The American State as Patchworked Leviathan: Rethinking the New Deal Agricultural Adjustment Agency as a Pocket of Effectiveness

Erin McDonnell, University of Notre Dame

A growing body of scholarship has argued that many states around the world are characterized by vast differences in the administrative capacity of the organizations and agencies that comprise the central administrative state. Most of this work has been concentrated on states in the so-called Global South, raising important questions about the theoretical boundary conditions of this phenomena. This article examines the case of the American New Deal agency the Agricultural Adjustment Agency, an early and ambitious effort to develop an agency with the capacity to actively intervene in American life across a wide expanse of agricultural geography and tasked with saving American agriculture from the abyss of the Great Depression. Many contemporaries assumed it was doomed to fail on the basis of administrative complexity alone, and it also faced ideological opposition from those who deemed its active interventionist stance essentially un-democratic. Yet scholars from Schumpeter to Skocpol have observed that the AAA was unusually successful. This analysis provides an organizational account for the success of the AAA that complements the conventional political power and interest-based explanations, putting this case into comparative historical dialogue with other structurally similar cases of administrative success despite great opposition. Building on sociological and organizational theories, it argues that the AAA was fostered by an existing pocket of effectiveness within the state -- the USDA -- through the same organizational mechanics associated with contemporary pockets of effectiveness elsewhere around the world: concentrating a sense of distinctiveness through unusual recruitment, intensive organizational cultural work, and active protection against environmental threats. The paper argues opposition actually fueled professional commitment to mission and helped catalyze the distinctive organizational ethos of the AAA, which provided the foundation for its impressive administrative accomplishments.

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 Presented in Session 199. Changing States and Changing Economies