Of pot and politics


The Justice Department announced this week that the federal government is backing off its previous confrontations with states over their legalization of marijuana.

My first reaction: All those folks who blasted President Obama for years because of draconian enforcement of drug laws were once again — as happens to many other critics of the president — proved wrong. The federal government (as conservatives remind everyone constantly) is large, and that means it sometimes takes time to change policy. In other words, Obama’s critics jumped the gun.

I suspect it’s going to be easy now to go back and find over-the-top complaints about the president on this issue that are now proved, well, over the top — just as I think one could find similar statements about “don’t ask, don’t tell,” or marriage equality, or exiting Iraq, or getting bogged down in Libya.

My second reaction, however, was that my first reaction was garbage.

Those over-the-top complaints were part of the political landscape that Democrats in Congress and the White House had to deal with when they made the decisions that eventually satisfied, at least to some extent, the activists who were complaining in the first place.

It’s worth stopping every once in a while and noting something we all tend to undervalue: Different people within the political system have different jobs to do. The job of an activist may involve being over the top at times (though not always; there’s value in being accurate).

And the jobs of the others within the system — presidents, political appointees leading departments and agencies, bureaucrats below them, members of Congress — are all similarly constrained by various rules, norms and incentives.

None of this is to say that everything works out in the end; sometimes it doesn’t. At best, this course of events serves as a reminder to lower our arrogance a tick, or at least to bear in mind that there are often perfectly good reasons why political actors act as they do and that anyone seeking to change those actions often has to change the incentives more than anything else.

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics.

© 2013, The Washington Post.

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