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1In the United States of America, the country that invented federalism over two centuries ago, the nature and evolution of the state are major political and academic issues. [1] In this special issue of the Revue française de science politique, published a quarter of a century after the seminal work edited by Marie-France Toinet, L’État en Amérique (1989), [2] and at a time when the political and ideological struggle between Democrats and Republicans regarding the role of government intervention in American society is reaching its apex during Obama’s presidency, the question of what the American state is and should become is more pressing than ever before. The articles included in this thematic issue explore this two-fold question. They emphasise the relative invisibility of public power in American society (which is inseparable from the often indirect nature of public action), before examining the phenomenon of state fragmentation linked to federalism and the separation of powers.

The Obama presidency and the state

2According to certain observers of American domestic policy, the election of Barack Obama as president in the midst of the fall 2008 financial crisis was a major historical turning point, which consolidated the role of the state in society after more than three decades of conservative dominance on both the ideological and political levels. Since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the idea of reducing the size of the state within domestic policy has become a leitmotif. This became especially true after the humiliating defeat of the universal healthcare programme proposed by Democratic President Bill Clinton in 1994, and the resounding victory of the Newt Gingrich-led Republicans during the midterm elections the same year. In this context, during the rest of his tenure in the White House, President Clinton signed an overtly conservative social assistance reform bill before collaborating directly with Gingrich to eliminate the federal deficit. [3]

3During the Republican presidency of George W. Bush (2001-2009), the federal deficit grew once again, primarily due to the tax cuts passed in 2001 and 2003 combined with an increase in military and national security spending as a result of the September 11th attacks, the invasion of Afghanistan (2001), and the invasion of Iraq (2003). Paradoxically, the Bush years also set the stage for an expansion of the welfare state, via the 2003 Medicare reform bill, which led to the creation of a prescription drug benefit plan for the elderly. [4] Justified by the notion of “compassionate conservatism” evoked by Bush during his 2000 presidential campaign, this expansion of the welfare state, a general increase in federal spending, and the permanent return of budgetary deficits despite the political dominance of Republicans in Washington fostered the idea that big government conservatism had now replaced traditional small government conservatism. [5]

4Even before the election of Barack Obama, the fact that Democrats took control of Congress in 2006 and that September 2008’s financial crisis prompted demands for greater public intervention seemed to announce the dawning of more active and progressive federal government. Immediately after taking office in 2009, President Obama launched significant economic recovery measures while calling on Congress, which still enjoyed a solid Democratic majority in both Houses, to reform the American healthcare system, which had become both too costly and unable to cover the population as a whole. Although, after many setbacks and a lengthy legislative process, the reform was ultimately signed into effect by the president in the spring of 2010, debate surrounding the healthcare reform prompted a strong reaction against government intervention in the form of the Tea Party, a conservative movement that first and foremost called for austerity. Applying pressure on elected representatives and candidates from the Republican Party, while simultaneously being manipulated by some of them, the Tea Party pushed several Republicans even further to the right. Following the mid-term elections in November 2010, many Republicans claiming to be affiliated with the Tea Party entered Congress or were re-elected, which heightened the ideological polarisation between Democrats and Republicans concerning the role of the state in domestic policy. [6]

5From the beginning of 2011, this polarisation has been characterised by conservative attacks against the president and Democratic initiatives in terms of the economy, the environment and social policy, including the still controversial implementation of the 2010 Obamacare reform, which is designed to be rolled out over almost a decade. The partial government shutdown from 1 October to 16 October 2013 was the latest and most spectacular episode in a series of conflicts between the White House and Republicans in the House of Representatives, spurred on by Tea Party sympathisers. As early as the spring of 2011 it became difficult to establish a national budget, and the following summer the debt crisis was only narrowly averted. In January 2013, the United States likewise narrowly managed to avoid a budgetary crisis referred to as the “fiscal cliff”. [7]

6However, the intensity of this national budget debate should not conceal the fact that opposition to healthcare reform is also particularly vehement in states that are currently controlled by Republicans, such as Texas. In fact, in the context of the American federal system, the debate on the future of the federal government is echoed by similar debates within the different states themselves, which are often faced with important budgetary challenges and pressure from the Tea Party and its Republican allies. No discussion of the American federal state can thus avoid analysing the situation in the different states, as well as the institutional and political evolution of federalism in the country as a whole.

The American perception of the state: the weight of institutions

7Focusing exclusively on domestic policy, this thematic issue is equally concerned with the central state and the role of public power in the United States, as with its institutional form, federalism, and the situation in the various states, in particular the most populous state, California. More specifically, this issue emphasises the relative invisibility and the often indirect role of public power, its fragmentary nature and the structuring aspect of political institutions in the US. In order to do so, we shall focus our attention on the state as an institutional form which assumes a particular (federal) face in the United States, but also on its concrete expression through the creation and implementation of public policies, both on the federal and state level.

