Fact

Policy and politics aren't the same thing.

The Difference Between Party Politics and Policy

Politics and policy are different aspects of government. Policy makers must reconcile policy (specific actionable rules) with politics (political ideology, party politics, and policy implementation).[1][2]

In other words, Policy is what happens on paper; politics is the art of making it happen. A policy analyst figures out what a desirable policy is, a policy advocate advocates for broad or specific policies, and a politician involves themselves in the dealmaking necessary for policy implementation (and at every step, there are “trade-offs”).

All these aspects of policy making are all aspects of “politics,” but for our conversation: policy is an actionable item and politics is the art of getting the policy implemented or determining what types of policies to implement.

In this way, politics and policy “are different”.

TIP: Policy follows politics, and politics follows policy. The relationship is complex. They are different, but intertwining concepts.

Policy vs Politics. This gives a simple explanation of the difference between policy and politics. The two concepts are so tightly related that I’ve seen some definitions that disagree. The concept of separating the empirical from the rational, the idealist from the realist, or however you want to phrase it, is important. Definitions aside, the mechanics of all this happen in practice and are thus important to discuss.

Example: Politicians debate what a nation’s policy should be abroad. Policy experts translate some agreed on ideas into legislation. This results in an actionable written and unwritten “foreign policy.” The Federal Reserve’s Monetary Policy is specific actionable rule-set; the ideology of the Fed’s higher-ups and their internal politics help shape their policy and the implementation of their policy.

The general problem: Politics is about ideology, deal making, and principles. It deals with human psychology. Policy should concern facts, figures, and functions; it is rational and logical. These two realms don’t always mix well together, especially in an over polarized and politically ideological system, but they are meant to temper each other. We can get into trouble when we try to deal with them in isolation, not just in politics, but in general political conversation.

TIP: Consider a Party who desires policy due to ideology rather than as a response to data, here a policy could be fully shaped by party politics. For example, what if there was a belief that illegal immigrants were voting and crime was at an all-time high. Politicians could direct policy based on those “opinion and beliefs” rather than fact. What a slippery slope. A technocracy describes a government run by data; a theocracy describes a government run by ideology; both of these absolutist types have pitfalls. A mixed government grounded in fact but tempered by party politics is better even if it is tempered by justified and unjustified popular belief and opinion. Mixed-Democracy, not political Demagoguery is the ideal.

The Policy Making Process. This video and the video below should be watched in conjunction. 

Eight Steps of Policy Making. See how some parts of policy making are about debate and rallying support, and others are about designing specific rules. Loosely speaking, politics is the human aspects and policy describes the rule-sets. Politics and policy are connected every step of the way, and that adds complexity, but each step is either more ideological and political or more rational and mechanic-based. It is like the difference between “public opinion” and “public policy.”

Two Problems of Policy and Politics

The above statement alludes to two problems.

  1. The Problem of Party Politics and Policy: Political leaders must constantly attempt to square what they want to do ideally, based on either ideology or policy analysis, with what the political system will allow them to do in practice. Not only do they need to solve a problem with well analyzed actionable policy, but they also need other politicians and the public to support a given policy measure. This involves compromise, putting provisions on the chopping block, touting ideology over details, and likely doing some major legislative and political gymnastics with the help of policy analysts on one side and political allies on the other.[3]
  2. The Problem of Politicians and Policy Analysts: The first problem may seem tricky on its own, but there is another complication. The disconnect isn’t just between differing political ideologies; there is a disconnect between policy makers and the politicians themselves. If a politician goes into policy making and political debate only thinking and talking about political ideology and party politics, or an analyst goes into policy analysis only thinking about cold hard facts, we get a whole other set of problems and disconnects. We get, for example, insensitive policy built by technocratic analysts or economically troublesome policy built by ideological-minded politicians.

Put the disconnect between political ideologies together with the disconnect between ideology and policy in general, and we have a recipe for trouble, not just in politics, but in the rising political debate among citizens. See below.

Social Policy: Crash Course Government and Politics #49. Social policy is a good lens through which to understand the aspects of policy and politics. 

