Religion, politics, and the political economy of care

by Angelia R. Wilson

At the time of writing, 30 states and DC now allow same-sex marriage. So, was this a good time to publish a book claiming American would never be ‘gay and lesbian friendly’? Yes, I still think so.

Why Europe is Lesbian and Gay Friendly (and why America never will be) (SUNY), reflects the intersection of values, welfare, feminist critiques of family policy and the in/exclusion of lesbians and gay men to address why Europe appears to be advancing more rapidly than the US on lesbian and gay policy issues. I consider the various answers offered in the current literature including the advancement of the ideology and language of human rights, the activity of the European Courts, windows of opportunity opened with growth of governance in the European Union and the professional activism of European based lobby groups. All of these are good answers to the question. As such they also testify to the fact that there is no one answer. There is no political ‘magic wand’ that could be transferred across European countries or to the US.

Why was Catholic Spain one of the first countries to grant same-sex marriage? In short, Spain has a very residual welfare state that was not coping with an aging population, a demographic shift of women joining the workforce and significant urbanization. The Catholic church nor the state were able to step in sufficiently to cover this emerging ‘gap in care’. Faced with such a crisis of care, it is not surprising that redefining the family to include same-sex couples became an economically attractive option for increasing the number of available carers. In the UK, Gordon Brown argued that allowing gay men and lesbians to become  foster parents would save the government money otherwise spent on state childcare provision. Various European governments argued that recognizing same-sex couples tied them together financially and therefore lessened the risk that the state would have to provide welfare.

What struck me about previous answers to the question was the lack of discussion of what feminist have labelled the political economy of care. To me, this was odd. It was odd because the policy progress for lesbians and gay men was often in areas of marriage, access to adoption and fostering, next of kin arrangements, immigration based on same-sex partnerships, access to fertility treatments, etc. Why Europe? explores this terrain by examining ‘families of nations’. I consider similarities and differences across countries, arguing that there is no one route to equality. The political economy of care – the complexity of care arrangements provided by the individual, family, religious groups and the state – differ substantially in each country and therefore had to be negotiated differently by lesbian and gay activists. Some were better prepared for this negotiation than others. Similarly, those with an investment in providing care – particularly religious groups – were differently equipped to challenge or welcome proposed changes.

I recently read a review of my book which expressed concerned that there was no clear answer to how Europe became more, in the words of feminist policy analysts such as Sarah Childs, ‘friendly’. That is true. There is no one answer. That is the point: each countries’ political economy of care is different. In all cases, various stakeholders sought to define the national values through care policies. In some cases, these values became somewhat easily rearticulated to be more inclusive. But in many, these fundamental values had been deeply written into the cannon of welfare that the fight for redefinition was an epic religious-laden battle. The political economy of care has been so intertwined with the investment of religious leaders – either as providers of care or as those empowered to define the family – that even nations appearing to be secular, such as Sweden, the battle over value redefinition was fought with religious discourse.

What does all this have to do with America? The extent of government commitment to welfare in many European countries is fundamentally different from the residual welfare promise in the US. With that historical commitment, and when faced with austerity and demographic change, some European states entertained the possibility of redefining the family to increase the pool of carers. Where religious voices where stronger, the process took longer. In the US, I argue, where conservative Christianity is politically powerful, where most religious organizations are financial investors and providers of care, where there is substantially less commitment to welfare, and where the parameters of care are often set by the state rather than the federal government, progress towards equality will take longer. The outcome, reflected in the current judicial route towards same-sex marriage, is a fragmented piecemeal battle over one or two issues. When one considers the more substantive commitment to ‘friendly policies’, it simply may never happen.

The last claim is supported by my more recent research on the American Christian Right. Having spent five years conducting participant observation at various Christian Right events, I can testify that any reports of its demise over the next fifty years, is sadly overstated. They will never concede defeat in the culture war. The courts may eventually allow/enforce same-sex marriage in all fifty states, but at least a third of those will resent such federal intervention and will probably never accept gay men and lesbians as equal citizens – a story all too familiar to African-Americans living in the South.

