In recent years there has been a flurry of legislative activity to exclude immigrants from access to social-welfare assistance at the state and national level. These efforts are controversial, with opponents denouncing them as “unprecedented,” while supporters claim that today’s newcomers are less self-sufficient than earlier generations of immigrants. “Our ancestors,” declared one Republican official, did not come “with their hands out for welfare checks.” Most Americans agree that European immigrants “worked their way up without special favors,” and are inclined to think that everyone today should do the same.
What is the truth about access to U.S. public assistance by different groups? To sort out the myths and realities, I closely tracked the experiences of white European immigrants, blacks, and Mexicans in the first half of the 20th century. My findings will surprise many on all sides. (more…)
Members of Congress are typically identified by party affiliation, perhaps with modifiers such as “moderate” or “tea party.” Journalists describe legislators that way; so do political scientists, albeit with more precise measures of ideological positions. When citizens enter the voting booth to choose their representatives, they rely on party identification, biographical snippets, and perhaps positions on high-profile issues. But when the election is over, the main responsibility of members of Congress goes beyond being a partisan or an ideologue. First and foremost, members are lawmakers. Unless representatives write laws and push them forward in committees and on the floor of the legislature, national policies do not change. (more…)
On August 14, 2012 Wisconsin held a primary election and Governor Scott Walker brought his son to the polls to register to vote and cast his ballot. Months later, Walker announced his intention to eliminate the very same Election Day Registration system his son had used. But his proposal sparked an avalanche of opposition – from election administrators, the League of Women Voters and civil rights groups, and Wisconsinites of all party persuasions – prompting the normally resolute Walker to drop the idea. (more…)
To be effective, representative democracy requires that elected legislators understand what their constituents believe and want – and American politicians regularly declare that they are championing the priorities of voters in their districts. But are they? In late 2012, prior to the November elections, we surveyed nearly 2,000 candidates running for state legislative offices across the United States. (more…)
Most people feel a sense of identity with various different groups. A young black woman, for example, might feel a sense of involvement with African Americans, with women, with younger people – and, if she has a child, she could also identify as a parent. Scholars who study democratic politics are very interested in how group identities influence citizens’ political decisions. But to figure out how identities influence political choices, scholars have to do a lot more than drop people into one category or another, because people hold many different identities that can range from highly stable traits (such as race or gender) to relationships that can shift over the course of life (like marital status or active parenthood). These identities can spike or recede in importance depending on what people are doing and with whom. Different identities may come to the fore when parents watch a children’s soccer game, as opposed to when those same people are at work or attending a political rally. (more…)
Most Americans depend on wages, salaries, and benefits from working-class jobs. But public offices are overwhelmingly occupied by people from very economically privileged backgrounds – officials who often set aside the concerns of working Americans when public policies are debated, enacted, and put into effect. Correcting this glaring imbalance in the backgrounds of officeholders requires many efforts – including programs to identify, recruit, and support political candidates from the working class.
Candidate outreach programs sponsored by labor unions already exist in many places – and they have demonstrated great promise. When candidates from blue-collar and middle-class backgrounds mount well-prepared election campaigns, they usually prove appealing to the general voting public. Once in office, working-class Americans are more likely than other elected leaders to fight for workers’ concerns about workplace protections, business regulation, tax policy, and educational and social safety net programs. Programs that recruit and support more of these working-class candidates represent an important opportunity to make government at all levels more democratically responsive. (more…)
In 2003, tough new regulations to ensure smoke-free environments in workplaces and public locations were enacted by the Oklahoma legislature. This was a striking victory for public health and reformers advocating tobacco controls in one of the most conservative heartland states – a victory that no one would have predicted just a few years earlier. For decades, tobacco industry insiders and lobbyists correctly saw their relationship with Oklahoma legislators as a “love fest.” Compared to many other states, Oklahoma did very little to regulate smoking or tax cigarettes, despite mounting evidence of smoking’s adverse impact on health.
Inaction might well have continued but for the arrival in 2001 of an activist new Commissioner of Public Health. Recruited from Florida and installed by Governor Frank Keating, Dr. Leslie Bietsch instituted “emergency” regulations and launched an aggressive public campaign for tobacco controls – getting out well in front of health advocacy groups and provoking ire from lobbyists and many legislators. Bietsch only lasted two years, but his battle against tobacco interests was a critical turning point. Not only was he victorious in the arena of clean indoor air, he also set the stage for increasing Oklahoma’s cigarette taxes to levels more on par with other states. As we analyze in our new book Heartland Tobacco War,
Bietsch’s story show how a principled public official can escape the constraints of business as usual and mobilize public pressure to support reforms.
Labor unions are known to improve wages and benefits for their members. Yet economic results are not all that unions accomplish. They also make a difference in democratic politics by lobbying for policies, by providing money and volunteers in elections – and also by fostering leadership skills among their members and helping some win elected public offices.
The role of unions in helping members win elected office has not received as much scholarly attention as the other economic and political functions unions perform. In part that is because this function is not easy to study in a rigorous, empirical manner. I have devised a new way to test the hypothesis that unions foster elected officials – and my findings open the door for further explorations of how union membership facilitates electoral careers – and why this matters. (more…)
Democratic government depends on active, well-informed citizens. But why and how do citizens become more engaged with community and political life? This question has long interested social scientists—and the traditional research approach has been to look at how various individual characteristics either encourage or discourage participation in politics. Researchers have established, for instance, that people are more likely to vote if they have higher incomes, more years of education, and strong partisan preferences.
Another approach goes beyond individual traits to probe the role of social ties and contexts in shaping civic participation. Using innovative methods, I advance this agenda by asking whether civic engagement is increased by everyday discussions among friends, family members, and other acquaintances. Simply stated, the answer is yes. When people are exposed to discussions of politics in their immediate daily environment, they are likely to become more active civically. Talking about politics encourages people to become more active citizens. (more…)
Note: The Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act was passed by the Senate on June 27 and has moved on to the House.
Pundits are saying the U.S. Congress is about to enact comprehensive immigration reform – that is, legislation combining enhanced enforcement with a path to citizenship for about eleven million undocumented migrants currently living in the United States. Momentum has built since the November 2012 elections put the voting clout of America’s diverse and growing minority groups on full display, and a bipartisan “Gang of Eight” Senators has put forward a bill primed for full Congressional debate. But comprehensive legislation has repeatedly failed before. Will it be different this time?
Although there are no crystal balls, recent history provides sufficient information to make informed predictions. I use some 16,000 earlier Congressional votes on immigration issues to estimate the number of “yes” and “no” votes likely to be cast this time by 535 members of Congress. My analysis suggests that even though a filibuster-proof margin of over 60 votes is well within reach in the Senate, the road to comprehensive reform legislation is much more difficult in the House – and will depend on some legislators changing course. (more…)