Citizens in a democracy must have access to reliable information about what is happening in government policy in order to form meaningful preferences and hold politicians accountable. But do media consumers get the information they need to have informed policy preferences?
Past research suggests that public opinion on policy issues is thermostatic; that is, the public adjust their preferences for policy spending downward when spending increases and upward when spending decreases. In their new book, Information and Democracy: Public Policy in the News, Stuart Soroka and Christopher Wlezien argue that the public respond in this way because they are getting information about policy spending from the news.
For anyone paying attention to academic or public debates about news quality, it may not seem like this could be the case. Consider that the news media are regularly accused of having a partisan bias, failing to cover important issues, or relying on sensationalism to draw in viewers. Moreover, researchers and other observers also have concerns about the ability of the public to process the information they do receive; many people are not interested in following the news, and those that do may interpret information through a lens of pre-existing beliefs.
Nevertheless, the public does seem to be picking up on cues about policy. Soroka and Wlezien set out to measure the accuracy of media coverage of policy and identify the domains where the media tend to provide more or less faithful coverage of policy. In the book, they investigate the frequency and reliability of media coverage in five spending domains: defense, welfare, health, education, and the environment. Examining decades of government spending, media coverage, and public opinion in the US, Information and Democracy assesses the accuracy of media coverage, and assesses its direct impact on citizens’ preferences for policy.
To measure media accuracy, the authors use a two-step process. First, they create a “media policy signal” which is based on using a dictionary to code sentences about spending in each of the five policy domains across different news outlets. The dictionary codes each sentence as positive/upward changes in spending, negative/downward changes in spending, or no change in spending, scored +1, -1, or 0, respectively. The “media policy signal” is a sum of these codes by year, so that years where there are more upward changes in spending, the signal is positive, and years in which there are more downward changes, the signal is negative. The second step involves modeling the “media policy signal” against actual changes in the budget for these policy domains over time. Actual changes in the budget are drawn from the Historical Tables released by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).
A website based on the book is available at http://mediaaccuracy.net, where users can examine both the volume and accuracy of media coverage of policy by news outlet across the five topic domains. These volume and accuracy measures are based on the method described above and cover the computer-automated content analyses of millions of newspaper articles and television transcripts. Data displayed on the website compare the “signal” in media coverage to actual budgetary policy change. When media coverage matches policy change, media accuracy is high. When media coverage does not match policy change, media accuracy is low. Through a series of infographics, readers can examine the accuracy of 17 major US newspapers and 6 television networks over the past 20-30 years.
The results show a more nuanced picture of the relationship between media coverage and actual spending on policy than critics might expect. In some domains, news coverage indeed does not reflect changes in spending especially well. However, there are other domains, such as defense, welfare, and health where the relationship between news coverage and actual spending is strong. http://mediaaccuracy.net shows how this extends to individual news outlets. These results suggest that, while not always accurate, the media can convey accurate and useful information about government spending, and can play a role in the political accountability necessary in a modern democracy. The degree to which this is true does vary across outlets, however, sometimes in substantial ways.
Newspaper coverage of welfare
The chart above shows volume and accuracy scores for newspaper coverage of welfare, with media outlets in alphabetical order.
The theme of the roundtable presented on April 8, 2021, was “Can Democracy Survive?” Ken Kollman introduced the event, noting that the survival of democracy was a question that Miller and Converse worried about. Their ambition was to study survey respondents and political parties and candidates much like other scientists studied cells and atoms and planets, but they cared about the fate of democracy. Their legacy of scientific inquiry into politics and society continues at ISR and CPS. A recording of the event is available below.
Ken Kollman: Moderation and Extremism in American Political Parties
Political parties are changing and adopting new issue positions, says Kollman, and the mass public pays attention to these movements. Both partisanship and voting decisions respond to the people’s evaluations of these partisan positions relative to their own interests.
Kollman makes the case that both major parties in the United States are perceived to have moved away from the center since 2008. These patterns include a continuation of the shift of the working class towards the right and the Republicans the shift of more educated voters to the left and the Democrats. These shifts have consequences for politics and for the survival of democratic processes.
