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On the far left side of the Democracy matrix (see graph above) it considers the particular political issue’s “salience”, that is, whether the issue is on the public’s “radar” and on the minds of the voters, or not. In regard to this issue salience factor, the matrix only has two categories of “high salience” (or high on the voters’ awareness/radar) or “low salience” (or low on voters’ awareness/radar).
The top of the Democracy Matrix considers the factor of whether the voting public agrees with the policy proposal, or whether the public disagrees with the policy proposal.
In determining whether a policy proposal is “high salience” or “low salience”, or whether the great mass of the voting public agrees or disagrees with the policy proposal, public opinion survey data can make it fairly easy to determine this. In other instances when public opinion survey data may not be available, with some thinking on the matter it is still possible to make a reasonable estimate in placing this issue on the democracy matrix. It is possible to do this by keeping in mind the dominant political ideologies in Texas (such as “classical liberal” and “social conservative” to make a reasonable guess as to whether the voting public would support the policy proposal. In determining whether a policy proposal would be “high salience” versus “low salience” you could make a reasonable guess about this by determining if you or people you know are familiar with the issue, have there been news stories written on the issue on the internet or on television?
Determining accurately where a particular issue would be placed on the democracy matrix is helpful because it can help pinpoint the most effective advocacy strategies to successfully advocate for that issue. Additional class blackboard discussion postings will provide examples of the Democracy Matrix applied to specific political issues, and also how the Democracy matrix can help pinpoint advocacy strategies and tactics.
When reviewing the democracy matrix and considering advocacy strategy and tactics, it is important to keep in mind that when policy issues are in “low salience” situations this can increase the role that “elites” (as in elite theory”) or interest groups (as in pluralist theory) can play in a policy issue. Or, low salience situations can also be ones where individual elected officials may simply take a position based on their own individual personal preferences and values, without regard to how the voting public may respond, or how elites may respond, or how interest groups respond. In low salience situations sometimes the voting public may have a role impacting the decisions made on a policy issue, but it is only indirect and comes from a possible future situation, that a policy issue could change from its low salience status into an issue of high salience, causing elected officials at that point to be held accountable by the voting public.
There is one example that illustrates why elected officials want to be mindful of policy issues that may be low salience in the present, but that can have the possibility of becoming a high salience issue in the future. This example concerns the AIG company bailout of 2009 during the “great recession.” AIG was a huge U.S. insurance company that was at the center of the “Great Recession” and was facing bankruptcy unless it received massive extra funds from the U.S government. AIG avoided bankruptcy when the U.S. government did provide funds in exchange for owning a large part of the AIG company. There is only one small detail to this AIG bailout story, however, that will be used for our discussion of Democracy Matrix. Out of the huge document that was the AIG bailout legislation, only one small detail addressed the matter of allowing AIG company executives pay “performance bonuses”. At the time the AIG bailout legislation passed, this “bonus” issue was low salience because the voting public was not aware of it. However, because the Great Recession impacted so many people, news reporters looked further into the AIG bailout and discovered the portion that allowed these AIG executives performance bonuses, even though it was these same executives that ran AIG so poorly it was faced with bankruptcy. After the news reports came out, the voting public was outraged and this trivial “bonus” issue went from a low salience to a high salience issue. Further, it was also discovered that the person responsible for this “bonus” detail in the AIG bailout legislation was U.S. Senator Christopher Dodd. Senator Dodd knew that his voting public was aware of this AIG issue, and that they would hold him accountable in the next election. Senator Dodd knew he would not get re-elected and so did not even attempt to run in the next election and instead left his seat in the U.S. Senate. This example concerning AIG and Senator Dodd illustrates when an issue may currently be low-salience, but what can happen when that issue suddenly becomes a high salience one.
Another example of the importance of a low salience versus a high salience issue is in the “SOPA/PIPA” issue in the U.S. Congress during 2011 and 2012. The two similar bills are SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives and the PIPA (Protect IP Act) introduced in the U.S. Senate. The bills were designed to help protect copyrighted multimedia property such as movies, music and other digital content so companies could not use this content on their independent websites without paying royalties to or getting permission from the creators/owners of the movies, music, etc. However, many critics of SOPA/PIPA determined that the bills were too severe and draconian in its ability to punish violators and even shut down websites accused of violations without full investigations or due process, and another criticism was that SOPA/PIPA could curtail free speech on the internet.