My argument in Why Europe is Lesbian and Gay Friendly is a cautionary tale about ignoring the importance of the political economy of care and the economic and ideological investment of religious communities in providing and defining its parameters. Twenty-five years ago I left my Texas Panhandle home and embarked on an academic career in the UK. Over that time, at least one lesson I learned growing up in parsonages across West Texas remains true across the borders of ‘the West’: never ignore the power of religion to define social values. This is particularly true, and oddly ignored, in the telling of LGBT advances in the political economy of care.

Angelia Wilson (University of Manchester) is currently researching the intersections of social conservatism, Christianity, feminist political theory and policies regulating sexuality. Her new book, Why Europe is Lesbian and Gay Friendly (and why America never will be) (SUNY, 2013), compares European and American differences in politics, welfare policies and social values which lead to divergent policies regulating the lives of lesbian and gay citizens. Her recent edited a collection, Situating Intersectionality (Palgrave, 2013), brings together international scholars employing an intersectional analysis of politics and policy outcomes. Her work has appeared in New Political Science, Politics & Religion, Politics & Gender, Contemporary Politics, Culture Health & Sexuality, Critical Social Policy, Sexualities and the American Review of Politics. She is co-editor of the journal Politics & Religion (Cambridge University Press).

Political scientists debate the Montana experiment

Following Melissa Michelson’s post over the weekend, here are a range of views about the Montana experiment, from defense to condemnation.

All links and posts at The New West reflect the opinions of the authors only; they do not represent the opinions of the Western Political Science Association as an organization.

Paul Gronke of Reed College on the study’s ethical shortcomings

Benjamin Lauderdale of LSE proposes a “thought experiment”

Chris Blattman of Columbia University explores the relationship between research and real-world outcomes.

Thomas Leeper defends the experiment

John Patty explains the tradeoffs and gains of social science research

Links from around the political science web

by Julia Azari

– Lots of new content at Mischiefs of Faction: Seth Masket on negative ads and the Colorado Governor’s race; John Patty writes about blaming the government for Ebola, Greg Koger shares some new data on partisanship and Congressional voting, and my own post on studying leadership and the presidency.

– At The Monkey Cage: analysis of the recent elections in Bulgaria by Petia Kostadinova and Maria Popova, controversial piece about non-citizens voting by Jesse Richman and David Earnest

– At The Upshot, Brendan Nyhan challenges the idea that Americans live in “partisan bubbles” when it comes to our media consumption.

– Advice for revising and resubmitting papers at Duck of Minerva (a couple of weeks old- but still very useful)

Messing with Montana: Get-out-the-Vote Experiment Raises Ethics Questions

by Melissa R. Michelson

Today, the Internet exploded with news about and reactions to a get-out-the-vote field experiment fielded by three political science professors that may have broken Montana state law and, at a minimum, called into question the ethics of conducting experiments that might impact election results. No stranger to such controversy myself—a postage experiment I conducted with some colleagues in November 2010 (Michelson et al 2012) raised the ire of one losing candidate and generated some unpleasant media coverage—I am sympathetic to the idea that the researchers meant no harm. But harm has indeed been done, to the experiments subfield and to the discipline more broadly, if not to the people of Montana.

First, let’s review the facts. Adam Bonica and Jonathan Rodden, Political Science professors and fellows at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, along with Dartmouth Political Scientist Kyle Dropp, obtained $250,000 from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and a matching $100,000 grant from Stanford University to conduct the experiment. According to Stanford spokeswoman Lisa Lapin, the project was approved by the Dartmouth Institutional Review Board (IRB).

The experiment was conducted in three states, including Montana (100,000 mailers), New Hampshire (66,000 mailers) and California (143,000 mailers). The mailers sent to Montana voters, where the controversy is raging, included the state seal and information about the ideological placement (compared to President Barack Obama and former Republican Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney) of candidates for two non-partisan elections to the Montana Supreme Court. The mailer was labeled “2014 Montana General Election Voter Information Guide.” The ideological placement of the judicial candidates is based on a methodology developed for Bonica’s dissertation research, using a large-scale database of campaign contributions. One of those judicial races, between incumbent Justice Mike Wheat and challenger Lawrence VanDyke, is hotly contested, and has seen significant outside spending.