Most people in the US hold their partisanship for life, but notable portions of the electorate change over the course of their lifetime. The most common reason they change is that they perceive the major parties as moving away from them or toward them on issues of fundamental importance, including economics and racial liberalism. They change much less often because of the performance of a party in office or because they change their ideology or issue preferences.
In The American Voter, Miller and Converse wrote about partisanship as a result of socialization; they argued that partisanship shapes the perceptions of events, of candidates, and the vote. Kollman and Jackson don’t necessarily argue with this. The American Voter portrayal of partisanship remains robust and is good at predicting the vote. In contrast, Kollman and Jackson focus on the dynamics of partisanship and how partisanship changes. Group memberships based on interests and elements of socialization determines partisanship. It’s malleable and they model it as a form of what’s called Bayesian updating, a method of modeling how people incorporate new information in their decisions.
Kollman and Jackson are continuing to analyze the patterns from the past to predict what’s going to happen in the future if the two parties take different positions. The chart below shows how different groups of voters would respond if the Democratic Party moved to the left. What they find, first, is that partisanship becomes more Democratic for every group as the Republicans become more extreme. African Americans are complex in that they prefer the state of the Democratic Party in 2016, but their partisanship actually drops away if the Democratic Party moves to the left or moves to the right. Among white voters, the Democratic Party would lose partisans (and votes) if it moved to the left.
The trends of both parties away from the political center are worrisome for many people. Extreme party positions, including the pursuit of extralegal strategies to either pass policies or hold and maintain power, could become more likely as parties become more extreme.
Rob Franzese: What Causes People to Become Political Extremists?
What explains the rise of far-right nationalist-xenophobic and rightwing populism in the United States and other developed demoocracies? Robert Franzese presented research to address this question.
Scholars have noted that the rise of anti-immigrant, anti-globalization, anti-elite, anti-government sentiments correspond to a sea-shift of white working class voters to the right. One explanation for this shift is the notion that people have been left behind socioeconomically, and experience angst as a result. While support for parties farther to the right increased everywhere, it is especially notable in regions experiencing economic hard times, demonstrating support for these economic explanations of voting behavior.
Surveys have examined whether the shift to the right was attributable to socioeconomic malaise and decline, or whether it was due to cultural status threat. The data from these surveys seem to suggest that the political shift resulted from preceved xenophobic threats and it doesn’t have anything to do with the economic conditions.
However, Franzese contends that this conclusion is both wrong and wrong-headed. Instead of either/or explanations for political shifts, he suggests that we think in terms of both/and. Both neighborhood socioeconomic malaise and xenophobic anxiety associated with cultural change are both part of a broader sense of socioeconomic and cultural threat, as described in the graphic below. Franzese emphasized the importance of heterogeneity of perceptions. Some people are more susceptible to demagogic railing against the elite, the media, and foreigners. Other people will be immune, and may even become more repulsed by populist appeals.
This approach shows that the socioeconomic conditions the individual experiences are partly contributing to social-cultural threat perceptions that produce support for extremism. It’s not just economic hardship that creates the response, but economic hardship contributes to the sense in some respondents that their group is being left behind.
Extremism, especially far-right extremism, is a rising threat to democratic society. Therefore, understanding better the provenance of this rising far-right extremism and concomitant rise in rightwing populism is urgently essential. Casting the possible causal processes as some xenophobic or socioeconomic threat perception is unhelpful. These processes are better understood as complementary.
Pauline Jones: Democratic Survival, Using Lessons from the Muslim World
Pauline Jones notes that many people think that democracy is either unlikely or impossible and due to familiar tropes that Islam and democracy are somehow incompatible.However she contends that democracy and Islam are not incompatible at all. Muslim democracies exist all around the world. Several Muslim-majority countries have transitioned to democracy in the latter half of the 20th cenury, and there are Muslim-majority democracies in multiple diverse regions across the world.
Survey research shows popular support for democracy among Muslims, and that Muslims are mostly supportive of democracy as a form of government, and they do not view democracy as incompatible with their religious principles or institutions. Furthermore, democracy itself is in a constant state of struggle to survive. Jones describes democracy not as an outcome, but a process toward resilience. Democracies are constantly undergoing a test of vitality.
