The War Over Public Opinion: Part 3

The following is the last of a three part series, titled “The War Over Public Opinion: The Impact of Interest Groups on Anti-Abortion Policy in Kansas.” It was written for an undergraduate political science course at the University of Kansas called “The Politics of Reproductive Policy,” taught by Professor Alesha Doan. 

The effect of interest groups on public opinion

Anti-abortion interest groups in Kansas strategically influence the general public’s opinion about reproductive policies in many ways in order to fulfill the mission of their organizations. Recently, Kansans for Life petitioned the city of Wichita with the goal of preventing a women’s organization from opening an abortion clinic at the site of murdered abortion provider George Tiller (Lefler 2013). Though Kansans for Life’s ultimate goal is to criminalize or eliminate abortion, legal systems are in place to prevent this from occurring. The group must then pursue other options of reducing access to abortion, like the cited petitioning example. The organization thus chooses to paint a narrative about the potential abortion clinic in order to convince lawmakers to disallow the practice. David Gittrich, the development director for Kansans for Life, said that the clinic would cause a disruption in the neighborhood because of its controversial nature. While this fact may be true, Gittrich cleverly showcases the clinic as a public nuisance, instead of what others might identify as an arena by which to protect public health (Lefler 2013).

090515-abortionPoll-bcol.grid-6x2In their study, “Democratic Responsiveness and Policy Shock: The Case of State Abortion Policy,” Camobreco and Barnello examine the responsiveness of elected officials to the general public’s attitudes on policy issues. They point out that the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade shifted how legislators relate the public’s opinion on issues concerning abortion. Now, lawmakers are paying stronger attention to the public’s opinion on abortion policies thank they are to the attitudes of elites or interest groups. Camobreco and Barnello note, “[l]awmakers will attempt to respond to public preferences about contentious morality policies despite the imposition of an external policy constraint” (Camobreco & Barnello 2008, 48).

Specifically, legislators are most attentive to the opinions of their constituents surrounding concepts of morality policy, which includes issues such as reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, capital punishment and physician-assisted suicide.

The research indicates that lawmakers struggle with these policies because they incorporate more than just politics and reveal answers to life-or-death situations (Camobreco & Barnello 2008). When issues relating to abortion are at stake, public opinion may be where many lawmakers find their answers. However, interest groups may instead choose to indirectly influence publics in order to create favorable policy alternatives, thereby “act[ing] as a conditioning force on the link between mass attitudes and abortion policy” (Camobreco & Barnello 2008, 52).

In debate is still whether public opinion should play a role in shaping abortion legislation in the states. When legislators are receiving mixed messages from all sides –  the public, lobbyists and political parties – to whom is it most important to listen? The study “Public Opinion and Policymaking in the States: The Case of Post-Roe Abortion Policy,” found that grassroots advocacy and public opinion tended to match and were thus reflected in state abortion policies. When states have a tradition of conservativatism in other areas, Republican majorities in the state legislature and fewer women legislators, more pro-life policies are found.

In addition, citizens are likely to have strong and unwavering opinions on morality policies. Norrander & Wilcox noted that “[s]uch intense preferences should lead citizens to become active in interest groups, and these interest groups should reflect the public’s positions in their lobbying of state legislatures” (Norrander & Wilcox 1999, 707). However, when state interest groups like Kansans for Life and Americans for Prosperity vary in their methods and primary focuses because of extremism in the state, lawmakers may find it difficult to find common ground or moderation in policy. In contrast with more moderate states, lawmakers in Kansas may have difficulty making decisions regarding morality policy because they are not receiving a cohesive message from the public. In addition, “[i]nterest groups…often develop more polarized or extreme positions than the general public,” which brings back into focus the question of who legislators are representing if the general public’s opinion may be weighed down by elite interest group ideology (Norrander & Wilcox 1999, 709).

Weaving a narrative of shame and violence

Many anti-abortion advocacy groups choose to paint abortion as an act – at the least – associated with guilt and an emotional burden on the woman. Nicholson-Crotty and Meier outline three conditions that are integral “ for perceptions about a group to translate into specifically designed policy targeting that group” (Nicholson-Crotty & Meier 2005, 225). First, a marginal group must have a significant stereotype associated with it. Second, a morally driven elite must focus attention on that group. Finally, an economic elite must possess enough resources to influence the legislature to act against that group (Nicholson-Crotty & Meier 2005). In this way, anti-abortion interest groups are able to draw sufficient attention to women who seek abortions and the providers of the service. Thus, they showcase the need for restrictive legislation around the issue.

