By Anne M. Kornhauser
The New Deal left a host of political, institutional, and economic legacies. Among them was the restructuring of the government into an administrative state with a powerful executive leader and a large class of unelected officials. This “leviathan” state was championed by the political left, and its continued growth and dominance in American politics is seen as a product of liberal thought—to the extent that “Big Government” is now nearly synonymous with liberalism. Yet there were tensions among liberal statists even as the leviathan first arose. Born in crisis and raised by technocrats, the bureaucratic state always rested on shaky foundations, and the liberals who built and supported it disagreed about whether and how to temper the excesses of the state while retaining its basic structure and function.
Debating the American State traces the encounter between liberal thought and the rise of the administrative state and the resulting legitimacy issues that arose for democracy, the rule of law, and individual autonomy. Anne Kornhauser examines a broad and unusual cast of characters, including American social scientists and legal academics, the philosopher John Rawls, and German refugee intellectuals who had witnessed the destruction of democracy in the face of a totalitarian administrative state. In particular, she uncovers the sympathetic but concerned voices—commonly drowned out in the increasingly partisan political discourse—of critics who struggled to reconcile the positive aspects of the administrative state with the negative pressure such a contrivance brought on other liberal values such as individual autonomy, popular sovereignty, and social justice. By showing that the leviathan state was never given a principled and scrupulous justification by its proponents, Debating the American State reveals why the liberal state today remains haunted by programmatic dysfunctions and relentless political attacks.
Debating the American State
Liberal Anxieties and the New Leviathan, 1930-1970
“Richly detailed and sharply argued, this beautifully-realized intellectual history offers a fresh perspective on how key liberal thinkers, not least John Rawls, grappled with the American state the New Deal made. Anyone concerned to understand the immanent tensions characteristic of the inescapable collision between constitutional democracy and concentrated power should ponder this deep and original assessment, and should consider the compelling lessons and legacies it conveys.”
—Ira Katznelson, author of Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time
“An extremely well-researched and brilliantly analyzed study of the burgeoning growth and the missing legitimacy of the administrative state and its relationship to the ideal of the rule of law. Debating the American State is a stellar example of deep and rigorous transdisciplinarity.”
—Elizabeth Borgwardt, author of A New Deal for the World: America’s Vision for Human Rights
“Anne Kornhauser thinks with a flair of originality about important subjects and has a knack for explaining complicated political ideas in lucid, accessible language. Tracing in a highly original way how recent debates over liberalism originated during the New Deal and how they evolved since, her book is a major contribution to modern political and intellectual history and sheds light on the turbulent debates over democracy, the rule of law, and the power of the state with which we live.”
—Eric Foner, Columbia University