There are two key dimensions to typologizing varieties of democratic vitality. The first is duration: the length of time that a country maintains a certain level of democracy since its initial transition to democracy. Both geographically and temporarily, it’s important to consider the context of that particular democratic state. The second dimension is trajectory: the overall trend in a country level of democracy since its initial transition to democracy. Trajectory measures how consistently a country has improved or maintained the level of democracy over time, since its transition.
To measure the level of democracy, Jones uses the Varieties of Democracy Electoral Democracy Index (DDI). This score focuses on the role of elections as the core feature of democracy, and includes aspects of the political system that increase the likelihood that elections will result in democratic outcomes. She then created a typology based on the dimensions of duration and trajectory, which describes four modes of democratic survival, depicted in the graphic below. Democracies are grouped into categories including striving, thriving, waning, and backsliding.
Striving democracies have short duration, but an upward trajectory. The thriving category is the best case scenario: long duration and upward trajectory. In the waning category there is neither duration, nor trajectory. Democracy is just not taking hold, and this is where you might see the transition away from democracy. Democracies in the backsliding category have long duration, but have a downward trajectory.
Jones investigated eight Muslim majority countries and fit them to these modes: Albania, Malaysia, Mali, Tunisia, Indonesia, Senegal, Kyrgystan, and Turkey. She found, surprisingly, that for that most of the Muslim-majority countries in the sample were striving are thriving.
The key takeaway from this research is that democracy is an ongoing struggle to survive. Jones challenged the audience not to think about democracy as meeting some threshold, but rather as a sort of ongoing struggle, and to think about it as varying degrees of vitality, as opposed to focusing on the mortality of democracy. This, she concludes, allows us to have some degree of cautious optimism. Democracy faces constant challenges; survival is just a matter of the degree of the threat and the strength of the institutions meeting that threat.
Vincent Hutchings delivered the inaugural lecture of the Hanes Walton Jr. Collegiate Professorship in Political Science and Afroamerican and African Studies on March 31, 2021.
Vincent Hutchings and Anne Curzan at the inaugural lecture on March 31, 2021.
Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal, the author of the landmark study An American Dilemma, believed that education was the key to racial progress. Myrdal wrote “There is no doubt, in the writer’s opinion, that a great majority of white people in America would be prepared to give the Negro a substantially better deal if they knew the facts.”
Vincent Hutchings began his inaugural lecture of the Hanes Walton Jr. Collegiate Professorship in Political Science and Afroamerican and African Studies by citing this quote, and immediately calling it into question. Is it true that policies aimed at alleviating the racial wealth disparities would gain more support if only whites knew the true extent of the gap?
A noteworthy aspect of the recent protests against police brutality and racial inequality has been the extent to which white Americans were participants in greater numbers than in the past. Even before the events of 2020, numerous surveys show whites becoming more racially progressive and acknowledging the reality of racial bias against Blacks. But does that mean that whites will support policies to reduce racial disparities? Professor Hutchings suggests that this is an example of a principle-policy gap; whites are prepared to acknowledge that injustice exists in principle, but they may not be willing to support redistributive policies.
The research team posited that the way the information was framed would be important. Past studies and media headlines about wealth disparities tend to frame the issue in terms of Black disadvantage. It’s less common to see a focus on the ways whites are advantaged.
A first study, conducted in June 2020, surveyed 2,024 online respondents. Respondents were randomly assigned either to a control group, where they were merely provided a definition of the racial wealth gap, or to one of two treatment conditions that provided a definition of the racial wealth gap, as well as textual and visual information on the current size of the Black/white racial wealth gap based on information from the 2017 Survey of Consumer Finances. The first treatment group received information framed in terms of Black disadvantage; the second treatment group received information with a white advantage frame.
The experiment was informative, but not persuasive. White participants in the treatment groups that received more information about the size of the racial wealth gap subsequently showed a better understanding of the issue. Black participants in the treatment groups also showed a fairly accurate assessment of the wealth gap, with less difference between the control and treatment groups. Neither whites nor Blacks in the treatment groups adopted different positions on racial policy. The one policy area where the study found some change was reparations; white respondents who received more information about the wealth gap were slightly more supportive of reparations.
