What Theda Skocpol Said

It would be a bit of an exaggeration to say that everything I know about the politics of social policy in the United States I learned from Theda Skocpol, but only a slight one. So as far as I’m concerned everyone should mark her words about the idea of a “grand bargain” in which the Obama administration agrees to a business-friendly bank bailout and elites agrees to support a substantial expansion of the social safety net.

As she says, you don’t need to cast aspersions on the motives or ethics of business leaders to see that this kind of deal — or comparable hypothetical deals involving free trade agreements or health care reform — can’t be made to work. The problem is with the institutions. Or, rather, with the lack of the sort of institutions that could enforce and structure a deal. The place where dealmaking can happen in the United States is in congress, where all sorts of logrolling and omnibus-creation is possible. But that means forging a legislative coalition in the moment, a bill that does a little of this and a little of that, not some kind of vague agreement to do one thing first and another thing later.