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The Theory of Punctuated Politics

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorJuly 27, 2011 7:29 PM


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What does the theory of punctuated equilibrium have to do with modern-day American politics? Dan Vergano of USA Today has an intriguing piece that makes the connection:

In the 1990's, amid widespread complaints of "gridlock" in Washington, the notion of political punctuated equilibrium "was born from dissatisfaction with the idea of everything being fixed and unchanging in politics," [University of Texas political scientist Bryan] Jones says. Political scientists who looked at our institutions broadly saw big changes coming relatively slowly from public pressure, which led to politicians finally voting for new laws. But in reality at the time, big changes were arriving suddenly, without big changes in voter sentiment, after long periods of well, equilibrium. A good example is the welfare reform of the mid-90's, says political scientist B. Guy Peters of the University of Pittsburgh. "The laws and ideas behind them were put in place decades earlier with only small changes and then suddenly you had a big one," Peters says. "That's a punctuation." A more recent example is the food safety reforms of last year, Jones says. Food safety laws had dated back to the 1930's without big changes. The basic idea is that things often continue in government with only incremental changes until something "” an idea catching fire or a scandal, the comet impact of politics "” suddenly makes big things happen. In food safety, decades of recalls had only resulted in small fixes to rules. But the food safety reform bill giving more power to the Food and Drug Administrationpassed the Senate last year by a 73-25 vote, even though it hadn't been an issue until a salmonella scare the previous year shook things up.

Similar examples can be found in seminal environmental legislation, such as 1964's Wilderness Act, of which was the culmination of decades of groundwork by an influential group of advocates, writers, and interest groups (such as The Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society). One piece of legislation that has transformed the science of archaeology, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), also seemed to come out of nowhere in 1990. But it sprang from a long-festering history and a series of smaller events in the early to mid-1970s. With respect to climate change, the du jour environmental issue of the day, I suspect that something similarly momentous will happen in the near future, despite the increasingly polarized state of U.S. politics.

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