The Politics of Policy

If the Constitution provides at best a cumbersome framework for making public policy and objectively applied human rationality offers little promise for an objective, scientific solution to the dilemma, what's left? Politics.

Will politics, of all things, do? Cynicism regarding the performance of the American political system appears at a historical peak. Declinging election turnout reveals how little confidence and respect the American people have in politics-as-usual. Go to the current events section of any bookstore and examine the dazzling array of books which tell the story of what has gone wrong with the American political system. The culprit is seen, more than any other, as money corrupting politics. In this context, the meaning of the Golden Rule is Whoever has the gold makes the rules.

Who puts the politics in public policy?

Consider the apt title of E. J. Dionne's best-selling book, published in 1990, Why Americans Hate Politics. He argues that the contemporary debate between conservatism and liberalism has produced a false choice between doctrines which fail. He claims that liberals, obsessed with cultural and not social concerns, insult and embitter the average American, ignoring their real needs. Conservatives, he writes, pander to the economic insecurities and to the unfulfilled aspirations of the majority of Americans, but contradict their rhetoric with policies which work mainly for the rich. Dionne notes that both the cultural reforms advocated by liberals and the economic programs promulgated by conservatives represent the cravings or the material interests of the same strata in American society, the upper-middle class and the wealthy. He claims that the phony ideological dispute polarizes the American public and that such polarization is necessary for both parties in their quest for power. Meanwhile, concrete solutions to real problems and grievances remain stymied.

Is this why Americans hate politics:? The political system does not recognize their problems, heed their interests, and produce workable policy solutions? As we recounted in the Introduction, Americans surely have lost faith in political leadership and core institutions. Is this at least partly due to the failure of public policy to address their needs? If politics has fails to produce viable public policy, what then?

To tackle the question, we must turn to the political dynamics whirling around public policy. We will examine particular models which capture part of the picture and should be part of our kit of tools for understanding public policy: incrementalism, policy overhaul and iron triangles. The first and last help explain the inertia which maintains the status quo. Overhaul examines the rare historical event, a break in the pattern of policy-making toward new approaches.

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The Public Policy Web
©by Wayne Hayes, Ph.D., ®ProfWork
October 19, 2002