In this book, authors Baumgartner and Jones present an analysis of the nature of the policymaking process and national agenda setting. The authors’ methodology in this study was to conduct an empirical study examining national policy issues over time and then highlight any notable patterns. In the book, the authors develop a political model to account of long periods of stability in policies where entrenched interests are evident, but also times where policy change happens relatively quickly and seems to favor new avenues of influence.
The authors utilize a model of evolution known as “punctuated equilibrium,” which was originally developed by paleontologists, to describe the dynamics and patterns of policy change. This process of punctuated equilibrium asserts that the political system “displays considerable stability with regard to the manner in which it processes issues, but the stability is punctuated with periods of volatile change” (Baumgartner & Jones 1993: 4).
This change can be represented by an S-curve or a logistic growth curve illustrating a slow policy adoption at first, then a rapid push an enthusiastic support for it, then after it has saturated the national scene the process starts again. The authors go on to explore public policies in nuclear power, smoking, drug abuse, auto safety, etc. then describe them according to the punctuated equilibrium model. Baumgartner and James make the argument that institutions reproduce a particular policy agenda and therefore act to lengthen the life of some policies and in some cases can even create a monopoly on that agenda.
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Once the monopoly on the agenda is set, changes to the general policy will tend to happen incrementally (Baumgartner & Jones 1993: 5).
Two mainstays of instituting a policy monopoly are 1) a definable institutional structure that limits access to the policy process and 2) a powerful supporting idea associated with the institution. The imagery and rhetoric associated with a particular policy is usually produced and controlled by an institutional sponsor and have far reaching effects on the population.
The authors exclaim: These buttressing policy ideas are generally connected to core political values which can be communicated directly and simply through image and rhetoric. The best are such things as progress, participation, patriotism, independence from foreign domination, fairness, economic growth—things no one taken seriously in the political system can contest. If a group can convince others that their activities serve such lofty goals, then it may be able to create a policy monopoly (Baumgartner & Jones 1993: 7).
This policy monopoly is not permanent and can undergo incremental adjustments and tweaks as the public perception of that policy begins to shift due to counter-mobilization and a decrease in public apathy. New views and a re-defining of the monopolistic policies inevitably lead to substantial change in the agenda; and the authors argue that when this ultimate change takes place it is quick and punctuated. Policy images are the primary mechanism interest groups and institutions use to manipulate support for or against a particular policy.
The authors describe policy images as “a mixture of empirical information and emotive appeals (Baumgartner & Jones 1993: 26).
The policy images used at one venue may be changed for another depending on the aims of the group presenting the policy. A good example Baumgartner & Jones use to illustrate the process of shifting policy image is the nuclear power debate and how it changed from “solidly positive to overwhelmingly negative” (Baumgartner & Jones 1993: 61).
American politics, for better or worse, is prone to elitist control of various issues, some of which affect the general public in significant ways. This system is described by the distributive model of politics, where people representing narrow segments of society with high stakes in a particular issue influence public policy to a substantial degree. This explanation of policy making can be ...
Next, the authors tackle the institutional influences in policymaking.
Diverse interest groups have been on the rise since the 1960’s, and the competing interests all vie for support (public & private) for their respective causes. Much that support depends upon how well the interest groups are mobilized. Congress plays an integral role in providing access to and shaping policy agendas as they receive requests and pressures from various interest groups. Two forces that structure changes in congressional behavior are: 1) shifting jurisdictional boundaries and 2) member activity in response to perceived benefits from supporting a particular policy (Baumgartner & Jones 1993: 195).
In summation, the authors illustrate how policy change and agenda setting in US politics is constructed by the primary factors of institutionalized interests and corresponding views or images of a purported policy. Other factors such as counter-mobilization, legislative support, and federalism influence this process, but overall it follows the punctuated equilibrium model of a steady maintenance of accepted policies and values until a re-defining of the issues becomes a popularized and mobilized movement.