Persistent Unilateral Action

64 Pages Posted: 4 Aug 2022 Last revised: 30 May 2023

See all articles by David Foster

David Foster

London School of Economics & Political Science

Date Written: May 30, 2023


Many believe that weaker legal constraints make unilateral easier to reverse than legislation. Yet in some cases, unilateralism survives a successor's determined opposition. I argue that legislative persistence and unilateral transience may arise not only from differences in legal status but also from a selection effect: unilateralism and subsequent rescission can both stem from weak underlying policy-demanding groups. But if unilateralism itself alters the landscape of group power through policy feedback effects, it can survive a purportedly opposed new president. An example is the Trump Administration's failure to roll back the Obama Justice Department's lax stance on cannabis. Weak constituents' policy demands may thus need to rely on a sympathetic president's unilateral action to begin a feedback loop, subsequently softening opposition. This paper therefore identifies unilateral action as a key tool for shifting policy in an enduring way, explaining its success or failure in terms of the power of groups.

Keywords: Unilateral action, policy feedback effects, public policy, interest group politics, formal model

Suggested Citation

Foster, David, Persistent Unilateral Action (May 30, 2023). Available at SSRN: or

David Foster (Contact Author)

London School of Economics & Political Science ( email )

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