Nearly three decades of experience teaching social welfare policy at BSW, MSW, and DSW levels suggests that the vast majority of social work students operate with a deeply flawed understanding of how the U.S. political/policy making system actually operates. A superficial and idealized model of policy making in turn misdirects student thinking about policy change and hobbles effective policy advocacy action.
In this post, I would like simply to identify, ever so briefly in bullet point style, several of the most pernicious misunderstandings, turning then to list the principal themes of a “ new civics” commensurate with the profession’s commitment to fundamental change in the interest of social and economic justice.
Among the interrelated misconceptions:
- The U.S. political/policy making process, despite some evident imperfections, is fundamentally rational.
- The overarching goal of the policy making process is problem-solving for the nation’s general welfare.
- U.S. political culture is inherently democratic, pluralistic and open, permitting advocates relatively easy access to policy makers and the mechanisms of policy making.
- Politics and economics are distinct realms of system functioning, with politics “governing” economics.
- Though occasionally subject to unequal pressure (notably by well-funded lobbyists), policy makers are on the whole disinterested public servants committed to serving their constituents fairly and equally.
- Inequality – both political and economic – is incidental to overall system operation.
- Electoral politics is the primary, and most important, form of political activity.
- Incrementalism, i.e. gradual reform and improvement in social welfare policy, is the surest path to achieving social and economic justice.
- The courts, and especially the U.S. Supreme Court, are the unbiased protectors of citizen rights and interests under law.
Thematic highlights of a “new civics” for social workers must include, I would contend:
- Structural and systemic biases of U.S. history and political evolution.
- The centrality of race, gender, and class in the formation and implementation of policy.
- The interpenetration of economic and political power, and the “corporate capture” of the U.S. policy making apparatus.
- The role of ideology in limiting the shape and scope of policy.
- The limits of incrementalism in achieving structural change.
- The disfiguring impact of U.S. militarism on budget priorities and social welfare policy.
- Effective advocacy as a form of long-term class struggle.
I will endeavor to explore each of these conceptual “bullet points” in future posts.