What causes institutional change? This is a question that has plagued political scientists for generations. Some of the major theories are that major events, such as wars and recessions in the economy, can cause the development of American institutions. Social security was not developed out of war, but it was a mirror program to the military pensions that the country established for Civil War veterans. Another example would be that the Department of Defense (formerly the Department of War) was created once America realized that a standing army was necessary.
There is another theory that states that the American state, and its federal institutions, is basically a result of the farm/labor movement. But consider a third theory about what makes institutions in America so strong (whether they are social programs, major government departments or even private entities). Perhaps leadership is what creates our way of life. For instance, maybe slavery died for many reasons, but mainly because of Abraham Lincoln. Maybe social security would have happened, but it mainly happened because of Franklin D. Roosevelt. This is a theory about institutions that I have never really liked because those things happened for other reasons besides the famous men that ushered in such change.
What gives me pause in my skepticism, however, are two men – who were once both ‘in power’ in New York City. Rudolph Giuliani is singlehandedly most responsible for New York City’s turnaround in the 1990s. A city once deemed unmanageable, it is no longer thought of that way. There were other reasons for New York’s renaissance, but they simply do not add up to the influence that a proactive mayor like Giuliani had. An entire generation of young New Yorkers does not remember the city before Giuliani. He helps make the argument for leadership-based institutional change more plausible.
Another example of this theory is current Orioles manager Buck Showalter. The Orioles will most likely find their usual potholes and remain in the middle of the American League Eastern Division. But the organization’s start and turnaround cannot be attributed to anything other than his influence. They made no off season changes of note and their pitching is as questionable as it was last season…and yet they are playing a better brand of baseball.
Giuliani and Showalter are outliers in most academics’ understanding of institutional change. Some say it comes from various interests pulling each other. Others claim change comes from events such as economic shifts. But without Rudy and Buck, there is no real argument that the Orioles or New York City would have been re-energized the way they were recently.