The melting down of government: A multidecade perspective

Bert A. Rockman in the Special 30th Anniversary Issue of Governance: “The editors of Governance have asked me to assess the extent and nature of change in the governing process since the origins of the journal 30 years ago. This is an engaging task but a difficult one. It is difficult because trend lines rarely have a definitive beginning point—or at least if similar tendencies are seen across national boundaries, they rarely begin at the same time. It is also difficult because states and nations have different traditions and may be more or less willing to accept lessons from elsewhere. As well, national entities and even regional ones may react differently to similar problems. Old Europe, as Donald Rumsfeld the former U.S. Defense Secretary once disparagingly referred to the more democratically stable and prosperous countries of Western Europe, still seems more likely to adhere to globalization, freedom of movement across national borders, and at least some tolerance of immigration than has been the case in the Eastern and Central parts of the continent or, for that matter, in the United States.

Because it is so difficult to see uniformities across all states, I shall concentrate my attention on the case of the United States with which I am most familiar while recognizing that all developed states have been facing challenges to their industrial base and all have been facing complicated problems of labor displacement through technology and absorption of immigrant populations in the midst of diminished economic growth and modest recovery from the financial crisis of 2008. To put it simply, there have been greater challenges and fewer financial and political resources.

I see four very different tendencies at work in the process of governing and the limitations that they may impose on government. Thinking of these in terms of a series of concentric circles and moving in succession from those with the broadest radius (sociopolitical) to those with the narrowest (machinery and fiscal capabilities of government), I will characterize them accordingly as (a) the confidence in government problem; (b) the frozen political alignment problem—or as it is known in the United States, political polarization; (c) the cult of efficiency in government and also private enterprise, which has resulted in substantial outsourcing and privatization; and (d) public austerity that, among other things, has altered the balance of power between governmental authority and powerful business and nonprofit organizations. I cannot be certain that these elements interact with one another. How they do and if they do is a matter for some further endeavor….(More)”