Analyzing Failed Institutional Change Attempts

Published date01 March 2022
Date01 March 2022
Subject MatterArticles
2022, Vol. 75(1) 203 –215
Political Research Quarterly
© 2021 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912921989442
Theoretical advances in the study of institutional change
center around a productive paradox about institutions and
strategic action. Change agents can take strategic actions
to set in motion processes of institutional change (e.g.,
Hacker 2004; Mahoney and Thelen 2010). These actions
are, however, structured and constrained by the existing
institutional framework (e.g., Capoccia 2016; Gingrich
2015). From these two perspectives, we can expect that
attempts to change institutions are an empirical regularity
and that many of these attempts will fail. This article con-
tributes to the theoretical conversation on institutional
change through an analysis of failed institutional change
attempts and their effects on institutional sequences. The
gradual institutional change literature has focused on
cases where existing institutions have been changed
incrementally or where the interpretation or enactment of
existing institutions has changed due to changes in con-
text (e.g., Mahoney and Thelen 2010; Streeck and Thelen
2005; Waylen 2014). These processes are often the result
of the politics between change agents and supporters of
the status quo. The tension between these two groups is
also at the core of failed institutional change attempts. In
this class of events, a proposal for institutional change
reaches but does not succeed in passing a formal decision
point. Failed institutional change attempts are a frequent
occurrence in political institutions and can be observed
across issue domains and levels of analysis. They have
characterized Europe’s gradual development toward
democracy (Ertman 2010; Ziblatt 2017), Japan’s 1994
electoral reform (Reed and Thies 2003), the adoption of
the European Union’s (EU) Treaty of Lisbon in 2007, and
changes in party organization in 1960s Italy. Failed insti-
tutional change attempts also characterize ongoing insti-
tutional trajectories, including attempts to revoke
Uruguay’s controversial amnesty law (Zebley 2011), pass
gender and equal opportunities legislation in Nigeria
(Payton 2016), and repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA)
in the United States (Béland et al. 2020).
Although authors have empirically identified failed
attempts in specific cases (e.g., Immergut 1992a; Tulis
and Mellow 2018; Ziblatt 2017), the role of failed institu-
tional change attempts in institutional sequences remains
underexplored (with notable exceptions on near misses;
Capoccia and Kelemen 2007; Capoccia and Ziblatt 2010).
989442PRQXXX10.1177/1065912921989442Political Research QuarterlyIssar and Dilling
1Sciences Po, Paris, France
2University of Oxford, UK
Corresponding Authors:
Matthias Dilling, Department of Politics and IR, University of Oxford,
Manor Road, Oxford OX1 3UQ, United Kingdom.
Sukriti Issar, Sciences Po, Observatoire Sociologique du Changement
(OSC), CNRS, 98 Rue de l’Université, Paris 75007, France.
Analyzing Failed Institutional
Change Attempts
Sukriti Issar1 and Matthias Dilling2
Theoretical advances in the study of institutional change center around a productive paradox. While change agents
can take strategic action to change institutions, institutions display a remarkable level of formal stability. From this
paradox, we expect that attempts to change institutions are an empirical regularity and that many formal change
attempts will fail. This article contributes to historical institutionalism by analyzing the political effects of failed formal
institutional change attempts on institutional sequences. Failed institutional change attempts could be mere blips,
having little effect on subsequent institutional trajectories, or even inoculate against future attempts. Failed attempts
could also lay the ideational groundwork, aid in coalition building, and garner concessions for subsequent institutional
change, or convince change agents to alter their strategy. The article suggests analytical strategies to assess the
effects of failed institutional change attempts, drawing on examples from comparative politics and two extended case
illustrations from Italian party politics and the Affordable Care Act in the United States.
institutional change, failed attempts, negative cases

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