What I’ve Been Reading, Part 2

In this second installment of “What I’ve Been Reading,” I focus on a selection of works that address the question of political power in American politics, specifically as exercised at the state (sub-national) level, across multiple policy domains.

As with the last post, I should emphasize that this is not an exhaustive list of scholarship I’d recommend, but just a small selection of works that I engage with carefully in my own research. Always happy to receive recommendations for future reading at jbasseches@u.northwestern.edu.

Anzia, Sarah F. (2019). “Looking for Influence in All the Wrong Places: How Studying Subnational Policy Can Revive Research on Interest Groups.” Journal of Politics 81(1): 343-351. In this compelling, agenda-setting article, Anzia advocates a return of political science to interest group politics and related issues of political representation – a once popular focus of research, before influential works such as Downs (1957)’s An Economic Theory of Democracy shifted the field toward an obsession with voters, politicians, and elections.  But it isn’t just Anzia’s encouragement of the need to “bring interest groups back in” to political science scholarship that I appreciated about Anzia’s article (after all, political sociologists have consistently attended to interest group power). Perhaps even more exciting for me are Anzia’s suggestions for how this return to the study of interest group influence could be carried out.  Specifically, she emphasizes the analytical appeal of focusing attention at the state-level (rather than the federal level, and Congress) and she also suggests anchoring such studies around state-level public policy, paying attention to not only whether or not such policies are adopted, but their distributional effects (i.e. which groups’ interests are these policies serving?).  Naturally, this was music to my ears, as I’m sure it was, also, to the authors of the following two studies – both of which, in different ways, take up Anzia’s call. 

Hertel-Fernandez, Alexander (2019). State Capture: How Conservative Activists, Big Businesses, and Wealthy Donors Reshaped the American States–and the Nation. Oxford University Press. Hertel-Fernandez’s latest book is likely the most comprehensive empirical treatment of business groups’ political influence on state-level public policy currently in existence. The book persuasively argues that business interests, such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have “captured” state-level public policy in a unique and previously unexamined way.  The reason this book is so persuasive, in my view, is because of its methodological approach to answering the question Hertel-Fernandez (and me, and others, by the way) is interested in.  Specifically, he pays attention not just to the final stages of the legislative process (as too many studies tend to do, in my opinion), but to every stage of the process, from when bills are first introduced until, many iterations later, a few end up becoming law.  I have such admiration for this approach, and Hertel-Fernandez deserves great praise for figuring out how best this could be studied, using “model legislation,” in particular. 

Merriman, Ben (2019). Conservative Innovators: How States are Challenging Federal Power. University of Chicago Press. Finally, in another outstanding piece of work on state-level political power and how it shapes public policy, Merriman takes a different approach to a question both of the above scholars (and me) are likely interested in: how is that conservative political actors at the state level have managed to erode comparatively progressive policies instituted by the federal government, which we often think of as having primacy (e.g. preemption doctrine).  Using comparative-historical methods, and in-depth case studies, Merriman shows that conservative state actors have succeeded in doing so by using their administrative powers, as well as the judicial system, in highly “innovative” ways, often operating “under the radar,” but with impressive levels of coordination and determination.

Taken together, Hertel-Fernandez and Merriman each have explanations (taking very different methodological approaches) for a similar consequence: the emergence of a distinctly conservative, business-friendly orientation of state-level politics and policy, largely overlooked by social and political scientists.  They both have managed to follow Anzia’s advice, in different ways, suggesting the broad potential of state-level, policy-focused studies to reinvigorate studies of interest groups and of political power more generally.