Stephen Skowronek et al., "Phantoms of a Beleaguered Republic: The Deep State and the Unitary Executive" (Oxford UP, 2021)


Phantoms of a Beleaguered Republic: The Deep State and the Unitary Executive (Oxford UP, 2021) helps us think about the complexity of the American political system that has grown up over the past 200 years, and how this system functions (or, at times, misfunctions) given the demands and pressures on the governmental system and the American constitutional framework. Stephen Skowronek, John Dearborn, and Desmond King focus on the concept of the deep state, a term that was frequently used during the Trump Administration, with different meanings to different audiences and citizens. The deep state has also been more clearly revealed, in certain regards, by presidential inclinations towards the unitary executive. The phantoms of the title refer to the shadows of both the deep state and the unitary executive as embedded in the original constitutional arrangement crafted in Philadelphia in 1787, through the vesting clause in Article II, Congress’s capacity to expand the republic and create more and diverse aspects of government, and the way in which congressional legislation establishes both legal regulations and norms with which the executive branch and the president are expected to cooperate. A key contention by the authors is that this uneasy tension has been in the shadows of our constitutional system since the beginning, but during other periods, elected officials finessed some of these difficulties through the presidential nominating/selection process, and with attention from the parties and the roles that the parties played in managing the system itself. With the evolution of the selection system, particularly with the shift to direct primaries and caucuses, and with parties now operating as extensions of the presidency and the president, the unitary executive has become more entrenched within the system. This beleaguered republic may be moving towards the form and function of a presidential democracy, often leaning into populism, and away from the contours and structure of the original republic.

The unitary executive can operate more freely because of the system’s commitment to separation of powers, with all executive power in the hands of the president. Parallel to these developments has been the slow growth of the administrative state in the U.S., derogatorily referred to as “the deep state.” As discussed in Phantoms of a Beleaguered Republic, the state is deep in a number of directions. The reach of the national government works its way to individuals, localities, and states through a host of different means and paths. The administrative state also extends horizontally, across the dimensions of the national government itself, with layers of civil servants, policy experts, political appointees, administrative judges, staff, all doing the work they are entrusted with by elected officials and led by the president. Phantoms of a Beleaguered Republic dives into these dual dimensions of our political system—the potential for unified power in the president and presidency, and the substantive capacity of the administrative state— bringing forward the tensions between this strengthened Executive and the national state the president leads as head of the executive branch.

Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. She is co-editor of the award winning book, Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics (University Press of Kentucky, 2012), as well as co-editor of Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015). Email her comments at or tweet to @gorenlj.

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Lilly Goren

Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI.

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