Understanding Trump: Modes of Deliberate Disproportionate Policy Response

moshe-maorMoshe Maor, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Since the U.S. response to 9/11 and the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, there has been increasing interest in the concept of disproportionate policy response and its two component concepts ─ policy over- and underreaction. This policy response is understood to be a lack of ‘fit’ or balance between the costs of a public policy and the benefits that are derived from this policy, and between policy ends and means. So far, however, little scholarly attention has been devoted to this type of policy response and to its two anchor concepts. This is because of the impression that disproportionate policies are not carefully thought out; are not carefully implemented; are based on strategic misperceptions, and are bound to fail. The few studies that address this topic have concluded that this policy response is unintentional, occurring when policymakers engage in mistakes of omission or commission in the diagnosis and the prescription stages of decision-making.

In my recent article in Policy & Politics, I explore this phenomenon and try to clarify its context. Rising negativity and populism in democratic politics forces policy scholars and policymakers to ignore the negative connotations associated with these concepts and to recognize instead the repertoire of disproportionate policy response and, at times, its success in achieving policy goals. My recent article advances a conceptual turn whereby these concepts are re-entering the policy lexicon as types of intentional policy choices. It first distinguishes between disproportionate policy response by error (bounded rationality) and disproportionate response by choice, and advances a further distinction of such choices between two disproportionate policy options, namely, rhetoric and doctrine. Probing the ‘plausibility’ of these terms, the article presents pertinent illustrations drawn from the military, financial and environmental domains in the US, Britain, Israel, Australia, Singapore and the European Union. These illustrations show that, during pre-crisis and in-crisis periods, both options can be purposefully designed to signal policymakers’ preference and/or to deliver the disproportionate responses in pursuit of policy goals.

The study of disproportionate policy response is complex because the concept is context-and time-sensitive. Yet this phenomenon is a gateway to some of the most significant aspects of modern politics and policy. Global and domestic threats coupled with more and more people who become sceptical about politicians and political institutions imply that policy overshooting is increasingly required for the public to perceive of policy action as sufficient and politicians as competent, at least in the short-term. Trump’s immigration ban sits squarely within the category of intentional disproportionate policy response, and can best be understood when the emotional arena of policy is taken into account. In my article I show how prioritising policy effectiveness over policy costs (e.g., achieving a policy goal ‘at-all-costs’), leads to the design and implementation of policy over-reactions. This strategy goes hand-in-hand with the desire to cognitively and emotionally overwhelm the target audience and, in some instances, the general public as well. My article represents a move away from the strongly normative conceptions of policy analysis and evaluation which place efficient goal attainment centre stage. Instead, I advance a more nuanced analysis of disproportionate policy options which is applicable to many current (populist) politics.

If you enjoyed this article you may also like to read Community resilience and crisis management: policy lessons from the ground by Nicole George and Alastair Stark.

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