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The Submerged State

How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy

The Submerged State

How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy

“Keep your government hands off my Medicare!” Such comments spotlight a central question animating Suzanne Mettler’s provocative and timely book: why are many Americans unaware of government social benefits and so hostile to them in principle, even though they receive them? The Obama administration has been roundly criticized for its inability to convey how much it has accomplished for ordinary citizens. Mettler argues that this difficulty is not merely a failure of communication; rather it is endemic to the formidable presence of the “submerged state.”

In recent decades, federal policymakers have increasingly shunned the outright disbursing of benefits to individuals and families and favored instead less visible and more indirect incentives and subsidies, from tax breaks to payments for services to private companies. These submerged policies, Mettler shows, obscure the role of government and exaggerate that of the market. As a result, citizens are unaware not only of the benefits they receive, but of the massive advantages given to powerful interests, such as insurance companies and the financial industry. Neither do they realize that the policies of the submerged state shower their largest benefits on the most affluent Americans, exacerbating inequality. Mettler analyzes three Obama reforms—student aid, tax relief, and health care—to reveal the submerged state and its consequences, demonstrating how structurally difficult it is to enact policy reforms and even to obtain public recognition for achieving them. She concludes with recommendations for reform to help make hidden policies more visible and governance more comprehensible to all Americans.

The sad truth is that many American citizens do not know how major social programs work—or even whether they benefit from them. Suzanne Mettler’s important new book will bring government policies back to the surface and encourage citizens to reclaim their voice in the political process.


176 pages | 19 line drawings, 4 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2011

Chicago Studies in American Politics

Political Science: American Government and Politics, Political Behavior and Public Opinion, Public Policy

Reviews

The Submerged State is a vitally important analysis for anyone who has bemoaned the inertia and inequities of modern US politics.”

Times Higher Education

“[I]nformative [and] engaging. . . . This is an important, well-reasoned, welcome volume. Highly recommended.”

D. R. Imig | Choice

“Mettler demonstrates convincingly that the submerged state perpetuates economic inequality as well as confusion, ignorance, and apathy. The average citizen would benefit greatly if, as far as possible, Mettler’s prescriptions for the reduction of the submerged state were to be effected.”

Ursula Hackett | Oxonian Review

“Important and provocative.”

Jeffery A. Jenkins, University of Virginia | Congress & the Presidency

“Why do Americans find government so baffling and irritating—even though many of us depend on public programs for a secure retirement, an affordable mortgage, or a college loan? In this timely and important book, political scientist Suzanne Mettler explains how the United States has come to rely on hidden, indirect policies that privilege special interests but puzzle regular citizens. American democracy can do better, and she shows how. Politicians and the public alike have much to learn from her brilliant and engaging analysis.”

Theda Skocpol, Harvard University

“Americans want government policies to be transparent, straightforward, and fair, but many social programs are confusing and opaque and shower benefits disproportionately on the well-to-do. In this timely, penetrating, and highly readable book, Suzanne Mettler illuminates the hidden government benefits and subsidies that comprise our ‘submerged state’ and demonstrates how its murky operation impairs democratic practice and weakens civic engagement.”

Eric M. Patashnik, University of Virginia

Table of Contents

Introduction: Confronting the Submerged State

1 Governance Unseen
2 The Politics of the Submerged State
3 From Nudge to Reveal
        With Matt Guardino
4 Scaling Back the Submerged State: The Victory of Student Aid
5 Sustaining and Expanding the Submerged State: Tax Policy and Health Care Reform
6 Toward Visible and Vibrant Democracy

Appendix
Text and Graphics for Additional Experimental Questions and Treatments

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