Selected Factors That Influence Public Policy Development in the U.S.: A Civil Rights Case Study
by Craig Goodwin-Ortiz de Leon
The history of the fight for equality of civil rights in the United States reaches back to the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in the late eighteenth century (Birkland, 2016). The idea of giving African-Americans equal access to the rights and accessibility enjoyed by white men divided the nation enough to lead to the Civil War in 1861. After the Civil War, amendments to the U.S. Constitution were passed to ensure equal treatment of all citizens. However, it took 99 years after the end of the Civil War to pass meaningful civil rights legislation. Several factors influence the slow and deliberate nature of policy change, described by Birkland (2016). Three of these factors are the “basic rules and norms” (Birkland, 2016, p. 93) followed by Congress, the fragmented structure of American politics set up by the U.S. Constitution, and pressure from citizens and the media. The civil rights movement is an excellent case study that illustrates how these factors set the pace of policy change and development.
As discussed by Birkland (2016), the U.S. Congress has various “basic rules and norms” (p. 93) that can constrain sudden policy changes. For example, during the debate in the Senate over the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Democratic Senators from Southern states used the filibuster technique to attempt to stop passage of the legislation which lasted for nearly three months and finally stopped by a rare act of cloture, the result of hard work by Senate Republicans (National Constitution Center, n.d.). Had the filibuster been successful, the policy change would have been delayed, possibly for many years. Even though one could say that civil rights were an “idea whose time had come,” people were working hard to squash equal rights for African-Americans.
In addition to rules and norms in Congress, the U.S. Constitution designed the American government structure and political system to ensure that policy change happened slowly. James Madison emphatically advocated the idea that policy should not change at the whims of factions and that stability in government would allow only the most significant changes to take place (Madison, 1787). The Constitution set up a fragmented system whereby power is separated among the legislative, judicial, and executive branches of government; and further divided between the states and the federal government (Birkland, 2016). Even though the Supreme Court struck down segregated schools in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), states fought the decision by using state resources to maintain segregated schools for several more years, yet another example of how policy change can be slow to occur.
Media and grassroots action can expedite a change in government policy. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 would not have passed without the publicity of activism appearing on nightly television news broadcasts and in print media. Mildred Bond Roxborough, former NAACP Secretary, acknowledged the importance of activism in a 2010 interview. She said that “pressure [from grassroots activists] on all levels and branches of government” contributed to the success of the civil rights movement (Civil Rights History Project, 2010). Grassroots movements are the foundation of a democratic society and will continue to ensure that policy change happens when needed.
Policy change and development move in a deliberately slow manner, as designed by the nation’s founders. The civil rights movement is an example of how policy change can take centuries to be effective. Three factors that influence policy change are congressional rules and norms, the fragmented power structure set up by the Constitution, and the activism of grassroots organizations.
Birkland, T. A. (2016). An introduction to the policy process: Theories, concepts and models of public policy making (4th ed.). New York: Routledge.
Brown v. Board of Education (1954) 347 U.S. 483.
Civil Rights History Project. (2010). Mildred Bond Roxborough oral history interview conducted by Julian Bond in New York, New York, 2010-10-29. Retrieved from https://www.loc.gov/item/afc2010039_crhp0002/
Madison, J. (1787). Federalist No. 10. The New York Packet. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-6210.2011.02455.x.
National Constitution Center. (n.d.). The filibuster that almost killed the Civil Rights Act – National Constitution Center. Retrieved September 29, 2018, from https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/the-filibuster-that-almost-killed-the-civil-rights-act/