The confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court has sparked ongoing debates over the institution’s merits and relationship to American democracy. Among liberal democracies, the United States stands apart in the strength and autonomy of its judiciary. A 2010 book by STEPHEN SKOWRONEK demonstrates that this strength originates in political developments following the Civil War and Reconstruction.
From the text:
“The demise of the Radical Republican crusade and the resurgence of the Democrats in 1874 ushered in an extended period of intense electoral competition in American politics. The major parties organized the electorate into two highly mobilized and evenly divided political armies contending for the spoils of the federal government. The creation of more centralized, stable, and functionally specific institutional connections between state and society was impeded by the tenacity of this highly mobilized, highly competitive and locally oriented party democracy. The distinctive logic of institutional modernization in this context was bounded, on one side, by the fact that America had never developed a dynasty, a nobility, a standing army, or an insulated bureaucracy, and, on the other, by the fact that it had far outpaced all other states in the development of organizations of mass democracy. At the very time that parties were developing in Europe to challenge the hegemony of more traditional state institutions, state-building efforts in America aimed at the disintegration of party hegemony as it had developed over the course of a century.
It should come as no surprise that the power of the courts grew with the power of party machines. The judiciary’s governing capacities were stretched to their limits in the late 19th century to fill the ‘void in governance’ left between party hegemony and rapid social change. As Congress tore down the Civil War institutional apparatus with one hand, it vastly expanded the jurisdiction of the federal courts with the other. The expansion of federal judicial power in the late nineteenth century was the natural response of the early American state to demands for national authority in the industrial age. By the 1890s, the Supreme Court had articulated principles of nationalism, substantive due process, and constitutional laissez-faire that extended and consolidated its traditional hold over governmental operations. But no matter how authoritative and aggressive the courts were, they could not hope to supervise the new economy or manage the kinds of conflicts to which it gave rise.”
Link to the book.
- “Beginning soon after the Civil War, 19th century common law understandings of the public obligations of associative communities in a confederated republic were replaced by a new emphasis on the constitutional rights of individual citizens in a nation-state—one insistently expanding its regulatory authority.” William J. Novak challenges Skoronek’s account, arguing that the American state was “stronger, larger, more durable, and more interventionist” than the literature suggests. Link.
- Keith E. Whittington on executive interest in strengthening the Supreme Court: “The political incentives that lead presidents to choose either to challenge or to defer to the Court’s constitutional leadership have shaped both the substance of our constitutional understandings and practices and the place of the judiciary within the constitutional order.” Link.
- “I argue that the expansion of federal judicial power in the late-19th century is best understood as the sort of familiar partisan or programmatic entrenchment that we frequently associate with legislative delegations to executive or quasi-executive agencies.” Howard Gillman argues that the strengthening of the courts was a “by-product of Republican Party efforts” to enact an agenda of economic nationalism. Link.
Political Profit from Nonprofits
PhD candidate in Economics at Sciences Po CAMILLE URVOY studies campaigns and public economics. In a 2020 paper, Urvoy examines electoral motives behind government transfers to nonprofits in France.
From the abstract:
“Do politicians give money to nonprofit organizations to improve their electoral prospects? In this paper, I study how politicians allocate governmental transfers to nonprofit organizations in France, where they cannot make campaign contributions by law, and campaign spending is limited. To identify electorally motivated transfers, I test whether government officials channel more resources to organizations in municipalities headed by a political ally. Using close elections providing quasi-random variation in mayors’ political affiliation, I show that the government grants significantly more transfers to nonprofit organizations where a well-connected political ally is electorally at risk. Politicians favor ideologically close and influential organizations. The extra amount nonprofit organizations receive dwarfs that spent on campaigning by the average mayoral candidate. Finally, I show that money granted to nonprofit organizations contribute to increasing the lead of ruling party candidates in local elections. My results document a new way politicians use money to sway voters, and provide a more complete picture of how money impacts politics.”
Link to the paper, link to Urvoy’s website.
Each week we highlight great work from a graduate student, postdoc, or early-career professor. Have you read any excellent research recently that you’d like to see shared here? Send it our way: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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- “Among roughly 4.5 million distinct voters in Washington state between 2011 and 2018, we estimate that there are 14 deceased individuals whose ballots might have been cast suspiciously long after their death, representing 0.0003% of voters.” Stanford’s Democracy & Polarization Lab on claims of fraudulent voting by mail. Link
- “The three major election vendors in the US are owned by private equity. Together they account for almost 80 percent of all election equipment used in the United States.” Susan Halpern on private ownership of voting machines. Link. And a 2018 ProPublica investigation of a major voting machine manufacturer plagued with controversy. Link.
- Melanie Long on the intersections of race and gender in informal borrowing and financial exclusion. Link.
- Jesse Chanin on educators’ struggles for collective bargaining in New Orleans between 1965 and 1974. “They connected their demand for collective bargaining to racial and economic equity in the schools.” Link.
- Daniel Fitzpatrick and Rebecca Monson examine property rights and climate migration in the Solomon Islands. Link.
- Tom Gillepsie on redevelopment in Accra, Ghana and the production of a ‘real estate frontier,’ “characterized by the incremental and contested commodification of state land to enable the growth of the real estate sector in the city.” Link.
- Sonan Memon and Irfan Qureshi look at macroeconomic instability and income inequality in 61 developed and developing economies between 1990 and 2019. Link.
- Lucy Sorensen, Youngsung Kim, and Moontae Hwang compare the effects of New York State’s 2011 property tax cap on low-wealth and high-wealth school districts. Link.
- “This article offers a comparative approach to understanding the development of Neolithic to Late Iron Age (c. 5600–50 BC) farming communities in north-eastern Iberia, based on diachronic changes in the volume and shape of underground storage silos. Foodstuff storage was an essential element in the socio-economic trajectory of prehistoric and protohistoric north-east Iberia. This study correlates variations in average and maximum silo volume with changes in agriculture and domestic unit productivity. The range of silos with average capacities below 1000 litres concurs with other archaeological evidence for small, self-sufficient households, presumably practising intensive small-scale farming. Storage pits with capacities of between 1000 and 3000 litres reflect more complex societies. Our study identifies a dynamic, diachronic trend in maximum storage capacity, showing a dramatic increase from the Neolithic (with silos containing up to 2000 litres) to the Late Iron Age, when some silos contain up to 20,000, or even 60,000 or 80,000 litres. This emphasises the importance and impact of trade or exchange on the agricultural development of north-eastern Iberia.” By Georgina Prats, Ferran Antolín, and Natàlia Alonso. Link.
Each week we highlight research from a graduate student, postdoc, or early-career professor. Send us recommendations: email@example.com.