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The Politics of Policymaking

Inequality is coming not just from the economy; it is coming from politics and policy, says Jamila Michener, assistant professor of government at Cornell University. Here she chooses five books that showcase some of the best, most thought-provoking writing on the politics and consequences of policy.

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    1

    Policy Paradox: The Art of Political Decision Making
    by Deborah Stone

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    2

    Regulating the Poor: The Public Functions of Welfare
    by Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward

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    3

    The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy
    by Suzanne Mettler

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    4

    Remaking America: Democracy and Public Policy in an Age of Inequality
    by (ed.) Jacob Hacker

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    5

    Arresting Citizenship: The Democratic Consequences Of American Crime Control
    by Amy E Lerman and Vesla M Weaver

Jamila Michener

Jamila Michener is an assistant professor in the department of government at Cornell University. Her research focuses on poverty and racial inequality in American politics. Her research has been supported by the Ford Foundation, the National Science Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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Jamila Michener

Jamila Michener is an assistant professor in the department of government at Cornell University. Her research focuses on poverty and racial inequality in American politics. Her research has been supported by the Ford Foundation, the National Science Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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The politics of policymaking is the topic of our discussion. It is an area of political science that is less sensationalised and less in the spotlight then electoral politics. Please explain the relevant importance of what happens between elections.

Although the activity between elections is not what people first imagine when they think of politics, most of the action in politics is what happens between elections. Moreover, what happens at the polls and what happens between elections is connected. That connection is under-appreciated. We hear a bit about how repealing the Affordable Care Act might affect people, but we don’t hear anything about the consequences of repeal for democratic participation.

Politics is an iterative game. What happens in one stage affects what happens in another stage. Because policy affects people and their experience of government, policy affects people’s inclination to participate—through voting, protests, marches, attempting to influence their elected officials or any number of other activities. So politics includes the activities of politicians and the activities of citizens.

“Politics is an iterative game. What happens in one stage affects what happens in another”

I study grassroots politics—how policies affect lives and how that shapes our political system. There is a recursive and reciprocal relationship between policy and politics at the grassroots level, and that reverberates out. What ends up happening with the Affordable Care Act is relevant – not just for peoples’ material and corporeal well-being. Policies shape peoples’ lives and their degree of engagement with the political system. Engagement, or lack thereof, affects what political elites can or cannot do in the next round of policymaking.

Policies shape the future of the polity through a process political scientists call policy feedback.

Turning to your books, let’s start with a choice that is a standby on political science syllabi. Tell us about Policy Paradox: The Art of Political Decision Making (1988) by Deborah Stone.

Policy Paradox is a book that I assign to all my public policy students. Deborah Stone delves into this topic with great theoretical depth. Often, when we talk about policy, we talk about particular policy issues. In-depth thought about how policies develop and what kind of analytical framework we approach them with is less common.

One of the ways we typically approach analysing policies is through an economic framework. We think about the policymaking process like a market moved by rational actors. Stone juxtaposes another framework, which considers community, commitments, emotions and values. She calls it the ‘polis’ model.

“What role should values and principles—like equity, liberty, efficiency and security—play as we’re shaping policies?”

As she outlines this alternative framework, Deborah Stone looks at important questions. What role should numbers and statistics play in politics? What role should values and principles—like equity, liberty, efficiency and security—play as we’re shaping policies? Ideas about these questions float around in our political discourse and shape what politicians say and how the American people respond.

So Policy Paradox pushes us to think about ourselves not just as rational actors but rather as a political community. It pushes us to assess and acknowledge the role that values play in our politics. This is a book that the more you dig into, the more you get out of it. It is also utterly readable, which is not always the case with academic writing. It’s a great text.

Can you crystalize what she means by the ‘policy paradox,’ please?

