Agenda Setting, Policies, and Political Systems: A Comparative Approach

Agenda Setting, Policies, and Political Systems: A Comparative Approach

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ISBN-13: 9780226128306
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/16/2014
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Christoffer Green-Pedersen is professor of political science at Aarhus University, Denmark, and coeditor of Dismantling Public Policy. Stefaan Walgrave is professor of political science at the University of Antwerp, Belgium, and coeditor of The World Says No to War.

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Agenda Setting, Policies, and Political Systems

A Comparative Approach

By Christoffer Green-Pedersen, Stefaan Walgrave

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-12844-3


Political Agenda Setting: An Approach to Studying Political Systems

Christoffer Green-Pedersen and Stefaan Walgrave

THE IMPORTANCE OF STUDYING POLITICAL AGENDAS—THE LIST of issues to which political actors devote their attention—was first argued by Bachrach and Baratz (1962) in their article on power and by Schattschneider (1960) in his book on American politics. The core idea uniting these two seminal pieces is that defining the locus of conflict, or winning the conflict of conflicts, is the key "second face" of power, which precedes the actual decision-making process (the "first face" of power). In other words, the authors argue that defining which issues should be at the center of political attention—the process of political agenda setting—is one of the most central processes in any political system. Political elites struggle to gain control over the political agenda, because this allows them to define the locus of political conflicts. What politics is about—the issues that enter the political agenda—not only directly (dis)advantages certain political actors compared to others (who can or cannot satisfy their constituencies), it also determines the scope of the conflict (which groups are involved), because it defines in what venues binding decisions are to be taken (and which actors are allowed to participate in the decision-making process). In other words, the issues that are included on the political agenda and those that are excluded, and the study of the process that leads to their inclusion or exclusion, are related to the core of political science. If political science is the study of who gets what when, and why, then the agenda-setting approach can contribute to the discipline because it studies issues' (what) rise and fall (when) to distinguish powerful from nonpowerful actors (who), and because it addresses the mechanisms through which issues gain or lose traction (why).

The idea of politics as a struggle for control over the political agenda raises a series of questions about the conditionality, mechanisms, and consequences of the process: How is the agenda-setting struggle affected by the character of political systems? What role do various actors such as political parties and interest groups play in the process? What is the effect of the size and urgency of real-world problems? And how does elites' ability to define the locus of conflict affect a society's overall conflict structure? Thus, looking at the process of political agenda setting potentially forms the theoretical starting point for a whole research program on political systems. If defining the locus of conflict is a key process in any political system, and we think it is, studying this process would be a natural way to learn how political systems function and change over time. For example, if a country introduced a federal structure, studying how political agendas change would be an obvious way to study the consequences of devolution. Or, when new parties enter the party system, one could assess their influence by testing whether their presence changed the political agenda at all. The importance of studying the second face of power is widely recognized in political science. The article by Bachrach and Baratz (1962) is the most frequently cited article in the American Political Science Review ever (Stone 2006). Nevertheless, a research program on the role of political institutions, actors, and issues in agenda setting did not emerge out of the early agenda-setting literature.

What did emerge was a tradition of agenda research that focused on the role of agendas in policy-making (see, e.g., Cobb and Elder 1983; Kingdon 1995). The core of this policy-agenda tradition consists of case studies showing that an understanding of agenda dynamics is crucial for understanding how and why policy decisions are made. The tradition has provided immense insight into the dynamics of policy decision making and has had a long-lasting impact. Most central is the fact that real-world problems, policy-attention dynamics, and public policy are strongly linked. "Attention" is attention to something, and "something" means problems and solutions, that is, public policy. So, early agenda scholars' focus on policy decisions was not accidental; it was logical when one started to think about attention and its role in politics. A debate that started with Cobb and Elder (1983) is thus about the extent to which characteristics of specific policy issues matter for the policy process (Grossmann 2013). Early policy agenda scholarship also left an important conceptual legacy. Kingdon's (1995) concept of window of opportunities, for instance, is almost universally applied by policy scholars.

However, studies within this tradition have rarely touched upon the broader questions about the role of actors and institutions in political agenda setting. The focus on agendas was tied to specific policies and did not develop into a general framework for asking questions about political systems and political actors and how they relate to the struggle for attention. The object of the focus was policy processes, not politics. Therefore, this volume's first aim is to show that examining the distribution over time of political attention to issues offers a potent framework within which to study politics in general, not only policy.

