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The Political Effects of Policy Drift: Policy Stalemate and American Political Development (WP-19-12)

Daniel Galvin and Jacob Hacker

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 socioeconomic circumstances. Amid polarization and gridlock, drift has become an increasingly common mode of policy change, and its major causes are now well understood. Yet surprisingly little attention has been paid to the distinctive political consequences of drift—to the ways in which drift, like the adoption of new policies, generates its own “policy feedback” effects. This article is meant to fill this gap. Drawing on prior scholarship, we lay out clear expectations concerning drift’s likely effects on downstream politics—in particular, on the development of institutions and organized groups—and then assess these arguments in the context of four varied cases of drift: labor law, health care, welfare, and disability insurance. Our core argument is that drift generates new incentives, interests, and alliances that simultaneously respond to the disruptive effects it produces and are heavily constrained by those effects.  Regardless of whether these dynamics culminate in big reforms, they are one of the principal ways in which American politics and policy “develop” over time.

Daniel Galvin, Associate Professor of Sociology and IPR Fellow, Northwestern University

Jacob HackerStanley Resor Professor of Political Science, Yale University

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