If the study participants were informed about the wealth gap, but did not change their support for policies to address it, perhaps the treatments were not strong enough? In open-ended questions in the first study, some participants responded that they believed the wealth gap existed because whites worked harder than Blacks. To address these issues, the research team launched a second study in March 2021, building on the first study and specifically highlighting the limited impact of education on reducing the racial wealth gap.
The second study included four treatment groups and a control group.
Treatment group 1 received information about the wealth gap framed in terms of Black disadvantage.
Treatment group 2 received information about the wealth gap framed in terms of white advantage.
Treatment group 3 received information about the wealth gap framed in terms of Black disadvantage, as well as information that Black household heads with a college degree have the same wealth as white household heads without a high school diploma.
Treatment group 4 received information about the wealth gap framed in terms of white advantage, as well as information that white household heads without a high school diploma have the same wealth as Black household heads with a college degree.
Whites across the ideological spectrum are informed by the treatments in the second study. Surprisingly, the additional information about education was less effective than the general population frames.
Again, the results showed that a better understanding of the racial wealth gap does not make participants more progressive on racial policies. However, those in the first treatment group (receiving information framed in terms of Black disadvantage) showed mild increase in support for reparations.
Surprisingly, white liberals in the fourth treatment group (receiving information about the wealth gap and education, with a frame of white advantage) had a threat response to the treatment. When responding to questions about competition for jobs and political influence, white liberals in the fourth treatment group perceived more competition between racial groups. They responded to questions about racism, such as whether whites have greater wealth because they are naturally superior and whether the use of racial epithets by whites was acceptable, in less progressive ways.
These studies show the limits of providing information about racial disparities. People are not necessarily persuaded to close the gaps when they know more about them. When asked if he was discouraged by the outcome of the studies, Professor Hutchings said that as an educator, he is an optimist. He said that he is motivated by his students to keep asking questions about political opinions and behavior. Hutchings and his students will field new surveys to further examine these questions in the fall of 2021.
Racial attitudes among whites are changing. Vincent Hutchings began his presentation by noting that white Americans seem to be participating in protest against racial injustice at higher levels than in the past. Does this represent a true change in sentiment, or just an illusion?
Support for the proposition that Blacks encounter barriers that whites do not has been increasing among white Americans over the last several years, and has increased more notably since the start of the protests following the death of George Floyd. Whatever the reason, Hutchings says there is “no denying that a larger fraction of whites are now willing to acknowledge racial bias.”
Hutchings designed a study to test the limits of changing racial attitudes. Between 2014 and 2020, whites became more willing to attribute police killings to systemic bias, but this increased recognition of bias does not necessarily lead to support for policy change. For example, most whites oppose reparations and removing Confederate names from Army bases.
To explore whether more information about racial disparities would change the opinions of whites, Hutchings several of his students conducted a study that they called “The Black Truth Project.” During the summer of 2020, they conducted an online experiment on a sample of 965 white subjects. One third of the subjects, the control group, received information defining the racial wealth gap in the United States. There were two treatment groups in the study. Each group was presented with the definition of the racial wealth gap, plus data on the state of the wealth gap today. The first treatment group was shown data that was labeled to emphasize Black disadvantage; the second treatment group was shown the exact same data, but with a label that emphasized white advantage.
When asked about the size of the racial wealth gap, the control group said there was a moderate size racial wealth gap. The treatment groups were more inclined to report a larger gap. None of the groups perceived the wealth gap to be as large as it actually is, but those who received more information aligned more closely with the truth. These effects were seen across all groups, including gender, partisanship, level of education, and level of political knowledge.
Next, the study assessed whether learning about the racial wealth gap changes policy views. Respondents were asked how important it is for the federal government to pass laws to reduce racial wealth gap. Hutchings and his team found very little change in support for policies that would address the racial wealth gap.
While the experiment showed that respondents were open to learning new information, that information did not change support for policy. Hutchings and his team plan to conduct additional studies to follow up on their findings.
Why are protests happening now?
