Skip to content Skip to navigation

The Politics of the Administrative State (POLISCI 320C)


Most studies of democratic government are about elected leaders, campaigns and elections, legislatures, and public opinion. But these aspects of government are, in some sense, the tail that wags the dog. To understand what government actually does and with what effects, we need to understand the dog itself. The fact is, the vast bulk of government consists of the countless departments and agencies - and the unelected experts, professionals, and functionaries within them - that execute public policy, fill out its details, determine its impacts and effectiveness, and make government a (good or bad) reality for ordinary citizens. This is the dog: the "administrative state." And it is the essence of modern government. No democracy can function without it. A hundred years ago, when the American administrative state was on the rise - propelled first by Progressivism, then the New Deal - scholars argued that there should be a separation of politics and administration: elected officials would make policy in the political process, administrators would carry it out expertly and nonpolitically. But that was a pipe dream. The administrative state is thoroughly - and inevitably - bound up in democratic politics, and an integral part of it. Politicians try to control agencies for their own ends. Special interest groups try to capture them. Political appointees try to invade them. Members of Congress want money and programs for their own states and districts. And agencies are powerful actors in their own right, seeking money, autonomy, and policy impact. The US, moreover, is hardly unique. In every nation, the administrative state is a target of political pressure and influence, infused by politics, and capable of its own exertions of power. The purpose of this class is to understand the politics of the administrative state. Our focus will mainly be on the US, but we will also look at other nations for comparative perspective. In the end, students will have a far more complete understanding of democratic government than the usual focus on electoral politics can possibly provide.

Course ID: 
220 885
Letter or Credit/No Credit