Americanists and political economy

Four years ago, Paul Pierson, a comparativist who has drifted into the study of US politics, complained vigorously about the state of Americanist political science.

The compartmentalization that characterizes the American subfield has also led to a kind of methodological one-upmanship. Technical proficiency becomes the metric for evaluating quality. Statistical analysis of large data sets and the development of formal models of strategic interaction of small groups of actors are dominant. Despite the wealth of scholarly resources, research has become increasingly concentrated on that restricted subset of questions that lend themselves to the most “sophisticated” research techniques. There is no questioning the technical proficiency of much work in American politics. Yet far too much of that research reminds one of nothing more than muscled-up body-builders, whose arms are so bulky that they are almost useless for everyday tasks. …
Again, comparativists are much more likely to organize their inquiries around distinctive substantive issues rather than particular sites of political activity. For example, one of the liveliest areas of inquiry in comparative politics over the past two decades has been the study of political economy. A large group of well respected scholars has debated how the evolving structures of national economies and the coalitions of interests surrounding those economies influence, and are influenced by, political systems. By contrast, there is really nothing like a field of political economy in the American subfield. There are scattered studies that could be placed under such a rubric. Yet despite massive and growing economic and political inequalities, the interplay between the highly distinctive American economy and its peculiar political system has not generated a sustained or systematic research
program.

I know that Paul is now more enthusiastic about the Americanist field than he was four years ago. We’re beginning to see intellectual firepower being concentrated on the specific question of the political sources of economic inequality by Larry Bartels, McCarty, Poole and Rosenthal and others. Yet I think that the major criticism he makes still stands, and that the current economic crisis makes this eminently clear. If I were to want to to point, say, an intelligent journalist, to a useful synthetic literature on the way that the American economy is governed, and how these governance arrangements lead to certain patterns of regulation, private actor behavior etc, I wouldn’t know where to start. There are books and articles that I can think of which deal with smaller aspects of this question, but as Paul notes, there isn’t any very broad debate that could bring these different sub-perspectives together usefully. I wouldn’t have any problem in identifying literatures that do this for the countries of Western Europe, for the EU (which is a fantastically complicated and multilayered regulatory system), or for Asian economies (including big complex economies such as China). I’m not an Americanist – am I missing out on a literature that does this? Or is there really not much of a there there, as I suspect to be the case?

8 Responses to Americanists and political economy

  1. arbitrista October 8, 2008 at 1:35 pm #

    There is a strain of political economy in Americanism, but from what I can tell it never goes much further than studies about the effect of divided government on budget deficits and the “political business cycle.” Most of that research is a little old, too.

  2. Ann Onymous October 8, 2008 at 3:39 pm #

    Part of the problem, I think, is that there hasn’t been a whole of change in American government generally, and not much change in the way the economy is governed.

    What’s your IV going to be? Control of the government? But two very weak umbrella parties, separation of powers, and strong civil service protections mean that changes are going to be rare and generally slow.

    Presidential party? Now you have, what, seven or eight data points? Fed chairman?

    I certainly haven’t ever tried to do research here. But it seems to me that there’s not much variance to analyze, and not much to analyze it with.

  3. Black Political Analysis October 8, 2008 at 3:40 pm #

    Plenty of scholars of African American politics have looked into this – for instance Leading Issues in Black Political Economy, ed. Thomas Boston.

  4. Jason McDaniel October 8, 2008 at 4:07 pm #

    Wonderful post that brought alot of my inner thoughts to the forefront.

    I am an Americanist whose research is in urban voting. I am teaching two classes this semester: Voting and Elections, and Intro Political Economy. I couldnt have asked for a better time to teach either course.

    Anyway, to the point of this post – there is another strain of political economy within Americanism … its within the Urban Politics literature (peterson, mollenkopf).

    So, I have found my work and teaching moving more towards a political economy focus, but it took me awhile to figure out why it felt unnatural for an Americanist to do that sort of thing (I am still a relatively young scholar).

    I am including the Bartels book as well as Rich State Poor State in my courses this semester, and the substantive discussions have been wonderful.

  5. North October 8, 2008 at 4:27 pm #

    I’m applying to Ph.D. programs at the moment. My interests are in social policy, which I see as one of the homes of this kind of big substantive question. What I find as I research programs is that there are a few places where I’d have good support for doing that kind of work in American politics, but many more where it would be a kind of strange thing for an Americanist to do. So in those places I apply as a comparativist.

  6. virgil xenophon October 12, 2008 at 1:27 am #

    Years and years ago, there WERE no such things as Depts of Political Science–it was ALL labeled “Political Economy”–which is why today if one want’s to get a PhD in “Political Science” at a certain university in London, one applies to the London School of Economics.

  7. virgil xenophon October 12, 2008 at 1:29 am #

    Years and years ago, there WERE no such things as Depts of Political Science–it was ALL labeled “Political Economy”–which is why today if one want’s to get a PhD in “Political Science” at a certain university in London, one applies to the London School of Economics.

  8. Thomas October 12, 2008 at 8:57 am #

    Dear Ann O.;
    Whether there has been a whole lot of change or not depends upon your time frame. Pre-progressives, progressive, New Deal, postwar, Reagan deregulation. That’s some big change.

    The person that most comes to mind is Richard Bensel. The fact that his work has not been mentioned here reinforces Pierson’s point about how methods and models rather than substantive questions drive the American subfield.