8The constitutional division of public power between the states and the federal government means that we can only analyse the “state” if we continuously differentiate between these two levels of government – without even mentioning local government, which is outside the scope of this issue. The literature distinguishes between dual federalism and co-operative federalism. [8] In the first case, each level of government has the ultimate power in its sphere of constitutional action. Conflict between governments is thus endemic to this vertical separation of power, as American political life until the Civil War – and perhaps even until the New Deal in the 1930s – clearly illustrates. Nonetheless, the states and the federal government very early on developed a number of financial and regulatory relations that demonstrated their need for permanent co-operation. As early as 1808, Congress voted on a bill to provide 200,000 dollars to support federal state militias. This first example of federal grant-in-aid furnished to the states led to a long series of funding packages throughout the nineteenth century; the real change, however, occurred during the major social reforms of the twentieth century – the Progressives of the 1900s, the New Deal in the 1930s, and Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” in the 1960s. This explosion of federal funding explains why no state would still be capable of balancing its budget without the help of the federal government. In 1927, federal aid only represented 2% of states’ income; in 2012, federal aid accounted for no less than a quarter of state income (generally between 25% and 30%). [9] Historically, this trend occurred with the support of governors and locally elected officials, since the federal manna made unpopular measures such as increases in state taxes unnecessary. At the end of the 1970s, the political scientist Theodore Lowi was thus able to speak of a “United State”. [10] It is undoubtedly true that the federal government is now capable of orienting the public policy decisions of individual states in a large number of domains, by playing with different kinds of funding allocations: block grants, matching grants, categorical grants, etc. Nevertheless, in order to be deemed constitutional by the Supreme Court, these federal aid packages must always, at least formally, grant states freedom of choice, since they are “co-sovereign” within the union. As Stephen Skowronek notes in his pivotal work on America’s state-building, this is “qualitatively different” from the traditional European norm of the unitary state, [11] due to the division of sovereignty resulting from the federal model adopted in 1788 when the American Constitution was ratified. [12]

9Before proceeding to a short presentation of what each of the four articles contained in this issue contribute to this debate, let us contextualise them within the field of American political science research on the state, which has seen remarkable growth since the 1980s. Responding to post-war authors like David Easton, who overlooked the notion of the state and instead emphasised the concept of “systems”, in the cybernetic sense of the word, or countering Samuel Huntington, who saw the United States as a “Tudor state”, incapable of regulating its rapidly modernising society, [13] in the 1980s, many American political scientists tried to rethink the state in their country by underscoring its very existence, before exploring its specific traits and their impact on public action. The return of the concept of the state to American political science is inseparable from the publication of works such as Building a New American State by Stephen Skowronek and the collective volume Bringing the State Back In, two veritable manifestos which have inspired a whole generation of American political scientists. [14] The growing number of studies on the state since the 1980s has coincided with the vehement political debate surrounding the future of the state that has raged since the Reagan years. The aforementioned studies constitute the academic and theoretical counterpoint to this debate.

10The debate surrounding the American state and the institutional shape it should take has never been more relevant. [15] Although it is evident that a European-style state could never exist in America, it is likewise obvious that despite federalism, the often indirect role of public power, and institutional fragmentation, there is still a “State” within the United States. [16] In the 1980s, political scientists called for the concept of the state to be re-examined. Consequently, as Skowronek brilliantly explained in Building an American State, the nineteenth century witnessed the building of a state of “courts and parties”. [17] According to Skowronek, the weakness of the federal government’s administrative capacities was mitigated by the country’s judicial activism – which guaranteed the integration and systematisation of legal standards – and by its political parties – which played a decisive role in involving citizens in national public life. These functions, which have traditionally been fulfilled by the state in Europe, have in America been accomplished by other social actors, rather than public powers. [18]

11Skowronek’s study is considered to be one of the jumping-off points for two major schools of thought in American political science. The first is historical institutionalism, represented by scholars such as Theda Skocpol, Ann Orloff, Edwin Amenta, Paul Pierson and Jacob Hacker. [19] This comparative and historical approach to institutions and public policy has likewise been adopted in Europe since the 1990s. [20] Historical institutionalism stems from the need to study politics historically, in order to show the contingency of choices made, and to reconstruct the actions and perceptions of actors at a given time and place. All institutions are primarily the result of the accumulation of previous choices. [21] The conceptual link between the past and the present is illustrated by the notion of path dependence. For advocates of this concept, past decisions directly condition current choices. And very often, their present-day consequences are far from what was originally intended or expected. Consequently, when American senators modernised the internal House rules in 1806 and eliminated the “previous question motion”, which was perfectly useless in the context of an institution that had fewer than thirty members, they in fact unknowingly laid the groundwork for the procedural basis for the filibuster, which now constitutes a controversial source of legislative blockage in the Senate. [22]

12As Paul Pierson has explained in his work, path dependence is founded on the concept of “increasing returns”, borrowed from economics. Once a decision is made, any subsequent attempt to change one’s mind comes at a “cost” (political, social, financial or other), and this cost increases steadily over time. This cumulative logic explains how said “cost” quickly becomes unbearable, such that no one goes back on their original decision, even if the conditions that prompted this decision no longer exist. [23] Fundamental consequences stem from an original decision that is most often minor and largely circumstance-driven. Since institutions are thus incredibly difficult to change in any radical fashion, they structure and limit the attempts made to alter them. From this point of view, inertia is the most crucial political dynamic. Politics is thus seen to be inherently biased towards the status quo, which can be observed at the level of political institutions as well as public policies. As Sidney Milkis and Marc Landy explain, “as a rule, those who benefit from an existing policy will fight harder to keep the policy in place than those who might benefit from a change will fight to alter it. […] Politically speaking, fear of loss is a more powerful motivator than hope of gain”. [24] Under these conditions, the methodological challenge becomes connecting contemporary political events – via the institutions and the ideas that those institutions embody – with the past, while simultaneously emphasising the importance of timing (the historical moment) and the sequence in which these events unfold. Thus, the American state was built according to a historical sequence that was the inverse of what prevailed in western Europe. Far from being the result of the slow democratisation of an absolutist state, as was the case first in Great Britain and then in France, [25] the American state was built upon a civil society that rapidly become democratic. [26] These complex, “historicist” relationships between ideas, institutions and political powers are at the centre of historical institutionalism: “the structure and dynamics of contemporary politics and government can best be made intelligible by an examination of their origins and the transformations they have undergone”. [27] History allows us to identify the sequences which can in turn shed light on contemporary political dynamics. If history does not repeat itself, it sure seems to rhyme: it encourages a permanent comparative approach and allows us to build models to understand the complex processes of change and their sequencing. [28] It also allows us to understand why, at a given moment, a long-lasting stable equilibrium can be destroyed. Nevertheless, as American political scientists Kathleen Thelen and Jacob Hacker have observed, [29] apparently minor institutional changes can gradually lead to major transformations that cannot be seen as a form of path dependence. [30] From this alternative institutionalist perspective, change is constant and inertia is much less dominant than we might have thought. The debate at the core of historical institutionalism remains, but these two approaches converge around their shared emphasis on long-term historical and institutional processes.

