Book Project
The Advantage of Disadvantage:
Legislative Responsiveness to Collective Action by the Politically Marginalized


Collective action events saturate U.S. newspapers, television outlets, and social networking pages. Almost daily, there is coverage of a march, petition, or rally protesting anything from police brutality, gay rights, and abortion to voter suppression laws, Medicaid expansion, and gun legislation. While these events provide voice to the discontent, they also have the ability to shift policy. For example, in response to the deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, the US Congress voted in December 2014 to reauthorize The Death in Custody Reporting Act (2000), which requires local law enforcement agencies to report any death occurring while in police custody to the federal government. These and other events suggest that lawmakers are responsive to collective action events. But, what is it about collective action that makes legislators responsive to the events? Specifically, are legislators equally responsive to all collective action participants?

To answer this question, I create a formal theory based on a canonical signaling model consisting of two actors: a group and a legislator. The legislator wants to represent the salient interests of her constituents but does not know whether the issue is salient (important) for the group. Collective action serves as a signal that communicates to the legislator the issue's salience for the group. The model proposes that as the resource level of the group decreases, the likelihood that the legislator will support the group’s issue increases. For lower resource groups that face greater obstacles to participation, collective action presents new information to the legislator about the saliency of their concerns. Collective action adds to the information that the legislator has already received from higher resource groups during elections, volunteer work, or campaign contributions. Consequently, legislative behavior favors lower resource groups over their higher resource counterparts following collective action.

I support the findings of the theoretical model with data on collective action events reported in newspapers. The first empirical chapters use data from the Dynamics of Collective Action (DCA) database, which collects and codes every collective action event reported in the New York Times. Using GIS, I locate the member of the US House of Representatives representing the districts in which collective action occurs, 1991-1995, to assess how legislators respond to collective action participants. In other chapters, I discern variations in the type of legislator, district, and issue area influence legislative responsiveness. Finally, I collect an original dataset of recent collective action events reported in 20 major U.S. newspapers to evaluate whether the findings of the theoretical model and 1990s data can be generalized to current legislative behavior in response to collective action events occurring across the nation.

This work adds nuance to the legislative bias literature by demonstrating when lower resource groups prevail in influencing policy. Moreover, it affirms the role of collective action in policymaking.
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship under Grant No. 1256260. Any opinion, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.