A theory of policy drift: obstructionist politics as a mechanism of U.S. welfare state retrenchment

A theory of policy drift:
obstructionist politics as a mechanism of U.S. welfare state retrenchment

DOI: 10.17976/jpps/2022.03.11

For citation:

Karasev D.Yu. A theory of policy drift: obstructionist politics as a mechanism of U.S. welfare state retrenchment. – Polis. Political Studies. 2022. No. 3. P. 141-156. (In Russ.). https://doi.org/10.17976/jpps/2022.03.11

This paper is based on work supported by Ministry of Science and Higher Education of the Russian Federation Grant № 075-15-2020-930 from 16.11.2020.


The article’s aim is to consider Jakob Hacker’s policy drift approach and present this promising and unrenowned approach to Russian social and political scientists and researchers. It explains institutional change in social politics with hidden efforts of obstructionist-policymakers to block adaptation of welfare state institutions to changing social and economic circumstances. Drift occurs when institutions or politics are deliberately held in place while their context shifts in ways that alter their effect. The very nature of American political institutions and political processes encourage drift and make obstructionist politics effective and favorable in terms of political costs. In such a political environment, opponents of popular and embedded welfare state institutions may find it prudent not to attack these institutions directly; instead they may impede their adaptation to shifting circumstances, remake those institutions ground-level operations or build new institutions on the top of them. The article carefully explains the policy drift approach: it investigates its historical and theoretical origins, analyze cases of U.S. welfare state retrenchment that gave rise to the idea of drift, enumerates the other ideal types of hidden welfare privatization politics besides the “drift” – “conversion” and “layering”. Furthermore, it engages in critical discussions on perspectives of the policy drift approach’s adaptation in empirical social and political studies. Since the policy drift approach emerged as special theory explaining only U.S. welfare state shrinking, it put to the fore a specific issue: could it be utilized as general theory for the same processes in another countries? The article argues that the answer is “yes” but that the approach is only reliable and valid for homological cases. Firstly, the article shows examples of extension of the drift theory’s explorations in empirical studies. Secondly, the article demonstrates, that the drift theory could be extended beyond cases of bipartisan, pluralist democracies, since in the other regimes minoritarian lobby-coalition can opt for drift strategy and obstructionist politics against reformist efforts of the majoritarian one, or vice versa. 

policy drift, conversion, layering, Jakob Hacker, historical institutionalism, welfare state retrenchment, unintended consequences, USA, Health Care Reform in the U.S., Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).


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Content No. 3, 2022

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