When a negative stigma is placed around obtaining an abortion and the people who stand up for the right to do so, “political decision makers are more likely to consider that group as a potential target for sanctions” (Nicholson-Crotty and Meier 2005, 225). Often, women are simply silenced when it comes to discussing abortion. The idea that reproductive rights are something that need to be maintained is completely taken for granted, because of the narratives that surround it (Castle 2011). This idea is cemented when interest groups like Americans for Prosperity publicly label pro-choice women as devoid of value and in need of saving. An article in Right Wing Watch further illustrates negative stereotypes constructed around women, particularly in red states like Texas and Kansas. The director of Texas Americans for Prosperity, Peggy Venerable, “tweeted that pro-choice women should ‘choose sterilization’ as they are ‘nasty’ and ‘simply should not procreate’ (Tashman 2013). Legislators are impacted by this publicity and may choose to align with these opinions if they believe that the interest groups represent their constituents.

Venable

Narratives constructed around public policy problems “can have important implications for policymaker responsiveness, and ultimately, each group’s political inclusion in a democratic society” (Crowley, Watson & Waller 2008, 71). The disparate impact of the voices of interest groups and the public is detrimental to political participation, as one group may have a greater impact than the other. The social construction and narrative building of ideas around abortion define how policy is created and then the specific language within the bills affects the way that people within these groups shifts to talk about a particular issue (Crowley, Watson & Waller 2008). To stabilize levels of political participation, “it is urgent to coordinate and empower individuals, multiple organizations and communities to engender effective changes in attitudes, norms, behavior and policies that will enable women to obtain reproductive health services, including abortion care” (Castle 2011). The playing field can only be leveled when interest groups and the general opinion of the public is separated and examined in depth.

Spin to win: The consequence of candidates who change their opinions to get elected

Ultimately, one of the most unfortunate facts is that some legislators may re-adjust their opinions in order to get elected, which further blurs the lines of representation. While campaigning, candidates may spin their opinions on policies in order to draw out a large quantity of voters, no matter the political ideology. In many cases, people who belong to interest groups are extremely vocal and likely to stand up for a candidate who shares their interests, so candidates may choose to align with interest groups instead of standing up for individual citizens. Despite this, even candidates “do not fully control the framing or public portrayal of their ideal points” (Berry, Fording et al. 2011, 119). Once again, it is the hands of elite interest groups to funnel news into the hands of the public, as they are charged with labeling candidates as either supporting or standing against their cause. This information is then disseminated to their members, who drive participation in elections. Still, the cycle of influence continues.

Conclusion

Regardless of their goals or missions, interest groups have many positives. They increase civic engagement, provide input to legislators on various issues and do research on an abundance of issues the impact citizens. However, when interest groups control the narrative around a topic like abortion, confusion and misinformation ensues. Certainly, there is a war around public opinion. Legislators may not know who to listen to if campaign contributions and extremists cloud their judgment during campaign season. Even if they believe that they are accurately representing their public, a lawmaker may not know where the opinions of his constituents are derived from: it could be the very interest group he or she tried so desperately to push away. When multiple actors affect the perception of abortion within a state, particularly one as currently conservative as Kansas, access to abortion is restricted and the democratic process is put at odds with the interests of a few passionate elites.

A bibliography for this paper is available here. The rest of the series is available at the links below.

The War Over Public Opinion: Part 2

The following is the second of a three part series, titled “The War Over Public Opinion: The Impact of Interest Groups on Anti-Abortion Policy in Kansas.” It was written for an undergraduate political science course at the University of Kansas called “The Politics of Reproductive Policy,” taught by Professor Alesha Doan. 

Kansas anti-abortion interest groups take action

Two of the most prominent and influential anti-abortion interest groups in Kansas are Kansans for Life and Americans for Prosperity, which is a group funded by the Kansas-based Koch brothers that has departments in many states around the nation. Kansans for Life gives funding to politicians who support its mission. The group endorsed more than a hundred state and national politicians in 2012, from Mitt Romney and Susan Wagle (“Kansans for Life”). The organization encompasses a variety of controversial issues related to health. It and defines itself as “a grassroots pro-life educational organization committed to speaking up for the defenseless in Kansas on the issues of abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, and bioethics issues such as embryonic stem cell research (ESCR), human cloning, fetal experimentation and eugenics” (“Kansans for Life”). Americans for Prosperity aligns itself with the economic side of politics and advocates for limited government and free markets. Americans for Prosperity defines its mission as “champion[ing] the principles of entrepreneurship and fiscal and regulatory restraint” (“Americans for Prosperity”). The chart below reflects how the voting record or each Kansas congressperson aligns to the values of Americans for Prosperity so far in 2014 (“Americans for Prosperity” 2014).