When these SOPA/PIPA bills were introduced in 2011 it began as a “low radar/low salience” issue. Some few internet tech blogs were aware of the issue and tried to raise awareness against SOPA/PIPA but generally the two bills were gaining a lot of positive momentum in the U.S. Congress due to support from groups like the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), and getting a lot of legislators publicly supporting and sponsoring the legislation. Legislative committee hearings were held and additional hearings were scheduled to begin in January 2012, and, at this stage in the story, the voting public overall was just completely unaware of the SOPA/PIPA issue, but it was certainly looking like SOPA/PIPA was gaining positive momentum toward being passed into law. Up to this point in the story there were lobbying efforts by the likes of RIAA/MPAA supporting the bill, and opposition lobbying by companies and groups such as Wikipedia, Google, the American Library Association, Yahoo!, Reddit, LinkedIn and Mozilla Corporation. The activity of SOPA/PIPA up to this point is consistent with what would be suggested by “pluralist theory” where law is determined by competing interest groups in garnering the votes of elected officials on the policy issue.
At this point, the opposition groups against SOPA/PIPA decided to take their case to the public and so on January 18, 2012, thousands of websites provided information advocating against SOPA/PIPA and encouraging citizens to contact their U.S. members of Congress and tell them to vote against SOPA/PIPA. This awareness campaign against SOPA/PIPA was led by Wikipedia (which actually shut down for one day and instead only offered information about SOPA/PIPA and how to contact Congress about it). Google did not shut down but their iconic Google logo on their main page was replaced with a single black box, which users could click to get more information about SOPA/PIPA and how to contact their member of Congress. It was estimated that at least 8 million visitors to Wikipedia on January 18 looked up the contact information for their member of Congress. A petition created by Google recorded over 4.5 million signatures against SOPA/PIPA.
Prior to January 18, 2012 the SOPA/PIPA policy issue was clearly a “low salience” issue being battled out primarily by competing interest groups for legislative support (such as in “Pluralist theory”), and it was not entirely certain if the voting public was for or against SOPA/PIPA. After January 18, 2012 and the response from millions of people on the issue and in contacting their member of Congress, it was clear that not only was SOPA/PIPA now a “high salience” issue but that in fact it was quite clear that the voting public was very strongly against SOPA/PIPA. Within several days of the January 18 awareness campaign led by Wikipedia and Google, it was clear that the SOPA/PIPA issue was dead as most legislators ran away from the issue and dropped their support for passing SOPA/PIPA. Using the Democracy Matrix to help illustrate the progress of the SOPA/PIPA issue, the issue began in the low salience/voting public disagree quadrant of the democracy matrix, and many legislators continued to support SOPA/PIPA because if an issue is low salience they know the voting public cannot hold them accountable and therefore legislators are still free to vote according to their conscience or personal values, or according to elite group pressure or interest group pressure. As the issue moved into the high salience/voting public disagrees quadrant, it became clear that legislators could no longer support SOPA/PIPA without risk of not getting re-elected to office in the next election, and accordingly overwhelmingly elected officials stopped their support of SOPA/PIPA.
Another issue somewhat similar to the political situation of SOPA/PIPA was a federal law that was passed in the 1990’s related to the website “Napster” and within the last few years was also used to punish the website Limewire and its website users. The Napster website allowed for music file-sharing and users to download music without paying the record company for the downloaded music, and like SOPA/PIPA, this federal law to punish Napster users was supported by the music recording industry and groups like RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) and MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America). The Napster and SOPA/PIPA bills were both similar in that they were supported by the music recording industry and policy issues both supported severe and draconian penalties for violators (the Napster law is what is used to prosecute illegal music downloads even today, and occasionally you still hear about someone downloading 50 or 100 songs illegally and then fined for $100,000 or $250,000 for the illegal downloads. Those extreme fines are due to the Napster law passed in the 1990’s.) Both the Napster policy proposal and SOPA/PIPA proposal are similar in that 1) they had severe penalties inflicted on violators, 2) both proposals were being supported by the music recording industry, and 3) in both cases the voting public is clearly against the policy proposal bills put forward in each case. The crucial difference between the Napster and SOPA/PIPA issues in whether they eventually were passed into law is whether each had a successful awareness campaign that inspired the voting public to contact their legislators to let them know they could be held accountable in their next re-election campaign. In the case of Napster there was no such awareness campaign, and so the draconian proposal was passed into law. In the case of SOPA/PIPA the legislators were put on notice that the public was aware of the issue, would be watching how their legislator voted, and there could be consequences when legislators ran for re-election, and so the SOPA/PIPA issue died almost instantly and legislators have been fairly careful in avoiding the issue ever since.
