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Protestors in front of the U.S. Capitol, May, 2017. Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

Members of Congress respond to more than money – sometimes

Does citizen activism really affect the actions of elected officials?

Despite the ubiquitous role of money in campaigns, elections and policymaking, some citizens clearly still believe in the power of protest.

In the month of December 2017 alone, an organization called The Crowd Counting Consortiumtallied 796 protests, demonstrations, strikes, marches, sit-ins and rallies,” some of them featuring thousands of people, across the country. Over the past year, the offices of many members of Congress and other elected officials have been jammed with constituents voicing their opinions on the Affordable Care Act, the immigration program called DACA, abortion and sexual harassment, among others.

But does all of this sign waving and sitting in actually influence elected officials?

As social scientists, we have long been interested in political participation and online activism. We used this knowledge to design a study that looks at whether activism changes the votes of elected officials – and whether the effect is strong enough to mitigate the power of donated money.

What we found is that citizens can make their voices heard – at least some of the time.

Activism, an American tradition

Signing petitions, contacting officials and protesting are potentially powerful because congressional elections occur only every other year, while representatives cast votes on important issues much more frequently.

The country’s founders believed deeply in the right of citizens to act on their political beliefs. They enshrined that right in the First Amendment.

Protests – from the original Tea Party in 1773 to the 1960s civil rights marches to abortion clinic activists in recent years – offer dramatic examples of citizens making their voices heard. But protests are not the only way citizens communicate with elected officials. Americans also have a rich history of attending town halls, writing letters to elected officials and signing petitions.

Despite the variety of ways citizens can express what they want their elected officials to do, most citizens believe that politicians, and especially Congress, are failing in their roles as the public’s representatives.

Cynics, as well as some scholars, suggest that taking political action may be irrelevant or simply pales in comparison to the more powerful influence of money in politics. After decades of increasing income inequality in the U.S., and growing amounts of special-interest money helping to fund election campaigns, a common finding in recent research is that elected officials respond to the opinions of the wealthy more than to those of the poor.

America’s activist tradition: An 1871 petition to Congress requesting the right to vote for women. National Archives

But other research suggests that members of Congress respond to more than just the power of money. That research found that members of Congress respond more to voters in their districts than to nonvoters when making policy. Knowing that, it seemed reasonable to ask whether elected officials in Congress respond to political activism in the same way.

Founders’ faith affirmed

Our survey looked at four issues that were on the congressional agenda in 2012, a year for which good data is available. The issues were the repeal of the ACA, approval of the Keystone Pipeline XL, the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” which would allow gays to serve openly in the armed services, and approval of the Korean Free Trade Agreement, which would remove tariffs on trade between the U.S. and South Korea. We asked survey respondents what their preferred policy was and then compared that to votes their members of Congress cast.

On two of these issues, we found that elected leaders’ choices on roll call votes aligned better with voters in their districts compared to nonvoters. Those issues were the ACA and Keystone Pipeline.

For the ACA, activists and donors, especially activists and donors of the same party as their representative, also enjoyed greater similarity with their representatives than non-activists and non-donors.

For the Keystone Pipeline, donors were also better represented than non-donors.

So – especially for the ACA – activists were better represented by their elected officials than non-activists.

Activism pays on high-profile issues

These striking findings led us to another question: Was the power of activism strong enough to counter the influence of money?

Among voters who are not politically active in additional ways, we found that those who have the highest income are better represented than those with the least income. But activism changes this: When the poor become politically active in addition to voting, they are represented about the same as the wealthy.

This effect held true only for the ACA, not for the other issues we studied.

We believe that the effectiveness of activism directed toward House members is likely restricted to high-profile issues that are well-covered by the media, where partisan positions are strong and well-established and the issue itself is highly contentious to the public. In these circumstances, activist citizens can potentially have a stronger influence than the wealthy over the policies Congress produces.

Our findings lead us to two more observations.

First, activism may be more effective in competitive congressional districts, where elections are often won by small margins.

Voter turnout in these competitive districts is a common topic of discussion and it is often used as a political strategy to win the election. Political engagement beyond Election Day is less discussed, yet perhaps just as important.

Second, in the House of Representatives, where many claim “all politics is local,” we expected to find that members are more responsive to citizen activism on a wider set of issues than the ACA. Perhaps this is true in state legislatures and city councils, where elected officials have smaller and often more homogeneous districts to represent, and where issues may not be so partisan.

In any case, the founders’ faith in the power of citizen activism has been borne out, at least partially. Elected officials do respond to citizens who do more than vote — and they also respond to those activists in a way that might well counter the advantages of the wealthy in American politics.

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