Limiting Policy Backlash: Strategies for Taming Countercoalitions in an Era of Polarization

AuthorEric M. Patashnik
Published date01 September 2019
Date01 September 2019
DOIhttp://doi.org/10.1177/0002716219862511
Subject MatterGeneral Lessons
DOI: 10.1177/0002716219862511
ANNALS, AAPSS, 685, September 2019 47
Limiting Policy
Backlash:
Strategies for
Taming
Counter-
coalitions in
an Era of
Polarization
By
ERIC M. PATASHNIK
862511ANN The Annals of the American AcademyLimiting Policy Backlash
research-article2019
Policy backlash occurs when people or organizations
mobilize against a policy during or after its enactment,
diminishing the power of supporters and reducing the
likelihood of the policy’s subsequent entrenchment and
expansion. This article analyzes backlash as a case of
negative policy feedback and explores some of the
mechanisms through which backlash occurs among
elites, organized groups, and mass publics. The main
focus is on the politics of “backlash prevention”: using
strategies to minimize the prospects of countercoali-
tions against policies serving diffuse or marginalized
constituencies in an era of partisan polarization. These
strategies include increasing the progressivity of pro-
grams after they have become embedded, recognizing
that reforms can threaten the social identities and sta-
tus of constituencies, and increasing reliance on low-
visibility taxes. While countercoalitions cannot be
completely neutralized in today’s contentious political
environment, these strategies can load the dice in favor
of sustainable change.
Keywords: policy feedback; partisan polarization;
policy sustainability; backlash; policy
design
Public policies are outputs of the political
process, but they are also inputs to it, caus-
ing reactions that influence subsequent policy-
making (Pierson 1993). As E. E. Schattschneider
(1935) famously argued, “new policies create a
new politics.” Existing policies shape the politi-
cal agenda, the political participation of citi-
zens, and the activities of policymaking
institutions. Public policies, once enacted, can
generate their own political durability and
Eric M. Patashnik is Julis-Rabinowitz Professor of
Public Policy and Political Science in the Watson
Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown
University. He is the author of several books, including
Unhealthy Politics: The Battle over Evidence-Based
Medicine (with Alan Gerber and Conor Dowling;
Princeton University Press 2017).
Correspondence: eric_patashnik@brown.edu
48 THE ANNALS OF THE AMERICAN ACADEMY
growth by building mass constituencies and affecting the preferences and capac-
ities of elite actors such as interest groups, elected officials, and bureaucracies
(Campbell 2012; Mettler 2005; Hacker 1998; Pierson 1994; Skocpol 1992).
But public policies do not always produce self-reinforcing feedback (Patashnik
and Zelizer 2013; Jacobs and Weaver 2015; Baumgartner and Jones 2002; Jones,
Theriault, and Whyman 2019). They sometimes endogenously generate policy
backlash, a strong adverse reaction against a line of policy development. Policy
backlash occurs when people or organizations mobilize against a policy during or
after its enactment, diminishing the power of its supporters and reducing the
likelihood of the policy’s subsequent entrenchment and expansion. Backlash does
not always lead to the reversal of a policy, but it shapes the outcomes of the next
round of politics. Backlash may be driven by a perception that a policy will
impose material losses on actors, or a belief that a policy is failing to show due
respect to a constituency’s values, preferences, or status within the society.
Examples include the popular uprising in Germany after the country took in mil-
lions of asylum seekers (Karnitschnig 2015), white resentment following the pas-
sage of civil rights legislation (Edsall and Edsall 1992), and the countermobilization
of business power in response to the vast expansion of the American regulatory
state in the 1970s (Vogel 1989; Hacker and Pierson 2014).
Backlash can be sparked by policy movements in any direction. However, it is,
arguably, a particular threat today to the adoption and sustainability of policies
that serve diffuse, marginalized, or otherwise poorly organized constituencies,
such as consumers and lower-income Americans. While the targets of general
interest or egalitarian policies may lack the incentive or capacity to take part in
politics to defend the policies that serve them, their opponents may mobilize
potent countercoalitions, pressuring the government to change course and serve
more concentrated or advantaged interests (Patashnik 2008; Patashnik and
Zelizer 2013; Jacobs and Weaver 2015). As I argue below, the current environ-
ment of polarization and intense partisan competition (Binder 1996; Lee 2009)
have increased the vulnerability of general interest and redistributive policies to
counterlobbying. In sum, reducing the odds and potency of backlash is critical to
the political sustainability of activist government.
In this article, I analyze policy backlash as an extreme case of negative feed-
back. Following a literature review, the article explores some of the key mecha-
nisms through which policy backlash occurs among elite actors, organized
groups, and mass publics. My main focus is on the politics of “backlash preven-
tion”: using policy design (and other) strategies to minimize the prospects of
countercoalitions. I identify and discuss eight strategies that advocates of general-
interest and redistributive policies can deploy: (1) increasing the progressivity of
programs after policy embedding, (2) recognizing that new polices can implicitly
threaten the social identities and status of target constituencies, (3) increasing
reliance on low-visibility taxes, (4) assessing the potential for backlash and incor-
porating sustainability considerations into policy design, (5) balancing respon-
siveness to party bases and marginal supporters, (6) undercutting the institutional
bases of support of rent-seeking groups, (7) fragmenting and dividing the inter-
ests of those opponent groups, and (8) coopting partisan opponents through

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