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Oltre la Politica: La Crisi Politico-Istituzionale negli Stati Uniti fra Otto e Novecento.

In the present climate of cynicism about the ability of governments to do anything but harm, it is refreshing to be reminded of the innovative and meliorative activities of the Wisconsin Progressives ninety years ago. Oltre la Politica is a case study of Wisconsin's regulatory commissions between 1905 and 1915 - the philosophy behind them, developed by leading social scientists at the University of Wisconsin; the creation and operation of the commissions in the La Follette period; the hedging of their power over time; and the conservative victory over them in 1914-15.

The book displays the earmarks (some bad, many good) of a dissertation, but a fine one. The author earned a doctorate in American history at the University of Genoa, won a first-book prize with this volume, and is presently a research scholar at the University of Bologna. She joins the growing rank of highly accomplished scholars of American history and culture in Italian universities, who are doing not just the reflective think-pieces to which Europeans, distant from American sources, were long restricted, but also very intensive monographic work that can certainly compare with what is being done in this country. Much of the best European scholarship on the United States now comes from Italy and Germany, thanks especially to support from their Fulbright Commissions and the long-time (now retired) directors, Cipriana Scelba and Ulrich Littmann.

Baritono used seventeen manuscript collections at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin and the University of Wisconsin Archives; many manuscripts and publications of the commissions and other state agencies; newspapers; a massive collection of the Progressives' writings; and a thirty-page list of American and Italian secondary works. Some post-1986 American items are missing, but otherwise the research is not simply competent, it is exhaustive. With such constant and direct reliance on primary sources, Baritono shows no signs of the Marxist framework that until recently was de rigore among Italian students of politics and political history. Instead she shows the Wisconsin social-scientists and other progressives grappling with transnational problems of public administration within their own American context.

In her introduction, Baritono explains her purpose and locates her work historiographically. She began intending to analyze the role of independent commissions in the thought of such Wisconsinites as Richard T. Ely, John R. Commons, Balthazar Meyer, E. A. Ross, Charles McCarthy, and Charles Van Hise. But before long, the commissions became the more important story: how they were meant to pacify social conflict, rationalize economic life, reconcile state and society, and cope with "the movement toward an industrial, urban, and mass society." She is concerned not with economic regulation but with political-institutional history, particularly the commissions as instruments of expanded state regulation, the motivations for creating them, and thus the principles behind them. They were not only to regulate and manage problems confronting state government, but also were to operate "out of politics" and indeed obviate or delegitimize political parties.

Surveying the historiography, she dissociates herself from the view of Gabriel Kolko and others that the commissions were tools of the interests they were supposed to regulate. Nor does she wholly agree that the commissions were merely part of an "organizational" drive. Praising Steven Skowronek and Richard L. McCormick,(1) she nonetheless believes there is more to learn about "the crisis of political parties and the birth of administrative structures," especially at the state level. The book in fact only glances at parties through reformers' eyes, and devotes itself to the administrative structures.

Five chapters follow. The first, "Political-institutional Context at the End of the 1800s" sets up reasonably well the question of how to establish mechanisms both independent yet within legal traditions going back to the Federalist; how to remain responsible to the people, rather than become irresponsibly statist. The "Wisconsin Idea," with commissions, was the answer. Baritono then examines Progressive thought about public administration. Explicitly following Robert Wiebe's ideas of a rising middle class and "search for order" (p. 52), she describes the shift from mugwumpery to progressivism and the adoption of the precepts of the German historical school of political economy. Her footnotes at this point refer to F. C. Howe, Charles E. Merriam, and Charles A. Beard, and such scholars as Morton White, Sidney Fine, Jackson Wilson, Jean Quandt, and Dorothy Ross.(2)

To American readers much of this will be familiar. But she proceeds to an unfamiliar and interesting comparison between reformers in the United States and Europe. In France, Germany, and Italy, the "liberal state" plunged into a crisis of confidence, a bankruptcy of knowledge, an intellectual despair.(3) In the United States, by contrast, optimism, faith in progress, and the belief in positive activity continued. Works by Woodrow Wilson and Frank Goodnow urged reform of the public administrative apparatus to get rid of patronage and the spoils system.(4) The answer: "the creation of independent commissions as the solution, administratively, of social conflict and the political-institutional crisis" (p. 81).