13The second major school of thought in American political science, American Political Development (APD) designates the direct application of the historical and institutional method to the “American reality”, while remaining open to comparative perspectives. [31] Much like historical institutionalism with which it is sometimes associated, APD offers a vision of political analysis that counters the lack of attention paid to historical processes at the heart of contemporary American political science, including within those branches based on the widely prevalent “rational choice theory”. APD has its origins in the major classics of American political science, especially those focused on electoral “realignments” by V. O. Key, Walter D. Burnham and E. E. Schattschneider [32] who, each in their own way, reacted against the domination of behaviourialism in the social sciences of the time. Subsequently, the work of Seymour Martin Lipset, Theodore Lowi, J. David Greenstone and Martin Shefter was crucial, in particular because of its historical approach. [33] Ever since it appeared in the 1980s, and in turn prompted the founding of the journal Studies in American Political Development in 1986, APD has given rise to numerous historical and political studies, including Theda Skocpol’s work on the welfare state; Ira Katznelson and Amy Bridge’s work on urban segregation; Daniel P. Carpenter’s work on public administration; Richard Bensel’s work on the Reconstruction; Rogers Smith’s work on national political traditions; Richard Valelly’s work on the emancipation of slaves; and Margaret Weir’s work on political parties. APD also gave birth to a number of “manifestos” such as the one published by Karen Orren and Stephen Skowronek (2004) which explores the basis of this general approach to American politics. [34] For these authors too, knowledge of the past allows them to comprehend the present, but also to realise to what extent the modern debate is limited by inherited visions of the past and of previous conflicts: these are all crucial elements for understanding the essence of political life, including its most contemporary aspects. “Political development” is rooted in both the past and the present. But what exactly do we mean when we speak of “political development”? It goes without saying that we are no longer talking about the “developmentalism” of the 1950s and 1960s. Political development should be understood in opposition to the Euro-centric perspective represented in the overwhelming majority of social science analyses since Max Weber and which views, implicitly or not, the United States as an “exception” to the European norm, at times even as a “failure”, “lacking in development”. [35] Such conclusions are particularly frequent with regard to the nature of the state, but also when discussing class and ideology. Time and time again, the American experience is depicted as lacking, as revealed in Werner Sombart’s famous question: “Why is there no socialism in the United States?” [36] APD stands in opposition to this view of the American institutional and political configuration as incomplete or lacking. This configuration is not stunted, incomplete or stagnant: on the contrary, it is in constant flux, moving towards a different kind of balance. As Orren and Skowronek have explained, the development of political institutions tends to make their role and the deployment of their capabilities explicit. For Orren and Skowronek, the general orientation of the American political system makes it a “fully legislative polity” where “all institutions – Congress, courts, the president, and the bureaucracy – act simultaneously as positive lawmakers in their own right”. [37] Amidst the difficult context caused by the separation of powers, each institution moreover tries to compensate for its shortcomings in order to reposition itself as the principal source of the expression of the law. The state, in its multiple dimensions, functions in the same way. It is thus possible to speak of a very high level of institutional fragmentation in the United States, a level that is even higher than in other federations like Canada – which has a much more coherent parliamentary system than the American presidential regime and is based around British-style party discipline. [38] In short, the new perspective offered by APD is the result of cross-fertilisation between political history, political science that is critical of behaviourism’s dominance, and a more or less explicitly comparative approach that seeks to emphasise the specific traits of the American political and institutional configuration by removing it from the purview of European academic norms, especially with regard to the concept of the state.

14Since the 1990s, in the wake of APD’s emergence and beyond, historians have likewise begun to examine the development of the state in the United States. As a consequence, the role of public authorities in the nineteenth century was “rediscovered” thanks to William Novak’s pioneering work, [39] as Brian Balogh’s book has more recently illustrated. [40] “Police power”, [41] which allowed federated states to regulate the behaviour of individuals in different domains – including hygiene, economics and social mores – was a driving force behind significant public activism, especially in regions of the country where it was least expected: for example, in the southern states, where the implementation of racial segregation was a striking example of public interventionism. The central state, officially devoid of all significant police power until the beginning of the twentieth century, nevertheless spearheaded ambitious national policies, notably through public works, pensions for Civil War veterans, [42] and co-ordinating actions to regulate the industrial revolution that had taken place during the last three decades of the nineteenth century (antitrust laws, harmonisation of regulations). But the presence of the federal government remained relatively discreet until the New Deal in the 1930s. This is a situation that historians [43] explain by referring to the conditions under which the federal government was born: created to wariness and rejection in the late eighteenth century, the central state was purposefully conceived of by its founders as a largely invisible player, in the hopes of tempering public mistrust regarding any tendencies towards centralisation and monarchy. As such, the explicit rejection of a professional army and the state’s consistent reliance on indirect tax grabs are two of the most obvious examples of the prudent and limited functioning of the federal government. Balogh also uses a number of case studies to illustrate the relative invisibility of the federal government during the nineteenth century, including the establishment of garrisons on the Western frontier, far from populated areas, and of tax authorities near ports, far from major cities.

