Aaron Wildavsky was one of the best-known figures within the academic discipline of political science in the 1970s and 1980s, and many of his ideas continue to have broad influence. The author, co-author, or editor of more than thirty-nine books and a great many articles, he was a long-time member of the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley and, at different times, chairman of the American Political Science Association and president of the Russell Sage Foundation. He also received numerous academic prizes and awards.
Wildavsky is perhaps best known today for his theory of the “two presidencies.” This proposition holds that while U.S. presidents tend to divide their attention between domestic and foreign policy, they will have a tendency to emphasize external affairs because this area gives them greater freedom and independence.
Wildavsky also wrote extensively on issues of risk. He was among the first to note that strict, detailed government regulations intended to protect the public from known risks may have the paradoxical effect of reducing public safety by diminishing the amount of knowledge that would otherwise be obtained through the trial and error of commonly-used products and industrial methods.
Wildavsky also did important work on the subject of governmental budgeting. His Politics of the Budgetary Process was cited by the American Society of Public Administration as the third most influential work on the subject written in the last fifty years. Wildavsky was among the first to consider the implications of the idea of “zero-based budgeting,” in which past-year allocations of funds are not used as a basis for the following year’s budget. Wildavsky suggested that such a change in approach toward greater “rationalism” in budgeting might in fact lead to heightened political conflict and division.
Born on May 4, 1930 in New York City to Jewish parents who had emigrated to the United States from Ukraine, Wildavsky was raised in Brooklyn. A 1954 graduate of Brooklyn College, he had previously served as a member of the U.S. Army in Korea. After college, he went to the University of Sydney in Australia on a Fulbright Scholarship.
In 1959, he received his doctorate from Yale. After a brief period at Oberlin College, Wildavsky accepted a position at Berkeley in 1963, where he taught for most of the next three decades.
During the 1960s, Wildavsky observed the student violence on the Berkeley campus and the fanaticism displayed in opposition to the Vietnam War. This played a role in developing his antipathy toward extremism and the aims of radical egalitarianism.
Anxious to keep the University safe as a place for free and unfettered discussion, Wildavsky presented a proposal to Berkeley’s University Senate in 1970, asking that aggressive political indoctrination in classes be proscribed. Wildavsky’s proposal was defeated by a vote of 450 to 50. Later, when Wildavsky chose to return to Berkeley following his presidency of the Russell Sage Foundation in New York, he explained this decision in terms of his commitment to teaching.
As a professor, Wildavsky was known for his openness to criticism and to contrary opinions and ideas. This commitment was such that when he edited a book dealing with his theory of the “two presidencies,” he included among its first chapters an almost wholesale critique written by a fellow academic. In his own writing, Wildavsky featured a straightforward writing style with flashes of humor, irony, and sarcasm that generally avoided jargon.
In the later years of his career, Wildavsky received honorary doctorates from a number of universities, including Yale and the University of Bologna, which honored him upon the occasion of the 900th anniversary of the school’s founding.
Wildavsky died of lung cancer on September 4, 1993, in Oakland, California. Married twice, he was survived by his second wife, the former Mary Cadman, and three sons and a daughter.