The Political Effects of Policy Drift: Policy Stalemate and American Political Development


Daniel J. Galvin and Jacob S. Hacker

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Galvin, D., & Hacker, J.S. (2020). The Political Effects of Policy Drift: Policy Stalemate and American Political Development. Studies in American Political Development. Published online by Cambridge University Press: 26 May 2020. DOI:10.1017/S0898588X2000005X
In recent years, scholars have made major progress in understanding the dynamics of “policy drift”—the transformation of a policy's outcomes due to the failure to update its rules or structures to reflect changing circumstances. Drift is a ubiquitous mode of policy change in America's gridlock-prone polity, and its causes are now well understood. Yet surprisingly little attention has been paid to the political consequences of drift—to the ways in which drift, like the adoption of new policies, may generate its own feedback effects. In this article, we seek to fill this gap. We first outline a set of theoretical expectations about how drift should affect downstream politics. We then examine these dynamics in the context of four policy domains: labor law, health care, welfare, and disability insurance. In each, drift is revealed to be both mobilizing and constraining: While it increases demands for policy innovation, group adaptation, and new group formation, it also delimits the range of possible paths forward. These reactions to drift, in turn, generate new problems, cleavages, and interest alignments that alter subsequent political trajectories. Whether formal policy revision or further stalemate results, these processes reveal key mechanisms through which American politics and policy develop.
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