In fact, inspired by Baumgartner and Jones (1993 and 2009), agenda scholars have gradually started to move away from the policy focus and back toward broader questions about politics that were raised by Schattschneider and by Bachrach and Baratz. Typical policy questions were not abolished, and policy has not disappeared—studies of budgetary developments, for instance, still play an important role (Jones, Baumgartner, et al. 2009; Mortensen 2009). However, the literature has increasingly moved toward questions related to the politics of attention (Jones and Baumgartner 2005), beyond attention to policy. Agenda scholars have started to tackle the questions about political institutions and political actors that follow from the classic work of Schattschneider and Bachrach and Baratz but that until now have hardly been pursued by political science.

This does not imply that policy is forgotten in the shift of focus from policy to politics. "Attention" in this context means attention to specific issues; political actors are thus trying to address real-world problems connected with policy issues. This has implications for how political actors should be studied. Green-Pedersen and Mortensen (20010), Green-Pedersen and Stubager (2010), and Thesen (2013) show that the fact that governments are blamed by the media for whatever policy problems emerge means that governments are often forced to respond to issues raised by other political actors, such as opposition parties.

Accompanying the gradual change from policy to politics, other transformations testify to the broadening of the range of agenda research. To begin with, the scope of the research has increased. Not only were typical policy "output" agendas at the end of the policy cycle (e.g., budgetary and legislative) included, but gradually "input" agendas such as mass media coverage, party manifestos, and parliamentary questions or bills were scrutinized from an agenda perspective. At the same time, political-agenda scholars now increasingly focus on how political agendas interact with and influence each other.

Baumgartner and Jones's original work (1993) mainly assessed patterns of change and stability in attention and policies in relation to specific policy issues or policy questions such as those concerning tobacco, nuclear power, or pesticide use. These studies led to the formulation of the theory of punctuated equilibrium, that is, the idea that in the development of policy there are long periods of stability followed by short periods of large changes before the return to a new, stable equilibrium. This idea, which originated in studies of American politics, has been tested comparatively (see Baumgartner, Breunig, et al. 2009; Jones, Baumgartner, et al. 2009) but is not part of this volume. None of the chapters addresses punctuatedness. Agenda work, also in this volume, has shifted toward the impact of political agendas on one another. How does issue attention "jump" from one agenda to the other, and how do agendas interact? This focus on the mechanisms of agenda change was of course present in the original work of Baumgartner and Jones. But with the explicit and direct focus on how agendas impact each other—for example, how media coverage leads to legislative activity—a gradual shift in focus from agendas to agenda setting has become manifest. The emphasis is on the process, the setting of the given agenda, rather than on the distribution of attention on a given agenda, and its change over time.

This captures the book's second aim, namely to scrutinize the mechanism of agenda setting, not just agenda evolution, and thus attempt to understand the process. Many chapters directly study the process by which issues gain and lose traction by examining how agendas influence each other. Other chapters examine structural breaks or institutional change and their impact on the distribution of attention. In a sense, all chapters follow a causal logic, focus on the process of agenda setting, and try to explain why specific issues rise and fall.

The present volume differs from and contributes to the agenda literature and to political science in a third way. We explained above that early policy-agenda work quite narrowly focused on policy decision making; slowly the emphasis shifted to general politics and to the mechanisms of political agenda setting. In this volume, and we believe it is a first, we employ the political agenda–setting approach to political systems as a whole. As we argue below, we use the agenda lens not to understand why a specific decision has been taken or to examine the power of a specific actor, but rather to measure and understand critical features of each of the political systems under study. Agenda-setting processes are present in the entire political process, and by zooming in on these processes we can assess the streams of influence within a political system. By looking at agenda dynamics we attempt to get a better grasp on how a political system works. In other words, our real units of analysis are eleven political systems—not their issues, agendas, or decisions. This focus on the system level further broadens the scope of political agenda setting considerably and gears it up to make it a more general perspective on politics. The focus of this volume is much more in line with Baumgartner and Jones's (2013) work after 2000, which examines the entire policy agenda and how it is related to political institutions and the development of political systems.

Finally, the volume goes beyond the quite narrow focus on the United States that has been so typical for early agenda work. All of the above-cited foundational authors examined the United States. The dispersion of the agenda-setting approach outside the United States has contributed to the current boom in agenda studies. This volume testifies to the fact that an agenda approach—examining shifts in political attention over time as they are caused by the agendas of other actors, by institutional changes, and by events—fares well outside the United States. This comparative angle is the fourth characteristic of the essays collected in this volume.

In what follows, we do three things. First, we outline how the classic insights into the importance of agenda setting have developed into a theoretically coherent research program. Obviously there is quite a gap between Bachrach and Baratz's (1962) argument about the second face of power or Schattschneider's (1960) idea about the conflict of conflicts and empirical research on agenda setting, which tackles the functioning of entire political systems. This may explain why research on political systems based on agenda-setting ideas has been slow to emerge. Scholars of agenda setting have tried to bridge this gap theoretically, and we lay out the steps.

