The Hourglass of Representation: Constraint and Representation in State Legislatures
How does institutional differences across state legislatures representation and the political pathways of women, people of color, and working class state legislators? While some studies have focused on institutional elements of state legislatures, few have focused on how representational pathways are affected for individual legislators. Furthermore, studies that have focused on legislator pathways have generally analyzed one particular state legislature. This project will contribute to the literature on state legislatures by taking a mixed methods, interstate, and institutional approach to studying representation. The theoretical framework for analyzing the constraint among legislators is an ‘Hourglass of Representation,’ in which legislators (and particularly people of color legislators) are pinched between ‘bottom up’ pressures from their district along with social movements and interest groups, and ‘top down’ forces, including the leadership structure and culture of the legislature and state-level political and institutional forces. I argue that people of color, women, and working class legislators are particularly constrained by this situation both because the bottom up forces facing them are more intense and the roadblocks facing them for obtaining power and advancing agendas are more severe.
There are three key contributions this dissertation makes to the Political Science literature on representation in state legislatures. The first study contains an analysis of legislator interaction with constituents, including constituent work, in-district legislator events, and other forms of legislative styles that emerge among legislators. This work is related to Richard Fenno's Homestyle and related work on credit claiming and the personal vote for a representative. It is in conversation with, and expands on the work found in Homestyle by using a variety of methods to analyze legislator activities. Furthermore, it is one of relatively few studies which studies both legislative lawmaking and constituent services in the same project. Additionally, it combines legislative activity with their subsequent progressive advancement to Congress and other legislative bodies or elected offices. In the course of this research, I argue that many people of color legislators place a greater effort on Homestyle Politics than would be predicted simply from electoral incentives. This is in part that many people of color legislators face unique pressures from their district; frequently their districts are among the most left-leaning in the state legislature, they are likely to be indebted to ideological groups who helped them run for office and originally recruited them, and also these districts operate in a context of hostility from the state government at large. To address this question, I assembled a unique data set of legislator communication via public twitter accounts in 2016 and 2017.
The second study contains an analysis of visible and less visible legislative actions to secure substantive representation for people of color groups. There will be a discussion of how focusing on latter stages in the legislative process may obscure the unique legislative styles of people of color legislators. It also contains a cross-state analysis of the varying role of legislative institutions and their effects on the opportunities and trade offs legislators are faced with. Discussion of how some forms of constraint on legislators are relatively identity neutral, while others more strongly inhibit the choices of women, people of color, or particularly women of color. To address this question, I assembled a unique data set of bill and resolution sponsorship, including its eventual passage in the legislature, among all state legislatures in 2016 and 2017 via legiscan.com.
The third study continues the legislative institutional argument by looking at the role of state party and legislative institutions on equality of access to legislative office and progressive advancement to Congress. This is followed by a discussion of how these sources of constraint occur at many stages in the career of a legislator. Many of these forms of constraint most negatively affect legislators wanting to advance radical redistributive politics across class and racial lines, along with advocating for those in which there is a consensus across both political parties of marginality (non-citizens, criminals, prisoners, people expressing anti-American or irreligious viewpoints, etc.) To address this question, I assembled a unique data set of the occupational backgrounds and electoral history of all state legislators and members of Congress for the year 2020 from existing public data. Three key findings were found from the aforementioned studies, and they are as follows: State legislators from non-white backgrounds, particularly Black legislators devote more effort to constituency service and particularly constituent service events. Furthermore, these legislatures showed much higher levels of tailoring events and information to diverse groups of constituents rather than relying on generic information, another sign of legislative effort. This may come from group consciousness held by the legislator in some cases, although it also may be informed by the constraint faced by these legislators in other avenues. Legislators constrained from taking action in the legislative arena (e.g. committee work) may devote more attention to activities where they have more autonomy.
Legislators from legislatures with higher variation in legislative activity are less likely to ascend to higher office, including moving from the state house to the state senate. The variation in legislative activity is theorized to be reflective of inequality within the legislature in power and open avenues for lawmaking. Although in theory a legislature with no variation in legislative activity could also be a sign of legislative constraint, this was not found to be the case within any legislature. Future work will explore other measures of legislative success besides election to higher office and reelection.
Members of Congress with past legislative experience were far more likely to come from legislatures with more professionalized state legislatures. Professionalized state legislatures were also more likely to show lower levels of legislative inequality and constraint. However, it is important to note that even in the "best" state legislatures on these measures, the legislatures were still quite unequal in legislative power and the constraint facing their members. Furthermore, they all showed evidence of bias in recruitment networks that made it less likely for legislators of nontraditional backgrounds to run for higher office and win.
This dissertation contributes to the growing understanding of the role of formal and informal political institutions on the representation of marginalized groups and the political pathways of legislators in unequal legislative environments. Furthermore, it makes a contribution to the literature on credit claiming, electoral threat, and homestyle politics literature in Political Science.