Change, Constraint, and Democratic Politics - NAIJAON

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Monday, July 8, 2019

Change, Constraint, and Democratic Politics


The story of policy is in part a story about constraints. But it is also a story about
change, and that is what we now examine. Policies change for all sorts of reasons. The
problems change; the environments change; technologies improve; alliances alter;
key staV come and go; powerful interests weigh in. For those sadly in the know, all
those are familiar facts of the policy world.
But for those still inspired by democratic ideals, there is at least sometimes
another side to the story: policies can sometimes change because the people subject
to those policies want them to change. There is a mass mobilization of groups
pressing for reform—workers pressing for legislation on hours and wages, racial
or religious minorities pressing for civil rights, women pressing for gender equity.
What is more, there is powerful comparative evidence that social and cultural
developments are promoting the spread of these mass groups (Cain, Dalton, and
Scarrow 2003).
Advocacy groups are always an important force, even in routine policy making
(Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith 1993). And they are becoming more so, in networked
transnational society (Keck and Sikkink 1998; Risse, Ropp, and Sikkink 1999). But
they are often treated as ‘‘just another interested party’’—like physicians vis-a`-vis the
NHS—speaking for narrow sectoral interests alone, however much they might
pretend otherwise. Even (or perhaps especially) self-styled ‘‘public interest lobbies’’
like Common Cause are often said to lack any authority to speak with any authority
about what is ‘‘in the public interest:’’ ‘‘self-styled’’ is importantly diVerent from
‘‘duly elected,’’ as members of Congress regularly remind Common Cause lobbyists
(McFarland 1976; Berry 1977).
Social movements are advocacy coalitions writ large. They bring pressure to bear
where politically it matters, in terms of democratic theory: on elected oYcials.
Sometimes the pressure succeeds, and Voting Rights Acts are legislated. Other
times it fails, and the Equal Rights Amendment gets past Congress but is stymied
by political countermobilization in statehouses (Mansbridge 1986). Sometimes there
is no very precise set of legislative demands in view, as with the ‘‘poor people’s
movement’’ of the early 1970s (Piven and Cloward 1979), and the aim is mostly just to
alter the tone of the national debate.
There is always an element of that, in any social movement. Even social move-
ments ostensibly organized around speciWc legal texts—the proposed Great Charter
or Equal Rights Amendment—were always about much more than merely enacting
those texts into law. Still, for social movements to have any impact on policy, they
have to have some relatively speciWc policy implications. Every social movement, if it
is to make any material diVerence, has to have a determinate answer to the question,
‘‘What do we want, and when do we want it?’’
A full discussion of social movements would take us deep into the territory
covered by other Handbooks in this series. But there are some things to be said
about them, purely from a policy perspective. Consider the question of why social
movements seem eventually to run out of steam. Many of the reasons are rooted in
their political sociology: they lose touch with their grass roots; they get outmaneuv-
ered in the centres of power; and so on (Tarrow 1994). But another reason, surely, is
that they sometimes simply ‘‘run out of ideas.’’ They no longer have any clear idea
what they want, in policy terms. Winning the sympathies of legislators and their
constituents counts for naught, if movements cannot follow up with some speciWc
draft bill to drop into the legislative hopper.
That was at least part of the story behind the waning of the civil rights and feminist
movements in the USA as sources of demand for legislative or administrative change.
At some point there was a general sense, among policy makers and mass publics, that
there was simply not much more that could be done through legislation and public
administration to Wx the undeniable problems of racial and sexual injustice that
remained. The policy-making garbage can was simply empty of the crucial element of
‘‘ideas.’’
Even more narrowly focused advocacy coalitions experience the same phenomenon
of ‘‘running out of steam’’ for the lack of further ideas. Consider the case of the ‘‘safety
coalition’’ so prominent in US policy making in the 1960s (Walker 1977). It
Wrst mobilized around the issue of coal mine safety. That was a problem that
had been widely discussed both in technical professional journals and in the wider
public for some time; everyone had a pretty clear understanding of the nature of the
problems and of what might constitute possible solutions. Having successfully
enacted coal mine safety legislation, the safety coalition—like any good denizen of
the policy-making garbage can—went looking for what to do next. Auto safety
emerged. There, the issue was less ‘‘ripe,’’ in the sense that there had been less
discussion both in technical journals and in the public press. Still, auto safety
legislation was enacted. What to do next? The safety coalition then seized upon
‘‘occupational health and safety,’’ an issue about which there had been very little public
discussion and little technical scientiWc discussion. A law was passed, but it was a law
with little general backing that in eVect discredited the safety coalition and inhibited it
from playing any serious role in public policy discussions for more than a decade to
come. It revived, in a diVerent guise, only after the accident at the Three Mile Island
nuclear reactor.

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