We sat down with Democracy Fellow LaGina Gause to discuss her research on how legislatures respond to protests.
Q: What are the main questions your research addresses?
A: The biggest question is understanding how institutions and individuals interact with each other. There is this interplay where government does something and people react, and then people do something and government reacts. The question is how can government and institutions work together to create the best system that works for the most people. Particularly, I care about the people who aren't represented as often.
My dissertation looks at how legislatures respond to the people in their districts, but I'm also interested in the political behavior part of legislative response. That is, looking at how people are able to navigate their political system. In my dissertation, I look at protests, but in my other work, I focus on interest group behavior and how these groups are able to work on behalf of marginalized communities in different ways.
Take lobbying, for example. One of my working papers explores lobbying behavior and looks at how and when groups that have resource constraints, such as financial constraints, are able to communicate to Congress and to lobby those institutions on behalf of those they represent.
Q: Are there pressing policy/social problems that your research speaks to? What specific solutions or approaches to addressing these problems does your research hope to understand?
A: Yes, the main project I’m working on now looks at protest behavior, which is showing up in current events in a lot of different ways. There was the Women’s March following Trump’s inauguration and protests against his immigration order days later. These events come on the heels of the Dakota Access Pipeline standoff, Black Lives Matter, and before that Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party protests.
One question I try to answer is why are people protesting? When you hear the media discuss these protests, you would think that nothing is happening, nothing gets done, but obviously protesters have to be getting something out of it because they continue to protest.
Q: What is it they get out of protesting?
A: Part of it is the ability to be heard and express concerns. Protest can be a healthy way to engage and to express dissatisfaction and anger. Sometimes it's not even about policy. It's about, "I'm angry and I want to be around people and talk about my anger," and protest is a way to do that in a public space. But other times it is about specific policy or problems.
In my research, I uncover that legislatures respond to protest by responding to the people who have the highest-priority concerns about the issues. They are more likely to respond to people who demonstrate their high-priority concerns in their willingness to overcome large obstacles to voice their grievances.
If we look at specific protest events that have been happening, we can see real legislative response. In response to the Mike Brown protests, many police departments around the country are now requiring their officers to wear body cameras. There have also been responses of freedom of information requests for police departments to release undisclosed video from body cameras.
Another example of legislative response can be seen in what happened with the Confederate flag after the Charleston shooting in Emmanuel Church. After massive protests, the South Carolina State Senate and House of Representatives passed a bill approving the removal of the Confederate flag from the State House lawn. Many local governments have been discussing the removal of the Confederate flag from other landmarks as well.
Of course, this legislative response has not addressed all of the protesters’ demands, but there have been steps in the right direction. At least the right conversations are happening, if nothing else, and I think that's a big deal.
Q: If you could have a conversation with any individual (living or dead) about your research, who would it be and why?
A: I don't know if it would be a specific person, but I would love to have more conversations with people involved in on-the-ground work. It would be interesting to ask what they consider to be the important questions in the field that need answering and to see if my work or academia in general could speak to those questions in any way.
In particular, I think it would be beneficial to talk to people on the NGO/nonprofit side. Policymakers would be interesting too, but it would be difficult because policy is so constrained by resources and politics. The questions that motivate policymakers are more along the lines of “what is possible,” whereas, as an academic, I want to look at “what should be.” That being said, I think there should be more dialogue across all lines.