Policy Isn’t Everything

The case for a more expansive vision of politics

Berny Belvedere
Oct 3, 2018 · 7 min read

An emerging conceit of the center left is the identification of politics with policy. This isn’t the rather anodyne thesis that policy is an important dimension of politics; this is the thesis that it is everything. In Vox’s debut article, founding editor-in-chief Ezra Klein announces: “The point of politics is policy.” Here’s a description the site offers of its “Weeds” podcast:

Everyone is always warning you not to get lost in the weeds. But not Vox’s Ezra Klein, Dara Lind, Sarah Kliff, and Matthew Yglesias. They love the weeds. That’s where all the policy is. This is the podcast for people who follow politics because they love thinking about health care, economics, and zoning. It is not a podcast for people who like hearing talk about gaffes.

The implication is that gaffes are not a proper focus of genuine political inquiry. But not just gaffes, of course. To be on the safe side, we might ask the Voxers which components of electoral politics should get to keep the name. BuzzFeed News’ editor-in-chief Ben Smith provides a rundown of now-discredited political preoccupations, relegating “tactical, amoral, insidery, and mostly male-dominated political reporting” to the dustbin. There’s a growing sense that these frames are no longer adequate; what is worth dwelling on, Smith explains, is what is substantive, what makes a difference in people’s lives. That’s policy. When Mother Jones’ Kevin Drum publishes a post with the headline, “When You Get Right Down To It, Everything is Policy,” the idea isn’t that nobody ever thinks of politics in any other way — it’s that they shouldn’t.

Of course, there’s a certain amount of conceptual front-loading that is required in order to pave the way for such a view. The idea that the political sphere is exhausted by the rules a government enacts and the actions it performs, the idea that when it comes to politics there is nothing over and above a state’s policy outcomes, presupposes a particular conception of society.

It imagines government as a colossus, as a massive entity whose role in society is without parallel or meaningful limit, whose services include not just law-and-order protections but robust welfare provisions, whose presence is the realization of democratic agency and the engine of democratic change. The second precondition for the thesis that policy is all there is to politics is a belief in the supremacy of expertise, in the unprecedentedly transformative power of technocratic competence. Let’s reason in reverse to show how these assumptions are baked into the guiding thesis.

Government by and large exists to provide the underlying structure to society and to manage its operations. As Thomas Hobbes argued long ago, you either design a state of this sort or you endure the natural state, with no hope of transcending the brutalizing power of conflict and scarcity. With a sufficiently empowered state, when a conflict arises — such as Group A thinking that Candidate Y should write the laws while Group B thinking Candidate Z should — the structure exists for publicly resolving this dispute in a way that both groups can accept as legitimate. If government were not omnipresent, there would be vast sectors of society it could not speak to — lots of spaces would remain inaccessible to it. We could not then claim that politics is policy, since politics would still exist in these spaces yet it would not involve structuring or regulating them. The second assumption, meanwhile, requires a particular view of the very nature of social problems: To think that policy is everything requires championing a kind of technocratic triumphalism, a belief that for any social conflict there is some protocol that can meaningfully alleviate it.

In a recent episode of “Why Is This Happening?”, an interview-based podcast series hosted by the political commentator Chris Hayes, the topic was “social infrastructure” and the guest was Eric Klinenberg. The discussion was lively but frustratingly parochial. Hayes and Klinenberg exuded a quasi-spiritual respect for the forms of communal life conservatives have historically tried to play up (and often failed to meaningfully defend), yet the two ignored the types of community-shaping institutions administratively independent from the auspices of government. According to Hayes and Klinenberg, the realization of community, the pinnacle of what America can be, turns out to entirely involve the implementation of government services, along with their ongoing maintenance.

When I think about my own experiences, the most meaningful forms of “social infrastructure” in my life have been affected by policy but not exhausted by it. The church, the university, the neighborhood, the family, the workplace — these don’t constitute a free-floating communal construct, hovering above policy constraints. Yet neither are they entirely or even substantially determined by policy, either. Their existence is not owed to, or shaped by, policy in the ways we think are most important.

