My research is focused primarily on the political economy of policy knowledge. A central dilemma of contemporary American politics is that ideological polarization has eroded a shared cognitive basis for reasoning about how to solve public problems. To better understand this dilemma, my work builds on comparative political economy scholarship on how the US “knowledge regime”—the organizational infrastructure that generates ideational frameworks, analysis, and advice—affects the way that policymakers recognize problems, build coalitions, and develop viable policy solutions. While existing work treats variation in knowledge regimes across national contexts, I show that variation within the US context—across time, policy area, and institutional venue—has significant consequences for the character of public policy.
One question my research addresses is how institutions for knowledge production shape problem definitions, legislative coalitions, and policy alternatives. This is the focus of my current book project, tentatively titled Madison’s Engineers: How Policy Science Remade Federalism. Here, I show that focusing on knowledge production as a political process generates new insights about the historical development of public policy. Prior research has explained the “devolution revolution” in American social policy as the product of an ascendant conservative movement that emerged after the Great Society. By contrast, I trace the origins of devolution to changes in the policy knowledge regime, namely Congress’s establishment of the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations in 1959. The Commission generated new knowledge about how government programs worked, linking together a diverse array of stakeholders from multiple levels of government, and building a cadre of policy experts. Its work yielded the problem definitions, group coalitions, and policy alternatives that made the devolution revolution possible. Yet as new sites for knowledge production emerged, support for the Commission’s knowledge production activities within the Reagan administration eroded. Its capacity to generate stable, bipartisan coalitions for devolutionary reforms disappeared. The elimination of the Commission in 1996 thus created a more polarized politics of federalism, in which major legislative initiatives ignored the functional demands of state and local governments in the service of partisan goals.