15With the New Deal and the establishment of a social federal state, this initial model did not entirely disappear however. Federal interventionism in terms of social protection was on the contrary shaped by this historical legacy, to the extent that an essential part of public activism in this domain still remains relatively invisible. Christopher Howard [44] has thus shown that the American welfare state is particularly “hidden”, since it is based not only on direct payments and social services, but also on income tax credits and other less visible mechanisms. [45] We may thus describe the indirect actions of a “submerged” and fragmented state that is often “invisible” to its own citizens. [46]

16Nowadays, the American state continues to follow a path that is the result of the particular circumstances of its birth. It was institutionalised as an omnipresent but fragmented actor that is generally invisible thanks to its largely indirect actions, at least in the realm of domestic policy – the two main exceptions to this being Medicare and Social Security. This reality has been exacerbated by the institutional shape taken by the United States. Federalism partially obscures the regulatory and financial actions of the central state, which are often there only to frame the many, and more visible, actions of individual states and local communities. As Alexis de Tocqueville once wrote, “[nations] all bear some marks of their origin. The circumstances that accompanied their birth and contributed to their development affect the whole term of their being”. [47] In the same fashion, the initial particularities of the American state are still present today.

17In light of these analyses, it becomes difficult to deny the state’s activism at all levels of the federal structure. It is only because of the United States’ unique configuration that this is not immediately apparent. Although direct interventionism was undeniable from the very beginning of the republic, its modalities presented several unique traits: the federal government was slowly established while its action was deliberately and invariably concealed behind the mask of local public actors, and even at times non-state actors. [48] The particularities of public action in the United States – the specificities of its state instruments – have had repercussions on the overall definition of public power. [49] Institutional fragmentation, the often indirect nature of public action, the overlap between the federal and state level, as well as the hybridisation between the public and private sectors are now depicted as the traits that make the United States an alternative model to European state development. The American state, far from lacking resources, was quite simply endowed with different means than European states. From this point of view, its relative invisibility during a large part of the United States’ history could merely be a sign of its omnipresence. By examining the state from the outside – by focusing on the forms that interactions take between the state and civil society – historical analyses can solve “the mystery of public power” diagnosed by Alexis de Tocqueville. [50]

18Although historians have abundantly documented the many facets of the American state since its creation, the issue of its institutional shape has largely remained outside the scope of their analyses. From a political science perspective, it is necessary to thoroughly address this question, however, and for two separate reasons. On the one hand, the specific dynamics of federalism deserve our attention because the latter is not a static institutional framework but rather a controversial and constantly shifting political reality. [51] As then future president Woodrow Wilson wrote in his Constitutional Government in the United States, “the question of the relation of the states to the federal government is the cardinal question of our constitutional system. […] It cannot, indeed, be settled by the opinion of any one generation, because it is a question of growth, and every successive stage of our political and economic development gives it a new aspect, makes it a new question.” [52] On the other hand, America’s “hidden” state can only be understood if we take into account the tension inherent to the double division of power: not only the vertical division between states and the federal government, but also the horizontal division between the various national institutions, whose fragmentation is both evident and omnipresent. Consequently, the federal government is itself divided across institutions which, since they are protected by the separation of powers, are constantly pitted against each other. For example, the recent budget crisis in the fall of 2013 illustrates the total independence of a Congress that the president, for all of his procedural and regulatory powers, cannot control. [53] As one of the greatest American constitutionalists, Edward Corwin, once wrote in The President: Office and Powers (1940), the Constitution is “an invitation to struggle”. Like federalism, the separation of powers is a constantly changing process whose boundaries cannot be neatly defined. The American state thus operates within a flexible institutional framework that renders any analysis of it a relatively complex matter.

Contributions to this issue

19The objective of this issue is precisely to refocus the analysis of the American state around its institutional dimension, by emphasising the relative invisibility and fragmentation of the state, which is inseparable from federalism and, more generally, the nature of American political institutions. Adam Sheingate opens the discussion by examining an American particularity that Alexis de Tocqueville was one of the first to observe: why do Americans often seem incapable of perceiving the state around them? Basing his study on the criterion of public employment, Sheingate suggests that public action in the United States functions as a smokescreen. Historically, federal action was concealed in order to satisfy the Founding Fathers’ desire to avoid the public’s negative reaction to a central state that resembled the British monarchy too closely. The government was thus established using indirect means of action, leaving the states to use more explicit means, in particular with regard to education and the police. The cumulative effect of this historical development has today resulted in the relative invisibility of federal action, reinforced by the multiplicity of partnerships and delegations between the public and the private sectors. American do not “see” the state because the latter functions while disguising its actions. Sheingate concludes his analysis by underscoring the paradoxical effect of this configuration: far from mitigating wariness concerning federal action, this mode of functioning in fact feeds into American scepticism regarding the central government. The “antigovernmental” and “antifederalist” traditions are as a consequence firmly rooted in American political culture.

20This American perception is in no way static, however: on the contrary, it is constantly evolving. In his article, Timothy Conlan emphasises the existence of short-term cycles within the long-standing trend towards the centralisation of public power in the United States. He starts from the premise that centralisation is an age-old phenomenon in the United States, dating back to the end of the Civil War. But he also points out shorter cycles, which embody shifts between periods of centralisation and decentralisation. He underlines the fact that the contemporary period (since the 1980s) has been characterised by the acceleration of these cycles. According to Conlan, the factors explaining this rapid back-and-forth between centralisation and decentralisation are economic, technological, and above all, political: the growing polarisation between the two parties over the course of the last few decades has been the primary catalyst for such abrupt changes in orientation. Federalism is thus affected by more general evolutions in politics. The co-operative federalism that is largely the result of social reforms handed down from the New Deal and the Great Society are thus experiencing important transformations right now, which underscore to what extent federalism is not an inalterable theory, but on the contrary constitutes a practice whose different aspects are constantly renegotiated by political actors.