Is “principle” a thing of policy or politics? A principle is like a personal moral policy. Both principles and policies are rule-sets of sorts. Principles are more ethereal; policies are generally more specific. One could use this term in different ways, so it is a useful word, but not the ideal word to define policy or politics in isolation. Learn about the nature and importance of principles.

TIP: While reading this article, think about the fact that often when politics is debated on TV or social media what is being debated is ideology and party politics and not policy. We rarely talk about a specific rule and its affects. More often we talk about an overarching subject. For example, the debate is about ObamaCare, Single Payer, or Getting the Government out of Healthcare can be discussed as concepts. We rarely talk about the mechanics of the individual mandate and its impact on the budget. Thus, there isn’t just a disconnect between politics and policy in policy making, but in the overarching political discussion. Watch out for getting caught up in an ideological argument; it is hard to combat ideology with facts and figures.

TIP: In my research, the most insightful article I found on policy and politics was Teaching Public Policy: Linking Policy and Politics Lawrence M. Mead New York University. I often use concepts from that work and suggest reading it.

Definitions of Public Policy, Politics, and Policy Analysis

Before moving on, let’s offer some clearer definitions to understand how policy and politics are different and where they connect.

  • Public Policy can be defined as, “specific actionable rules like written laws and unofficial policies like the Monroe Doctrine” or “courses of action, regulatory measures, laws, and funding priorities concerning a given topic promoted by a governmental entity or its representatives.”[4]
  • Politics can be defined as, “the art of statesmanship” or “the art of decision making, debating the ideological aspects of government, and political dealmaking within the state.”[5]
  • Policy Analysis can be defined as, “the study of what government should do about public problems” or “the science of analysis of existing policy, which is analytical and descriptive; it is meant to explain policies and their development. It may also be defined as the analysis of new policy, which is prescriptive; involved with formulating policies and proposals.”[6]

The politician wants to squeeze blood from a stone; the analyst figures out if that is possible; the policy is the method for the extraction process. The politician works within the sphere of psychology; the analyst works within the sphere of facts. Both are ideally guided by morals and ethics.

Politicians and policy analysts work together to create the best policies that they can muster, given the political system.

Note here, I didn’t say “create the best policy,” I said, “create the best policy they can… given the political system.”

The problem is, facts, data, outcomes, 10-year costs, ancillary effects, and more can easily take a backseat to entrenched prejudices like “because the Gentleman from Nebraska won’t vote on a Bill with a Public Option in it. Period; because it might bring socialism.

No one can analyze or debate their way out of a situation in which a stance is ideological. Neither arguments nor facts can overcome purely political obstinance. In this, we find a bizarre problem of governments “the disconnect between policy and politics.”

However, on the flip side. One can analyze facts all day, but if they don’t factor in core human emotions and ideological issues, the result will be something almost designed to fall on deaf ears. Thus, the answer isn’t in one or the other; it is both together.

1-2 Policy Analysis Context PA. Policy analysis is “analytical” and “fact-based,” unlike politics which can be driven by more subjective principles and the realities of party politics and public opinion.

TIP: Loosely speaking, Aristotle called a city-state a Polis and the ideal city-state a Polity. In these terms, you can think of politics as the art of state and policy making and analysis as the science of the state.

An Example of Policy and Politics

ObamaCare is a political term. The idea that “Big Government” shouldn’t be in healthcare is politics, and so is the idea that “everyone should be covered.” Those ideas can direct policy, but they are mostly just political. The ideas of taxes being spread between entities who benefit, using a mandate, providing government tax credits, all speak to policy, but they are part ideological and political. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, as written and passed, was a law, but even that wasn’t pure policy. Later, after policy analysts and policy experts turned the ACA’s provisions into rules, those actionable and specific rules are “policy in the truest sense.”

Here one could think about this by stepping into a policy analyst’s shoes. The more specific the policy and rules, the more specifically things can be analyzed. The more specific the policy, the less it is in the realm of politics and the more it is in the realm of policy.

