This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly newsletter from Inkstick Media and The World. Subscribe here.
One of the sub-themes in American security discourse in the Trump years has been the potential for the reassertion of legislative power. After decades of ever-expanding executive control over everything from wars abroad to policing at home, many in Congress have sought to get themselves back at the table as a co-equal branch of government and play a bigger role in important security policy decisions. This week and next, Critical State takes a deep dive into recent research on what might happen if those efforts succeed. How might legislative responses to today’s concerns differ from executive responses?
In a forthcoming paper in the British Journal of Political Science, University of California San Diego political scientist LaGina Gause develops a formal model to explain why legislative bodies are more responsive to some protests than to others. Given how politics usually go, it would be reasonable to think that the kinds of people who enjoy societal advantages — that is, wealthier people with privileged racial and gender identities — would be more likely to be heard in the halls of power when they take to the streets. Instead, Gause argues, some forms of protest are more effective at driving legislative action when less privileged people do it.
Legislators valued protests by low-income people and racial and ethnic minorities higher than protests by richer, whiter groups.
Protests can send a lot of messages to a lot of different audiences at once, but to legislators, they say one thing: the subject of these protests matters to the protesters and it should matter to you, too. For legislators, who may have differing priorities and policy preferences but still want to keep their jobs in the next election, the question is how much it matters. Is this protest a sign that inaction on a given issue is a political death knell, or will the issue actually blow over well before the next time voters go to the polls? As Gause points out, the main way legislators can gauge how serious the protesters are is the cost they incur by protesting. All other things being equal, a person willing to be arrested for a cause likely cares more about that cause than someone who is only willing to black out their Instagram.
Of course, very few things are equal, and some people have to give up more to protest than others. For people who have fewer resources at their disposal, marching in the streets is much more costly relative to the cost for people who have savings, can take time off from work and have less reason to fear police violence if they march. In Gause’s model, therefore, legislators place more value on protests by under-resourced people than by others because their protests demonstrate a commitment to the issue that is harder to discern among those with more cushion.
Gause found evidence for her model in data from the US Congress. Looking at votes on civil rights issues in the early 1990s, Gause was able to track whether protests made a difference in legislative action and whether the identity of protesters made a difference. Her less surprising finding is that collective action got the goods — Congress was more likely to act on an issue if people protested about it than if they just told pollsters that they cared about it. More surprising, but confirming her theory, Gause found that legislators valued protests by low-income people and racial and ethnic minorities higher than protests by richer, whiter groups. When people put it all on the line in the street, Congress was much more willing to listen.