Drift and Conversion: Hidden Faces of Institutional Change
46 Pages Posted: 18 Sep 2013
Date Written: September 17, 2013
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: Suggested Citation