The Page 99 Test for Abortion Politics, Mass Media, and Social Movements in America

Originally posted on Deana's Blog:

I took The Page 99 Test. Read it here!

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The Page 99 Test for Abortion Politics, Mass Media, and Social Movements in America

I took The Page 99 Test. Read it here!

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Women from the waist down

In 2013, Texas senator Wendy Davis, slipped on a pair of pink sneakers and filibustered a bill regulating abortion clinics for 11 hours straight. The bill, which passed amid protests after Davis was removed from the Senate floor, prohibits abortions after 20 weeks, requires abortion providers to have admitting privileges at a local hospital, and regulates abortion clinics as ambulatory surgical centers.

Davis’ efforts drew praise and criticism across the country. Supporters of safe and legal abortion cheered her stand and continue to use the hash tags – #SupportWendyDavis and #SupportWendy – to discuss the “war on women” in Texas. Davis’ opponents called her an extremist and, playing on Davis’ good looks and blonde hair, labeled her “Abortion Barbie.”

In a surprising move Davis distanced herself from the abortion issue in her recent gubernatorial run. Her website listed education – not battling the “war on women” – as the top issue. Davis, however, was not the only Democrat who avoided the once galvanizing phrase during the most recent election cycle. Why? Did the “war on women” end?

Not exactly.

According to Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster, progressive-leaning politicians largely avoided the “war on women” in the fall because the gender politics that animated the 2012 elections failed to mobilize women in 2014.  Lake noted, the argument that “Republicans are waging a war on women actually doesn’t test very well… Women find it divisive, political – they don’t like it.”

Polling data seems to support Lake’s argument – at least on the abortion issue. The table below summarizes voters’ responses to the survey question, “Do you think the issue of abortion is a critical issue facing the country, one among many important issues, or not that important compared to other issues?” asked by the Pew Research Center in 2009, 2011, 2012, and 2013. It is clear that voter concern over legal abortion is volatile. Voters considered the abortion issue to be a more critical issue in 2011 and 2012 than they did in either 2009 or 2013.

“Do you think the issue of abortion is a critical issue facing the country, one among many important issues, or not that important compared to other issues?” From the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press/Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life Religion & Public Life Survey

2009 2011 2012 2013
A critical issue facing the country 15% 30% 31% 18%
One among many important issues 33% 28% 33% 27%
Not that important compared to other issues 48% 39% 35% 53%
Don’t know/Refused 3% 3% 2% 2%

Volatility on the abortion issue alone, however, does not explain what happened to the “war on women.” Particularly since the Republican Party used the “war on women” rhetoric in its mid-term campaign messaging.

2012 was a bad year for the Republican Party in terms of its relationship with women voters. Several Republican candidates made politically unfortunate comments about rape and abortion. Todd Akin infamously explained that women rarely become pregnant from rape because “The female body has ways to try and shut that whole thing down.” Richard Mourdock, another Republican U.S. Senate candidate, argued that pregnancy from rape was God’s will. He opined, “I think even if life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something God intended to happen.”

Republicans’ poor relationship with women voters was evident in the 2012 elections. The “gender gap,” which refers to the differences in how men and women vote, reached a new high. According to Gallup, President Obama won women’s vote by 12 percentage points while Mitt Romney won men’s vote by eight points. This 20-point gender gap is the largest Gallup has measured since it began tracking presidential voting behavior by subgroup in 1952.

In response, the Republican Party made attracting women voters a 2014 priority. Republican strategists recognized that winning women was unlikely, but narrowing the gender gap was an achievable goal. The Republican Party’s efforts to woo women changed quickly. It began as a straightforward effort to refute that a “war on women” existed – or that it existed, just in places like the  Middle East rather than in the U.S. This effort was combined with a campaign to highlight instances in which the actions of Democrats did not match their “pro-women” rhetoric.

However, Republicans realized that they could use a popular issue to combat the “war on women” rhetoric directly. The issue? Birth control. The table below summarizes voters’ responses to the survey question, “Do you support or oppose a recent federal requirement that private health insurance plans cover the full cost of birth control for their female patients?” asked by the Pew Research Center in 2011, 2012, and 2014. Unlike abortion, birth control is consistently a winning political issue – and one that voters typically associated with the Democratic Party. Republican support for over-the-counter oral contraception (aka “the pill”) helped the GOP position itself as “woman friendly.”

“Do you support or oppose a recent federal requirement that private health insurance plans cover the full cost of birth control for their female patients?” Pew Research Center for the People & the Press/Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

2011 2012 2014
Support 66% 66% 61%
Oppose 24% 26% 32%
Don’t Know/Refused 10% 8% 7%

Beating the drum for over-the-counter birth control has another political purpose. Republicans needed to attract women without alienating their socially conservative base, which opposes some kinds of birth control, such as intrauterine devices (IUDs). Easy access to the pill, Republicans maintain, balances religious freedom and women’s rights because it makes the pill available to women whose employers who do not want to offer contraceptives on religious grounds.

