Rhetoric, Policy, and the Current State of Affairs

In my policy classes, I begin with a simple question: “What is public policy?” I encourage my students to view policy as a pattern of purposive public action. Public policy is what government does and one must take care to separate these patterns of action from political rhetoric.  Of course, many students seem to resist this, given that they are taught in so many other classes to focus on rhetoric, discourse and symbols (what else matters?). The distinction between rhetoric and policy may have become more difficult for students, in part, because there is so much of the former and so little of the latter in contemporary politics.

Peter Suderman had an interesting piece in  Reason which begins with the following:“Washington is in a post-policy moment. Congress passes little of substance. Few bills make it to a vote, and those that do are intended as messages, symbols, or stunts, rather than policy reforms.” In short, rhetoric has displaced policy.

While this is commonly and conveniently attributed to GOP obstructionism, Suderman argues that there is something more going on.

 This is what really lies underneath the recent policy stagnation—not obstructionism, but exhausted party agendas with nowhere left to go. The truth is that both parties have largely achieved their long-term policy goals. And neither has a strong sense of what to do now.

The GOP achieved tax reductions and high levels of defense spending; the Democrats expanded entitlements. As a result, “the task is no longer to build toward something. It’s to defend what’s already been done.”

Suderman believes that this defensive complacency may be less of a problem for the GOP:

One key difference between the two parties… is that some Republicans have realized that they are spinning their wheels, and are looking for a way to escape. Hence the various factions vying for a new path forward: Libertarian populists, conservative reformers, neocon revivalists, security-state skeptics, other right-leaning entrepreneurs all start from a shared assumption that the Republican party’s policy ammunition is largely spent. The party needs a new story, a new framework, and new ideas to drive it.

If this sounds familiar, it should. Think back to the late 1950s and early 1960s, when multiple factions on the right began to challenge a Republican establishment that had made peace with the New Deal, thereby opening decades of rich and often contentious debates over core philosophical assumptions and policy reforms (if you are unfamiliar with this history, consult George Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America). Many of these debates would find an expression in public policy once the GOP began to win elections. Yes, there was a time when the GOP was the party of ideas with a broad and detailed reform agenda.

Things are more complicated today. The growth of the entitlement state and the aging of the population have increased the costs of reform for citizens who may be ideologically aligned with the GOP but rely on Medicare and Social Security (recall the Tea Party placards that proclaimed “Keep the Government’s Hands Off of Medicare”). While many Republican members of Congress may give voice to the rhetoric of small government to avoid a primary challenge from the right, they likely also understand that translating this rhetoric into public policy proposals would increase the probability of electoral defeat. To the extent that electoral incentives matter, incumbents may prove quite resistant to any efforts to support genuine reform. Rhetoric is cheap and it is also effective.

One thought on “Rhetoric, Policy, and the Current State of Affairs

  1. Marc, there is another description of the current state of affairs that I think deserves some consideration: equilibrium.

    Congress has become much more polarized, and we observe a lot more violent rhetoric with little policy change. But perhaps that is because the status quo has arrived, more or less, at the preferences of the median voter.

    It isn’t pretty, and there is a lot of discontentment, but a policy equilibrium is not inconsistent with a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

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