Another example regarding the importance of high or low salience for a policy proposal is the City of Houston’s recent “HERO Act” (Houston Equal Rights Ordinance) situation. Initially written as a non-discrimination city ordinance for Houston residents, it was designed to prevent discrimination for things like housing and jobs for various categories of people such as sexual orientation, veteran status, gender identity, pregnancy status, etc. Although there were some local news stories about the HERO Act, generally it could be considered a “low salience” issue as the great mass of the Houston voting public was not really familiar with the HERO Act nor likely had even heard of it. At this time in the story it was the Houston City Council that voted to enact the HERO Act into law for the city of Houston, and the political reaction was to initiate a petition to take the policy before a vote of city residents in a public referendum to either allow HERO to continue in the city of Houston or to negate the HERO law. After a very heated awareness campaign on both sides of the HERO issue, what originally was designed to be a non-discrimination ordinance suddenly in the mind of the voting public became the “bathroom bill” and it was very clearly becoming a high salience issue where almost every voter had heard of HERO and had a position on the issue either for or against. In the city referendum the voters repealed the HERO Act. The Houston City Council response, much like the Congress response at the end of the SOPA/PIPA story, was to drop the issue completely from consideration after the voting public had so clearly weighed in on the issue. Houston City Council members knew that if they continued to support a high salience issue that voters were against, would be political suicide and likely would mean they would not get re-elected to office in the next election. Accordingly, Houston City Council members regarded HERO as a dead issue, and moved on to other important business on behalf of the City of Houston.
Another similar example to HERO from local Houston city politics concerns the use of “Red Light Cameras” in the city. Originally the Houston City council voted on the “low salience” issue of cameras to be installed at traffic light intersections which would take photos of the cars/license plates running red lights. Cars caught running red lights would be sent notice to pay a fine. Eventually political activists started a petition drive for a public referendum vote to continue or repeal the red light camera policy in the City of Houston. In the referendum vote, the red light camera policy was repealed after the referendum awareness campaign, and it was now clearly a high salience issue that the voting public disagreed with. As the Democracy Matrix would predict, after the red light camera issue became a high salience issue that the voting public disagreed with, Houston City Council members dropped the issue completely and moved on to other important issues for Houston. For any Council member to continue to push for red light cameras after the public vote would be political suicide and likely result in them losing their next election to stay in office.
In the 1960’s U.S. President Lyndon Johnson was very strongly attempting to get new federal civil rights legislation passed by the U.S. Congress. As President Johnson was counting the legislators making a commitment to passing this legislation, he had several discussions with a member of the U.S. House of Representatives that was deciding how he was going to vote. Johnson appealed to this legislator by saying it was important to be “on the right side of history” and support this civil rights legislation. This Congressman recognized this and wanted to support the civil rights legislation, but he also knew that his district was in east Texas and that his constituents (his “voting public”) would absolutely NOT want him to cast a vote supporting this civil right legislation. Eventually the Congressman did make his vote supporting this civil rights legislation, and in the next election his district elected a different person as their U.S. Congressman. This civil rights legislation example serves as an exception to the rule that elected officials’ behavior is geared toward getting themselves re-elected in the next election and how the democracy matrix can help show why elected officials behave the way they do based on the pressure they receive from elites, interest groups and the voting public. In this civil rights example, a Congressman that wanted to get re-elected would not have supported the civil rights legislation, but in our example the Congressman knew there were more important things to consider about “doing the right thing” and “being on the right side of history.” While examples like this can occur among elected officials, in doing advocacy work it is best not to count on this altruistic behavior from them and instead proceed as if they were most interested in ensuring they keep their job and get re-elected in the next election.
Why is this discussion of the Democracy Matrix concepts and the historical examples related to it important in successfully advocating for policy proposals? It is important because if you can accurately identify which quadrant of the Democracy Matrix your policy issue is in, it will identify the best tactics that could result in your policy issue being passed into law. Is your issue like SOPA/PIPA was initially, as one that is low salience yet also one where the voting public was against SOPA/PIPA? If yes, then just like Wikipedia/Google did, it would make sense to attempt to raise public awareness on the issue and get people to contact their legislators to oppose the issue, to let legislators know that they could be held accountable in the next election if they voted against the wishes of the majority of the citizens. Likewise, if you are advocating for a policy issue that you know the voting public would be against, then it would be wise to NOT raise awareness of the issue, and that you hope your issue remains low salience, and hopefully you can still get legislators to pass your policy issue perhaps based on legislators’ personal values, with legislators not needing to worry about being held accountable for their vote in a future election such as happened in the AIG bailout case with Senator Dodd.
Although no historical examples have been given in this essay for Democracy Matrix concepts related to the quadrants low salience/voting public agrees or the high salience/voting public agrees, keep in mind the textbook “Introduction” chapter reading on the steps in the policy making process and “agenda setting”. You can see the helpfulness to your issue of attempting to raise voting public awareness, in order to put pressure on legislators to get your policy issue “on the agenda,” so that it will be given sufficient consideration in the legislature, and hopefully passed into law. Even without raising public awareness on policy issues that the voting public would agree with, you could still be successful if you promoted your issue by contacting your legislator (think of the example from “The Andres Correa Story”) and perhaps getting supporting interest groups to also contact legislators. Often even this can be enough to get your bill passed as legislators recognize the public would support the policy issue, as there would be no negative future consequences when they attempt to get re-elected.
So, when considering elite theory, pluralist theory, or majoritarian theory in answering the question of “who rules?” I hope that you, too, can say “it depends”.
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