Contagious agendas : the spread of issue attention in the policy process




Thomas, Herschel Fred III

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This dissertation is a study of contagion effects in policymaking. The policy process behaves in many ways like a complex system, which is characterized by communication among actors, dynamic interaction, and evolution in behavior over time. As a result, the attention of policy elites rapidly jumps from issue to issue as they struggle to address an array of pressing issues and problems simultaneously. I argue that a process of issue contagion explains these rapid changes as policy elites are highly interdependent actors who are subject to cognitive limits, have incentives to closely monitor the political environment, and frequently mimic the behavior of their peers. Drawing on the methods of computational social science, I build a simulation model of agenda-setting behavior and examine issue contagion through an experimental research design. I test the empirical implications of the model by applying it to real-world datasets—from the disclosed lobbying activity of organized interests to the bill introductions of members of Congress. The core contribution of the project is that patterns in attention to policy issues are a function of a contagion process generated by cue-taking behavior among elites.




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