Over the past several months, people have asked Shea Streeter why protests are happening now. What’s different about 2020 that has led to over 8,000 individual protests all over the country? Streeter studies police killings, and says that this current movement isn’t about just one death, it’s the culmination of movement building that has been going on for years.
Streeter contends that the protests we see today actually represent two simultaneous movements: the movement for Black lives, and protests for police accountability. There are significant overlaps between these movements. The movement for Black lives centers around the idea that racism is deadly, which is played out in racial disparities in COVID-19 death rates, and well as vigilante killings of Blacks, like Trayvon Martin.
The police kill over a thousand people in the U.S. each year. That’s a rate five times higher than in Canada, and a hundred times higher than in the U.K. Intersection is where things get deadly. African Americans are more than three times as likely to be killed by the police as whites.
Most protests emerge after police killings of African Americans. A large number of white Americans are killed by police officers, but their deaths are less likely to lead to protest. Overall 15% of police killings led to local organizing. But for African Americans, over a third of deaths at the hands of police lead to protests – seven times the response for whites.
Which means that the movement for Black lives is conducting a lot of work to hold police more accountable as well. How does the work of this movement develop? Streeter points to the example of Trische’ Duckworth of Ypsilanti, Michigan. Duckworth is the founder of an organization for survivors of sexual assault called Survivors Speak. When the surrounding community was impacted by COVID-19, the organization became involved with community aid. After an incident of police brutality in Ypsilanti in May, 2020, Survivors Speak was well-positioned to mobilize large numbers of people to protest.
The movements for Black lives and for police accountability have been building for years, says Streeter. Additional community support that have emerged in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have brought communities closer, while also highlighting racial disparities. All of this helps to answer why protests are happening at this particular moment in history. It comes down to the fact that local organizers who built local movements with little national attention, are now seeing the culmination of the capacity they’ve built.
The force continuum
The majority of Americans believe the death of George Flyod at the hands of police was wrong, and that the police officers should be held accountable. In his presentation, Christian Davenport introduced the idea of the force continuum, or the level of force that is acceptable in a given situation but this concerns individual police behavior against an individual citizen. What do Americans think is acceptable regarding how police officers and protestors interact? Answering this question is the focus of his work. Davenport’s research takes a deeper look at what Americans will accept and whether these acceptable actions vary by race and ethnicity.
Davenport emphasizes that this work is important because there will be more protests and more protest policing in the future. Inappropriate behavior on either side will prompt reactions from the government and voters. Differences of opinion about actions that are acceptable are rooted in community perceptions of police.
With this in mind, Davenport conducted a study that asked respondents to rate whether a particular action was more intense or severe when done by police or when done by a challenger to the police. While many discussions about police and protestor behavior revolve around the distinction between violence and nonviolence, this study was a way to tease out differences in perception of very specific tactics.
The results showed distinct differences in perception by the race of the respondent. In general, whites tended to view actions taken by a challenger or protestor as more violent. African Americans see almost all police behavior as more intense or severe.
The long-term consequences of the differences revealed by this research are important, says Davenport. The divergence in attitudes may play into the perception by whites that Blacks are more violent. Whether or not we can move beyond these differences depends on our ability to understand these differences and move past them.
President Barack Obama, in his eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, remarked that the massacre at Mother Emanuel A.M.E., “was an act that drew on a long history of bombs and arson and shots fired at churches, not random but as a means of control, a way to terrorize and oppress…”
In a previous study, we find evidence to suggest that violence against black people is more likely to be classified by the public as a “hate crime,” but that such incidents are also perceived as being isolated, less destructive, and also less impactful on society at large than an act of terrorism. This suggests that the label of “hate crime” might minimize the seriousness of racial violence and imply that those incidents do not stem from similar wide-spread networks and ideologies that are associated with terrorism.
Does the label used to describe acts of violence such as these influence perceptions of the event? Here’s what our research suggests.
Labels shift emotional responses to racial violence
Our January 2020 survey experiment asked 1,012 subjects to read a brief breaking news story about a fictional shooting with several casualties. In the experiment, we alternated whether we described the incident as a “hate crime,” a “terrorist attack,” or a “mass shooting.” We also alternated the race of the perpetrator and the victims, describing them as either white or black. Subjects read a tweet about the fictional incident and then answered questions about their emotional reactions, their own perceived likelihood of victimization, and what punishments they believed were warranted by the attack.