Stone opens the book with a series of policy questions. And points out that, with many policy questions, there are no clear answers. We, as a people and as a polity, have been debating issues like the desirable degree of government assistance for generations. Stone asks: How do we resolve these paradoxes? And her conclusion is: There is no straightforward formula. Instead of a formula, she provides us with a framework for addressing policy paradoxes—imagining ourselves as a political community and acting accordingly.

Next you’ve chosen a classic analysis of American social policy that was revised in the wake of welfare reform. Please give us a precis of Regulating the Poor: The Public Functions of Welfare (1956) by Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward.

Regulating the Poor is a classic. Piven and Cloward bring a lot of historical evidence to bear in this book, in making a straightforward argument. Their main contention is that welfare systems play a political function. These systems don’t just exist because we’re good people who want to help those in need, although that’s part of it. They also serve a social control function.

Piven and Cloward lay out a cyclical description of how the generosity of social welfare policies have waxed and waned. When there is discord on the horizon, when it looks like folks in poverty are going to be reacting to their economic insecurity in socially disorderly ways—as was the case in the 1960s—policy benefits get more generous. That helps regulate the poor, it keeps them from reacting in a way that might necessitate more fundamental political change. But when the political front is quiet, we cycle back to a less generous system in order to position people to be useful in the labor market.

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This is a descriptive account, but the broader point that Piven and Cloward assert is that social welfare policy is not only about goodwill and general principles, it is also about continual attempts by the state to control lower income populations. This is a controversial contention. But Piven and Cloward provoked political scientists to grapple with it. That is why this book is important.

What does the comparative underdevelopment of the American welfare system tell us about the contentions made by Piven and Cloward?

The primary reason for regulating the poor, as far as Piven and Cloward are concerned, is to support the market economy and maintain social order. When we need more labourers in the market, we pull back welfare benefits and we get people who are willing to take any job. While I think there is much truth to their contentions, there are other reasons for regulating poor people. One of those reasons is that, in the US, poor people are disproportionately black and Latino; they’re racial ‘others.’

“In the US, poor people are disproportionately black and Latino; they’re racial ‘others’”

Historically, this points to reasons beyond the economic for motivating the public and political elites in the US to want to ensure that they can control and take punitive measures against not just poor people in general, but against poor people of colour in particular. To the extent that the UK and other western welfare states are more generous, one of the main differentiating factors is race.

But that is only part of the story. There is a substantial literature around comparative welfare states that traces why the United States welfare state is underdeveloped.

Moving on to a book by your Cornell University colleague, Suzanne Mettler. Please tell us about The Submerged State: How Invisible Government Policies Undermine American Democracy (2011).

This book really resonates with people. When I assign it, my students often have an ‘aha’ moment.

One of the main contributions of The Submerged State is it pushes us to think about how government benefits are distributed and whether it is obvious that the benefits are coming from the government and what the implications of that are.

Suzanne Mettler says that this matters for American democracy. When government is taking action to provide help to the American people but the form of the action— whether it’s through tax credits or subsidies for benefits that flow through employers—obscures the fact that the help comes from the government, people do not realise what the government is doing for them. And if people do not realise what the government is doing for them, they won’t support government programs, they won’t defend that funding, they won’t take action to ensure the continuation of those benefits.

“If people do not realise what the government is doing for them, they won’t support government programs”

The Submerged State points us towards thinking about policy design. Policy isn’t just about getting things to people in need. How we get those things to them matters. The Affordable Care Act is a perfect example of this. Many people who are benefiting—through subsidies or tax breaks for their employers—don’t realise that they are benefiting, so they don’t support the program. What many middle class people see are direct government benefits, like Medicaid, that are for people living in poverty who are stigmatised. Many folks don’t want to support poor communities, so they turn against the Affordable Care Act without realising that they are harming themselves. By submerging some parts of the Affordable Care Act, particularly those parts that benefit middle class Americans, who are more politically powerful than the poor, and by leaving on the surface other parts, particularly those parts that help stigmatised populations, you weaken and undermine the policy.

So The Submerged State is a straightforward interpretation of policies, but it contains a critique that is profound and foundational.