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 3.37.31 PM

Kansans for Life and Americans for Prosperity each impact legislation relating abortion access and restriction in different ways, which will be explored in detail below.

How do interest groups function anyway?

Evolving from small groups of passionately minded people, interest groups have risen from their quaint beginnings to powerful institutions that extend into all areas of policy. In reviewing a previously written article, Ettinger concludes that interest groups in Kansas have an impact on “the growth of government and in electoral campaigns, and lobbying tactics and regulations” (Ettinger 2011, 656). Furthermore, in his article, “Citizens, Interest Groups, and Local Ballot Initiatives,” Adams explores how interest groups impact the outcome of elections. He says that elections are often just “dueling interest groups…that crowd out the public” (Adams 2012, 43). Adams contrasts his first stance by asserting that interest groups are often able to block certain legislation, but ultimately make the final decision on local initiatives. Even if individuals are voting according to their own independent beliefs, the question remains: how are interest groups molding these beliefs in the first place?

To be sure, interest groups cause policy controversies to bubble to the surface. Nownes’ study “Interest Group Conflict, Alliances, and Opposition: Evidence from Three States” describes four elements surround interest groups (Nownes 2000). First, that conflict is rampant in the areas of state policy and second, that state interest groups work in conjunction with similarly minded groups to achieve success, even if compromises must occur. Nownes also explains that interest groups create confusion around policies and that many fights over state policy are directly caused by one interest group feuding with another (Nownes 2000).

To expand on this, interest groups frequently interact with each other. In the case of Americans for Prosperity and Kansans for Life, both groups combine on many issues to draw the maximum amount of attention toward a subject. These groups, however, often interact with political parties through contentious means. Nownes points out, “the narrowly defined ideological goals of interest groups may conflict with the broader coalitional strategy of political parties” (Nownes 2000, 232). Similar to the results found by Adams, Nownes holds that state political interest group activists are not overtaking parties, but that party members often came to be involved in their party for more than one singular interest. (Nownes 2000).

The coalitional conflict between groups dedicated to one ideological goal and political parties, which are focused on multiple agendas, is supported by Paddock in his study, “Interest Group Influence on the Ideological Orientations of Local Party Activists” (Paddock 2007). Interest groups are often comprised of people who hold more extremist ideas (both on the left and right sides of the aisle) than the political party in general.

“[T]he presence of group-oriented activists in the party organizations might make it more difficult for the parties to fashion the compromises necessary for electoral victory,” Paddock cautions state parties (Paddock 2007).

One such example is pro-choice activists, who might push the Democratic Party to take more extreme positions on reproductive policy than might reflect the broader electorate.

While interest groups provide funds, volunteers and political activists during political campaigns, they also cause the party to face the challenging prospect of finding solutions to policy problems when members are unwilling to compromise on certain issues. Despite the challenges, Paddock concludes, “political parties, through their influence on the policymaking process, provide interest groups with policies that respond to the demands of group members” (Paddock 2007). In Kansas, these interest groups have a broad impact on legislation. Lawmakers face the unique problem of finding ways to accurately represent publics where some voices are heard much louder than others.

6a0147e284dcb2970b01a5119cb1a2970c-800wiCertain circumstances are ripe for interest groups to thrive and it is during these times when groups have greatest opportunity to affect policy.  In off-cycle elections, members of organized interest groups traditionally turn out in high numbers and thus “make up a greater proportion of the total vote when that election is held off-cycle” (Anzia 2011, 412). Because the first priority of these groups is to further the ideological interest of their members and they often seek specific benefits from the legislators they elect, interest groups are more likely to achieve their mission from lawmakers who are elected in off-cycle elections (Anzia 2011). It is advantageous, then, for interest groups like Kansans for Life to gather great momentum for these elections where they have the potential to make the greatest impact.

