Martha Derthick was a leading political scientist in the area of public administration. Over her career she held positions at the University of Virginia, the Brookings Institutions, and Harvard University. She wrote or edited at least eleven books, and was especially known for her studies on Social Security, federalism, intergovernmental relations, the politics of tobacco policy, and the deregulation movement of the 1970s. She received numerous awards for her work, including the 1992 John Gaus Award from the American Political Science Association for a lifetime of exemplary scholarship in public administration.
At a time when most scholars focused exclusively on inside-the-beltway policymaking, Derthick explored the complex interactions between Washington and state and local governments. In Keeping the Compound Republic, a 2001 collection of her essays published by Brookings Institution Press, Derthick explained her lifetime interest in federalism and skepticism of centralization, stating that she had a “strong personal preference for a form of government that divides and disperses official power, ideally with the goal of making it representative and grounding its exercise in practicality as opposed to political rhetoric that is all too often the demagogic style of mass democracy.”
The following introduction to her work is adapted from Gareth Davies’s tribute to Derthick for The Forum.
On Martha Derthick
“Give me understanding, and I can live.” Martha Derthick recently encountered this verse from Psalm 119 while touring the Maine home of the landscape architect Beatrix Farrand. Farrand, she noted with approval, had lived her life according to this motto. We might say the same of Martha, whose entirely characteristic response to her encounter with Farrand was to do some digging, and write an article about her—the last essay that she ever wrote. Equally characteristic was the way that she discharged her assignment. Writing for the members of the Azalea Society of America required no adjustment at all to the muscular, no-nonsense prose style with which we are familiar from her academic writing. And neither did Martha depart from the intellectual approach that she brought to the study of American government: just the same qualities of deep research and forensic engagement are on display in this piece for The Azalean as in her initial publications under the mentorship of Edward C. Banfield over half a century ago.
After retiring from the University of Virginia in 1999, Martha would refer—slightly ruefully, but also with evident satisfaction—to having become a full-time gardener. To be sure, her big retirement project—restoring the Charlottesville garden of Warren Cloud—was a substantial undertaking that invited and received sustained attention. Yet friends and former students never detected any diminution in her intellectual engagement and acuity, continuing to rely on her as a sounding-board for their ideas, a problem-solver, a source of inspiration—as an all-purpose academic agony aunt. And Martha continued to publish. In 2002, she published Up in Smoke, a sprightly and forensic examination of the politics of tobacco regulation (now in its third edition). Then, motivated in large part by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, she and Joshua Dunn (one of those former students) began “Legal Beat,” an incisive quarterly column for Education Next that focused largely on Washington’s growing role in elementary and secondary schools, which she deplored. And the strong preferences for federalism and limited government that shone through in those essays also infused her final academic essay, written last year for a Montpelier/Brookings symposium on Madisonian government.
That forthcoming piece, “On the Mutability of Our Laws,” induces a sharp pang of regret at what we will be missing now that Martha Derthick has left us. Its point of departure is her favorite among the Federalist Papers, number 62, in which James Madison discusses the function of the Senate. It is here that Madison worries about “the mischievous effects of a mutable government,” i.e., one in which laws proliferate and are constantly revised. He had anticipated that the composition of the Senate would promote stability, but modern American government is characterized neither by stability nor (as one might imagine) gridlock, but rather by what the legal scholar Bayless Manning terms “hyperlexis”—the chronic proliferation and constant revision of law. “It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice,” she quotes Madison as saying, “if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood.” That, Derthick argues, is the case with much of modern American government.
To illustrate the broader pattern, she focuses on to two big Great Society statutes: the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and Medicaid. In each case, Congress has revised them “incessantly” since 1965, resulting in progressively more intrusive laws of gargantuan length and complexity. This, Derthick believes, illuminates a broader theme of U.S. politics since the 1960s: on the one hand, government has become ubiquitous and intrusive; on the other hand, its tangled complexity has served to make government more distant than before, harder to comprehend, and less accountable to the electorate. And if endless revision illustrates the essay’s central theme of “mutability,” so too do the extensive presidential waivers which have been granted under each law (“mutability by design”), and the No Child Left Behind Act’s palpably unattainable goals for universal proficiency. So too do tussles between the branches of the federal government that both NCLB and Obamacare have sparked: between Congress and the White House in the first case; between the White House and the Supreme Court in the second. What, she asks in conclusion, would Madison think of it all? Not surprisingly, she doubts that he would be very impressed, though she speculates that he might be even more troubled by the “faulty deliberation” that she thinks has permeated lawmaking for these two big grant-in-aid programs than by her central theme of “mutability.”
