Monday, 5 January 2015

Thinking about the frameworks

There are more papers at the American Political Group conference than time available, so we have to select particular panels to attend. Thankfully contributors have been encouraged to circulate papers - so it is possible to read papers from panels that one has not been able to attend.

The first two sessions today involved concurrent panels. This morning after hearing from John Herbert (see previous post) I listened to a paper from Howells Williams on Reagan & Clinton's use of the language of family values.  That was followed by Eddie Ashbee (Copenhagen Business School), who challenged us to be explicit about the approaches we are taking to analyse and explain events and policies.

This afternoon we have for session 3 a single panel. The discussion centres around a seminal paper written a few years ago by Paul Pierson, "Increasing Returns, Path Dependence and the Study of Politics" (American Political Science Review 94:2 (June 2000 pp251-267). Eddie Ashbee summarised the concept of path dependence. The costs of change are so great, that - save for an intervening crisis - a particular path will continue to be followed. That will narrow future choices. Once a particular path is followed it becomes more difficult to recover the alternative choices which were not followed. Therefore a particular crisis, or a particular election, sets a new direction which outlasts the crisis/election and can outlive later less significant events or elections. The 1979 UK and 1980 US elections paved the way for a direction that has continued to this day. There is now no way of retracing our steps - other than by a massive crisis.

Perhaps this lies behind the commonly held view that it doesn't matter which party you vote for. However wins an election is constrained by the direction the previous party has chosen. I think that is mistaken. Most of the time the State is like an ocean liner - a "U" turn isn't possible. By the time the turn of the wheel takes effect, the liner has moved many miles in the original direction. .BUT, a small shift - say by one degree - will, over thousands of miles, change the destination. A vote in ANY election can make a small difference in the short term, but the new path - over the long term - can lead to a very different destination. A vote at a major crisis, can make a faster, even longer lasting change.

I have diverted from the discussion as it evolved in the hall - but then, it got me thinking.....