We find that, regardless of who perpetrated the attack, subjects reported higher levels of anger after reading about an incident labeled as a “hate crime,” when a white male perpetrator targeted a black university. We find that there are no distinct differences in anger when comparing “terrorism” and “mass shooting,” nor under those labels do the race of the victim or perpetrator influence levels of anger.
While likelihood of personal victimization is slightly higher for those who see the hate crime condition with a white perpetrator, we see that this variable is not strongly influenced by treatments.
We also find that support for the death penalty to punish the shooting is significantly lower among subjects who read about a hate crime perpetrated by a black person.
The interaction of race and label matter as well
But, do all people perceive violence the same way? We cannot take for granted that violence, and racial violence at that, is viewed the same way by members of different racial groups, especially when long legacies of violence are in play.
Therefore, we also look at how these labels might elicit distinctive responses among white and non-white participants. Stratifying our sample this way, we find that there are distinct responses among members of different racial groups. Non-white respondents indicated greater support for the death penalty to punish the crime in all conditions that had a white perpetrator, regardless of the label. However, we see little difference across conditions among white subjects.
Racial group attachment moderates these in a way that we might expect – the lowest support for the death penalty is among white subjects with high racial group attachment who read about a hate crime committed by a white perpetrator. Among non-white subjects we see that higher racial attachment is associated with greater support for the death penalty in all conditions with a white perpetrator. Support is consistent in conditions with a black perpetrator.
Additionally, non-white subjects who read about an act of terrorism committed by a white actor reported a higher likelihood of victimization than white respondents in the same condition.
We also find that anger is stable for all, white and non-white subjects, who saw a terrorism condition, regardless of if the perpetrator is white or black.
Anger increases slightly among non-white people who saw a mass shooting targeting black people. But, anger is significantly higher among non-white people who read about a hate crime targeting black people, when compared to those who read about a hate crime targeting white people. We see no significant changes among white subjects across these conditions.
Labels can send a powerful message to the public
While the label “terrorism” has come to be associated with acts of violence committed by Islamists, the term has long been used by black people to describe white violence against them. Regardless of legal parameters, we wondered if using the term “hate crime” to instead describe these acts minimizes public perceptions about them. Our research suggests that calling an act of violence a “hate crime” has little effect on perceptions of violence for white Americans. For non-white Americans, however, we find that this label is associated with greater anger in reaction to the incident.
The boundaries of the law determined the charges levied against the perpetrator of the Mother Emanuel A.M.E. killings, but the press, politicians, and the public grappled for language to describe them. Our research suggests that while the the term “terrorism” seems more rhetorically evocative of a long history of violence against black people, it does not necessarily evoke greater anger than use of the term “hate crime” or “mass shooting.” In fact, among non-white respondents, “hate crime” elicits the greatest anger.
Emotions hold powerful political potential, anger in particular has been shown to incite political participation. The words used to describe violence do matter, for the images and narratives they conjure, as well as the emotions they evoke.
Kiela Crabtree (@kielacrabtree) is a PhD. candidate in Political Science at the University of Michigan.
Corina Simonelli (@CorinaSimonelli) is a PhD. candidate in Political Science and the Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan.
A panel of prominent political scientists presented their research at the panel “One Hundred Years of Women Voting: The Nineteenth Amendment’s Legacy and Current Implications” on Monday, February 24, 2020. The experts discussed the political behavior of women leading up to and since the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which granted women the right to vote. Jenna Bednar, professor of political science at the University of Michigan and research faculty at the Center for Political Studies, moderated the discussion. The event was part of the U-M Department of Political Science Rubin Speaker Series and U-M Suffrage 2020 event series.