Martha Derthick was conscious of viewing big government with greater skepticism than did most of her professional colleagues. Where did this skepticism come from? To some extent, she observed, it “came naturally” to someone who “grew up in Robert Taft’s Ohio.” Taft remained her beau ideal of a statesman: a few years back, faced with an unpalatable choice in Virginia’s gubernatorial election, she took seriously the suggestion that she might escape her dilemma by writing in his name. But just as Taft was no doctrinaire conservative (he accepted the permanency of the New Deal, and supported federal aid for housing and education), neither was Martha. In her earliest publications, in the early 1960s, she displayed none of the dissatisfaction with the state of American government that punctuates much of her writing post-1970. Reviewing three books about the political role of the military in undemocratic nations in 1962, she observed that American political scientists, “confronted with the miracle of a stable society,” were wont “to take the phenomenon of governance for granted.” The source of political stability, she went on, “does not seem relevant to a society that solved the problem with relative ease a long time ago.” And she still seemed to take the fundamental efficacy and stability of American governance for granted herself in 1965, when she published the book of her Radcliffe dissertation, on the political role of the National Guard.
At Radcliffe, Martha’s formal supervisor was V.O. Key, while the inspiration for her dissertation topic came from Samuel Huntington. In the acknowledgements to her first book, she writes warmly about both, yet it is clear that her most important source of intellectual inspiration by the early 1960s, her primary mentor, was Edward C. Banfield, who had left Chicago for Harvard in 1959. Having started out a New Dealer, Banfield had by this point developed “a general skepticism of government’s ability to address major social problems,” and presumably some of that skepticism rubbed off on Martha, or perhaps reinforced her existing Taftite tendencies. Still, Martha’s years in Cambridge did not make her a very committed conservative: having voted for John F. Kennedy in 1960, she chose Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater four years later.
After the Great Society, Martha Derthick’s writing became more critical of the performance of American government. What was to become a characteristic concern for the fate of federalism and the growing scale and complexity of government was already somewhat apparent in her second book, The Influence of Federal Grants, which came out in 1970. It was far more pronounced, though, in two little books that appeared shortly after her translation from the Joint Center for Urban Studies at Harvard-M.I.T. to the Brookings Institution. The first of them, New Towns in-Town (1972), was written for the Urban Institute, and chronicled the demise of a federal program to build model new communities on surplus federal land—socially and racially mixed, beacons of hope amid the urban tumult and inner-city squalor of the riot-torn Sixties. The idea for the New Towns initiative came from President Johnson himself, White House staffers and the relevant federal agencies responded with alacrity to his command, and one might have anticipated the speedy realization of LBJ’s attractive vision, especially in the immediate aftermath of the worst of the Long Hot Summers (New Towns was promulgated in the fall of 1967). Three years later, however, the program was almost dead: three out of seven projects had been abandoned, the others were moribund. What had gone wrong? First, the concept had not arisen from any deliberative process; instead, it had been unveiled in a press release, and only then had federal agencies and local communities scrambled to figure out how it might work. Second, at that point all sorts of barriers to success appeared: differences among federal agencies; skepticism from powerful, home-town legislators; community opposition. More broadly, this sad episode illuminated for Derthick the hubris of the Great Society—the way that it had raised expectations, made vast promises in response to social problems that in truth were both intellectually intractable, and hard to impose in the federal context of American democracy. Washington “cannot ‘create community’” was her bleak conclusion; it “cannot prescribe the grounds on which people will come to sense that they have enough in common to live together as neighbors.”
The second of these two books, Uncontrollable Spending for Social Services Grants (1975), was a very different one, inasmuch as it chronicled not how a high-profile federal initiative had fizzled but rather how an inconspicuous one had mushroomed, way beyond anything that its authors and federal overseers had anticipated. In its subject-matter—the federal administration of public assistance—it has more in common with The Influence of Federal Grants. Derthick’s starting point is the 1962 passage by Congress of amendments to the Social Security Act that offered federal matching grants for rehabilitative social services. The legislative language was loose, and the matching grant formula unusually generous, but that did not initially matter much: states did not initially grasp the latitude that it offered to them, and the federal officials who administered the New Deal welfare state monitored the activities of their state counterparts with a critical eye, insisting on fealty to their programmatic preferences. As the Great Society decade proceeded, however, all that changed, as “the country was tutored to turn to Washington” to a far greater degree than before. As part of that process, subnational governments became much more knowledgeable about the federal resources that were available to them, and more savvy about maximizing federal largesse. Also, the “deeply held doctrines of public administration” that had contained discretionary federal grants until now yielded to a more permissive regime.
The culmination of these trends came during Richard Nixon’s first term, when spending on social service grants quadrupled to $1.7 billion: more, Derthick remarks, than NASA was spending on manned space flights or the Army Corps of Engineers on construction. It was not clear, however, that this spending was helping the poor: first, HEW administrators had very little idea what states were doing with the money; second, it appeared that they were mostly substituting federal dollars for state dollars, rather than funding new initiatives. What was clear was that the grants were not achieving their ostensible purpose, namely to restore the dependent poor to self-sufficiency—welfare rolls were exploding in the early 1970s.