TIP: See a fact-check of the CNN “ObamaCare” debate between Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders. The focus was on broad ideological ideas, and specific policies weren’t often mentioned. Part of the problem is communicating ideas to a mass audience. This is something a politician must deal with, but a policy analyst doesn’t always have to. See: CMS-9929-P DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES 45 CFR Parts 147, 155, and 156 CMS-9929-P RIN 0938-AT14 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act; Market Stabilization for an example of “policy proposals.” That is what “policy” looks like in one of its many stages before it turns into final rules. It does not make a great talking point, but it does stand to change the rule-sets we live by.

TIP: Politicians vote on policy, but policy makers and politicians are typically two different entities. A senator will direct a committee to draft legislation, then bring that legislation to the floor, and then vote on it, but it was the backroom committee who drafted the legislation and a background committee who analyzed the policy. Then after the law is passed, when a specific agency writes additional actionable rules based on the standing policy, we have another level of policy. It is pure policy, with little-to-no-room for politics.

TIP: In general one might assume that “keep America Safe” is an “actionable policy,” but that couldn’t be further from the truth. “Keep America Safe” is a broad and semantic political mission statement. For a general statement to become policy, it must be translated into law (a form of public policy), and then that law must be translated into actionable rules (actionable public policy).

The Synthesis of Politics and Policy

In the 1960’s, as the United States Government grew in complexity and people became dissatisfied with policy, public policy arose as an academic field.[7]

In this politics and policy split.

The rational, analytical analysts analyzed the world of facts, and the ideological politicians played word games in the world of ideas.

This uncrossing of the fork makes sense in that specialization has been shown to be effective, but it also speaks to the disconnect between policy and politics.

Instead of purely separating the fields, logic and Lawrence M. Mead both agree.

“Far better would be a combined approach to public policy research and teaching that brings policy and politics together. Scholars should first argue how to solve a public problem on the merits, that is, on a policy analytic basis and without concessions to politics. They should then go on to discuss impediments that might arise from the legislative or administrative process, and how these might be handled. In fact, they should forecast the tension between policy argument and politics that policy makers would face if they espoused these proposals in office (Mead, 1995).”

In other words, Hume’s political fork should be actively crossed despite the specialization. So what if Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) brings a snowball to the Senate, as long as he has some policy notes etched on the back of it. Likewise, who cares if Gruber nerds out on the ACA, if he has a copy of Utilitarianism sitting on the desk.

If those involved in the rational sciences fail to factor in morality and practicality and politics, and if those involved in the political arts don’t factor in the aspects of policy, then we get a disconnect.

This can be bad in a few ways, but I think anyone paying attention can see the way in which it is the worst. That is when our debates become about ideology instead of policy.

I sit at Thanksgiving,

That one crazy Uncle won’t stop making ideological points about climate change.

Nothing is accomplished.

The above is a metaphor for what happens in party politics and on the Senate floor. If politics is all about “small government vs. big government ideology” and policy is all about “rational facts and figures,” but no one ever fuses the two, then we can expect that neither will be in their most effective form.

If policy analysts were carved from the politician’s rib, it probably makes sense to get them working together again. Ideologically, I’m all for individualism and specialization, but if an entire party is going to ignore the CBO and the CBO an entire party, what is the point of all the hard work?

Intro to Public Policy.



Conclusion

Policy and politics aren’t the same thing, but they are closely related.

Anyone who ever had an argument about an issue of government only to frustratingly argue ideology and party politics and talking points instead of facts and policy knows, this is a big deal issue that will keep hitting us over the head until we figure out some sort of practical or ethical standard that moves us to the next level.

See the citations for links to really smart discussions on the difference between policy and politics, how to pair them, and how to understand the mind-numbly frustrating disconnect between them in practice.


Citations

  1. Policy vs. Politics – I promise you there is a difference!
  2. Policy Paradox: The Art of Political Decision Making – PDF description of Policy Paradox: The Art of Political Decision Making (Revised Edition) by Deborah Stone
  3. Teaching Public Policy: Linking Policy and Politics Lawrence M. Mead New York University
  4. Public Policy
  5. Politics
  6. Policy Analysis
  7. State (polity)


"Policy is Different Than Politics" is tagged with: Ethics, Left–right Politics, Morality, Philosophy of Law


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