Submerging government action seems to be particularly prevalent in the United States. Why is this type of policy design less common in, for instance, the European Union?

I’ve yet to think about this extensively in a comparative context. But a few things come to mind when I hear your question.

One, submerged policies have increased since the late 1970s. This is reflective of a neoliberal approach to government in the United States, which institutes market approaches in the government realm. Submerged policies, whether tax breaks or subsidies, often work through the market. So it appears that the market is providing the benefit, rather than the government. We might see more submerged policies in the US then in other places because neoliberalism has gotten more traction here.

“It appears that the market is providing the benefit, rather than the government”

Additionally, the US has an inclination toward limiting the role of the state. Submerged policies comport with that, policies that blatantly give government a central and strong role in the lives of the people are historically less favoured.

Submerged policies fit American political culture and that, in combination with the neoliberal turn in the United States, has made for a unique environment for submerging state action. We see some aspects of this in other places, but not to the same degree.

Is part of the explanation for this tendency towards submerging state action in the United States also about political polarisation and political realism, what can actually get through Congress? So maybe the Obama administration thought that a single-payer health care system was beyond reach on their policy horizon, so they went with a submerged solution because it was the only way to progress towards the goal of universal health care.

Absolutely. I’m glad that you brought this up. During the New Deal era, certainly, and all the way through the Johnson Administration of the 1960s, many of the social welfare policies that were developed explicitly provided benefits directly to the American people. But, by the time we hit the 1970s, there is a conservative turn. Both the American public and political elites are losing their taste for providing people with direct benefits. At the same time, we see widening political polarisation. So the kind of policies we get going forward are things like the ‘earned income tax credit’—efforts to help low-income people through the tax code. You do appear to see a relationship between increased polarisation and policies designed in a way that is submerged.

“When I ask students in my classes to come up with policy proposals, they rarely propose direct benefits for the indigent”

When I ask students in my classes to come up with policy proposals, they rarely propose direct benefits for the indigent because they see such proposals as politically infeasible. Instead they’ll say, ‘Let’s expand the earned income tax credit.’ Their proposals work through the market. Their instinct, that policies that are submerged are more politically feasible, is just right.

The complex interaction between economics, politics and public policy is the topic of your next choice. Please tell us about Remaking America: Democracy and Public Policy in an Age of Inequality (2007).

Remaking America is an edited volume, a compilation of all the best minds on the politics of policy. It covers a broad scope. The general idea of the book is to grapple with the role that politics and policy are playing in amplifying the increasing problem of inequality. The book approaches this topic through a number of different institutional lenses.

There are chapters that address tax policy, health care, welfare and more. There are also chapters that address broader questions: To reduce inequality, is it best to create policies that are universal or policies targeted towards the poor? There is a chapter on the concept of public policy feedback—the notion that policy affects people’s inclination to participate politically and, therefore, iteratively affect the content of future policies. So it’s really wide-ranging, which is one of the things that makes it a gem.

“Inequality is coming not just from the economy; it is coming from politics and policy”

You can learn a little about a lot of things by reading it. But you can also get a deeper perspective on the policies that affect inequality. Inequality is coming not just from the economy; it is coming from politics and policy. This book really helps us to understand how our politics and policy produce or exacerbate inequality. And it helps us start to think about solutions.

Please expand on the role of policy feedback in perpetuating inequality.

Policy moulds the lens through which people consider the political world. We tend to think of policy as an output—we have a political process and at the end of that process you get a policy as the end product. Policy feedback scholars, of which I am one, say policies aren’t just end products, they affect people and they shape the way people think about politics and government. Most people go into the voting booth for a couple of moments every few years. That experience does not affect them as much as the more frequent occasions on which people—especially those on the economic margins of society—engage with government as part of their daily lives.

