The concept of policy is the American political imagination’s self-circumscribed border. You can do what you like with policies–build, mold, destroy, rearrange–but the context in which policies appear is static, unchanging. Policies can reflect different governing philosophies, but only those philosophies which endorse governing through policy. Policy can shape philosophy as much as philosophy shapes policy.
Policies deal with the tactile and the quantifiable. If it’s not measurable, it’s not truly thinkable. Policy is hostile to virtue ethics or theology, but it loves utilitarianism. To the extent that policy addresses psychology, it turns us all into behaviorists. Behavioral economics has made policy more sophisticated, but it has also made its outer limits more sharply visible.
The ultimate end of modern politics is to exert as much influence as possible over policy making. You can do that either by electing your own policy makers or by influencing the ones already in office. Elected officials, public institutions and interest groups form alliances and compete among one another to most effectively dominate the policy-making process. Within those categories, political actors are distinguishable only by their stated policy preferences, the amount of power they wield, and how they use that power. So, for example, all interest groups are identical insofar as they all do more or less the same thing in the same way. A labor union is indistinguishable from a pro-life activist group is indistinguishable from the Chamber of Commerce until you examine their stated policy preferences and the strategies they use to achieve them.
This is essentially why Occupy Wall Street was so baffling: it refused to behave like an interest group. When members of the press urged Occupy to release its demands, they were really asking for a menu of policy preferences. Occupy Wall Street’s idea of a politics beyond policy seemed as intelligible as a language spoken without words. But that idea’s moment has passed, at least for now, along with its frightening ambiguities. Policy has resumed its central, uncontested place in political discourse. Occupy–cloudy, confusing and inchoate–has ceded to the simple, comforting, and diamond-hard.
Even more comforting: Paul Ryan’s appearance on the Republican presidential ticket this election cycle. Conventional wisdom has it that his presence will make the election especially policy-heavy. Here’s hoping!