Policy Feedback in an Age of Polarization

AuthorPaul Pierson,Jacob S. Hacker
Published date01 September 2019
Date01 September 2019
Subject MatterIntroduction
8 ANNALS, AAPSS, 685, September 2019
DOI: 10.1177/0002716219871222
Feedback in an
Age of
A large body of research has explored how policies,
once enacted, reshape public opinion, governing insti-
tutions, and political organizations—a process known as
“policy feedback.” Yet this productive research agenda
has yet to be translated into practical recommendations
of the sort regularly provided by other social science
research. This volume of The ANNALS presents the
findings of a major collective effort to do just this. The
Policy Feedback Project (PFP) is an effort to develop
research-backed arguments about how policy feedback
might be harnessed to address collective problems in
today’s age of partisan polarization and economic ine-
quality. This article orients readers to our collective
approach and summarizes some of the contributing
authors’ findings. In particular, we show how the feed-
back effects of policies could be used to (1) tackle long-
standing public problems that have resisted effective
responses, (2) increase the long-term durability of pol-
icy initiatives designed to address these problems, and
(3) build political momentum and power to facilitate
the adaptation and expansion of these initiatives over
Keywords: American politics; public policy; policy
feedback; interest groups; partisan polari-
The articles in this special issue all emerged
out of the Policy Feedback Project (PFP), a
unique effort to assist policy-makers seeking to
revitalize American democracy and improve
public policy. The project was founded with the
goal of deepening our understanding of the ways
in which policies, once enacted, reshape public
opinion, governing institutions, and political
organizations—a major area of research in
Jacob S. Hacker is Stanley Resor Professor of Political
Science and director of the Institution for Social and
Policy Studies at Yale University. He is the author or
coauthor of five books and numerous articles on
American politics and policy and a fellow of the
American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Correspondence: jacob.hacker@yale.edu
political science that has rarely been translated into practical recommendations or
policy advice.
In particular, we asked participants in the PFP—all social scientists with exten-
sive policy expertise—to develop research-backed arguments about the ways in
which such “policy feedback” might be harnessed to (1) tackle long-standing
public problems that have resisted effective responses; (2) increase the long-term
durability of major policy initiatives designed to address these problems; and (3)
create the potential to build political momentum and power to facilitate continu-
ing efforts to adapt, expand, and improve these initiatives over time. In short, we
asked authors to think about how policies might reshape not just American eco-
nomic and social outcomes but also American politics—in ways that encourage
continued efforts to address pressing public problems.
In this introductory article, we first outline the core ideas and aims guiding
the PFP. We then discuss how the insights of prior research needed to be
updated, given the current political context. Finally, we use this updated under-
standing to articulate some basic guideposts for policy design, drawing mainly
on the articles in this volume that provide general lessons. We also highlight, by
way of illustration, a few of the insights that come from the volume’s more pol-
icy-oriented articles, which offer tailored recommendations for generating posi-
tive feedback in key policy areas.
The Policy Feedback Project
Leaders and experts have always considered the political consequences of their
policy choices. Yet this thinking has too often been an afterthought. Faced by a
pressing problem, the questions usually asked are “Can a law be enacted?” and
“Will it effectively address the problem?” As crucial as these questions are, how-
ever, another may be just as important: “Will this policy create positive political
effects—that is, will it encourage ongoing and, ideally, increasing efforts to
address the problem?”
Paul Pierson is John Gross Professor of Political Science at the University of California,
Berkeley, and codirector of the Successful Societies Program of the Canadian Institute for
Advanced Research. He is the author or coauthor of many articles and five books on American
and comparative politics and is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
NOTE: We thank everyone who provided feedback and guidance at two project workshops: a
September 2018 meeting in Cambridge, MA, hosted by the Scholars Strategy Network (SSN);
and a February 2019 meeting in Washington, DC, funded by the Washington Center for
Equitable Growth. At SSN, Avi Green, Pao Maynard-Moll, Hannah Reuter, and Theda
Skocpol were of invaluable assistance. Even before our first meeting, we benefited from the
wise counsel of Heather Boushey, Paul Glastris, Jacob Leibenluft, Tara McGuiness, Ellen
Nissenbaum, and Felicia Wong. At the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Tom
Kecskemethy and Emily Babson made this special issue possible. Thanks also to Yale College
student Neeraj Patel for helping to assemble the final papers. Finally, we thank Aaron
Goldzhimer for inspiring this project in the first place.

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