Drift and Conversion: Hidden Faces of Institutional Change

46 Pages Posted: 18 Sep 2013

See all articles by Jacob S. Hacker

Jacob S. Hacker

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

Kathleen Thelen

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - Department of Political Science

Paul Pierson

University of California, Berkeley

Date Written: September 17, 2013

Abstract

In advanced industrial societies, institutions and policies that rest on state enforcement power change over time — often fundamentally. Scholars (and citizens) pay a great deal of attention to these changes when they follow the normal script: democratic political bodies enact new formal rules. Yet we know far less about how institutions and policies change without such formal revision. In this paper, we examine two ways in which this happens, “drift” and “conversion,” and their implications for institutional theory and political life. Drift occurs when formal rules are deliberately held constant in the face of major environmental shifts, causing their outcomes to change. Conversion occurs when political actors reinterpret ambiguous rules or use the discretion inherent in them to redirect them toward new purposes. We consider several features of institutions and their context that make each of these processes more likely, particularly the automaticity and discretion embodied in formal rules and the character of the social environment. In neglecting these two modes of change, we argue, students of politics have overstated institutional stability and missed important processes through which a dominant political coalition’s victory may erode. They have also missed a significant source of potential influence for opponents of existing institutions or policies, who can, through drift or conversion, transform themselves from embattled enemies of the status quo into politically advantaged defenders. Most notably, these often-hidden processes provide a means by which political actors can alter governance without bearing responsibility with the broader public. They thus brings into view the sometimes limited and conditional character of voter influence while highlighting the central role of organized interest groups with the resources, information, and foresight to influence policymakers’ less-visible decisions over the long term.

Keywords: institutions, public policy, institutional change, advanced industrial societies

Suggested Citation

Hacker, Jacob S. and Thelen, Kathleen and Pierson, Paul, Drift and Conversion: Hidden Faces of Institutional Change (September 17, 2013). APSA 2013 Annual Meeting Paper; American Political Science Association 2013 Annual Meeting. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2303593

Jacob S. Hacker (Contact Author)

Yale University - Department of Political Science ( email )

Box 208269
New Haven, DC 06520-8269
United States

HOME PAGE: http://pantheon.yale.edu/~jhacker

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

89 Trumbull Street
New Haven, CT 06515
United States

Kathleen Thelen

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - Department of Political Science ( email )

77 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02139
United States

Paul Pierson

University of California, Berkeley ( email )

310 Barrows Hall
Berkeley, CA 94720
United States

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