Interaction between national elected officials is regularly characterized by demeaning attacks against political adversaries. There is little attempt to engage in meaningful discussion over options that might lead to well-reasoned, incremental solutions to improve our daily living.
When policy decisions do take place, they are often forced on the nation by an impending catastrophe (the budget impasse, the border crisis) rather than through thoughtful debate. The result produces a radical shock to society because it is too late to “soften the blow” with proactive sensible measures. The negative effect of crisis-driven policy decisions becomes the new ammunition to fuel another round of attacks by the political party out of power. This commentary will explore two strategies that could help break this damaging volcanic cycle of “do nothing” dormancy followed by inevitable and dangerous eruptions.
Gradually Change Opinions and Build New Structures
President John F. Kennedy uttered the above phrase in a speech on how to seek peace during the Cold War. Today, our nation’s political differences are nothing if not a national cold war with deeply entrenched ideologies on both sides of the divide. We endure constant animosity with no discussion followed by emergency resolutions. Thankfully, there exists a rational way for conservatives and progressives to move in tandem toward solutions.
Many deadlocked issues, like abortion, immigration, gun control, and the national debt are best addressed by taking a gradual but persistent legislative approach. Within each contentious item are seeds of ideas to slowly change opinions and build new compromise structures. An all-or-nothing result that would satisfy one political extreme or the other is rarely achievable. Waiting for a crisis before taking action produces societal stress and more finger pointing. In our pluralistic, democratic republic, only agreed-on, incremental change produces long-lasting, solid results at a minimal cost.
Over time, small, incremental reforms can add up to something truly transformative. The problem with understanding a big problem is how little radical reformers actually know about their proposed solutions. Apart from the political dimension, weighty problem-solving needs time to be tested, evaluated and to gain acceptance.
There are many examples of successful incremental decision-making. The Social Security system and Medicare took decades to develop before all Americans embraced them. A thousand small, debated decisions led to lowering the New York City crime rate in the 1990s. In past decades, immigrant families were gradually integrated into our society based on an agreed-upon, enforceable plan. Many countries have resolved the abortion dilemma through debate and compromise on national legislation, rather than on controversial and disruptive court decisions. Incremental changes in gun control can gradually change opinions and build a new consensus on the meaning of the Second Amendment.
Much Ado about ‘Nudging’
In addition to gradual change, the concept of “nudging” is an underutilized tool in the legislative toolbox. A nudge is defined as a behavioral technique that makes it more likely that an individual will make a particular choice or behave in a particular way. Policymakers alter the environment so that cognitive processes are triggered to favor the desired outcome. Stated another way, nudge techniques aim to get people to act in their best interest.
In 2008, behavioral economist, Richard Thaler, and legal scholar, Cass Sunstein, published a revolutionary book, “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness.” While they were not the first to consider nudge theory, the book brought the concept into the mainstream. The implications of nudging were put into practice throughout modern society.
Where has nudge theory worked, where has it failed, and can nudging be used by the government to improve our lives? The most radical elected officials from both political parties can agree that nudges to reduce violations of the law are more desirable than criminal penalties. Think of campaigns depicting the sanctions for drunk driving or police seminars in schools to educate students. Conservatives and progressives support widespread nudge campaigns against smoking, for youth vaccinations, and cancer prevention.
When government efforts cross the line into mandates rather than psychological attempts to shape behavior, conservatives are often against the effort on libertarian grounds. For example, Republican governors did not support mandatory lockdowns during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The national nudge campaign during the pandemic to wear a mask when in crowded environments was an unsuccessful attempt to modify behavior. Many Americans, because of inconsistent governmental advice, did not accept that masks were helpful. Now, a year later, scientific studies still do not agree on the effectiveness of mask-wearing. During the pandemic, policymakers were more concerned with saving lives than gathering statistics. We will need rock-solid, mask-wearing nudges when faced with the next viral outbreak. Research must be done and an irrefutable consensus reached on when, where, and how to employ masks.
Nudge techniques can be implemented in other situations where there is no political disagreement. No elected official wants a woman to die because of a state’s unclear abortion policy. In a state that bans abortion, a nudge campaign in the media and in the schools can explain what action to take when there is a gynecological emergency.
All elected officials could agree on nudge programs to save energy, spot abnormal behavior prior to gun violence, and report spousal, child, or elder abuse. Other possibilities for nudging citizens to make positive decisions are endless. Each effort is a gradual step toward a more comprehensive solution.
Gary Stout is a Washington attorney.
Gary, how do you define policy? And how do you enforce policies that are contrary to existing laws? Al elected officials should be jailed without bail if they do not enforce existing laws as progressives like to do.
We need to rid our government of policies. Either enact regulations and enforce them or do nothing. Any elected official who refuses to enforce regulations of laws due to their "policies" should be removed from office within 30 days.
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