Mara Ostfeld, Christina Wolbrecht, Angela Ocampo, and Corrine McConnaughy
Popular views of women voters over the past 100 years, and what the evidence actually tells us about them
In the first several decades of women’s suffrage in the U.S., understanding of women’s political behavior was based on rhetoric, not based on data, said Wolbrecht. Data does show that married women often voted as their husbands did. Political experts interpreted this correlation as evidence of political disinterest on the part of women, but this conclusion was not based on data. Following the belief that women didn’t form independent political opinions, Gallup used quota controlled sampling that undersampled women. The American Voter describes women as following their husband’s wishes rather than voting according to their own beliefs.
Wolbrecht argues that these unsupported conclusions still matter today because these books are still read today. She emphasizes that although married women often vote as their husbands do, we don’t know who is influencing whom.
Political Pioneers: Women of Color as Candidates and Elected Officials
Angela X. Ocampo, a research fellow in the department of political science and the Center for Political Studies, presented current research assessing the representation of women of color as political candidates and elected officials. “Women don’t get access to vote until their racial group does,” said Ocampo, noting that women of color were still denied the right to vote or hold elected office on the basis of race after the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment.
Most research on women of color in elected office focuses on the federal level, but Ocampo, along with her research collaborator, Ana Oaxaca, is studying representation in local government. Their research shows that women are most likely to be elected from places that are protected by the Voting Rights Act. Following the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which significantly weakened the Voting Rights Act, Ocampo sought to understand how the representation of women of color was affected at the local level.
To answer this, she’s analyzing data on city councils in the 300 largest U.S. cities to isolate the factors that are associated with a high proportion of women of color council members. Women of color are underrepresented in city councils, making up only 10% of council members. Ocampo finds that the more Democratic a locality is, the higher the proportion of women of color and minority council members. Proxies of political power are also important. When there is a higher proportion of more minority voters in a city, the proportion of women of color and minority council members also increases.
Ocampo concludes that gains have been made in representation, but parity is yet to be achieved. Representation of women of color and minorities depends on political pressures and the voting power of minority voters. She cautions that upward trends in the representation of women of color and minorities will likely be derailed by efforts to suppress minority votes.
Hidden Politics: Women’s Organizing and the Shape of American Democracy
Corrine McConnaughy is an Associate Professor of Political Science at George Washington University. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of Michigan and worked closely with many of the faculty during that time.
McConnaughy said that to find examples of women doing political work in the period before suffrage, we must look beyond formal suffrage organizations. Whether political organizing was taking place within suffrage organizations or other organizations, historians find common themes in women’s political activity in the period before the nineteenth amendment. Women were doing crucial service work in their communities and creating innovative ways to gain power. Importantly, women were doing political work as women, but not unified by womanhood.
The suffrage movement faced challenges because women were not seen as a promising voting bloc, McConnaughy said. Because so many people believed women would vote as their husbands did, no party stood to gain an advantage by allowing women to vote. For this reason, bi-partisan support was essential to gaining franchise. The ability to form coalitions with other groups also proved essential. Suffragists were well-organized and good at raising money, which made them attractive coalition partners.
Why Women Oppose Policies that Support Women
The final speaker was Mara Ostfeld, is a Faculty Associate with the Center for Political Studies and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science. She presented research she is conducting with two graduate students, Lauren Hahn and Sara Morell.
Ostfeld framed their question: “In the 100 years that women have had access to voting rights, and in the context of women constituting the majority of voters in America, why hasn’t there been more progress for policies to provide women with equitable opportunities?” She cited statistics to illustrate the issue: 20% of women say that reports of the gender pay gap are overblown; one-third of women say that women who complain about sexual harassment create more problems than they solve; another third believe that at least half of the time that women demand equality, they’re actually seeking special favors.
Family socialization is the key reason for these beliefs, according to Ostfeld. “Unlike other marginalized groups, women are not raised in women-majority environments,” she noted.
Ostfeld, Morell, and Hahn conducted a survey to gauge how women believe their family members would react to taking pro-women positions, to assess how women perceive the social costs of their beliefs within their families. The survey also asked about the polices the women supported. Ostfeld found clear evidence that women who believed they will be stigmatized for embracing policies to promote gender equality are far less likely to support those policies. Even among women respondents who recognized the gendered disparities motivating the policies, they were still less likely to support policies promoting gender equality if they felt their family members would stigmatize them for doing so.