The Rediscovery of the State: Postwar Liberalism and the Promise of Critical Social Science

Book manuscript in preparation

This project is a critical disciplinary history of American political science that focuses on the intersection between discourses about the state, the politics of liberal democracy, and the production of social scientific knowledge. It examines how the political and theoretical horizon of postwar liberalism in the United States was channeled into the political science discipline, through changing understandings and usages of the state as a theoretical concept.

 

The revival of interest in the state happened after it previously fell out of favor as an explanatory concept during the heyday of behavioral and structural-functionalist explanations. Tracing the intellectual history behind this renewed interest, I argue that the “rediscovery” of the state in the late 1960s was motivated by the search for a more critical standpoint from which the relationship between the American state and the social sciences could be reframed and problematized. 

I situate this intellectual turn within the general crisis of the postwar liberal-democratic model that began in the late 1960s and lasted through the 1970s. Unlike pluralist models that stressed consensus, the newfound focus on the state provided a conceptual means for new investigations of phenomena like power inequalities, revolution, and capitalist development in a way that had previously been neglected. This rediscovery of the state was influenced by the appropriation of neo-Marxist debates about the capitalist state that were concurrently developing in Western Europe. Returning to this largely forgotten body of scholarship from the 1970s, I argue that it played a crucial role as an interlocutor for the “neo-statist” and historical institutionalist revival in sociology and political science from the 1980s to the present.

By reconstructing this transitional moment in the political science discipline from the 1960s to the 1980s, my project makes distinct contributions to the intellectual history of American liberalism and the social sciences, to democratic theory, and to current debates about the relationship between liberal democracy and political science. It speaks to contemporary audiences concerned with the pathologies of liberal capitalism (including neoliberalism and populism), by using the preceding turbulent period in U.S. history to show how American political science has grappled with the tension between liberalism and the modern state. It argues that discourses about the state are an irreducible component of democratic politics, both in theory and in practice, that need to be reexamined light of today's challenges and expectations.