Although the term is not entirely satisfactory, Martha Derthick’s writing during the early and mid 1970s has a broadly “neo-conservative” thrust: the gap between the grand ambitions of the Great Society and its limited achievements led scholars such as her, Nathan Glazer, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan to become skeptical of the capacity of government to achieve beneficent social change. They were not anti-government, or anti-New Deal, on the whole—Moynihan favored a big expansion of the welfare state, via a family allowance or guaranteed annual income, and at the end of Influence of Federal Grants Derthick indicates her sympathy for the idea that the federal government should assume primary responsibility for the care of the poor. But they were dubious about social engineering—about the capacity of school reform, community action, model cities, or social service grants to improve in any fundamental way the life-chances of the poor, and about the grand expectations of federal largesse and “nirvana now” that grandiose federal promises tended to stimulate. In an article that she wrote for The Public Interest, Derthick remarked tartly that New Towns In Town had been “a case study of what happens when political leaders and planners set out to ‘demonstrate’ how much they can do in an American city.” In Washington D.C., the focus of that article, the putative Fort Lincoln project had featured superior housing, excellent schools, a monorail and the promise of racial harmony, but nothing had happened—or nothing save for the rousing of subsequently disappointed expectations, and the mobilization of two, mutually antagonistic, ultimately frustrated groups of community activists.
Besides their skepticism about grandiose governmental promises, Derthick and Moynihan shared an aversion to polarizing, inflammatory rhetoric and to the confrontational political strategies that Tom Wolfe skewered at the time in his essay “Mau-Mauing the Flak-catchers,” and which Hugh Heclo has since characterized as “Sixties Civics.” In Derthick’s case, this alienation from Great Society era intemperance was most clear in a 1971 journal article entitled, “On Commissionship.” In it, she reflected on her recent first-hand experience of post–Great Society government, as a member of Richard Nixon’s National Commission on Campus Disorders (she had been appointed at the suggestion of Moynihan, then working at the Nixon White House). Nixon had created the commission following shootings at Kent State and Jackson State universities in the spring of 1970, and the political backdrop to its deliberations was feverish and anguished. Its chairman, William Scranton, strove to establish the impartiality of the investigation, and its independence from the Nixon White House, but in the event the latter objective was rendered redundant by the predilection of some of Derthick’s colleagues for “tendentious and inflammatory questions,” and by their “recurrent displays of prejudice against law enforcement officers” and the White House. This also affected the character of the final report: although it contained some solid data and analysis, its tone reflected the need to use “passionate, extreme language,” in order to be heard amid the general cacophony.
The apogee of Martha Derthick’s decade-and-a-bit at Brookings, and arguably of her whole career, came in 1979, with the publication of Policymaking for Social Security (1979), whose seminal importance is captured so well by Edward Berkowitz. In comparison to the publications just discussed, and by token of its subject-matter–the evolution of Old Age Insurance since the New Deal–it is less concerned with the political legacy of the 1960s. Rather, its lessons about American democracy mostly have to do more with its enduring character: with the short-termism and intensely constituency-centered character of Congress, with the habitual incrementalism of policy in eras less disruptive than the Sixties, and with the high degree of autonomy that career administrators can sometimes wield, independently of the vagaries of the electoral cycle. That said, Policymaking, no less than Derthick’s writing earlier in the 1970s, has a marked critical edge, infused as it is with anxiety at the long-term unaffordability of old age insurance, and the difficulty of addressing the problem in a fiscally responsible fashion.
In 1983 Martha Derthick became Julia Allen Cooper Professor of Government at the University of Virginia, and Charlottesville would be her base for the remainder of her life. How did moving from a think tank to a university, and from inside the beltway to a perch some 120 miles outside of it, affect her research? On the face of it, the answer is “not much”: between 1983 and her retirement in 1999, Martha published no fewer than five more books, all but one of them for Brookings, her old employer. The first two of them, moreover (Politics of Deregulation, with Paul Quirk, in 1983; Agency under Stress in 1991), closely resembled earlier books in character too, resting on they did on their author’s unique ability to first master the subterranean complexity of administrative and regulatory politics and then somehow produce a genuinely enjoyable and pellucidly clear analysis of them. That said, two aspects of her later publications do strike me as being at least somewhat distinct, and perhaps each owes something to the stimulus and challenge of returning to teaching, or of viewing Washington from Charlottesville rather than from Massachusetts Avenue.
First, she appears still more impressed by the vast scale of the changes in American democracy that had taken place since her Ohio youth, in particular by the enduring legacy of the Great Society. In part, that is because they were still going on: episodes such as the Clinton healthcare proposal, the war on tobacco, and the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 emphasized anew the profundity of the transformation—the transformation of liberalism, the erosion of federalism, the judicialization of politics, the degree to which conservatives as well as liberals had embraced centralization and big government. During a recent email exchange about the Eisenhower administration’s bid to hold back what was already a strong tide of centralization, Martha remarked that “the 1950s really do take one back to a time when the U.S. was—almost—governable, before Lyndon Johnson and a profoundly altered legal profession were unleashed upon the land.” The decentralizers had tried hard, she went on, with evident sympathy, but “soon the Great Society happened and buried them. They weren’t just defeated. They were ground to a pulp.”