The Case for Policy-Focused Political Analysis

Posted: 10 Sep 2009

See all articles by Jacob S. Hacker

Jacob S. Hacker

Yale University - Department of Political Science; Yale University - Institution for Social and Policy Studies

Paul Pierson

University of California, Berkeley

Date Written: September, 10 2009


Political scientists often characterize American politics as a game among undifferentiated competitors, played out largely through campaigns and elections. Their process-obsessed accounts treat electoral victory as the sole prize of politics. To the extent that these accounts pay attention to public policy at all, it is through the study of congressional roll-call votes - undifferentiated yes-no statements that are treated simply as a proxy for the ideological leanings of legislators. Yet politics is not exclusively or even mainly about elections. It is primarily a contest to exercise authority - winners are positioned to use the control of political authority to impose their preferences on losers through public policies. Policies are not a side-show; for the most organized and enduring political actors they are the central object of contestation, and elections are just one means to that end. Policies are also more than roll-call votes; they are shifts in governing authority that can have pervasive and enduring consequences for politics and society and thus naturally attract extensive organizational focus over long periods of time. Because of this, policy deserves a central position in the analysis of political systems - a position it has lost in modern political science, at a considerable cost to our understanding. This paper outlines the advantages of a more policy-focused political analysis. These include its more accurate portrayal of the institutional environment of modern politics, the elevation of “multi-venue” and “longitudinal” politics to more central theoretical status, and a focus on substantive outcomes that allows a more accurate mapping of interests and strategies. The paper highlights particular dimensions on which this more policy-focused political analysis could best be advanced.

Suggested Citation

Hacker, Jacob S. and Pierson, Paul, The Case for Policy-Focused Political Analysis (September, 10 2009). Available at SSRN:

Jacob S. Hacker

Yale University - Department of Political Science ( email )

Box 208269
New Haven, DC 06520-8269
United States


Yale University - Institution for Social and Policy Studies ( email )

89 Trumbull Street
New Haven, CT 06515
United States

Paul Pierson (Contact Author)

University of California, Berkeley ( email )

310 Barrows Hall
Berkeley, CA 94720
United States

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