This impact is precisely what Gilens and Page discuss in their new study, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens” (Gilens & Page 2014). Who truly governs – they question – if the public and elected officials are being influenced on all sides by lobbyists and interest groups? Four sets of actors exist in American politics that control and drive public opinion: the average citizen, economic elites, mass-based interest groups and business-orientated industries (Gilens & Page 2014). Gilens and Page hold the rather pessimistic view that economic elites and organized interest groups control public policy and the general public has almost no pressure on enactors. The majority of interest groups in the U.S. represent businesses and corporations, while very few reflect the attitudes of the poor or “ordinary workers” (Gilens & Page, 9).

Furthermore, they assert that:

“The fly in the ointment is that none of this evidence allows for…the impact of such variables as the preferences of wealthy individuals, or the preferences and actions of organized interest groups, which may independently influence public policy while perhaps being positively associated with public opinion – thereby producing a spurious statistical relationship between opinion and policy” (Gilens & Page 2014, 5)

If economic elites and interest groups controlled by these elites dominate the political sphere, how is the average citizen’s viewpoint being shared? While Gilens and Page would conclude that it is not being shared at all, further research indicates that these elites spend the majority of their resources actually influencing public opinion, rather than going above it.

A bibliography for this paper is available here. The series will continue at the links below.

The War Over Public Opinion: Part 1

The following is the first of a three part series, titled “The War Over Public Opinion: The Impact of Interest Groups on Anti-Abortion Policy in Kansas.” It was written for an undergraduate political science course at the University of Kansas called “The Politics of Reproductive Policy,” taught by Professor Alesha Doan. As a note: I will usually refer to “anti-abortion” instead of “pro-life” or “anti-choice” because I am specifically referring to the medical procedure of abortion and not other specific presentations of women’s reproductive rights. 

From 2010 to the present, interest groups in Kansas have influenced anti-abortion legislation by employing a variety of tactics to shift public opinion. I will illustrate the methods these groups use to change public attitudes and examine whether it is public opinion or elite interest groups that ultimately affect anti-abortion legislation. I will also attempt to address the following questions:

  • How did interest groups come to power in Kansas?
  • What in the state of Kansas has allowed interest groups to be successful?
  • How do groups shift public opinion?
  • Is public opinion or influencing legislators ultimately more effective in producing anti-abortion legislation?

This topic holds importance as it calls into questions Kansas’ system of democracy and probes whether spreading certain narratives or misinformation to the public should be more highly regulated, if that information is damaging to democratic expression. In addition, Kansas is unique when it comes to abortion-restrictive legislation and has produced both a large quantity and variety of anti-abortion bills (Gold & Nash 2012).

Anti-abortion activists shift tactics

In the United States, there are numerous sects of the anti-abortion or pro-life movement. It would be spreading false information to suggest that all activists in this area hold the same beliefs or use the same methods to further their agenda. Despite these differences, a sudden shift toward violence in the movement began in the 1960s when abortion was portrayed as “America’s Armageddon” by a small, but powerful group of anti-abortion advocates (Mason 2002). Carol Mason asserts that the trend toward violence was furthered in the 1970s by “Christian politics and the post-Vietnam paramilitary culture” that pervaded the attitudes of the time.

By the 1990s, the mainstream anti-abortion movement had taken up this responsibility, “narrating abortion as an apocalyptic battle between so-called Christian and anti-Christian forces” (Mason 2002).

The idea of violence as a method to combat clinic providers and the pro-choice movement was cemented with the murder of an abortion provider, Dr. David Gunn, in Florida in 1993 (Kaplan 1995).

The pro-life movement spent many years complimentary to the current stages of the pro-choice movement: advocacy through lobbying and other conventional means. The murder  discussed above was the start of a change in the movement, through which the current pro-life movement focusing on “defensive action” on behalf of unborn fetuses now stems. Many of the leaders of this violent time are in prison for their actions, but the movement is still strong (Kaplan 1995). Even in recent years, organizations commend those who resort to extremes to achieve the mission of the movement. Operation Rescue, one of the most powerful pro-life Christian activist organizations in the nation, honored Phill Kline, the Kansas Attorney General at the time, as their Man of the Year in 2006. Kline investigated abortion provider George Tiller for over two years, pressing for access to Tiller’s medical records in an attempt to force him to close his clinic (Simon 2006). Kline argued that Tiller had performed abortions on 30 women for depression, which Kline argued is “not a valid reason for a late-term abortion under Kansas law because the woman’s major bodily functions are not irreversibly threatened” (Simon 2006). These actions – both violent and through legal means –  clearly target abortion providers and reflect the shift away from simply working to influence public opinion and lobbying legislators to direct, assertive action.