Second, the chapter explains that agenda setting is not only a theoretical account but also entails a specific empirical perspective and a distinct methodology for tackling questions about the politics of attention. The core of the approach is a strong focus on issues and on the shifts over time in attention to issues.

Third, we discuss how the approach to studying political systems from an agenda-setting perspective differs from the way political science more broadly has examined the functioning of political systems. The dynamics of political systems and the functioning of political institutions are core issues in political science and have been widely researched based on other theoretical approaches. The contribution of the agenda-setting approach to studying political systems can thus be specified by showing how it differs from these other approaches.

Political Attention Is Scarce and Consequential

The key starting point of agenda setting is twofold: political attention is scarce, and it is consequential. That political attention is consequential means, at the most reductive level, that it is a precondition for political change. The idea that attention is a scarce resource may seem trivial at first sight, but it has many implications. Political actors and their agendas are bound by their carrying capacity. One can thus talk about a "bottleneck of attention" (Jones and Baumgartner 2005, 15–17). The ability of any actor or institution to address issues is constrained. The time, energy, personnel, motivation, money, expertise, logistics, and the like available for attending to issues are limited. But the number of issues or problems begging for political attention is practically infinite. In any society, an endless array of problems, accidents, events, solutions, and so on beg for political attention. This mismatch between an "endless" society and a "limited" political system turns the political prioritization of issues—the choice to attend to an issue at the expense of other possible issues—into a key political process.

The selection of issues that deserve political attention determines all further steps in the political process. When issues are not noticed, political actors do not develop preferences to deal with them, the public does not care about them, interest groups do not bother with them, solutions to the problems are not formulated, political pressure does not mount, and no decision regarding the issue will be taken. In short, without political attention the status quo is extended. (Naturally, the status quo can also prevail even when attention to an issue is raised.) This is why political attention is not only a scarce resource, but also is consequential and a precondition for political action. Both elements are intimately related; attention is scarce because it is a precondition for political action, and vice versa. In short, attention is the gate to politics.

Consequently, the prioritization of attention is a central effect of political institutions and a central goal of political actors. This is basically what Schattschneider (1960) meant when he focused on the scope of conflict and what is implied in Bachrach and Baratz's (1962) second face of power. For instance, if an issue moves from attracting limited attention to being a key political issue, new actors (with other preferences) become involved, electoral concerns (and the preferences expressed through them) become increasingly important for political parties, the media become more interested, and so on. Agenda setting is about how political institutions and the political elites that inhabit those institutions turn societal conditions into political problems.


Excerpted from Agenda Setting, Policies, and Political Systems by Christoffer Green-Pedersen, Stefaan Walgrave. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents


1 Political Agenda Setting: An Approach to Studying Political Systems
Christoffer Green-Pedersen and Stefaan Walgrave

Part I Parties, Elections, and Policies

2 Party Politics and the Policy Agenda: The Case of the United Kingdom
Peter John, Shaun Bevan, and Will Jennings

3 Lawmaking and Agenda Setting in the United States, 1948–2010 36
Bryan D. Jones and Michelle C. Whyman

4 The Evolution of the French Political Space Revisited: Issue Priorities and Party Competition
Sylvain Brouard, Emiliano Grossman, and Isabelle Guinaudeau

5 Party-System Development in Denmark: Agenda-Setting Dynamics and Political Change
Christoffer Green-Pedersen

6 The Policy Agenda in Multiparty Government: Coalition Agreements and Legislative Activity in the Netherlands
Arco Timmermans and Gerard Breeman

7 Agenda Setting and Direct Democracy: The Rise of the Swiss People’s Party
Frédéric Varone, Isabelle Engeli, Pascal Sciarini, and Roy Gava

Part II Issue Priorities and Institutional Change

8 Content and Dynamics of Legislative Agendas in Germany
Christian Breunig

9 Strong Devolution but No Increasing Issue Divergence: Evolving Issue Priorities of the Belgian Political Parties, 1987–2010
Stefaan Walgrave, Brandon Zicha, Anne Hardy, Jeroen Joly, and Tobias Van Assche

10 The Impact of Party Policy Priorities on Italian Lawmaking from the First to the Second Republic, 1983–2006
Enrico Borghetto, Marcello Carammia, and Francesco Zucchini

11 Policy Promises and Governmental Activities in Spain
Laura Chaqués-Bonafont, Anna M. Palau, and Luz M. Muñoz Marquez

12 Diffusion of Policy Attention in Canada: Evidence from Speeches from the Th rone, 1960–2008
Martial Foucault and Éric Montpetit

13 Conclusion: What It Takes to Turn Agenda Setting from an Approach into a Theory
Christoffer Green-Pedersen and Stefaan Walgrave

Notes on Contributors
General Index
Index of Cited Authors

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