Thus, making policy the be-all, end-all of politics necessarily excludes a dimension that is arguably even more significant for determining the quality and forms of social life. It’s a dimension that is inaccessible to policy analysis, because it has to do with the inputs of responsive policy formation rather than the explicit contours of the policies themselves. These inputs are cultural; they are the components — both raw and refined — of social coexistence. In the jargon of the political scientists Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepan, these inputs are the product of “civil society” and not of “political society” (see their work, Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation). In democracies like ours, the character of the former undergirds and significantly shapes the latter. As Linz and Stepan explain:

By civil society we refer to that arena of the polity where self-organizing groups, movements, and individuals, relatively autonomous from the state, attempt to articulate values, create associations and solidarities, and advance their interests. Civil society can include manifold social movements (women’s groups, neighborhood associations, religious groupings, and intellectual organizations) and civic associations from all social strata (such as trade unions, entrepreneurial groups, journalists, or lawyers).

Even those members of society who do not join an organization are part of civil society, argue Linz and Stepan. They can engage in manifestly political behavior such as joining protests, rebuking city officials at town halls, and more. These activities won’t be susceptible to policy analysis.

One might argue that the very dichotomy Linz and Stepan propose — the one between civil society and political society — fundamentally supports the thesis that politics is policy. My point is that conceptualizing politics along a strictly managerial dimension, equating it with administrative decision-making and social-conflict resolution is extraordinarily reductive. Politics is a category many of us think of expansively — it is not a mere technique that represents the very end-point in a highly involved process of constructing our social reality.

There is more to politics than what government says and does. Social engineering is not just deliberate but organic — it turns out that there is wisdom about how things should be, and how society should work, that can be found outside the heads of our most enlightened technocrats. In Institutions, Institutional Change, and Economic Performance, the eminent economic historian Douglass C. North includes among his set of society-shaping factors not just formal institutions (a close analogue to what some mean by “policy”) but informal ones as well. According to North, both types of institution “structure human interrelations.” The informal constraints are incredibly determinative and come from “culture,” which North defines (bringing in an outside definition) as “the transmission from one generation to the next, via teaching and imitation, of knowledge, values, and other factors that influence behavior.” These have all sorts of political implications, yet they do not have much to do with policy.

North uses a football analogy to describe the interplay of institutions. In the NFL, there are official rules (formal institutions) and unwritten codes or norms (informal institutions). What’s remarkable is that the informal ones are at times far more important for establishing the quality of the league. Many find certain written rules unimportant or insignificant — for example, although the rule that a receiver must have both feet touch the ground before going out of bounds in order to be credited with a catch is important, a change to a “one foot” policy wouldn’t be transcendent. Players and fans would adjust with little problem. On the other hand, the unwritten norm that players are not to “air out dirty laundry” in front of the media, that is, that they are not to sharply criticize or shame their own teammates or staff publicly, is in many ways far more significant. Players frown on this sort of behavior and teams may even impose a fine (making it an official rule), yet it’s not the rule’s “officialness” that makes it important, it’s the nature of the offense; in other words, even absent a fine, players would overwhelmingly abide by this norm.

North writes:

Although formal rules may change overnight as the result of political or judicial decisions, informal constraints embodied in customs, traditions, and codes of conduct are much more impervious to deliberate policies. These cultural constraints not only connect the past with the present and future, but provide us with a key to explaining the path of historical change.

A society’s informal institutions absolutely have political dimensions, yet they are not necessarily about policy, or affected by policy, in any meaningful sense. The goal of political agitation may be policy reform, but it may also be societal reform more broadly — as Andrew Fletcher once put it: “Give me the making of a people’s songs, and I care not who makes its laws.”

Arc Digital

The internet’s best opinion page

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store