Kansas leadership takes a far-right turn

The increasingly conservative political atmosphere in Kansas has allowed anti-abortion interest groups to thrive in recent years. In an article from the New York Times in 2012, John Eligon traces the movement toward conservatism in Kansas, which he said began in the late 1980s (Eligon 2012). In 1990, the shift came into focus during an “uprising that would propel those reptilian Republicans from a tiny splinter group into the state’s dominant political faction… wreck[ing] what remained of the state’s progressive legacy” (Binelli 2013). That uprising, which centered around abortion, included a familiar interest group – Operation Rescue.
kochspendingNow, conservative legislators are driving out more moderate or centrist legislators, like the historical Kansan greats Bob Dole, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Nancy Kassebaum (Elison 2012). When Governor Sam Brownback was elected in 2010, he brought with him an influx of spending from libertarian and conservatively minded interest groups and Political Action Committees. Brownback has often been accused of “using Kansas as a sort of laboratory, in which ideas cooked up by Koch-funded libertarian think tanks can be released like viruses on live subjects” (Binelli 2013). During the primary election, conservative, agenda-driven interest groups spent millions of dollars ousting moderate legislators. In this way, they achieved the ideal situation for anti-abortion bills to pass.

Furthermore, Binelli describes that these groups, “like Americans for Prosperity (a lobbying group founded by the Koch brothers), the Kansas Chamber of Commerce (run by former Koch employees), the Club for Growth and Kansans for Life” spent together somewhere between $3 and $8 million in outside spending that election (Binelli 2013). Kari Ann Rinker further explores the development and complete takeover of the state, dubbed “Brownbackistan” by critics of the governor (Rinker 2012). She notes that many of the candidates that were unseated during the 2012 election had voted for at least some anti-choice policies. In addition, some legislators were targeted by Americans for Prosperity and the various Koch PACs had 100 percent anti-choice voting records (Rinker 2012). By installing a conservative governor, ousting moderate members of the legislature and adding millions of dollars of campaign funding from far-right interest groups, the takeover of the state was completed. Now, Rinker asserts, Kansas is becoming the most “socially and fiscally regressive state in the nation” (Rinker 2012).

An influx of abortion restrictions

Because of the heavy influence of conservative interest groups on the state legislature, Kansas has passed a number of unique restrictions on abortion in recent years. The year 2011 in particular, was significant for anti-abortion legislation nationally; the states adopted 135 new reproductive health provisions, compared to the 89 enacted in 2010 and 77 in 2009. In addition, “legislators in all 50 states introduced more than 1,100 provisions related to reproductive health and rights” (Gold & Nash 2012). In Kansas, bills were enacted that banned abortion at 20 weeks from fertilization and restricted the use of telemedicine for medication abortions. This means that the physician prescribing the medication must be in the room with the patient, which creates barriers for women seeking access to abortion in rural areas (Gold & Nash 2012).

dt.common.streams.StreamServerGold and Nash conclude that is takes an abundance of time and resources to defend bills that attack reproductive freedoms in moderate states as well as in blanket conservative states such as Kansas. Hanna further examines this assertion in his article from the Associated Press. In the last three years, Kansas has paid private law firms more than $1 million defending anti-abortion laws, which abortion providers follow with federal and state lawsuits (Hanna 2014). Hanna points out that “litigation costs include $179,000 in attorneys’ fees and expenses associated with federal and state lawsuits filed over restrictions enacted just last year” (Hanna 2014). As evidenced, the legislature and state government have invested significant resources in recent years to eliminate a woman’s right to reproductive freedoms. Interest groups too, contribute to these wide-reaching restrictions.

A bibliography for this paper is available here. The series will continue at the links below.

The Evolving Strategies of LGBTQ Political Campaigns

The following was written for an undergraduate course at the University of Kansas called “LGBT Perspectives.”  In this paper, I will call the campaigns of LGBTQ individuals who are running for office “LGBTQ campaigns,” though their campaigns are not necessarily characterized by the fact that the candidate falls along this spectrum. I shall simply use this terminology as means for simpler identification.

Within the last decade, an increasing number of people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer/questioning (LGBTQ) competed for political office on the local, state and national levels. Political candidates who are open about their sexuality must frame their identities in unique ways within the context of their campaigns because of the controversy surrounding their sexual orientation. From the particular platform each candidate runs on to how they identify themselves on the right to left wing spectrum, persons associated with LGBTQ campaigns must decide how to frame their character. Even the organizations and target audiences that candidates associate themselves with allude to the relative success of their campaigns and surely how they act if elected.

