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

Cover Interview of

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).

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The wide angle

I believe that One Nation Undecided is a unique contribution to public affairs discourse in several respects. First, it is written in a dispassionate, non-partisan, and non-ideological spirit. This distinctive spirit is captured in the title of an earlier collection of my short opinion pieces, Reflections of a Militant Moderate: Cool Views on Hot Topics. This balanced analysis is rare in today’s vituperative, hyper-partisan, zero-sum policy wars. In truth, I do not much care where readers come out on these five issues so long as they think clearly about them. Part of what makes each of these five issues so hard is that plausible arguments can be mustered on various sides of each issue. And precisely because these issues are all hard, we should want our fellow citizens to ponder plausible arguments on various sides before reaching their own conclusions.

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A close-up

Each reader, of course, will be more interested in some of the issues than in others, and the book’s organization facilitates their ability to pick-and-choose with that in mind. For example, those interested in understanding why poverty remains a compelling issue over 50 years after the War on Poverty was launched will learn how it relates to inequality, how it is best measured, what the trends are, how it affects different demographic groups, the federal programs that purport to address it, and the pros and cons of different approaches to alleviating it.

Those interested in immigration will learn about the history of immigration, how the immigration system is administered, public attitudes and immigration politics, the economic impacts of legal and unauthorized immigrants, and about specific policy issues such as comprehensive immigration reform, high skill workers, agricultural workers, the legal admissions system, immigration from Mexico, legalization proposals, the role of the states, immigrants’ use of welfare benefits, citizenship issues, demographic issues, enforcement problems, and the social integration of immigrants.

Those interested in campaign finance will learn how it was regulated in the past and what the structure of regulation is today, what the trends in contributions and spending have been, how important money is compared with other factors affecting election outcomes, how the Supreme Court’s readings of the First Amendment (including Citizens United) have shaped the issue and constrains different approaches to it, and what behavioral changes we can expect from various types of reforms to the campaign finance system and the political parties that have created it.

Those interested in affirmative action will learn about the context of these programs, especially in higher education, and why they remain so controversial fifty years after they were instituted by the Nixon administration as part of his “southern strategy.” The chapter then explains how these programs work, the historical and moral arguments that sustain them, the evolution of public opinion toward them, the politics and demographic realities that drive them, the Supreme Court’s continuing assessment of their constitutionality, the various rationales for these programs, and the coherence (or as I argue, the incoherence) of the diversity rationale on which the Court has principally relied to support them.

Those interested in understanding the deep conflicts presented by religious groups’ demands for exemption from anti-discrimination policies in the wake of the Supreme Court’s rulings in the Hobby Lobby and gay marriage cases will learn about the context in which these issues arise: our remarkable religious diversity, our growing “rights culture,” our constitutionally-regulated efforts to separate church and state through “neutral” principles, and how we can best go about reconciling religious practices that risk offending majoritarian policies and principles such as marriage equality.

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One Nation Undecided presents complicated information about these hard issues in a readable, jargon-free, digestible form, with the information that the reader needs in the text, relegating the supporting studies and data to extensive endnotes. As one of the book’s blurbers put it, “This is scholarship as performance art: Peter Schuck challenges our polarized era’s life inside self-contained ideological silos by demonstrating what an evidence-based approach to policy, which sympathetically engages with competing positions, can teach us about many of our most hotly contested issues.”

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Peter H. Schuck One Nation Undecided: Clear Thinking about Five Hard Issues That Divide Us Princeton University Press 440 pages, 6 x 9 1/4 inches ISBN 978 0691167435

Peter Schuck is a law professor at Yale who also earned a master’s degree from Harvard in political science. He has worked in a variety of professional settings: private law practice in New York City, “public interest” law work in Washington, D.C., service as a policymaking official in the federal government, and a long career as a Yale Law School professor. He has taught and written about a wide variety of legal and domestic policy topics in more than a dozen books, numerous scholarly articles, and many op-eds and other short pieces in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other media.

Cover Interview of
July 27, 2017