Constituent Communication Research: A Snapshot from Long Past

Political culture has changed a great deal, and this is not a “get off my lawn” post. In fact, as alienating and uncivil as much current political discourse seems, there’s a level of directness and candidness that earlier eras lacked, giving them a feel of artificiality and stuffy elitism. 

Take, for example, a research article published back in a 1969 issue of the Journal of Politics. Titled “The Missing Links in Legislative Politics: Attentive Constituents,” the article by G. R. Boynton, Samuel C. Patterson, and Ronald D. Hedlund sought to describe a kind of constituent that was a cut above the rest, part of the “thin stratum” between the masses and “the upper layer of the political elite,” and seen as a critical sub-elite maintaining democratic dialogue. Curiously beginning in what they admitted was “a particular intra-elite context,” the scholars observed that both “attentive constituents and legislators differed markedly from the general adult population in terms of occupational status . . .” and that these special constituents were in constant communication with legislators and even recruited people to run for office.

Today, even if we acknowledge that some citizens are more engaged than others, that people benefiting from education and stable material lives can share their privileges by proactively participating in political and civic life, we are rightly hesitant to paint such citizens as part of superior substrata. We know that poor and working class people engage too when they can, that community engagement is often (though admittedly not often enough) facilitated by civic, religious and political interest groups across a wider range of economics and demographics than was supposed fifty years ago. 

We also know that high-level involvement doesn’t automatically correlate to helpfulness or the strengthening of democracy. We know that elite groups often engineer a great deal of spin, and that both privileged and disadvantaged populations are vulnerable to misinformation. Involvement and access are more complicated than Bounton, et al’s worldview reflected.  

Political science and communication scholars carried different assumptions back then — and even began with different questions. Today, much of the research is geared towards identifying bad hierarchies, undesirable ways in which constituent access is blocked or limitations are set on how communication may occur between people and the leaders they elect. This may include how letters and emails are processed, such as in Matthew J. Geras and Michael H. Crespin’s study, published this year, concluding that high-ranking staffers answer socially powerful constituents, while “[l]etters from women and families . . . are more likely to be answered by lower-ranked staffers. These results are important,” the authors conclude, “because they reveal that even something as simple as constituent correspondence enters a type of power hierarchy within the legislative branch where some individuals are advantaged over others.” Mia Costa’s dissertation, published last year, gives an interesting corollary conclusion: Not only are female constituents devalued, but female legislators are held to an unfairly high standard by their own supporters, including supporters who believe more women in elected office would be desirable. “In fact,” Costa argues, “it is individuals that hold the most positive views of women that then penalize them when they do not provide quality responsiveness to constituents” — a fascinating conclusion that invites further study.

Current research also suggests that elected officials have a sore spot when dealing with constituents who engage in what James N. Druckman and Julia Valdes call “private politics,” or what others would call “direct action” or attempts to influence change outside of the legislative process — things like boycotts, strikes, other direct or demonstrative tactics. Druckman and Valdes report finding that “a constituent communication that references private politics vitiates legislative responsiveness . . . reference to private politics decreases the likelihood of constituent engagement among both Republican and Democratic legislators.” The authors think that these findings call for collective, foundational “conversations about how democracies work” since elected officials ought to appreciate, rather than be intimidated or irritated by, extra-electoral constituent action. 

And through all of this data, as the OpenGov Foundation Study suggests, much of Congress still uses very old communication management technology. One researcher says it’s like “entering a time machine.” Beyond not looking at the power hierarchies of gender and class, the 1969 study also didn’t look at the challenges of staffing in a world of scarce resources. “When advocacy groups target thousands of calls or emails at a single member of Congress, it’s these low-level and in some cases unpaid interns and junior staffers they inundate.” Simply put, it is a nightmare to handle these communications without having CRM software built specifically for the government.

The questions today’s constituent communication researchers ask are thus very different from whether some special elite civic group exists to influence political leadership and how educated and well-connected such constituents are. Today’s research strikes at the heart of material and cultural power imbalances. Until those imbalances are corrected, we need scholars and advocates to continue asking tough questions about practical democracy. 

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