The large-scale changes that can occur should LGBTQ-identified candidates be elected to public office more frequently have the potential to open the minds of Americans who are too often turned off because of a misplaced ideology. By understanding how LGBTQ candidates choose to brand themselves, the American public will be able to focus on a candidate’s policies over his or her sexual orientation or gender identity.

The specific policy issues that LGBTQ candidates focus on during the course of their campaigns provide insight into the populations they represent. Haider-Markel identifies the difference between descriptive and substantive representation and it’s importance to policy within state legislatures.

“…[I]f an elected official clearly belongs to or identifies with a particular ethnic, racial, or religious group, it can be argued that the group has achieved descriptive representation” (Haider-Markel).

If the official then pursues the policy interests of the group to which he or she identifies, the group achieves substantive representation. The distinction between these two is important to understand why candidates choose to advocate for particular issues.

121106_tammy_baldwin_ap_605In 1998, Representative Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) became the first openly gay non-incumbent elected to Congress. By focusing on policies particularly relevant to her constituency – progressive collegiate youth – she has been able to succeed in serving her state and has enacted legislation that has helped elevate Wisconsin to one of the nation’s most progressive states (Paulken). Similarly, Lawrence Robinson, an openly gay candidate for the Phoenix City Council was defeated by more conservative candidate in 2013. Robinson clearly stood for policies that aligned with his particular identity as he helped write an LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinance that was approved by the city council early in 2013 (Gullickson). Two other gay candidates failed their bids in recent Phoenix City Council races, which evidences that even in a moderate state like Arizona, those who support policies that favor the LGBT community do not hold much power.

In contrast with LGBTQ candidates who advocate for policies that support people with similar nonconforming identities, Hawaii State Representative Jo Jordan recently made history when she voted against a marriage equality bill (Ford). Jordan, who is openly lesbian, is the first known openly gay lawmaker to vote against marriage equality. Though 75 percent of her constituents support marriage equality, Jordan stated that she felt she had to represent the entire state (Ford). Whether the policies these candidates advocate for relate to how they identify or are simply a consequence of their party affiliation remains to be explored.

How far right or left a candidate falls on the political spectrum is usually determined by his or her values, character and policies. Policymakers and lobbyists often assume that all LGBTQ individuals are left-leaning, but this is not always true. While pro-LGBTQ policies are primarily advocated for by Democrats and progressives, the sexual orientation of the candidates themselves is not determined by this particular affinity for inclusion.This is further evidenced as “a 2007 Gallup poll reveals that 81 percent of liberals would support a homosexual for president, 57 percent of moderates and only 36 percent of conservatives” (Haider-Markel). Thus, a candidate may choose to affiliate with a particular party based not on ideological similarities, but on whether the electorate is more likely to vote for the person.

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 1.42.29 PMFor example, openly gay Democratic House candidate Carl Sciortino Jr.,  a member of the Massachusetts House, is campaigning to fill an empty House seat. Instead of leaning as a moderate, as many other LGBTQ candidates have done in the past, Sciortino directly targets the progressive left (Taylor). Similarly, recently elected Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney is as an excellent example of an LGBT candidate who is participating in the “mainstream”. Maloney chose to portray his opponent – incumbent Nan Hayworth – as a right-wing extremist and himself as a common-sense moderate. In November 2012, Maloney became first openly gay candidate elected to represent New York in Congress (Bolcer).

Eaklor suggests that descriptive substantiation is the first step to progress for all LGBTQ Americans and praises all openly such people in politics, asserting that “between 1997 and 2003 the number of openly GLBT people in office nearly doubled, from 124 to 245” (Eaklor). These statistics are a positive sign for those within this community, whether or not the candidates support specific legislation that pertains to issues of importance to the LGBT community.

The reasons why candidates choose to identify with a particular party or to advocate for certain legislation should not singularly be determined by their own sexuality, but by their character, constituents and lived experiences.

Candidates must then decide how to frame their identities within the context of a particular party and campaign. Branding provides a feature that sets a candidate apart from all others. For example, in being open about her sexuality, Representative Baldwin is the progressive voice of Wisconsin youth. This did not come about naturally, but was a byproduct of the work of communications managers and campaign strategists within her campaign. Her identity shaped how voters saw her, just as the voter’s needs shaped how her campaign strategists and the media chose to portray her. “Clearly, there are LGBT individuals who choose not to run because of real or perceived barriers…” (Haider-Markel).

