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These graphs show the veto power of white men in politics

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who gained fame for her spirited advocacy of women's rights and gender equality, participates in an annual Women's History Month reception in the U.S. capitol building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who gained fame for her spirited advocacy of women's rights and gender equality, participates in an annual Women's History Month reception in the U.S. capitol building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C
Allison Shelley/Getty Images

How much does your race matter when it comes to having your voice heard in politics? How about your gender? Your income?

recent paper for the NYU Law Review by University of Chicago law professor Nicholas Stephanopoulos answers: a lot.

Looking at both federal and state government, Stephanopoulos used exit poll data to estimate how race, gender, and income level affect an individual's level of influence on policy in cases where there is significant disagreement between demographic groups. For example, he looked at where men and women, or whites and African Americans, fell on policies such as raising the minimum wage or mandating that employers provide health insurance, and compared the data to the likelihood of those policies' passage. 

The gaps cited in the study only apply in cases where the opinion differences between groups are substantial (that is, greater than 10 points). However, there are several notable areas in which opinions differ by at least this margin.

For instance, women are much more likely to support policies that help the poor or unemployed and limit the power of Wall Street, including increasing the minimum wage. They are also more in favor of restrictions on gun ownership and of maintaining entitlement programs rather than cutting the federal budget. Meanwhile, men are significantly more likely to support religious exemptions for contraceptive coverage, while women are not.

There are also significant points of disagreement along racial lines. African Americans below the age of 30 are more likely than whites to support the Affordable Care Act. African Americans in general are also much more liberal in their politics — recent statistics show that approximately 80 percent of African Americans are registered Democratic voters, while only 40 percent of whites are. At the same time, a greater percentage of white people support same-sex marriage, perhaps because significantly more white Americans believe that people are born — rather than choose to be — gay.  Among the millennial generation, white people are significantly more likely to identify themselves as pro-life compared with African Americans.

In cases with strong disagreement, like the above, Stephanopoulos has found that women fare far worse than men, while racial divides exist both between African American and white constituents, and between non-Hispanic whites and Hispanics. Income also seems to play a role, as those in the top 10th percentile had sway over the voices of those lower down the economic ladder.

Women are the most politically powerless group

Among the demographics Stephanopoulos looked at — including racial minorities and low-income individuals — women have the least influence on policy at both the state and federal level. In cases where there's major disagreement between men and women, the chance of a policy taking effect falls the more it's supported by women, and it falls dramatically: from 80 percent to about 10 percent.

stephanopoulos gender

(Joss Fong/Vox)

Similarly, state policy changes reflect men's preferences but not women's. Using slightly different methodology, Stephanopoulos compared states' overall ideological bent (as measured by actual policies enacted) to the bent of different demographic groups within the state. As this graph shows, women's political ideology has almost no effect on states' overall leanings:

Nicholas Stephanopoulos | Political Powerlessness

Stephanopoulos says he was most surprised by the gap between men and women — a gap larger than those between black and white or rich and poor Americans. "When you think about what cleavages are in the news," he said in an interview, "you hear about race and income, but you don’t hear as much about gender differences in terms of influence."

Blacks are politically powerless at both the state and federal level

Unsurprisingly, policy changes are mostly dictated by whites — in cases where there's a big gap between white and black support for a policy, the chances of it taking effect grow with white support:

stephanopoulos race

Joss Fong | Vox

On the other hand, as support for a policy increases in black communities, "the likelihood of the policy’s adoption stays constant at best, and in fact may decline somewhat," according to the paper.

Stephanopoulos found similar results at the state level. Again, the preferences of white constituents had the greatest effect on policy outcomes. And again, as black people's opinions changed, state policy did not change to reflect that fact.

Stephanopoulos's findings reflect similar results by other researchers, most notably John Griffin and Brian Newman, whose 2008 Minority Report showed that black voters had markedly less influence over Congress compared with white voters, even after accounting for their relative numbers in the electorate.

Hispanic voters had little sway at the federal level, but held power at the state level

Although in the cases of black Americans and women, relative powerlessness was evident at both the federal and state levels, the same was not true for Hispanics.

At the federal level, Hispanic support for policies matter little. As the following graph shows, support among the Hispanic population for a policy change has seemingly no effect on the likelihood of policy adoption.

Nicholas Stephanopoulos | Political Powerlessness

(Nicholas Stephanopoulos/Political Powerlessness)

At the state level, however, Hispanic voters and their beliefs tended to have some impact — although nowhere near as much influence as whites.

Nicholas Stephanopoulos | Political Powerlessness

Money really does equal power

Like women and African Americans, poor voters had less political sway at both the federal and state levels. Previous studies have shown this correlation as well — in fact, the inspiration for Stephanopoulos's research came from a similar study by Princeton professor Martin Gilens, which looked at earlier records of income and how they correlated with political influence.

Compared to people with incomes both at the bottom 10th and 50th percentile, those with incomes in the top 10th percentile were significantly more likely to see policies enacted that they approved of in cases where there's major rich-poor disagreement:

stephanopoulos income

(Joss Fong/Vox)

At the state level, while those making more than $30,000 per year had roughly the same influence as those making more than $75,000 per year, there was marked decrease in influence for those making less than $30,000 per year.

Nicholas Stephanopoulos | Political Powerlessness

(Nicholas Stephanopoulos/Political Powerlessness)

Why does this matter?

In Stephanopoulos's words, "Political powerlessness matters because it helps determine 'suspect class' status." Groups identified as "suspect classes" are entitled to strict scrutiny under Equal Protection claims — meaning that it is easier for them to prove cases of unconstitutional discrimination. Essentially, a lower bar is set to prove discrimination for suspect classes because of a history of, among other things, political powerlessness.

In other words, our understanding of what it means to be "powerless" can have profound effects on anti-discrimination lawsuits.

However, the courts have yet to come up with a standard definition of political powerlessness. Some suggestions to quantify the term have been raised:

  • Numerical size
  • Right to vote
  • Financial resources
  • Support of public opinion
  • Socioeconomic standing

Stephanopoulos's model could be an important advancement, because it uses empirical evidence and provides a clear metric: the ability of different groups to have their preferred policies enacted.

So what changes should we make based on this data?

Stephanopoulos offers a few suggestions:

  1. While women and African Americans seem deserving of suspect class status, the data does not support Hispanic classification as such. Stephanopoulos's model is consistent with the fact that we group both women and African Americans as suspect classes, but it shows less support for the current classification of Hispanic Americans as suspect class. This could either be a strike against Stephanopoulos's model, or a chance to revisit our classification system.
  2. Poor people should be considered a suspect class. Stephanopoulos says his study "suggests that the Supreme Court made a mistake in the early 1970s when it said the poor are not a suspect class." Given the data, the poor seem to be the one group that is deserving of suspect class status but doesn't have it.
  3. Women are more vulnerable to discrimination than previously thought. The report states it best: "Despite their large population share and the range of laws protecting them from discrimination, women continue to be alarmingly powerless relative to men."

You can read the full text of the paper here.

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