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What is "political will," anyway? Scholars take a whack at defining it.

The kid would like some political will, please.
The kid would like some political will, please.

Environmentalists are fond of saying that we have all the technology we need to address climate change — all we lack is political will.

They say it so often it has become a running joke among cynical climate journalists. Everything's in place except that one little element! Soon as somebody tackles that, we're golden.

But what exactly is political will? How do you make it? How do you know when you have it?

To me, it has always sounded like the political equivalent of the Force in the Star Wars movies. It explains everything and nothing.

Imagine my delight when a friend (thanks, NS!) sent me an academic paper that begins thusly:

An oft-cited culprit when government does not take action is a lack of political will. Over a decade ago Hammergren characterized political will as "the slipperiest concept in the policy lexicon," calling it "the sine qua non of policy success which is never defined except by its absence." ...

The way the term "political will" is bandied about is a reflection of its presumed centrality in achieving policy change, but such casual usage is troublesome for those concerned with crafting, promoting, implementing, and analyzing public policies.

Troublesome indeed.

The paper is "Defining Political Will," published in the journal Politics & Policy back in 2010 by Lori Ann Post of Yale along with Amber Raile and Eric Raile of North Dakota State University.

It's an attempt to pull together various threads in the academic literature on political will into one clear definition, broad enough to cover different circumstances and institutions but with enough substance to allow for analysis and action in individual situations.

It's a structured way to determine where and when political will exists, and, if it doesn't, what exactly is missing. It also illuminates why, in current hyperpolarized US politics, political will is so hard to come by. I found it helpful, so I thought I'd share it.

will v. will
Will v. will.

What is political will, anyway?

The literature has surfaced three main elements of political will.

There's "distribution of preferences," which has to do with who wants what. There's "the authority, capacity, and legitimacy of key decision-makers or reformers," which has to do with whether those who want an outcome have the power and means to achieve it. And there's "commitment to preferences," which is the fuzzy-but-crucial metric of how strongly held the preferences of key decision-makers are.

The authors try to wrap these together into a simple definition of political will: "the extent of committed support among key decision makers for a particular policy solution to a particular problem."

Later they break it down into a somewhat more elaborate four-part definition: Political will exists when 1) a sufficient set of decision-makers 2) with a common understanding of a particular problem on the formal agenda 3) is committed to supporting 4) a commonly perceived, potentially effective policy solution.

Let's walk through them quickly.

1) A sufficient set of decision-makers

Analysis here is first about whether there are enough people in positions of power who support the desired reform, but it's also about "veto players," i.e., people in a position to block or derail reform.

Obviously what counts as a sufficient set of decision-makers will vary in different kinds of governments. For a dictator, one decision-maker is sufficient. In democracies, there are typically more complex arrays of supporters and veto players.

The authors note in passing: "In presidential systems, different political parties may control the legislature and executive (i.e., divided government), potentially enhancing the blocking role of the parties."

Ahem. Yes. We'll return to that.

Decision makers. Ish.
Decision-makers. Ish.

2) With a common understanding of a particular problem on the formal agenda

This has to do with whether decision-makers "agree that a particular issue or condition has reached problem status, agree on the nature of the problem, and agree that the problem requires government action."

Achieving this consensus often involves a vigorous war of "issue definition," or, as it's called these days, framing.

How do you know when such a battle is won?

Influential decision makers will publicly discuss the problematic elements of an issue and will use similar terminology and frames when doing so. Competition among differing problem interpretations will quiet. The formation of a large political coalition around a single problem definition is perhaps the clearest signal.

3) Is committed to supporting

This is the toughest nut to crack, but also the most important. How intense are the preferences of decision-makers? And how can we know they are telling the truth about it? Some reading of tea leaves is necessarily involved.

Intensity can be inferred by figuring out decision-makers' most influential constituencies, the ones pressuring them on the decision, and how intense their preferences are. Institutional incentives like political parties or membership in various caucuses matter. And larger cultural preferences matter as well.

