Monday, May 12, 2014

Matt Grossmann's "Artists of the Possible"

Matt Grossmann is a political scientist at Michigan State University and Director of the Michigan Policy Network. His first book was The Not-So-Special Interests.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Artists of the Possible: Governing Networks and American Policy Change Since 1945, and reported the following:
In Artists of the Possible, I explain the causes of American public policy change by relying on histories of policymaking in each issue area since 1945. I argue that national policymaking is usually insular, driven by negotiations among long-serving legislators, administrators, and interest groups. Policy change rarely reflects changes in public opinion, election results, media coverage, or events.

Page 99 addresses a contrary view, common in scholarship, which assumes that policymakers seek to address the public’s primary concerns: the public sets the agenda. Other scholars have found examples of new policies following changes in the agenda such as gun control after school shootings or environmental laws after Earth Day. I show that these are the exceptions, rather than the rule.

Page 99 gives the contrary view its due (citing four examples of policies that did follow changes in issue agendas), but puts it in perspective:
Agenda setting factors are hardly irrelevant to the policy process, but they typically serve to… enable coalitions sufficient to enact significant new policies. Events, public opinion, and media reports are but a few of many factors that can play this role, including research or interest groups. Either way, the internal processes of coalition building are of primary importance.
Artists of the Possible reports the findings of policy historians regarding what mattered for policy change and conducts independent statistical analyses to see if changes in public opinion, media coverage, legislative hearings, or presidential speeches predict new policy in any branch of government. As page 99 reports, all this leads to the same answer:
The evidence from the collective judgments of policy historians and from the models designed to predict policy enactments via measures of agendas combine to paint a revised portrait of the policy process. Agenda setting factors rarely lead to significant policy change on their own [and] it appears unnecessary for an issue to rise dramatically on the public or elite agenda to result in significant policy change.
Does this reveal “the quality” of the book? It demonstrates that the book addresses big questions: Does government ignore the public and real-world events? The examples I cite on page 99 span four decades and three policy areas, illustrating its scope. The attention to specific episodes is clear, but the academic nature of the book also shines through: it is aimed toward sweeping theoretical conclusions.

Page 99 does not give any sense of the large differences across time periods and issue areas that I find in the rest of the book, but it does illustrate a primary lesson: government usually ignores what the public wants. Policy change comes from agreements among career politicians and interest groups, not democratic demands.
Learn more about the book at Matt Grossmann's website and in his recent writing for the Washington Post: "How Policymakers Ignore the Public’s Priorities," "The Liberal Arc of U.S. Policy," "Career Politicians are Just What We Need," and "Policymakers are Ignoring Us, but No More than Usual."

--Marshal Zeringue