Skip to content
Rosanita Ratcliff writes about the intersection and differences between policy and politics

Politics vs. Policy

Understanding the Distinctions

Today, we’ll be diving into two terms that are often used interchangeably but have unique nuances and differences – politics and policy. By the end of this piece, hopefully you’ll have a clearer understanding of the distinctions and a richer vocabulary when discussing matters of governance and statecraft.

Politics: The Art of the Possible

At its core, politics is about power – who has it, who wants it, and how it’s used. Politics encompasses the activities, actions, and policies employed to gain and hold power in a government or to influence the government.

Key Features of Politics:

1. Decision Making: Politics is the method by which decisions are made within groups, be it at the national, regional, or local levels.

2. Interpersonal Dynamics: Politics often involves negotiation, alliance-building, and sometimes conflict between different interest groups or individuals.

3. Elections: The political landscape in democratic societies is heavily shaped by elections, where leaders are chosen and political agendas are set.

4. Representation: Politics determines who speaks for us and how our concerns are articulated.

Example: Consider the election season. The heated debates, campaigns, promises, and alliances are all part of the political dance. The rivalry between Democrats and Republicans in the US, or between Conservatives and Labour in the UK, is a political one, defined by differing philosophies, personalities, and strategies to secure votes.

Policy: Blueprint for Action

Policy, on the other hand, refers to a deliberate system of principles to guide decisions and achieve rational outcomes. It’s a course or principle of action proposed or adopted by an organization or individual.

Key Features of Policy:

1. Guidelines: Policies act as guidelines or rules that dictate what actions should (or should not) be taken in certain situations.

2. Outcome-oriented: Policies are often crafted with a specific outcome in mind. They are solutions or strategies to solve specific societal challenges.

3. Research-Based: Good policies are typically based on research, evidence, and expert insights.

4. Consistency: They promote consistency and fairness in decision-making and action.

Example: Think about healthcare in the US. The debate over whether or not there should be universal healthcare is a political one. However, the actual systems, regulations, and plans that determine how healthcare is administered – like the Affordable Care Act (ACA) or any subsequent legislation – are policies.

The Intersection

While distinct, politics and policy are deeply intertwined. Politics often determines what policies are considered, who gets to craft them, and how they’re implemented. At the same time, policies can influence political discussions and the fortunes of political actors.

Consider climate change:

 Politics: The debate over whether to prioritize climate change, which parties or politicians champion environmental concerns, and how the topic influences voter behavior.

– Policy: The specific strategies adopted to address climate change, such as carbon taxing, regulations on emissions, and renewable energy subsidies.

The question of “who decides” in both politics and policy is a nuanced one, heavily contingent on the political system and structure in place. Let’s dive into this topic by looking at the general actors involved in both arenas:

Who Decides Politics?

Politics, in essence, is about the distribution and exercise of power within a society. Here’s who typically plays a role:

 The Electorate: In democratic systems, citizens play a pivotal role in deciding politics through voting. They choose representatives and sometimes directly vote on issues in referendums or initiatives.

– Political Parties: Parties represent specific ideologies and platforms. They select candidates, set agendas, and drive political discourse.

– Interest Groups: These are organizations or groups that advocate for specific interests or causes. Their influence can shape political dynamics.

– The Media: By deciding what stories to cover and how to present them, the media plays a substantial role in shaping political narratives and public opinion.

– Elites: In many societies, a relatively small group of influential individuals, due to wealth, status, or connections, can exert significant influence over politics.

– Institutions: Structures like parliaments, executives, and judiciaries have roles, rules, and processes that shape political dynamics.

Who Decides Policy?

Policy decisions revolve around the formulation and implementation of strategies to address societal issues. Here’s who’s typically involved:

 Elected Officials: Legislators, presidents, governors, and other elected figures have the authority to propose, shape, and enact policies.

– Bureaucrats: These are the government employees and administrators who often craft the details of policies and are responsible for their execution.