“When we design polices, we can’t just consider its most direct and concrete consequences”

I’m writing a book about the policy feedback effects of Medicaid. We know that Medicaid affects peoples’ health and wellbeing. What I examine, as a policy feedback scholar, is how Medicaid affects its beneficiaries as citizens. Whether you can get health care, for yourself and for your family, and how you interact with government. Interaction with government forges people as political citizens. Whether they see government as efficacious and believe they can change government, shapes the policy environment and the trajectory of future policy.

When we design polices, we can’t just consider its most direct and concrete consequences. We also have to consider what proposed policies will mean for our politics and for our democracy.

Your next book focuses on how citizens are shaped by coming into frequent contact with the punitive face of the state. Please tell us about Arresting Citizenship by Amy Lerman and Vesla Weaver.

Lerman and Weaver consider the policy feedback effects of the carceral state. Starting in the 1970s, there has been a consistent uptick in the number of people held in correctional facilities in the United States—we have five per cent of the world’s population, but 25 per cent of the world’s incarcerated population. Social scientists have considered why this is happening, now they are increasingly turning to the consequences of mass incarceration.

The literature around collateral consequences is vast. We know there are social and economic consequences. Lerman and Weaver examine the political consequences. They found that, when we arrest individuals, we are also arresting citizenship.

“The US has five per cent of the world’s population, but 25 per cent of the world’s incarcerated population”

Individuals’ encounters with the carceral state—whether it’s when they get pulled over by the police, whether they are in jail for a short period of time or whether they are in prison for a longer period time and how they are limited by their history of incarceration even after their release—all along this path people are learning about the government and their identity as citizens is being forged by the harshest face of government.

The people who are experiencing that are disproportionately African-American and Latino, and overwhelmingly low-income. We are imprisoning much of the poorest and most marginal segment of our population. That has tremendous implications for our democracy. Eventually most of these folks are released, but they remain hindered as citizens both because of formal impediments, like felon disenfranchisement, and because they have learned that, in the eyes of the state, they are not full citizens.

“We are imprisoning much of the poorest and most marginal segment of our population”

What this means is that the millions of people who are incarcerated in American correctional facilities are not only being temporarily separated from the population by imprisonment but more permanently segmented from the polity. Lerman and Weaver force us to grapple with difficult questions about who is excluded from our democracy and why.

How do they make their case?

They provide empirical evidence, tracing the effect of the carceral state on political participation. They look at a number of surveys, including the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study. They looked at respondents who had contact with the criminal justice system and identified whether they were as active politically as similar folks. They clearly establish that experience with the criminal justice system dampens proclivity to engage with the political system.

Weaver and Lerman also assess qualitative data, interviews, and conclude that incarceration conveys the stamp of second-class citizenship, not just during time in custody but permanently. The formerly incarcerated are less likely to vote and less likely to become involved in the political system at all. The book draws on multiple sources to provide a convincing range of evidence for this conclusion.

How do you see the politics of policy impacting the administration of Donald Trump?

President Trump and the Republicans are coming up against the politics of policymaking as they attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act. A share of citizens are afraid of losing their health care, so Republicans are facing significant resistance from their constituents. Republicans are asking how repeal will affect their ability to hold office. So the politics of policy are at the fore.

“A new politics is being created by the policies that this administration has already put forth”

A new politics is being created by the policies that this administration has already put forth through executive orders and that they are promising to put forth, in partnership with the Republican Congress, in the coming months. What will the purported wall and the various bans on people coming from disfavored countries mean for the participation of Latino and Muslim communities? The Attorney General is indicating an inclination to allow voter ID laws and other state-level voter suppression efforts to go forward unchallenged. That will have an enormous political impact. We’ve seen the political reverberations of these policies already—through protests at a scale that is uncommon so soon after an election.

It’s going to be interesting and it’s going to be harrowing to see how these polices play out. Our democracy might become more awake and more inclusive. Or our democracy might be undermined, weakened, unequal or closed off. It’s an open question. And the answer depends, in part, on all of us.

Interview by Eve Gerber

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