institutions, political processes, and public policies in the United States, one must first understand the nature of economic transformations and how they are linked to the political. While I no longer believe that Marxism provides the only tool, or perhaps even the best tool, for illuminating these complex transformations and interactions, I continue to believe that specific insights from the Marxian tradition remain extremely useful in such an effort.

In this chapter, I want to speculate about the nature of the complex linkages that connect economic and political change, but I want to do so in a way that neither depends on Marxian foundations nor abandons them entirely -- my aim is to transcend the conventional dichotomy in the social sciences in which the economic is either everything or nothing. For most Marxian scholars, the economy is determinative and explains all that needs explaining. For most mainstream scholars, the economy is taken as given, or otherwise ignored. Neither approach is very useful for understanding the state, political change, or public policy. The former gives the economic factor far too much credit, the latter not enough. The former is unacceptably deterministic; the latter is scientifically untenable. I will make the case for the primacy of macroeconomic change in explaining macropolitical change, even while I abandon much in the Marxian intellectual tradition.

More specifically, I will suggest that American post- Civil War political history can be periodized into a succession of what I call "policy regimes" that co-vary with and are substantially explained by macroeconomic change. While I believe that macroeconomic change is the most important factor in this story, I reject the idea that the economy is determinative, either in the first or the last instance ( Althusser, 1969:111; Poulantzas,

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