21Kimberly Morgan’s article changes the focus and examines the nature of the federal state. In particular, she emphasises the fact that the legislative branch (Congress) should be included in the definition of the federal government. Unlike European democracies, the bureaucratic expertise that initiates and controls public programmes is not solely concentrated within the executive branch. Congress’s precocious institutionalisation as well as the constitutional requirement that makes it a partner to the presidency in the definition of public policies – even if this is only thanks to the control it maintains over the budget – mean that is a decisive player in the federal state and not, like European parliaments, an external judge sanctioning actions after the fact. As Julian Zelizer had already analysed with regard to Wilbur Mills and his role in setting the national budget during the 1960s, [54] Morgan here describes Congress as a “state” institution, endowed with its own bureaucracy, and not merely a political or partisan entity. In her analysis, she counters the common perception of Congress as little more than a legislative graveyard where the overwhelming majority of bills succumb to one of the various vetoes permitted by the institution. On the contrary, she underscores the fact that, starting with the Medicare and healthcare reforms in 2003 and 2010, respectively, contemporary changes in Congress – and especially improvements in partisan discipline – have allowed the institution to become an agent for reform.

22Finally, Thad Kousser’s contribution to this issue changes perspective once more, focusing on the consequences of “devolution” – the transfer or delegation of power from the federal government down to the state level – in California, especially with regard to social policy. In particular, he emphasises the fiscal repercussions of such transfers of power, which accentuate the institutional fragmentation of public power in the context of American federalism. Contrary to the federal government, where income tax is progressive (wealthier individuals pay proportionally more than poorer individuals), state taxation is generally “regressive”; that is to say, it asks more from low- and mid-income households than from the wealthy. As Kousser explains, progressive income tax is uneven and limited at the state level. States primarily derive funds from property tax and sales tax. Any additional transfer of power thus translates into a potential increase in these often-regressive tax regimes. Low-income households predominantly rent (the cost of the property tax is passed onto the cost of renting) and proportionally spend the largest percentage of their income on rent. This fiscal paradox allows us to nuance one of the most commonly used conservative arguments to justify decentralisation: the idea that states pay more attention to voters’ needs while the federal government, rigid and distant, is painted as insensitive to popular will. The fiscal example demonstrates that it is the federal government that is more in tune with low- and mid-income households, while individual states have tax regimes that, though they are defended by some, present a very real problem of fairness that has become especially striking due to a huge rise in inequality in the United States over the course of the past 30 years.

23In short, this special issue on “The state in America” illustrates all the complexity and institutional fragmentation inherent to a political configuration that is certainly “indirect” and “invisible” but by no means “weak”. [55] As Toinet wrote a quarter of a century ago, there is indeed “a concept of the state” in America. [56] Nevertheless, the perception of the state held by Americans remains very different from that which exists in many European countries, and France in particular. Fragmented and divided in the United States, the state is an instrument subject to the imperatives of a Constitution that is the sole and total embodiment of American national identity. From this perspective, the manner in which Americans respect their Constitution is strikingly similar to how French citizens regard the French state. In France, the state is not merely an institutional and bureaucratic organisation: it is the embodiment of the French nation, its continuity and its fate. Under these conditions, French identity is not tied to any particular constitutional text – the proof being the ease with which many are now talking about a “Sixth Republic” – while the opposite is true in the United States. In many ways, observing American political and social life from a French perspective is like looking in a mirror: everything looks familiar and yet everything seems to be flipped. [57] Many categories are in fact symmetrically reversed, a situation which finds its roots in the revolutionary events that founded each country. As Patrice Higonnet concludes, “the French and American political traditions are perhaps two sides of a single coin”. [58]


