The Theory of Punctuated Politics

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.

6 Responses to “The Theory of Punctuated Politics”

  1. Jarmo says:

    I doubt that something momentous will happen in the near future re US and climate change.
    I have followed with interest the Mexican standoff between Boehner and Obama regarding the debt ceiling. Especially Boehner since if the US is seen to default, Wall St will suffer and Dow will dive.
    I find it hard to believe that the Republicans would give in in an issue  (climate change) that will lose them less votes than the debt ceiling and opens a door for a multitude of vote-losing propositions.

  2. edG says:

    I doubt anything “momentous” will happen. A tipping point already punctuated this. It was Climategate.

    And if anyone was pinning their hopes on Obama, he has proven to be an entirely incompentent ideologue where a competent ideologue was required. 

    I don’t think that your comparison to those Acts you mentioned are at all valid.

  3. Tom Fuller says:

    All the consensus need do is persevere to eventually win–at least a modified victory. Skeptics will lose interest, find a new cause, etc. 

    The consensus may never get all they wanted in terms of international emission caps and all that, but they’ll get a lot of what they really need, if they don’t fold.

    All they have to do is remind themselves it’s a 30-year war, and they have the resources to wait the other side out. 

  4. Keith Kloor says:


    Climategate has been a blip. And Obama an ideologue? have you lost touch with reality? 

  5. Jeff Norris says:

    Welfare reform started in the 80’s with Reagan after several reports and articles came out about fraud and waste in the late 70″s and early 80″s.  I believe a popular term was “Welefare Queen”.  Remember how Reagan hated the homeless and poor people.  He was pretty hard on AFDC and even asked for work requirements.  He even called for n overhaul of the welfare system in his 86 State of the Union. Ultimately the Family Support Act of 1988 was passed.  George the first, campaigned on it and did something wrt job training requirements and other fringe issues.  Big Bill also campaigned on it in 92  along with the Newt’s contract with America in 94 and the result was the 96 reform.  So it did not come out of nowhere but as each bite was swallowed and found acceptable the public was willing to do more.

    NAGPRA was helped by how chic Native Americans became in the 80’s.  Georgia O’Keefe , Tony Hillerman, Southwestern Décor and of course all those new age plastic Shamans.   

    WRT Climate Change you are going to need sea water flowing over the Maldives, a global economic turnaround, or a huge great tech  in the near future before it will be accepted.  If  you are talking 10 years down the road then I would bet on the economic turnaround.

  6. Dean says:

    I recently read that British Columbia implemented a carbon tax, and that it is quite popular, including among business. Most people in BC think it has helped the economy. So it might be that these actual examples will disprove those who see armageddon in any climate policy (or even in using better light bulbs). Question is whether it will be too little, too late.

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