Golebiowska explored how openly gay candidates perceived the role of stereotypical beliefs in the campaign process. The study also examines how stereotypical rhetoric “varied with the ‘liberalness’ of the district in which the candidates competed, the timing of the candidates’ sexual-orientation disclosure, and the success or failure of their electoral efforts” (Golebiowska). How openly LGBTQ candidates choose to brand themselves is not based solely on how likely they are to be elected, but on the region in which they run and they barriers they might face.

Target audiences and interest groups define how candidates brand themselves and the the platform of issues they run on. Though states such as Texas or Ohio are predominantly seen as conservative, local elections seem to prove otherwise. Annise Parker, the city comptroller for Houston, chose not to conceal her identity as a lesbian “but did not champion gay issues either, focusing instead on municipal concerns like crime, the city budget and drainage. This formula led her to win citywide elections first as an at-large City Council member, then as the controller and, now, as the mayor” (McKinley). Similarly, Congressman Maloney utilized endorsements from the Human Rights Campaign and the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund to more clearly define his policy priorities (Bolcer). The Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund has been a contributing factor to the success of multiple LGBTQ-identified political candidates in the 2012 election. Numerous candidates who were either LGBTQ or aligned with pro-equality policies were endorsed by the organization (Dison). People who support pro-LGBTQ policies – and are thus members of this interest group – could then use these endorsements to make informed decisions.

No candidate illustrates the importance of interest groups better than Representative Baldwin. As previously stated, she has supported policies that adhere to the concerns of her constituency. Higher education funding, lower taxes for students and support for the middle class have given Baldwin a leg up in elections against more moderate candidates (Paulken). By aligning herself with a highly involved electorate, Baldwin made a strategic decision that works to her benefit and the benefit of the people she represents.

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 1.45.01 PMIn many ways, a candidate’s value is not seen through his or her character or ideals, but is solely based on sexual orientation. Candidates must thus reevaluate what it means to be a politician in the United States – is someone elected because of who they are perceived to be or because of how they will govern? All openly gay, lesbian and bisexual members of Congress are Democrats, which speaks to both the conservatism of the Republican electorate and the policy decisions that LGBTQ politicians choose to stand behind (Peters). As the numbers of LGBTQ-identified people in Congress increases, “there is a sense among these newcomers that they are forcing some of their colleagues to rethink gay rights and homosexuality” (Peters). Putting a human face on issues of gay rights in Congress helps it become more relatable in the same way that the LGBTQ movement in general been able to grow and thrive. Representative David Cicilline of Rhode Island maintains that, “[i]t’s becoming — ever so slowly — more than a novelty to be a gay member of Congress” (Peters). Valelly further emphasizes the political struggles that the LGBTQ community has had to endure because of conventional sexual pressures over the past 60 years (Valelly).

“In seeking to substitute a different, overtly inclusive sexuality regime, LGBT citizens and their straight allies have initiated far-reaching changes in public policy, regulation of the workplace, and the institution of marriage” (Valelly).

How a candidate is seen by his or her constituents and then how that person is able to fit into the existing political landscape clearly reveals that the current system is severely limiting to any nonconforming candidates. If they do not fit into the ideals of their party, they will not be elected and change cannot hope to be made.

Ultimately, candidates who identify as LGBTQ use their platform, party affiliation, branding and associated interest groups to succeed in elections. The specific aspects of their personality that candidates choose to highlight reveal the political in which they choose to run. From Wisconsin Representative Tammy Baldwin to Phoenix City Comptroller Annise Parker, LGBTQ individuals are running for political office and winning. Despite some setbacks, this community continues to thrive in the political system in both liberal and conservative regions around the United States.

Until descriptive representation transforms into more substantive forms of representation, candidates may still struggle against more conservative ideals that prevent people from perceiving a candidates inherent value through his or her character. In conclusion, because sexuality is so often politicized and tied to personality over behavior, large strides for the LGBTQ community – besides the legalization of same-sex marriage – may be awhile off. In the meantime, many politicians and advocates will continue to stand up for policies and programs that are inclusive of LGBTQ persons.

Joss Whedon: Advocate for Equality

The following was written for an undergraduate course at the University of Kansas called “LGBT Perspectives.”

“Always be yourself, unless you suck.”