Democrats and women’s organizations were furious with the Republican Party’s rhetorical turn, calling it a cynical ploy to get votes before the November election. Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, told NPR, “It really is quite ironic that suddenly now the Republican Party and candidates, after voting repeatedly to take away birth control access for women, are trying to kind of do this before the November elections.” Additionally, proponents of women’s rights have pointed out that making the pill available over-the-counter does not resolve the tension between women’s rights and religious freedom. IUDs, for instance, are eligible for coverage under the Affordable Care Act. Since some religious denominations argue that life begins at fertilization, they consider IUDs abortifacients – an argument with which users of IUDs disagree.

Republicans dismiss this claim, noting that Democrats are just angry because they were caught off guard by the successful efforts to “defang” the so-called “war on women.” Kelly Anne Conway, a Republican pollster, told NPR, “They [Democrats] think that they’ve got a monopoly on talking to women from the waist down. Anything that has to do with reproduction and birth control and abortion – they call it, quote, “women’s health” and they call it women’s issues.”

So, the “war on women” has become the “war for women voters.” This shift is important because it explains why many Democrats, especially those seeking office, distanced themselves from the “war on women” rhetoric while Republicans embraced it. For the Democratic Party the “war on women” because a losing issue. The “war on women” mantra, which assumes that women have the right to control their reproductive decisions, was directly pitted against the ability of individuals (as corporate owners) to exercise their religious freedom. Choosing what or whose rights take precedence meant that the Democratic Party could only alienate some subset of voters and corporate contributors – a losing prospect, electorally speaking. The Republican Party, however, had nothing to lose and much to gain by combating a rhetorical war – even a rhetorical war that for all intent and purposes had ended.

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Slippery as an Old Banana: Pinning Down Explanations for Social Movement Emergence an Momentum

Originally posted on Mobilizing Ideas:

By Deana Rohlinger


Doron Shultziner’s article, “The Social-Psychological Origins of the Montgomery Bus Boycott,” provides an important reminder that relational dynamics matter. Whether studying a particular movement or a campaign rolled out in a specific community, we learn a lot about the emergence and course of social movements by studying the perspectives of different kinds of players, who also have a direct or indirect stake in the political game.

Some students of social movements may not find this welcome news. Studying interactions among groups of actors is messy work.

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Notes from NGOs and Reputation Conference (Oxford University)

Session 1: How do non-profits build reputations and signal trust?

by Deana Rohlinger

Kirsten Grønbjerg: Trust in Nonprofits: What Do Local Government Officials Think and Does It Matter? (Kirsten A. Grønbjerg, Kellie McGiverin-Bohan, Lauren Dula and Angela Gallagher)

The focus of Kirsten’s presentation, based around this work in progress, was on local government officials (LGOs) who are in a strategic position to assess the performance and reputation of non-profit organizations. The central question is: do they trust non-profits to do the right thing? If they do, certain consequences are anticipated: they might rely on them to provide services without extensive monitoring or regulation, include them in collaborative activities, and refrain from imposing policies on them.

The considerable literature on trust in organizations shows it has been declining across the board. This research attempts to isolate the implications of one relationship within organizations, with key questions:

  • How much trust do LGOs have in non-profits?
  • What explains the level of trust?
  • How much is it shaped by personal experiences?

Data is drawn from a survey of Indiana government officials. Hypotheses revolve around the range of interaction; NGO types and range; knowledge of governance structures of NGOs. The final phase of the analysis will be looking at what taxes local government may impose on charity, and what part the above factors play in that.

Evelyn Brody: Federation as a Reputational Mechanism: the US Law of Same-Name Nonprofit Organizations

Evelyn Brody’s presentation examined NGOs from a legal perspective focused on the relationships among federated NGOs and their subunit chapters. She reflected on the inappropriate laws used in relation to NGOs, derived among others from corporate law, franchise law, and the Constitution, and limited disclosure requirements. This both makes questionable legal outcomes – the Boy Scouts of America entitled to exclude homosexuals; branches of the Girl Guides judged by the same rules as Dunkin Doughnuts franchisees – and leaves a reputational risk from the difference between the structures the public assume is in place with NGOs and the reality. In an interesting aside, Evelyn explained that, of the some 186,000 US NGOs required to file the 990 tax form, fewer than 30,000 have any members, and only about 8,000 have chapters, at odds with popular conceptions of the ubiquity of large NGOs with multiple local subunits.

Helen Stride: Reputation and NGOs: Developing Our Understanding of Values as Drivers of Trust and Commitment

In this presentation, Helen Stride explored the need to leverage values to improve reputations among not-for-profits, in an environment where increases in funding, many new players, and increasing distrust, are putting reputations under pressure. But which values are important, and to whom? Research among 600 respondents from UK charities, linking trust and commitment, and recognizing the strong emotional component in shared values, found, tentatively at this stage, that “benevolence” values counted for less than moral values within the organization, and for donors, competence was judged by outcomes for beneficiaries, and qualities that act on outcomes, such as creativity.