  • [1]
    Following the Weberian tradition adopted by Theda Skocpol, we define the state simply as a “compulsory association” exerting control (alone or shared) over a given territory as well as over its inhabitants: Theda Skocpol, “Bringing the state back in. Strategies of analysis in current research”, in Peter B. Evans, Dietrich Rueschemeyer, Theda Skocpol (eds), Bringing the State Back In (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 3-37 (7).
  • [2]
    Marie-France Toinet (ed.), L’État en Amérique (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 1989).
  • [3]
    Daniel Béland, François Vergniolle de Chantal, “Politiques sociales, stratégies électorales et fédéralisme sous la présidence Clinton”, Revue française de science politique, 50(6), 2000, 883-913. See also François Vergniolle de Chantal, Le fédéralisme américain en question (Dijon: Éditions Universitaires de Dijon, 2006).
  • [4]
    Douglas Jaenicke, Alex Waddan, “President Bush and social policy. The strange case of the Medicare prescription drug benefit”, Political Science Quarterly, 121(2), 2006, 217-40.
  • [5]
    Daniel Béland, Alex Waddan, “Taking big government conservatism seriously? The Bush presidency reconsidered”, Political Quarterly, 79(1), 2008, 109-18.
  • [6]
    In terms of foreign policy, a certain consensus seems to exist on the need to pro-actively fight terrorism, including by enhancing controversial security and surveillance measures. See Justin Vaïsse, Barack Obama et sa politique étrangère (2008-2012) (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2012).
  • [7]
    On these current events, see Alix Meyer, “La ‘falaise fiscale’: plus dure sera la chute”, available on CERI’s website: <> (February 2013), and “Le budget fédéral de l’ère Obama. Politique de la chaise vide ou de la caisse vide?”, Politique américaine, 22, December 2013, 155-78. For a more general perspective on interactions between the various powers, see François Vergniolle de Chantal, “Le Congrès des États-Unis: une assemblée incontrôlable?”, Étude du CERI, 200, December 2013, <>.
  • [8]
    This evolution has been amply studied. The seminal analysis is Morton Grodzins’, The American System (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1966). For a more recent perspective, see Timothy Conlan, From New Federalism to Devolution (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 1998); Martha Derthick, Keeping the Compound Republic (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2001); Iwan W. Morgan, Philip J. Davies (eds), The Federal Nation. Perspectives on American Federalism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).
  • [9]
    Let us also note that the proportion of federal spending compared to the gross national product is higher than that of state spending, but not as disproportionately as we might expect. Federal spending accounts for 17 per cent of GDP, while state and local spending accounted for 11 per cent of GDP in 2010. These figures are drawn from the Historical Tables of the Budget. Fiscal Year 2013, available on the White House website: <> (accessed in February 2014). Section 15 presents the global totals for federal, state and local spending.
  • [10]
    The expression “United State” is drawn from Theodore Lowi, “Europeanization of America? From United States to United State”, in Theodore Lowi, Alan Stone (eds), Nationalizing Government. Public Policies in America (Beverley Hills: Sage Publications, 1978) 15-29. Hubert Kempf and Marie-France Toinet posed a similar question in “La fin du fédéralisme aux États-Unis?”, Revue française de science politique, 30(4), 1980, 735-75.
  • [11]
    Stephen Skowronek, Building a New American State. The Expansion of National Administrative Capacities, 1877-1920 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 7th edn, 1995 [1st edn 1982]), 4.
  • [12]
    Denis Lacorne, L’invention de la république. Le modèle américain (Paris: Hachette, 1991). For a historical perspective on the creation of American federalism, see also Alison L. LaCroix, The Ideological Origins of American Federalism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010).
  • [13]
    David Easton, A Systems Analysis of Political Life (New York: Wiley, 1965); Samuel P. Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968). See on this theme of the weakness of public power in the United States, J. P. Nettl, “The state as a conceptual variable”, World Politics, 20(4), 1968, 559-92. For a classic French approach to the concept of the state, see Bertrand Badie, Pierre Birnbaum, La sociologie de l’État (Paris: Grasset, 1979).
  • [14]
    S. Skowronek, Building a New American State. T. Skocpol, P. B. Evans, D. Rueschemeyer (eds), Bringing the State Back In. For an analysis of the lasting impact caused by these works, see P. Carpenter, “The multiple and material legacies of Stephen Skowronek”, Social Science History, 27, 2003, 465-74.
  • [15]
    In particular, we would like to direct the reader to the collective volume edited by Lawrence Jacobs and Desmond King, The Unsustainable American State (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). Also of interest is William J. Novak, “The myth of the ‘weak’ American State”, American Historical Review, 113, 2008, 752-72. The Forum 7(4), 2009 published a special issue, from which one of the articles in this issue is reprinted. Its table of contents can be seen here: <>. The Revue française de sociologie likewise published a thematic issue on this question in 2011. Among other contributions, see Sarah Gensburger, “Contributions historiennes au renouveau de la sociologie de l’État. Regards croisés franco-américains”, Revue française de sociologie, 52(3), 2011, 579-602; by the same author, see also “La main invisible de l’État américain”, Revue française de science politique, 60(5), 2010, 1023-30.
  • [16]
    The original expression comes from Marie-France Toinet, who wrote in her introduction to the 1989 work that she edited, L’État en Amérique (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po) that “il y a ‘de l’État’ aux États-Unis” [“There is some degree of ‘stateness’ in the United States”. All translations from French are by this article’s translator, unless an alternative English-language source is given.]. This volume includes the contributions of both French and American authors and analyses the changes in public action in the United States after almost a decade of “neo-federal” restructuring. The volume also contains a chapter by Denis Lacorne, “Aux origines du fédéralisme américain: l’impossibilité de l’État”, 38-53.
  • [17]
    S. Skowronek, Building a New American State. The first chapter is particularly relevant to our discussion here: “The new state and American political development” offers an overview of European perspectives on the lack of a concept of state in America, presenting arguments made by Tocqueville, Hegel and Marx.
  • [18]
    On this subject, see Kimberly J. S. Johnson, Governing the American State. Congress and the New Federalism, 1877-1920 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).
  • [19]
    The classic description of historical institutionalism appears in Peter A. Hall and Rosemary C. Taylor, “Political science and the three new institutionalisms”, Political Studies, 44, 1996, 936-57; a translation of this text was published in the Revue française de science politique in 1997, 47(3-4), 469-96. Among the most well-known works from this school of thought are: Theda Skocpol, Protecting Soldiers and Mothers. The Political Origins of Social Policy in the United States (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992); Ann Shola Orloff, The Politics of Pensions. A Comparative Analysis of Britain, Canada, and the United States, 1880-1940 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1993); Edwin Amenta, Bold Relief. Institutional Politics and the Origins of Modern American Social Policy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998); Jacob S. Hacker, The Divided Welfare State. The Battle over Public and Private Social Benefits in the United States (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Jacob S. Hacker, Paul Pierson, Winner-Take-All Politics. How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010). For an overview, consult the chapter on “Historical institutionalism” by Elizabeth Sanders, in Sarah A. Binder, R. A. W. Rhodes, Bert A. Rockman (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Political Institutions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 39-55. See also Paul Pierson, Theda Skocpol, “Historical institutionalism in contemporary political science”, in Ira Katznelson, Helen Milner (eds), Political Science. The State of the Discipline (New York: W. W. Norton, 2002), 693-721.
  • [20]
    Giuliano Bonoli, The Politics of Pension Reform. Institutions and Policy Change in Western Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Ellen M. Immergut, Health Politics. Interests and Institutions in Western Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
  • [21]
    Traditionally, “institutions” have been defined as “a set of rules, standards, procedures and organisations that frame political activity”. On this topic, see Ian Shapiro, Stephen Skowronek, Daniel Galvin, Rethinking Political Institutions. The Art of the State (New York: New York University Press, 2006). But, as Julian Zelizer astutely points out in Governing America. The Revival of Political History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), 65, “institutions” are to political scientists what “culture” is to sociologists (or what in France are sometimes now called “civilisationists”) – that is to say, a catch-all concept.
  • [22]
    Sarah A. Binder, Minority Rights, Majority Rule (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), in particular the third chapter, “Procedural choice in the early Congress. The case of the ‘previous question’”, 43-67.
  • [23]
    Paul Pierson, “Increasing returns, path dependence, and the study of politics”, American Political Science Review, 94(2), June 2000, 251-67. By the same author, see Politics in Time. History, Institutions, and Social Analysis (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004).
  • [24]
