Hijacking the Agenda

New book by Christopher Witko, Jana Morgan, Nathan Kelly, and Peter Enns on economic power and political influence in the U.S. Congress wins APSA award.
Hijacking the Agenda

It has long been recognized that control over the policy agenda is a critical way of exercising power but there has been limited study of how different interests exercise this control. Hijacking the Agenda is an example of recent work in American Political Economy that takes a group-centered, class-based approach to the question of agenda setting in the U.S. Congress. Businesses and the wealthy have varied, sometimes competing interests and preferences, but they routinely diverge from the interests and preferences of the middle and lower classes.  One important way that these interests diverge is which issues competing groups want on the agenda. For example, business interests care much more about deficits and much less about inequality and poverty than middle- and lower-class Americans. Hijacking the Agenda builds and tests a theoretical framework that explains how issue attention in Congress is shaped by power disparities that favor economic elites and how middle-and lower-class interests can (rarely) overcome these power disparities.

Hijacking the Agenda builds on a long literature in agenda-setting, merging structural power theory and pluralist perspectives on group power to develop a structural-kinetic theory of legislative issue attention. It marks a return to elite theories of politics, but with a notable neo-pluralist twist. The basic argument is that businesses have enormous structural advantages that are baked-in to the American political economy. One of the most potent manifestations of this structural power is the widespread belief that what is good for business is good for everyone. But elite economic interests also have a wide variety of other advantages in the policy process connected directly to resource advantages – more money to lobby, more capacity for campaign contributions, more direct connections to policymakers, more access. Utilizing these resource advantages requires action in the policy arena, which the authors call kinetic power.

The analysis relies on a variety of evidence – cross-sectional and temporal quantitative text analysis of floor statements recorded in the Congressional Record, process tracing within policy domains over time, administrative records, and other archival sources – to show that the issues middle- and lower-class Americans care most about are routinely ignored due to both the structural and kinetic advantages of businesses and economic elites. There are times and issues, however, when the advantages of upper-class interests are lessened. For example, the structural power of business declined during the economic crisis of 2007, when it was much harder to see the economic benefits of Wall Street for Main Street. And the kinetic power advantages of upper-class interests can be narrowed when labor unions ramp up campaign contributions and lobbying efforts or mass mobilization occurs. An important ongoing debate in the American political behavior literature focuses on unequal policy responsiveness to class-based public opinion. Hijacking the Agenda explores institutional mechanisms for inequality in the policy process.  

Hijacking the Agenda is in large part a product of the CAPE project. Conferences and workshops that served as initial steps in the development of CAPE seeded many of the ideas and arguments presented in the book. Pieces of the project were presented along the way in venues supported by CAPE, and feedback and encouragement of colleagues in those venues made the project stronger. One of the core goals of CAPE is to create a network of scholars engaged in comparatively informed analysis of the interaction of markets and governance in the United States, and Hijacking the Agenda is a useful example of the kind of work that collaboration within this network can produce.

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