4) A commonly perceived, potentially effective policy solution

This doesn't mean that all decision-makers agree on all details, but there must be a general consensus on the type of policy response required and some good-faith belief that the policy response will be effective.

It is possible to have false or illusory political will, focused on short-term fixes or other means (see: commissions and task forces) to distract the public or create the illusion of action. Real political will involves commitment to real (or sincerely perceived to be real) solutions.

gingrich and clinton
"Shared solutions! This guy kills me!"
J. David Ake/AFP/Getty Images

The paucity of political will in contemporary America

The authors do not address this directly — the paper was written five years ago — but their definition casts considerable light on current US politics. In particular, it helps reveal why political will is so difficult to find these days.

With the two parties having drifted so far apart, separated both demographically and geographically, both point 2 and point 4 have become almost impossible to come by. More and more, the parties have fundamentally different perspectives on what's wrong with the country, what even counts as a problem. And even when they agree on problems, they favor fundamentally different kinds of solutions.

Witness the debates over guns, abortion, taxes, immigration, climate change — the list goes on.

And so most efforts at reform in the US founder on point 1. In a presidential two-party system filled with veto points (the Senate filibuster being only the most notable), it is almost impossible to do anything substantial without some cooperation from the other side. Yet polarization means most politicians face far greater institutional pressures to fight than to cooperate.

So it has become extraordinarily difficult to rally a sufficient number of decision-makers to create change. The barriers are so high.

The authors use health care reform as a case study. It's true that when health care came up under Obama, the left's various constituencies had already done the long, tedious work of getting everyone on the same page about the shape of the problem and the shape of the solution.

And every Dem in the Senate felt their reputations was on the line if the party didn't act on its promises. Criteria 2 through 4 were met with unusual clarity.

But it's important to remember that the only reason criterion 1 was met was that Democrats briefly (as in, for a few months) had a filibuster-proof majority of 60 in the Senate. Without that highly unusual state of affairs, Obamacare would have been doomed.

Obama claps when he find out his universally beloved health care reform solution has become law, March 2010.
Obama claps when he find out his universally beloved health care reform solution has become law, March 2010.
(Pete Sousa/Wikimedia)

Now that the filibuster-proof majority is gone (and unlikely to return soon), major legislative reform efforts, on both sides, are doomed. The system is built to require levels of political will that have become, thanks to polarization, almost impossible to muster.

I can think of only two ways to squeeze around this impasse, to muster political will in today's inclement circumstances.

One is to assemble "transpartisan coalitions" around issues that are outside the core, conflicting passions of the two parties. (I've written about such coalitions before, drawing on the work of Steven Teles and colleagues at the New America Foundation.)

A good example here is prison reform, which has begun to bring together people from the left and right around a shared perception of a problem and a (somewhat shakier) shared set of solutions. These reformers have slowly begun assembling supportive decision-makers and had some successes.

The other is to find routes to action that involve fewer veto players. That's what Obama has done on climate change. He began with a sweeping legislative solution that required enormous political will and soon found that points 2 and 4 were shaky and 3 was vaporous, which put 1 out of reach.

So he switched to the use of executive powers, primarily through the Environmental Protection Agency. For this kind of action, he did not need the assent of a majority of lawmakers. Political will required only his decision, a cooperative federal bureaucracy, and engaged constituencies willing to defend him, all of which he had. (Well, it also required judicial assent, which may turn out to be its Achilles' heel.)

Beyond these two extremely constricted routes, I don't see much progress happening in America in the next few years.

America, basically.
America, basically.

In our polarized presidential system, there's plenty of political will — both sides have supportive decision-makers and intense preferences around a core set of goals — but it is evenly divided against itself. Neither of the sides can muster enough political will around their goals to decisively claim political legitimacy and overcome the array of veto players in the system.

In such circumstances, "we have everything we need except political will" is cold comfort. That's the hardest thing to get.