The meaning and measure of policy metaphors

Mark Schlesinger, Lau Richard R

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

85 Scopus citations


The apparent ability of the American public to form coherent assessments of policy options - while being largely ignorant of political institutions, actors, and ideology - remains a persistent puzzle for political science. We develop a theory of political decision making that helps resolve this puzzle. We postulate that both the public and political elites comprehend complex policies in part through "reasoning by policy metaphor," which involves comparisons between proposed alternative policies and more readily understood social institutions. Using data from 169 intensive interviews, we test claims about metaphorical reasoning for a particularly complex policy domain: health care reform. We demonstrate that our hypothesized policy metaphors are coherent to both elites and the general public, including the least sophisticated members of the public. We further show that elites and the public share a common understanding of the relevant policy metaphors, that metaphorical reasoning differs from other forms of analogic reasoning, and that metaphorical cognition is distinct from ideological orientation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)611-626
Number of pages16
JournalAmerican Political Science Review
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2000

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Political Science and International Relations


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