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Discursive institutionalism and policy stasis in simple and compound polities: the cases of Estonian fiscal policy and United States climate change policy

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Discursive institutionalism is the ‘newest’ of the new institutionalisms. The majority of work employing discursive institutionalism as a framework has so far focused on how it contributes to understanding policy change. Until now, however, little attention has been paid to how discursive institutionalism can help to explain the equally significant phenomenon of policy stasis. This imbalance is addressed here through a discursive institutionalist analysis of two cases of policy stasis: Estonian fiscal policy and United States climate change policy. It is argued that policy stasis – far from being a passive and inactive state – actually involves a large amount of discursive activity by multiple actors. This activity creates, legitimates and perpetuates policy discourses, which ultimately entrench governmental commitments to policy stasis. The article proceeds in three parts. First, a theoretical model is advanced which builds on existing discursive institutionalist literature to modify the theory towards explaining policy stasis. This model is then applied to the two case studies and it is shown how, and to what extent, ‘discourse’ operates as a causal factor. Finally, it is shown how different institutional contexts affect the causal processes whereby the policy discourse becomes streamlined or complexified depending on the ‘simple’ or ‘compound’ characteristics of the polity. It is concluded that discursive institutionalism is a useful theory for understanding policy stasis in its various forms in both simple and compound polities, and that the role of ‘discourse’ in explaining such situations is deserving of greater scholarly attention.
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Keywords: Estonia; climate change policy; discursive institutionalism; fiscal policy; policy stasis; the United States

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies,University of Bristol, Bristol, UK 2: Department of Public Administration,Tallinn University, Tallinn, Estonia

Publication date: September 1, 2012

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