– Expert Committees: Especially for technical subjects, governments might rely on specialized committees to draft or advise on policy.

– Think Tanks and Research Bodies: These institutions often provide data, research, and policy recommendations that can guide decision-making.

– Lobbyists and Advocacy Groups: These individuals and groups advocate for specific policy outcomes, trying to influence the decision-making of elected officials.

– The Public: Through mechanisms like public consultations, referendums, or direct democracy initiatives, the general public can directly influence policy decisions.

– International Bodies: For countries that are members of international organizations (like the UN, EU, or WHO), these entities can influence or dictate certain policy areas.

Intersection and Overlap

While distinct in many ways, there’s a considerable overlap between who decides politics and policy. Elected officials, for instance, play significant roles in both spheres. Political decisions (like electing a particular party) often lead directly to policy decisions (that party enacts its platform). Conversely, the success or failure of certain policies can heavily influence political dynamics.

Different actors may have more influence in one sphere than another, both politics and policy are shaped by a wide array of individuals, groups, and institutions, all interacting in complex ways.

In most democratic systems, citizens directly vote on representatives – that is, the politics. These representatives, in turn, make policy decisions on behalf of the electorate. However, there are mechanisms in some democracies where citizens can directly vote on policies as well. Let’s delve deeper:

Voting on Politics:

– General Elections: Citizens typically vote for representatives (like members of parliament or a president) based on their political affiliations, ideologies, or promises. These representatives then take on the task of policy-making once in office.

– Primary Elections: In some systems, like the U.S., citizens vote in primary elections to decide which candidates from each party will go on to compete in the general election.

Voting on Policies

Some democracies provide mechanisms for citizens to have a direct say on specific policies:

– Referendums: A referendum is a direct vote in which an entire electorate is asked to either accept or reject a particular proposal. This could be a new law, a constitutional amendment, or any specific governmental policy. Examples include the Brexit referendum in the UK in 2016 or various state referendums in the U.S.

– Initiatives: These are processes where citizens can propose new laws or changes to existing laws, usually by collecting signatures to qualify the proposal for the ballot. Once on the ballot, the wider electorate can vote on the proposal. This method is common in many U.S. states.

– Plebiscites: Similar to referendums, a plebiscite is a vote on a specific question posed by the government. However, plebiscites are usually non-binding and more consultative in nature.

– Local Ballot Measures: In local governance, residents often vote on specific policy issues, like bond measures for school funding or zoning law changes.

It’s worth noting that even when citizens are voting on specific policies via referendums or initiatives, there’s still a heavy influence of politics. The framing of the question, the campaigns for and against the policy, and the broader political context can all influence the outcome.

Interplay and Overlap

While politics and policy serve distinct purposes, they’re intertwined. They don’t exist in isolation. Though distinct, politics and policy don’t exist in isolation. Politics often dictates policy considerations, shaping who crafts them and how they’re implemented. For example, political decisions, like electing a party, lead to specific policy outcomes. Inversely, a policy’s success or failure can shape political fortunes. Even in direct policy votes, like referendums, the influence of politics is undeniable, affecting campaign strategies, voter behavior, and eventual outcomes.

The default in many democracies is for citizens to vote on politics (i.e., representatives) even though many systems also allow for direct voting on specific policies. The balance between these approaches varies based on the country, the level of government (national vs. local), and the particular democratic traditions and mechanisms in place.

Wrapping Up

While both politics and policy shape the direction of societies, they do so in different ways. Politics is the arena in which the contest for power and representation happens. Policy, meanwhile, is the tangible blueprint guiding actions and decisions once that power is in place. By distinguishing between the two, we can more accurately understand and engage in the world of governance.

Keep these distinctions in mind next time you tune into the news or a debate. You’ll find that it enriches your perspective and allows for a more nuanced understanding of the events unfolding around you.

Read More from Rosanita on her Substack, Long on Civics

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *