This post is the first in a series of Q&As introducing our new cohort of Democracy Fellows. LaGina Gause, the Ash Center’s new Democracy Postdoctoral Fellow, joins us from the University of Michigan where she received her PhD in Public Policy and Political Science. Gause’s research focuses on legislative response. Her dissertation book project specifically explores legislative behavior in response to protesters in their congressional districts.
By Hannah Hilligoss
Q: Tell me about where you are coming from and what brought you to the Ash Center.
A: I was interested in the Ash Center because I’m very interested in understanding how marginalized communities are able to express voice, communicate, and become involved in the government that represents them. It was very interesting looking at the purpose of this Center and all of the things that go on around participatory government and exploring ways that people voice their concerns. The mission is very similar to my personal mission and the research that I do.
Q: What are the main questions your research addresses?
A: I guess the biggest question is understanding how institutions’ and individuals’ behavior interacts 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 were the Tea Party protests in 2009, then Occupy Wall Street in 2011, and now Black Lives Matter in addition to the constant debate and protests on immigration policy and other issues. Protest is everywhere.
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 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. A lot of 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: What do you find most challenging about your field of study, and what do you wish others knew about the issues you address?
A: Issues of government responsiveness, race, inequality, and political behavior are approached from a lot of different perspectives. Within academia, they are explored in political science, sociology, public policy, and a number of other fields. There are also a lot of practitioners working to address these issues.
Because my research crosses so many disciplines, it has been difficult to figure out what has been said in each field and how that relates to my own research. I want to do justice to everyone else’s’ ideas without overlooking very important aspects of my work. I also want my work to elucidate problems and potentially lead to solutions that help improve everyday lives.
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.
Q: What are you most looking forward to this coming year as a Democracy Fellow?
A: I’m most looking forward to talking to all of the people at Ash. I feel like there are a lot of people with different interesting perspectives on the questions that I’m trying to answer. I have already met with the other Democracy Postdoc here, who researches similar questions, but in Mexico. I don’t know that literature. I don’t know the experiences he had in his field work, but we have already had very productive conversations. If I make a few lasting relationships or even just get the chance to learn more about others’ work in this field, I will consider that a mark of a successful year.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Hannah Hilligoss is a Program and Research Assistant supporting the Ash Center Democracy Programs and Transparency for Development Project.