Baritono also describes in some depth the Wisconsinites' social philosophy, which, like the founding document of the American Economic Association in 1885, championed an active state as "one of the indispensable conditions of human progress" (p. 97). (Had they foreseen Reagan and Thatcher just a hundred years later, would they too have despaired like their European contemporaries?) But the Wisconsinites "fit the positive function of the state into the decentralized and fluid context of U.S. society," so that the state did not become "an abstract entity apart from civil society" (p. 97), as the German economists saw it, but one institution among many, although the crucial mediating institution among social groups. The independent regulatory commission, standing outside of politics, would express this neutrality. The commissions would be composed of nonpartisan experts, appointed by the governor; Charles McCarthy, in The Wisconsin Idea (1912), wrote that "to elect a railroad commission would be as ridiculous as electing a professor of comparative philology at the University" (p. 125). Of the critics of the commissions, she cites Stanley Caine's Myth of a Progressive Reform (1970) but not Albro Martin's harsher Enterprise Denied (1971).

In assessing the operations of the commissions from 1905 to 1911, Baritono finds that their independence was not a weakness but a strength. Regarding the creation of the Civil Service Commission in 1905, she believes La Follette played a more vigorous role than David Thelen portrayed in Robert M. La Follette and the Insurgent Spirit (1976). Close ties continued between the academics and Governor Francis McGovern when the Industrial Commission was created in 1911.

The fragility of the commissions' autonomy from the political system first appeared in 1905, when the Senate rejected La Follette's nomination of Nils P. Haugen to the Railroad Commission. More serious omens surfaced in 1912, when the Democratic platform called for "drastic reductions" in budget and personnel. The commissions' powers continued to ebb. The state Supreme Court upheld their constitutionality but not all the authority they claimed. In the Republican convention of 1914, conservatives prevailed over the Progressives and won a clear victory in the general election. In the 1915 legislature, conservatives hedged the commissions, but failed to abolish or redesign them; the remaining Progressives united sufficiently to defend them and the University, which was also under attack. Baritono writes, "The 1915 experience thus showed" that the social scientists' idea of "constructing an administrative apparatus 'out of politics'" was "wholly illusory" (p. 258).

In her "Conclusions," Baritono cites a number of political scientists and public administration theorists, placing the book firmly within their forms of discourse. Despite their problems and imperfections, the commissions formed a distinctive American contribution to public administration. "As I have underscored many times," she writes, "the commissions were not empowered as instruments to carry out a precise political plan, but on the contrary as organisms that would find their own legitimacy and would identify objectives only after long investigation, in which the interchange of social interests would be an essential factor" (p. 278). Operating within common law tradition and court decisions, they would bring about harmonious social and political interaction in accord, as Ely recognized, "with the history of conditions in our country" (p. 279). Yet if the solution was American, the problem of reconciling expertise and democracy was shared by the European industrial countries. "American exceptionalism," she concludes, "is not an exception" (p. 281). The smooth reconciliation of expertise with mass democracy in industrial societies was not solved by the Europeans, nor by the Wisconsin social scientists (nor by this book). Still, Baritono has written a fine case study of a brave, pioneering attempt.

1. Steven Skowronek, Building a New American State (1982); Richard L. McCormick, The Party Period and Public Policy (1986).

2. Frederick C. Howe, The Confessions of a Reformer (1925); Charles E. Merriam, "The Case for Home Rule," in The Annals (1915); Charles A. Beard, American City Government: A Survey of Newer Tendencies (1912); Morton White, Social Thought in America: The Revolt against Formalism (1956); Sidney Fine, Laissez Faire and the General Welfare State (1956); R. Jackson Wilson, In Quest of Community: Social Philosophy in the United States, 1860-1920 (1968); Jean B. Quandt, From the Small Town to the Great Community (1970); Dorothy Ross, "The Development of the Social Sciences," in A. Oleson and J. Voss, The Organization of Knowledge in Modern America (1979).

3. Luisa Mangoni, Una Crisi Fine Secolo: La Cultura Italiana e la Francia fra Otto e Novecento (1985); Francois Bedarida, "Societa e Politica: Conflitti e Compromesso," and Wolfgang J. Mommsen, "Societa e Politica nell'eta Liberale," in Paolo Pombeni, ed., La Trasformazione Politica nell'Europa Liberale (1986); H. Philip Hughes, Consciousness and Society: The Reorientation of European Thought, 1890-1930 (1979).

4. Woodrow Wilson The Study of Administration (1887); Frank Goodnow, Politics and Administration: A Study of Government (1900).

Walter Nugent, Department of History, University of Notre Dame, is the author of Crossings: The Great Transatlantic Migrations, 1870-1914 (1992), and is researching migration to the American West since 1890.
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Author:Nugent, Walter
Publication:Reviews in American History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1995
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