(Photo: Hudson Yards New York)

Imagine for a second that you are in a bookstore, perusing the magazine section, and your eyes come to rest on the latest issue of Progressive Farmer. Splayed across the front cover, over a bleak photograph of a barren field, in big bold font is the title: Why Farm? Does Agriculture Still Matter?

If you saw this, and you were of the type that cared about farming, you’d be alarmed and confused. You would assume that the farming industry had suffered some great crisis of faith, something more than the occasional bad harvest that was forcing it to question its very legitimacy. You would be rightly concerned.

And indeed, we in the policy realm are rightly concerned. The harvest has been worse than bad, times are hard, and it is cause for worry that a publication titled the Columbia Public Policy Review feels compelled to ask whether policy still matters.

The question is more than appropriate. In what were once called the ‘established democracies’, the last several years have seen populist and demagogic leaders and movements successfully dismiss policy-centric public discourse. Emotive appeals to symbolism have become the currency of electoral politics: “Build the wall” is not, obviously, a policy, nor is “lock her up”. “Brexit” isn’t even a real word, let alone a coherent policy agenda, and yet we seem powerless to blunt the allure of it and other similarly popular slogans and portmanteaus.

The deadening of public debate has spilled into emerging democracies and hybrid regimes too—it is bizarre, but true, that such is the directionality—and leaders of authoritarian-leaning governments have taken advantage of the disarray of Western liberalism to legitimize their own misinformation campaigns. Where in this morass is there room for thoughtful public policy? Why bother, indeed?

Sociologists have long had a hard time pinning down what exactly public policy is. In its most strict interpretation, the term is simply descriptive, the catch-all we use to describe the choices that are made by those who pull the levers of state.

But we imply more than mere functionalism when we talk about policy. Somehow the term suggests that there is a method to these choices; that good policy is both a means and an end, a way of shaping choices and an expression of hope in what those choices will yield. Public policy is the activity we engage in when we place institutions in the service of the public. In this understanding, engaging in policy is visionary and idealistic, the practical expression of the belief that we can deploy systems of inhuman scale in the service of human goals.

Unlike politics, its distant cousin, the beauty and measure of policy is in its depth and complexity rather than its aesthetic. This level of sophistication allows good policymaking to sometimes act as a bulwark against bad politics.

We see this across the United States today, where policymakers at the state and municipal level have helped compensate significantly for the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement at the federal level.

Policies adopted by 62 cities across the United States, including New York, Chicago, and Atlanta are on track to reduce American carbon emissions by 328 million tonnes per year by 2050. The efforts of policymakers in lower levels of government might cumulatively be enough to stave off the catastrophic consequences that would otherwise accompany the political indifference expressed by the federal administration.[1]  

There are other examples of such dissonance between policy and politics. Even as the rhetoric around gun violence and police-community relations has taken a major step backwards in the U.S., consultations are being held in cities and towns across the country to create local policies that build trust and break down stereotypes.

One such program has seen the Atlanta Police Department encourage its officers to purchase property in inner-city neighborhoods to encourage interactions between police without in uniform and communities, and to deepen familiarity from a community and police perspective.

Despite the newfound political support for traditional American manufacturing industries, small towns everywhere are embracing smart policies that harness new technologies in support of fresh industries and improved quality of life.

“Small Towns Can be Smart Cities Too” is the headline from the Smart Cities Council, which highlights the steps Seat Pleasant, Maryland has taken to incorporate IBM’s Internet of Things (IoT) software into its city planning suite. The software will allow residents to request and track city services online, while making the municipality’s operations more affordable and efficient.

And yet, this is still not enough. “Hunker down and wait” cannot be all that policymaking has to offer. Fortunately, good policy can be more than just a fortress. It can and should be an incubator for societal outcomes that will in turn add up to better politics.

This policy effect is most dramatically illustrated by examples of its absence. In the spring of 2011, in Cairo, young people turned out to protest the cruelty of their government and the strictures of their society. Over the course of eighteen days, a groundswell of civic boldness fostered a space for art, culture, and political experimentation. There was real power there, enough to topple a 30-year old authoritarian regime, and to sustain a presence in the streets of the capital for nearly a month.

Mubarak’s Egypt was ill-equipped to foster or support civic engagement at such scale. In the absence of institutional capacity and outlets for organized policy experimentation, the Egyptian revolution was hijacked by existing disciplined and structured forces. The chaos of the years that have followed it is beyond the scope of this paper. Suffice it to say that today Egyptian activists and civil society actors fave more severe repression than even during Mubarak’s later years.

What might have happened had smart, empathetic, and enthusiastic policymakers been empowered to constructively guide the energy of Tahrir? There are people seeking to answer variations of that question in real time, and in even more extreme situations.

In Syria, civil society organizations are attempting to build peace capacity among communities across the country by conducting mediation training sessions and workshopping inclusive governance arrangements. Institutionalizing the principles of equality and rights now, goes the logic, will pay dividends in the future when an opening for peace presents itself.

It seems obvious that good policymaking is forward-looking, but it’s something we often forget. It is easy to miss that thoughtful education policy is about bettering the world for our children, not for us; the social dividends of a four year old who receives a more thoughtful and open-minded education starting now won’t begin to pay for a decade or more. We forget that developing good humanitarian policy is about helping the victims of the next war or natural disaster. The admittedly modest global efforts that the Paris Agreement harnessed were about mitigating global temperatures rises by the end of this century.

Unlike politics, policy is about tomorrow. We do ourselves a disservice if we allow today’s cynicism to prevent us from investing in the future.

However, as much as good and smart policy is a defence against demagoguery and an investment in future innovation, it is as deeply vulnerable. If public policy can be harnessed to produce positive future outcomes, there is nothing to prevent it from being equally serviceable  to dangerous and regressive visions of tomorrow. This danger is very real: all it takes is apathy on the part of thoughtful people.

If we disengage, we can be sure that someone else will step in. Apathy, then, is not an option. The answer to why we must bother is that, if we don’t, we risk giving up a powerful tool for future change. We risk surrendering the politics of the future to the same vanity and shallowness that has so pervasively infected the politics of today.

You reap what you sow. Ancient yet sage advice, certainly for readers of Progressive Farmer, and of these pages as well.

[1] http://icleiusa.org/biggest-us-cities-setting-unprecedented-emissions-reductions-goals-to-fight-climate-change/