Peter H. Schuck


On his book One Nation Undecided: Clear Thinking about Five Hard Issues That Divide Us

Cover Interview of July 25, 2017

In a nutshell

One Nation Undecided (Princeton University Press, 2017) is a natural sequel to my last book, Why Government Fails So Often, and How It Can Do Better  (Princeton University Press, 2014).

Why Government Fails So Often analyzes the deep, structural factors that limit the coherence, performance, and effectiveness of the federal government – at all times, on all issues, regardless of which party controls the levers of power. It has three main parts: (1) the context of policymaking discusses how to measure policy performance, explains the functions, processes, missions, instruments, and institutions of policymaking, and explores the political culture in which all federal policymaking is embedded; (2) the structural sources of policy failure focuses on incentives, collective irrationality, information, inflexibility, incredibility, mismanagement, the role of markets, implementation obstacles, the inherent limits of law, the federal bureaucracy, and examples of great policy successes; and (3) reforms that would lower the government’s failure rate. I illustrate each of these analytical points with examples and social science data.

One Nation Undecided takes this analysis a step further and deeper, focusing in detail on five specific hard issues. In the introduction, I explain what makes a public issue especially “hard,” what I mean by “clear thinking,” and why I believe that the quality of public debate in America is so impoverished today. In the chapters that follow, I illustrate what I think is needed by drilling deeply into five of them, one per chapter. The five are: poverty, immigration, campaign finance, affirmative action, and religious exemption from general anti-discrimination rules after the Hobby Lobby and gay marriage decisions.

Each chapter begins with the issue’s context – the relevant history, law, institutions, politics, and public opinion. I then disaggregate the issue into its main components, beginning with key definitional and measurement questions (especially important in the case of poverty). After discussing the competing norms invoked by different groups, I identify that issue’s key factual claims and uncertainties (often suppressed or distorted by those who dominate public debates). Finally, each chapter explains the main pros and cons of the leading policy proposals in Congress and by reformers. (In the case of poverty, I also summarize the existing anti-poverty programs as well as the best evidence on their effectiveness).