This quote illustrates the brash and empowering spirit of Joss Whedon. From the 1990s to today, Whedon has written, produced and directed multiple movies and television shows that include LGBTQ persons. The most notable examples are Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly and Dollhouse. Fans also know him for his creation of Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog, which features an openly gay actor and encapsulates the LGBT themes of isolation and non-validity. Most recently, Whedon directed both The Avengers and Much Ado About Nothing. Suffice to say, he’s an awesomely varied man. His characters have been applauded for their complexity, his storylines noted for their poignant accessibility. In his life and work, Whedon promotes positive views of LGBTQ individuals by creating engaging characters and advocating for progressive change.

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 04:  Honoree Joss Whedon speaks onstage at Equality Now presents "Make Equality Reality" at Montage Hotel on November 4, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images for Equality Now)

LOS ANGELES, CA – NOVEMBER 04: Honoree Joss Whedon speaks onstage at Equality Now presents “Make Equality Reality” at Montage Hotel on November 4, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images for Equality Now)

Whedon, born in the early 1960s, said that his gender studies education began at a young age under the influence of his mother, Lee Stearns (Whedonverse). Stearns raised him to be a radical feminist, which clearly shaped the portrayals of female and LGBTQ characters in his later work. Whedon has used both major and minor LGBTQ characters throughout his works to affirm the idea that – to put it plainly – people are not defined by their sexuality; worth is defined by humanity. For example, Inara Serra in his TV series Firefly is portrayed as bisexual. Because she is a companion – a kind of space-escort – her sexuality is identified, but she is not defined by it. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Willow Rosenberg begins as a lovable nerd and ends as a power-hungry super witch. She is in relationships with men when she is in high school and then with women in college. Whedon, however, does not associate her sexual orientation with her evil power. It is correlated, but not caused by her changing sexuality. Smaller characters in Buffy, like Jonathan in the seventh and final season, is suggested to be gay, but his behavior is not tied to how he identifies. Whedon also uses themes of isolation and loneliness throughout The Avengers, Buffy and Toy Story, for which he also wrote the screenplay.

Whedon’s own experiences amalgamated to his use of these accessible themes. “I’ve lived my life feeling alone. That’s just the way of it. I always did,” Whedon said in a 2003 interview. “I always felt different from the people around me. I’ve always felt that I was the outsider in every group I’ve ever been in” (Buttell).

From Malcolm Reynolds, the non-conformist space cowboy in Firefly, to Dollhouse’s Echo, a woman who is programmed with a temporary personality and skills, Whedon has also explored issues of validation in a society that does not recognize an individual or group’s value. Recently, Whedon directed a modernized version of Much Ado About Nothing. He is noted to have said that there are a number of homosexual themes throughout the play as well as in other Shakespearean works. “[P]art of why Shakespeare works now is that he’s so open to interpretation. It all comes from a time when men could talk about their feelings and love each other, which has sort of fallen out of the vernacular,” Whedon said in an interview with The Advocate’s Tom Lenk, another of Whedon’s favorite actors (Lenk). His commitment to showcasing positive images of LGBTQ people is clear in his work, and is further cemented through advocacy in his personal life.

21082_medium

Whedon consistently chooses to work with many of the same actors, writers and crew – all people who have demonstrated support for progressive politics. In fact, the entire writer’s room of Buffy was recently highlighted in the NoH8 campaign, a non-profit “whose mission is to promote marriage, gender and human equality through education, advocacy, social media, and visual protest” (NoH8 Campaign). Whedon has always been clear that he is interested in writing an “out-and-proud” male character, and though he doesn’t always create shows with the intention of raising awareness, he is thankful that the LGBTQ community supports his work (On Top Magazine).

In addition, Whedon has used his celebrity influence in advocacy-related media as an actor. He appeared in a satirical advertisement mocking 2012-presidential candidate Mitt Romney, a proponent of anti-marriage equality legislation (Rosen). He has appeared in Buffy writer Jane Espenson’s web show Husbands, which features Brady, the first openly gay professional baseball player, who finds himself married to another man after a drunken night in Vegas (Zakarin). Whedon has continuously defended his friends and actors, Sean Maher and Neil Patrick Harris, who have “challenged the stereotypes about whether good actors can sell good characters no matter who they are in real life” (Rosenberg) (Nussbaum).

Joss Whedon’s commitment to uphold positive images of LGBTQ individuals, in his career and personal life, have profoundly affected this community. By providing complex characters and sustaining themes of isolation and loneliness, Whedon has crafted a world that helps people who identify in a variety of ways. He has created a place to find validity.