Martha Derthick (Miller Center, University of Virginia)

My colleague Martha Derthick, one of the nation’s most distinguished scholars of American government and public policy, passed away Jan. 12. As her obituary in The Washington Post highlights, Martha had an illustrious career in both academia and at the Brookings Institution. Many of her books are modern classics, including the prize-winning “Policymaking for Social Security” and “The Politics of Deregulation” (with Paul J. Quirk).

Martha regarded herself more as a journalist than as a social scientist, yet she possessed a profound understanding of democratic politics. As I wrote in a symposium (with contributions from Paul Pierson, Deborah Stone, Kent Weaver and Martha herself) on the 25th anniversary of “Policymaking for Social Security,” Derthick’s work combined a policy analyst’s command of the technical details of government programs with a political scientist’s skill at investigating the value choices and material conflicts at the heart of politics. Long before “path dependence” became an important topic of study in political science, her work explored how preexisting policies constrain the options available to future officeholders. She was a conservative, a believer in the virtues of decentralized government, yet she devoted her career to investigating how the nation’s vast welfare-regulatory state functions.

Rather than recount Martha’s many scholarly accomplishments, I thought I’d share a few of her most memorable quotations:

On public opinion and Social Security:

The influence of public opinion on the program, though real, is manifested indirectly, in actions of the policymakers that anticipate public reaction and respond to what they believe the public prefers; and even then influence runs in both directions. Policymakers have presented the program so as to induce a favorable mass response. (1979)

On federalism:

[T]he dominant pattern of policymaking in our federalism of pervasively shared functions seems to me, not so much checking and balancing by design of the people, but opportunistic cost shift and benefit distribution by design of elected officeholders in the context of a general obfuscation of responsibility and the constitutionalization of everything. (1992).

On Congress:

[C]ongress is not by nature inclined to shape policy on a comprehensive scale. It does not value rationality and consistency as presidential policymakers do. It does not do grand designs.  (1990)

On the tension between America’s constitutional system and effective public administration:

[T]he most cherished structural features of American government pose obstacles to good administration. Democracy, which entails regular and frequent elections, fosters instability in policy guidance. The laws that agencies administer are subject to constant revision as officeholders change and seek to serve and satisfy a heterogeneous and ever-changing society. (1990)

On the power of ideas in American politics:

The major virtue of the current American political system, at least by comparison with the past, probably lies in the resources and rewards it offers for overcoming particularism. Responsive to mass sentiment almost since its founding, the political system seems to be more so than ever today, when mass education and communication and new technologies make it possible for such sentiment to be formed, expressed and measured with unprecedented speed. At the same time, expert analysis, oriented toward broad conceptions of the public interest, is more thoroughly institutionalized in and addressed to the national government than ever before. This creates an unprecedented potential for linking the forces of expert analysis and mass sentiment as the basis for action—and political leaders who by luck or skill mange to achieve that union have a good chance of defeating narrow, particularistic interests. (1985; with Paul J. Quirk).