Politics And Policy

It’s all well and good – and a crucial first step – for blacks and women to vote, but a fascinating article in The Atlantic makes clear that, one, getting policy preferences enacted into law is the next step, and two, that the preferences of blacks and other groups – including women – are less likely to become policy. 

With respect to blacks, Nicholas Stephanopoulos writes:

Despite their gains in participation and representation, blacks continue to fare worse than whites in converting their policy preferences into law. This poor performance is more revealing than statistics on turnout or black electoral success. And even though its causes remain mysterious, it is very much a rationale for frustration with the status quo.

In fact, the MORE an outcome is preferred by blacks, the LESS likely it is to happen.

At both [federal and state] levels, I found that blacks hold much less sway than whites. For example, a federal policy with no white support has only a 10 percent chance of being enacted, while one with universal white support has a 60 percent shot of adoption. But while a proposal with no black support has a 40 percent chance of becoming law, one enjoying unanimous approval has only a 30 percent probability of enactment. In other words, as support for a policy rises within the black community, the odds of it being achieved actually decline.

The same counterintuitive result is seen for women and other groups such as the poor. 

Strikingly, as women move from universal opposition to a proposal to universal support, its odds of adoption plummet from 75 percent to 10 percent.

* * *

More broadly, the results also highlight other distortions of the political process. Unsurprisingly, in this era of skyrocketing inequality and campaign-finance deregulation, policymakers pay closer attention to the views of the rich than to those of the poor (or of the middle class). More unexpectedly, women are largely ineffectual politically despite their large numbers, high turnout rates, and substantial representation. None of these assets provides them with what a healthy democracy should: laws as reflective of their preferences as of those of men. And Hispanics seem to hold an intermediate position, neither as weak as blacks nor as influential as whites.

One point that Stephanopoulos makes deserves special attention. In an ideal world, voting should be the first step in political engagement, not the last.

Perhaps groups whose members engage more actively in politics—by voting but also by attending meetings, contacting representatives, volunteering for campaigns, and so on—have more sway over policy outcomes. 

I don’t think there’s any “perhaps” about it. But again, those with more money have the luxury of increased engagement, too.

Thanks for the depressing data, sir. Got any suggestions?

These hypotheses point to an agenda of sorts for those who are troubled by the power imbalances of modern American politics. Automatic voter registration and other electoral reforms might broaden political participation. Reducing income inequality, and introducing public financing or more vigorous campaign-finance regulation, could lessen the impact of money on politics. And groups could try aiming for tactical moderation even as they keep fighting to achieve their ideological goals.

A fascinating read and a troubling assessment of the state of our politics.