How do we explain why some ideas have demonstrated greater magnetic power than others in the policy process of distinctive historical periods? For all of its important nuances and distinctive variants, the immigration debate in American political development has tended for some time to juxtapose a familiar set of rival ideas about the economic, sociocultural, and foreign policy effects of immigration controls. So how do we account for why particular immigration narratives have carried the day in the policymaking process? Solving this puzzle requires us to move away from the assumption that institutions are merely the product or passive embodiment of ideas. Instead, we gain considerable insight by looking more closely at how government structures can privilege certain narratives or “policy paradigms.”
Desmond King persuasively observes that liberal democracies such as the United States, deeply rooted in Enlightenment traditions of thought, are systems in which ideas thrive and in which government actors need rational and knowledge-based justifications for new policy initiatives. During the Progressive Era, however, the rationality and scientific legitimacy of policy choices assumed more importance for American policymakers than ever before. In this period began a greater demand for systematic information, gathered and interpreted by professional experts. For Progressives, elevating “scientific government” meant new means for nonpartisan experts to apply social knowledge to vexing public problems and controversies.
From Daniel J. Tichenor, Dividing Lines: The Politics of Immigration Control in America, 42.