    S. M. Milkis, M. Landy, American Government. Balancing Democracy and Rights (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 24. Hence the long tradition of studies emphasising the stability of institutional arrangements and the incremental nature of change: for example, Aaron Wildavski, Politics of the Budgetary Process (Boston: Little Brown & Co., 1964), and Martha Derthick, Policymaking for Social Security (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 1979).
  • [25]
    Barrington Moore Jr., Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966); Charles Tilly (ed.), The Formation of National States in Western Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975). For addition, comparisons, see Peter Baldwin, “Beyond weak and strong. Rethinking the state in comparative policy history”, Journal of Policy History, 17(1), 2005, 12-33.
  • [26]
    Desmond King, Robert C. Lieberman, Gretchen Ritter, Laurence Whitehead (eds), Democratization in America. A Comparative-Historical Analysis (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009).
  • [27]
    S. M. Milkis, M. Landy, American Government, xviii.
  • [28]
    Stephen Skowronek, Karen Orren, The Search for American Political Development (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), in particular 5-9.
  • [29]
    Kathleen Thelen, How Institutions Evolve. The Political Economy of Skills in Germany, Britain, the United States, and Japan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); Jacob S. Hacker, “Privatizing risk without privatizing the welfare state. The hidden politics of social policy retrenchment in the United States”, American Political Science Review, 98(2), 2004, 243-60.
  • [30]
    On this topic, see also Bruno Palier, Giuliano Bonoli, “Phénomènes de Path Dependence et réformes des systèmes de protection sociale”, Revue française de science politique, 49(3), 1999, 399-420.
  • [31]
    Calvin C. Jillson, American Government. Political Development and Institutional Change (New York: Routledge, 2009). See also John Gerring, “APD from a methodological point of view”, Studies in American Political Development, 17, Spring 2003, 82-102; and “From APD to APH?”, CLIO, 12, 2001-2002, 37-9.
  • [32]
    V. O. Key Jr., “A theory of critical elections”, Journal of Politics, 17, 1955, 3-18; Walter Dean Burnham, Critical Elections and the Mainsprings of American Politics (New York: W. W. Norton, 1970); E. E. Schattschneider, The Semi-Sovereign People (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1960).
  • [33]
    Seymour Martin Lipset, The First New Nation. The United States in Historical and Comparative Perspective (New York: Basic Books, 1963); Theodore Lowi, The End of Liberalism. Ideology, Policy and the Crisis of Public Authority (New York: W. W. Norton, 1969); J. David Greenstone, Labor in American Politics (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1977). The studies conducted by Martin Shefter, Steven Skowronek’s mentor, in particular on bureaucracy and political parties (1977, 1978), were reprinted in a collected volume: Martin Shefter (ed.), Political Parties and the State. The American Historical Experience (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994). In collaboration with Benjamin Ginsberg, he also published Politics by Other Means (New York: W. W. Norton, 1990).
  • [34]
    K. Orren, S. Skowronek, The Search for American Political Development; Richard M. Valelly, The Two Reconstructions. The Struggle for Black Enfranchisement (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004); Daniel P. Carpenter, The Forging of Bureaucratic Autonomy. Reputations, Networks, and Policy Innovation in Executive Agencies, 1862-1928 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001); Margaret Weir, The Social Divide. Political Parties and the Future of Activist Government (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 1998); Rogers M. Smith, Civic Ideals. Conflicting Visions of Citizenship in U.S. History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997); Theda Skocpol, Boomerang. Health Care Reform and the Turn Against Government (New York: Norton, 1997), and Protecting Soldiers and Mothers; Richard Bensel, Yankee Leviathan. The Origins of Central State Authority in America, 1859-1877 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), and Sectionalism and American Political Development, 1880-1980 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1980); Amy Bridges, A City in the Republic. Antebellum New York and the Origins of Machine Politics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984); Ira Katznelson, Black Men, White Cities. Race, Politics, and Migration in the United States 1900-30 and Britain, 1948-68 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), and City Trenches. Urban Politics and the Patterning of Class in the United States (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981).
  • [35]
    J. Gerring, “APD from a methodological point of view”, 83-4.
  • [36]
    Werner Sombart’s classic work (1906) has also been translated into French: Pourquoi le socialisme n’existe-t-il pas aux États-Unis? (Paris: PUF, 1992).
  • [37]
    K. Orren, S. Skowronek, The Search for American Political Development, 181.
  • [38]
    For a historical and institutional comparison between Canada and the United States, see Antonia Maioni, Parting at the Crossroads. The Emergence of Health Insurance in the United States and Canada (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998); Bruno Théret, Protection sociale et fédéralisme. L’Europe dans le miroir de l’Amérique du Nord (Montréal/Brussels: Presses de l’Université de Montréal/Peter Lang, 2002).
  • [39]
    William Novak, The People’s Welfare. Law and Regulation in Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill: North Carolina Press, 1996).
  • [40]
    Brian Balogh, A Government Out of Sight. The Mystery of National Authority in Nineteenth-Century America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
  • [41]
    American English has retained this expression to designate the powers (or capacities) left to the states; in French, this expression is no longer used. It was, however, very commonly employed in France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The notion of police was at the time often indistinguishable from that of government. In his Traité de la police, originally published in 1705, Nicolas de La Mare observed that the purview of the police is constituted by all of the laws that allow for civil society to be maintained and that contribute to the common good. The “police” thus encompassed at the time all social organisation. Pierre Rosanvallon, to whom we refer here, has some interesting observations on this concept in L’État en France (Paris: Seuil, 1990), 203-5.
  • [42]
    T. Skocpol, Protecting Soldiers and Mothers.
  • [43]
    M. M. Edling, A Revolution in Favor of Government. Origins of the U.S. Constitution and the Making of the American State (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003); B. Balogh, A Government Out of Sight.
  • [44]
    Christopher Howard, The Welfare State Nobody Knows. Debunking Myths about U.S. Social Policy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007); Christopher Howard, The Hidden Welfare State. Tax Expenditures and Social Policy in the United States (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997).
  • [45]
    See also Jacob Hacker, The Divided Welfare State. The Battle Over Public and Private Social Benefits in the United States (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002). For a comparative perspective, see Daniel Béland, Brian Gran (eds), Public and Private Social Policy. Health and Pension Policies in a New Era (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).
  • [46]
    On the concept of the “submerged state”, see Suzanne Mettler, The Submerged State. How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011).
  • [47]
    Alexis de Tocqueville, De la démocratie en Amérique (Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1982 [1st edn 1835]), vol. I, 86.
  • [48]
    For example, Kimberly J. Morgan, Andrea Louise Campbell, The Delegated Welfare State. Medicare, Markets, and the Governance of Social Policy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
  • [49]
    S. Gensburger, “Contributions historiennes au renouveau de la sociologie de l’État. Regards croisés francoaméricains”.
  • [50]
    A. de Tocqueville, De la démocratie en Amérique, vol. I, chap. 5, 134: “Nothing is more striking to an European traveller in the United States than the absence of what we term the Government, or the Administration. Written laws exist in America, and one sees that they are daily executed; but although everything is in motion, the hand which gives the impulse to the social machine can nowhere be discovered” (our emphasis).
  • [51]
    B. Théret, Protection sociale et fédéralisme.
  • [52]
    Constitutional Government in the United States (New York: Columbia University Press, 1917), 173. For further analysis of this federal dynamic, see François Vergniolle de Chantal, Fédéralisme et antifédéralisme (Paris: PUF, 2005).
  • [53]
    F. Vergniolle de Chantal, “Le Congrès des États-Unis: une assemblée incontrôlable?”.
  • [54]
    Julian E. Zelizer, Taxing America. Wilbur D. Mills, Congress, and the State, 1945-1975 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998).
  • [55]
    See also Desmond King, Robert C. Lieberman, “L’État aux États-Unis. Nouvelles perspectives de politique comparée pour en finir avec le mythe de l’État ‘faible’”, Revue française de sociologie, 52(3), 2011, 481-507. In addition, see Desmond King, Robert C. Lieberman, “Ironies of state-building. A comparative perspective on the American state”, World Politics, 61(3), 2009, 547-88.
  • [56]
    M.-F. Toinet (ed.), L’État en Amérique, 9-17.
  • [57]
    Richard Kuisel, Seducing the French: The Dilemma of Americanization (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993). [French translation: Le miroir américain. Cinquante ans de regard français sur l’Amérique (Paris: J.-C. Lattès, 1996)].
  • [58]
    Patrice Higonnet, Sister Republics. The Origins of French and American Republicanism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), 272.

