This phenomenon is not specific to any country as I have noticed it stretches across multiple regions and countries.

For example, marijuana is illegal in the United States at the federal level despite its use and sale being effectively condoned by both the federal government and several state governments. However, a repeal of the federal law that made marijuana illegal is still not seen as politically viable.

In another United State example, many migrants illegally enter the United States through the southern border with Mexico. However, there is neither a political consensus around making immigration laws more open for immigration nor around making illegal immigration more difficult. By default however, the effective policy in this specific area is one of quasi-open immigration. It's a common anecdote that the strongest opponents of illegal immigration are often the people who go to home improvement stores to hire illegal immigrants for various construction projects.

The context around migrants illegally entering the UK is slightly different, but largely the same.

In the Israel and Palestine conflict, neither side believes a 2 state solution is viable, but neither side will publicly change their position on it. The effective policy (for the time being) is to leave things as they are, but neither side is able to change the official position.

You'll also see in several countries with weaker governments that taxes are heavily evaded, but efforts to lower the official tax rate or increase enforcement have no public support.

I would summarize these discrepancies by saying that society has certain ideals that they don't want to deviate from but aren't willing to acknowledge the deviation in real life either. So the law says one thing, but society does another. Is there a name for this in political science? Is there a Political Science explanation for this phenomenon?

  • I'd dispute the idea of quasi-open immigration being the most "effective", since it entirely depends on what you see as the ideal outcome. One policy may be the most beneficial economically but sows social discord, or harms an important voting bloc which a political party depends on. It's also going to vary between countries, what sort of immigrants they attract, and how many of them. May 6, 2022 at 0:44
  • @Crazymoomin: there are 2 different definitions for "effective." In the context around immigration above, "effective" is used within the 2nd definition: "existing in fact, though not formally acknowledged as such." " May 6, 2022 at 7:42
  • Do you mean elite citzen divide? Laws are made by elites. There are many reasons why they (would or) would not change/make a new law - gridlock, their own values, perceived public opinion, strategic reasons etc. If laws do not adjust to the reality on the ground e.g. drug use, other parts of the system (here the executive) will adjust, just as you lined out.
    – chris
    May 9, 2022 at 11:06

3 Answers 3


I think the terminology you are looking for is

"de facto"

describes practices that exist in reality, whether or not they are officially recognized by laws or other formal norms


"de jure"

describes practices that are legally recognized, regardless of whether the practice exists in reality.

  • 2
    No, I don't think this is it. The question is about the difference between what politicians say that they want to happen, versus what they actually make happen - i.e. policies they would like to implement, versus policies they actually do implement. De facto and de jure are typically about existing rules and conventions. May 5, 2022 at 8:48

The closest term you'll find for this, I think, is 'gridlock'. However, there are different kinds of gridlock:

  • Partisan gridlock, where a political groups and actors has become attached to a particular issue as a political motivator, and refuses to allow it to be resolved for fear that their base will lose interest and cost them elections. This often fuels Risky Shift conditions, where individual members of the group produce consistently more extreme positions to keep that base stimulated and active.
  • Ideological gridlock, where political groups and actors refuse to budge or compromise on a particular issue that is central to their identity, grinding the political process to a halt. This is a fairly common problem, differing from normal political deliberations to the extent that other legislative agendas are held hostage to this one particular issue.
  • Bureaucratic gridlock, where political groups and actors are overly concerned about negative reactions to change, and resist supporting any action for which they might be held responsible. This (again, fairly normal) risk-averse strategy is only overcome by massive public pressure or by political actors willing to take risks, allowing more bureaucratized actors to give tacit (deflectable) support and consent.

I don't think this effect has a specific name-to-itself because — in US democracy, at least — it's considered a feature, not a bug. The Founders intentionally created contentious, decentralized, grinding systems (the agonistic model) to prevent factions from inflaming the mass public and quickly taking over the entire government: effectively the idea that a broken democracy is still better than a functioning tyranny.


I think you are just looking for this term: Realpolitik


  • 4
    You need to understand the term better. It mostly has to do with not being sentimental in international relations, not intra-state considerations. Additionally, the OP's question seems more about a lack of alignment between some idealized intent and some actual situation, and realism does not necessarily have much to do with it. Stasis or irreconcilable viewpoints, maybe, but not realpolitik May 5, 2022 at 4:07

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