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On the Autonomy of the Democratic State

On the Autonomy of the Democratic State

Eric A. Nordlinger

ISBN 9780674634091

Publication date: 10/15/1982

In this major revisionist study, Eric A. Nordlinger poses two critical questions about democratic politics. How are the public policy decisions of the democratic state in America and Europe to be explained? To what extent is the democratic state an autonomous entity, that is, a state that translates its own policy preferences into public policies?

On the Autonomy of the Democratic State challenges the central assumption of liberal and Marxist scholars, journalists, and citizens alike—that elected and appointed public officials are consistently constrained by society in the making of public policy. Nordlinger demonstrates that public officials are not only frequently autonomous insofar as they regularly act upon their own policy preferences, but also markedly autonomous in doing so even in the face of opposition from the most politically powerful groups in society: voters, well-organized and financed interest groups, national associations of farmers, workers, employers, and large corporations.

Here is a book in which wide-ranging generalizations are tightly bound up with empirical examples and data. Nordlinger systematically identifies the state's many capacities and opportunities for enhancing its autonomy. These are used by public officials to shape, alter, neutralize, deflect, and resist the policy preferences and pressures of societal groups. Even the highly fragmented national state in America is shown to be far more independent of societal demands than claimed by the conventional wisdom.


  • For the last three decades the study of liberal democratic politics has been dominated by the basic assumption that public policies are determined by the extra-governmental actors which control and exercise the weightiest political resources… Nordlinger challenges this ‘societal constraint’ focus in a book that is probing, imaginative, and elegantly crafted… Nordlinger displays exceptional qualities of scholarship: close familiarity with a very wide range of literature, theoretical and methodological sophistication, and imagination… [A] thoughtful, challenging, and provocative book… Must reading for every political scientist.

    —Canadian Journal of Political Science

Book Details

  • 256 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press