Since the 1980s, both American political scientists and historians have been rediscovering their “state” and its specificities, especially its relative invisibility and its high degree of fragmentation. This debate has paralleled the rise of new methodologies in political science, such as historical institutionalism and American Political Development (APD). This introduction summarizes the key elements of these methodologies and presents the articles which make up this special issue.

Daniel Béland
Daniel Béland is a professor and holds the Canada Research Chair in Public Policy (Tier 1) at the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan. He specialises in comparative social policy research and has published 10 books and 90 articles in peer-reviewed journals. His recent publications include: (with Alex Waddan) The Politics of Policy Change. Welfare, Medicare, and Social Security Reform in the United States (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 2012); (with Robert Henry Cox, eds) Ideas and Politics in Social Science Research (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011); and What is Social Policy? Understanding the Welfare State (Cambridge: Polity, 2010).
François Vergniolle de Chantal
François Vergniolle de Chantal is a professor at the Université Paris Diderot (LARCA). He graduated from Sciences Po Paris, and specialises in American political institutions, in particular federalism and Congress. He is the co-editor of the journal Politique américaine. He has published numerous books and articles on federalism, American institutions, and politics in the United States. His upcoming book is titled L’impossible présidence impériale. Le contrôle législatif aux États-Unis, forthcoming from Éditions du CNRS.
Translated by
Sarah-Louise Raillard
Uploaded on on 19/02/2015
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