Using the state seal without permission may have violated Montana election law, which states that it is a misdemeanor to “knowingly or purposely disseminate to any elector information about election procedures that is incorrect or misleading or gives the impression that the information has been officially disseminated by an election administrator.”

In addition to a charge of violating that law, Secretary of State Linda McCulloch has filed a legal complaint charging that the mailers also violate three campaign laws: 1) A ban on “fraudulent contrivance” that could cause a person to vote a certain way; 2) A prohibition on the dissemination of information that gives incorrect or misleading election procedures; and 3) A requirement that a person or group engaging in political activity register with the state.

U.S. Senator Jon Tester sent a strongly worded letter to the presidents of Stanford and Dartmouth on October 24 that began, “As I am sure you are now aware, Montanans recently received a misleading campaign flier in their mailboxes that sought to inject partisanship into non-partisan Montana Supreme Court elections.” Tester goes on to denounce the “so-called research project,” and adds, “Efforts to undermine elections in Montana – whether by fraud or merely by poorly-designed experiments – must not be tolerated.”

To me, this is more important than the possible violations of election and campaign law, which perhaps will result in the Bonica team paying some fines. The grouping together of fraud and experiments, and the interpretation of the mailers as an effort to undermine the Montana elections, illustrates the true price that is being paid in terms of public perceptions of political science experiments, if not the broader discipline.

Montanans are sensitive to outside groups coming to their state trying to influence elections. One of the top stories of the year in 2012 was the “dark money”—money whose sources and donors don’t have to be disclosed, thanks to Citizens United—that flooded the state with television ads and mailers. This followed scandals in the previous two election cycles, 2008 and 2010, of illegal coordination between funders and candidates by Western Tradition Partnership.

The sordid details of those previous dark-money scandals set the backdrop to Montanans’ outrage at the idea that an outside source was coming in to try to influence their election; the Bonica group blundered in not anticipating how that context might color reaction to their mailers.

Was the experiment ethical? The Bonica team chose to experiment with non-partisan Montana judicial races, as opposed to legislative races where ideology and partisanship often play a visible role, inserting partisanship (by placing the judicial candidates on a continuum with Obama and Romney) in a place where many think it does not belong. The tradition of a non-partisan, independent judiciary has deep roots in the West, stemming from the Progressive Era; regardless of whether or not laws were broken, the mailers blatantly violated that tradition. An interesting research question? Perhaps. But just because something is interesting doesn’t mean you should do the experiment.

Another ethics issue arises from the closeness of the election, and the possibility that the content of the mailers might have influenced the outcome. To maximize external validity, experimenters logically want to conduct their research in real elections. But should such experiments, particularly persuasion experiments, be conducted in contexts where they might determine outcomes? This is precisely the sort of experimentation that raises eyebrows about the ethics of doing work outside of laboratories or without informed consent. Dawn Teele claims in Field Experiments and Their Critics (2012: 119) that ethical field research requires that the research itself leave no trace.

Just last year, the Coburn Amendment struck a major blow to political science National Science Foundation grants. Political science was dismissed as wasteful and not in the national interest. Experiments that strike the public as unethical, possibly illegal, and deceptive, are harmful to our image as a discipline and will make it more difficult for future studies to obtain funding and IRB approval. Intentionally or not, these researchers are guilty of damaging the field.

Melissa R. Michelson is a professor of political science at Menlo College. She holds a Ph.D. from Yale University. Her publications Living the Dream: New Immigration Policies and the Lives of Undocumented Latino Youth (Paradigm Publishers, 2014) and Mobilizing Inclusion: Transforming the Electorate Through Get-Out-the-Vote Campaigns (Yale University Press, 2012).