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“Lesbian and Gay Rights in American Politics: Public Opinion and (Mis)Representation”

April 13, 2015

by Nicole Gervasio, English Ph.D. '17 and 2014 - 2015 IRWGS Grad Fellow

At last Wednesday’s installment of “Queer Futures,” Associate Professor of Political Science Justin H. Phillips asked a pivotal question for civil rights today: to what extent do changing public opinions influence policymakers’ votes on issues regarding our country’s most vulnerable citizens? Targeting LGBTQ citizens, Phillips’s research has come up with a provocative statistical model for quantifying congressional responsiveness to voter opinion in their districts. His findings thus far have been both startling for LGBTQ rights and all too predictable from the most cynical liberal perspective.

“Policy tends to follow public opinion,” Phillips said, “but in the case of GLBT rights, policy has been slower than public support.” He and his team, which includes Katherine Krimmel and Jeffrey R. Lax, decided to find out whether the political process has been failing queer Americans or merely working at a snail’s pace. They have been tracking roll call voting in Congress on five major gay rights issues (same-sex marriage, adoption, hate crimes, military service, and employment non-discrimination) from 1993 to 2011.

These researchers expected to find a strong correlation between public opinion and congressional votes. What they found was both obvious and surprising. Democrats’ votes regularly began to line up with public opinion after 1993, when LGBTQ rights first became a legislative concern. On the other hand, Republicans, as even laypeople would guess, became far less sensitive to public opinion on all hot-button issues— not just LGBTQ rights.

For me, this finding signaled an eye-opening, big-picture takeaway from Phillips’s research into the legislative obstacles facing minorities. On each of the five issues Phillips tracked, individual Democrats consistently responded to change, whereas Republicans upheld the rigid, conservative stereotypes that define their party despite public opinion.

By comparing results from national public opinion polls that asked questions in line with issues on which Congress was voting, Phillips and his colleagues were able to simulate congruencies between the public and Congress’s opinions on both state and district levels. Overall, they found that 67 percent of votes ultimately lined up with majority opinion. Conservatives were responsible for 75 percent of incongruent votes. On average, almost 30 percent of all votes in the five categories they researched would have been different if lawmakers aligned with median voters.

Within political parties, responsiveness hinged on the identity politics of particular policymakers. Public opinion did not once seem to sway Republican votes on LGBTQ issues. However, Democratic responses were far more diverse; whereas public opinion is most likely to sway white male Democrats, all black Democrats always vote pro-gay, regardless of opinions in their home districts. This could be because, Phillips reasoned, “legislators who belong to groups that have historically faced discrimination might draw an analogy between their group’s experience and that of gays and lesbians.”

Up next for Phillips is researching the extent to which LGBTQ citizens are a voting constituency worth courting in U.S. politics. Be sure to check out the next talk for “Queer Futures” with Professor Jack Halberstam this Tuesday, April 7, from 6-8pm in 102A Jerome Green Hall.