Facilitator Comments: Deana Rohlinger

Session 1 took up the issue of how nonprofits build reputations and signal trust. The papers revealed that assessments of Nonprofit/NGO trustworthiness are complicated because they are potentially influenced by a number of factors including:

•    The structural arrangements of an organization, which includes it leadership.
•    The expressed values of the staff and the extent to which they line up with those of the organization.
•    The public relations efforts of the organization and its attentiveness to brand equity and consistency across diverse formats (e.g., traditional and social media).
•    The external assessments by politicians, beneficiaries, and the broader citizenry.
•    The broader political and economic environment which can change suddenly and fundamentally alter what groups are regarded as reputable and the criteria used in such evaluations.

Given that there is so much beyond the control of Nonprofits/NGOs, how can groups signal trust? Our conversation revealed some promising insights.

•    Organizations would do well to keep the target audience in mind. A group may very well need to send different signals to different kinds of audiences in order to build a reputation as a trustworthy organization. Thus, a nonprofit/NGO would be wise to forego a “one-size-fits-all” strategy, understand that trustworthiness is an outcome of a relational process, and think through what criteria different targets use to assess organizational legitimacy.
•    Being an “old” organization does not make it a trustworthy organization. Nonprofits/NGOs must leverage their names whenever possible, but understand adaptability wins the day. For example, groups that can meaningfully insert themselves into national politics can benefit from an international reputation while showing that it is not too big or too old to take on news causes.
•    Being a “big” organization does not make it a trustworthy organization. Again, international nonprofits/NGOs may have an initial advantage over new ones since they have established some level of international credibility. However, groups that are regarded as trustworthy connect with supporters in a meaningful way on the issues the community sees as most relevant.

Finally, I urged scholars and practitioners alike to think through their terminology carefully because some factors are more easily controlled by nonprofit/NGO than others. Organizations, for example, have a great deal of control over their brand. Groups can determine what values to highlight and connect them to a broad political project. Reputation, however, is determined relationally with different publics (politicians, beneficiaries, and supporters). This is a distinction worth remembering since slippage will only conflate these very different products and processes.

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NRA’s Public Relations Misstep

All social movements have a radical fringe. There is always a group of people who feel so passionately about a cause that they will go to what most individuals consider the extremes to make a point.

 Here are just a few examples:

  • Abortion: Army of God
  • Animal Rights: Animal Liberation Movement
  • Civil Rights: Black Panthers
  • Conservatism: John Birch Society
  • Environment: Earth Liberation Front
  • Anti-Immigration Movement: The Minutemen

These radical groups have something in common. Their more moderate allies universally distanced themselves from the fiery rhetoric and over-the-top tactics. Until this week, I would have said that this is a truism of social movements. Moderate groups always distinguish themselves from the radical groups pushing for change under a shared banner.

 The National Rifle Association, however, is rewriting what we know about the relationship between moderate and radical groups by first criticizing radicals and, then, retracting its criticism.

Over the weekend, the members of the group Open Carry Texas made a statement about gun rights by taking their assault-style rifles into stores and restaurants. While the NRA did not criticize the group by name, it labeled the demonstrations as extreme, “weird,” and “downright scary.”  In a statement, the NRA noted:

Recently, demonstrators have been showing up in various public places, including coffee shops and fast food restaurants, openly toting a variety of tactical long guns. Unlicensed open carry of handguns is legal in about half the U.S. states, and it is relatively common and uncontroversial in some places.

Yet while unlicensed open carry of long guns is also typically legal in most places, it is a rare sight to see someone sidle up next to you in line for lunch with a 7.62 rifle slung across his chest, much less a whole gaggle of folks descending on the same public venue with similar arms.

Let’s not mince words, not only is it rare, it’s downright weird and certainly not a practical way to go normally about your business while being prepared to defend yourself. To those who are not acquainted with the dubious practice of using public displays of firearms as a means to draw attention to oneself or one’s cause, it can be downright scary. It makes folks who might normally be perfectly open-minded about firearms feel uncomfortable and question the motives of pro-gun advocates.

The statement also noted:  

Using guns merely to draw attention to yourself in public not only defies common sense, it shows a lack of consideration and manners. That’s not the Texas way. And that’s certainly not the NRA way.

By Tuesday, the NRA had retracted its statement, describing it as a mistake.

While this public apology may have appease NRA’s radical allies in the short term, it will likely cause the organization public relations problems in the future. Savvy radical groups will interpret NRA’s retraction as support for in-your-face gun ownership and likely up the ante by engaging in more public demonstrations. Worse for the NRA, in order to attract widespread attention again, radical groups will use more extreme tactics. What will the NRA do then?  

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Collective Action in Fiction: Dive Into Dsytopian World of Wool

Trying to get back into blogging mode. I have been busy finishing up my new book, “Abortion Politics, Mass Media, and Social Movements in America.” It will be out in December with Cambridge University Press. 

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