Hollowing out the state

I doubt many of us picking out our 2020 American politics bingo cards anticipated a pitched battle over the continued existence of the post office. Or, that the USCIS could run out of funds, essentially halting legal immigration into the country (a more ludicrous aspect of this particular saga is that the USCIS has been unable to issue green cards and work permits because of a lack of printers!). Or that the census would try to change who it counts. For a casual observer these may appear to be troubling but disparate events that speak to the Trump government’s incompetence. To a discerning observer they may seem coordinated, but in the service of trying to win elections, or to bring about government reforms (depending on your ideological persuasion). A closer look, however, reveals that this is just one more episode in a long-running pattern in the United States of trying to weaken government capacity as a means for certain groups to hold on to power.

In places as different as the US and India, efforts are underway to weaken the administrative apparatus of the state: a phenomenon that I refer to as hollowing out the state.  It is a deliberate strategy of weakening the government’s ability to function in order to achieve ends that elites are unable to achieve through democratic channels.

The phenomenon of institutional weakening is not new to comparative politics scholars. Research like Brinks, Levitsky and Murillo’s recent volume on Latin America illuminates these dynamics in developing world contexts. But the sudden emergence of this phenomena in contexts like the US—long-standing democracies with robust governing capacity—raises interesting questions.

Research on capacity in the advanced industrial countries casts state-building as a slow moving and historically contingent process that occurred over centuries in response to war, underlying resource endowments, and through strategic choices made at pivotal moments.  A state’s ability to raise taxes plays a central role in this literature. This is because in order to be able to tax, states need to know where you live, how much you make, and be able to shake you down. The ability to extract creates a bureaucratic infrastructure that the state can deploy for other purposes. Importantly, in these places, the advent of strong bureaucratic capacity pre-dated mass electoral politics, and continues to be something we take for granted every day.

While we know a lot about where state capacity comes from and why it matters, the current moment is pushing us to ask a different question: to paraphrase Levistky and Ziblatt– how does  state capacity die?

Hollowing out the state in post-Reconstruction American South.

 In a new paper, Steven White and I illustrate one example of hollowing out the state. We study the period after the American Civil War, which ended slavery in the southern states. We look at two time periods. The first, Reconstruction (1865-1877), when the federal government provided protections for the political rights of southern black men, and when new taxes funded a range of public goods. This was followed, though, by “Redemption,” when southern white elites returned to power, reducing not just taxation but also the state’s governing capacity.  In figure 1 below, we map where the decline in taxation was most concentrated. Why did this happen?

Figure 1: Change in per capita taxation between 1870 to 1880 in the American South

We argue that the expansion of the vote to African Americans led to a profound social transformation. In counties where slavery was more extensive, there were more deeply held conventions around racial status and more extreme white racism in the pre-war era. In such counties, there was likely to be a greater resistance among whites to demands by black citizens for social equality and public services. This fear of not just redistribution but also social integration created the possibility of a coalition of rich and poor whites against taxation and state capacity.

Figure 2: Per capita taxation and levels of slavery in the American south

We find that during Reconstruction, counties were able to collect taxes more effectively in places where slavery was more concentrated (see figure 2). But during Redemption, counties collected less taxes and  they did a much worse job collecting basic census information about whites – suggesting that poor whites lied more to the government or that white bureaucrats were derelict in how they worked. White elites had managed to weaken administrative capacity.

Figure 3: Marginal effect of intra-white inequality on taxes and bureaucratic quality

Importantly, we find that inequality amongst whites (see figure 3)  was associated with higher taxes  and better state capacity in the Redemption era in places with lower levels of pre-war slavery, whereas it was associated with lower taxes and weaker bureaucratic quality in places with higher levels of slavery. These findings suggest that the relationship between economic inequality and taxation, as predicted by canonical tax-and-transfer models, was mediated by social inequality between white and black Southerners.

What lessons can our study offer for contemporary politics? First, our findings on capacity rather than just tax levels suggest we should be looking to evidence for institutional weakening in agencies that enable effective redistributive politics – including the census, the IRS, and postal service that are central to much of the government’s everyday interactions with its citizens.

For example, the present-day politicization of the census has certain resemblances to the nineteenth century. Although the specifics are different – current debates center around the addition of a citizenship question – an editorial in the Washington Post declared that “[t]he Trump administration seems to be doing everything it can to bias the 2020 count.” The goal, in this case, would be to reduce population counts in cities and other Democratic-leaning communities with large numbers of African American voters. Similarly, debilitating the IRS or the USCIS with onerous procedural burdens and budget cuts achieves the purpose of restricting redistribution or the size of the electorate without changing policy.

Second, the past and the present are connected by the coalitions that support President Trump, and those that were key to the success of state weakening during Reconstruction. This suggests that a coalition over the preservation of racial status might be an especially enduring basis to weaken state capacity in the present day just as it was in the 19thcentury.

Finally, it is worth considering whether the process of hollowing out the state is a phenomenon more likely in democracies where elites find electoral pathways to achieving policy objectives blocked. In these cases, uncertainty about the future, a weakening electoral map, and a racial coalition that makes institutional weakening possible, might set into motion active strategies to weaken state capacity, and in turn democracy itself, as was to occur in the American South in the late 19thcentury.



  • Pavithra Suryanarayan

    I am an Assistant Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). I received a PhD in political science from Columbia University in October 2016 and my dissertation won the the Mancur Olson Award for the best dissertation in political economy at the American Political Science Association in 2018. I specialize in comparative political economy with a focus on identity, redistribution, and state development in India. My work combines quantitative analysis, including spatial and survey methods, with extensive archival research. My papers have been published or are forthcoming at the American Journal of Political Science, Comparative Political Studies, Journal of Politics, Party Politics, and World Politics. I teach classes on Indian Politics and Comparative Politics. I am currently working on a book manuscript on Social Status and Redistributive Politics.

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